Secret War Heroes: Men of the Special Operations Executive by Marcus Binney - review by Nigel Jones

Nigel Jones

Very Gallant Gentlemen

Secret War Heroes: Men of the Special Operations Executive


Hodder & Stoughton 324pp £20 order from our bookshop

Courage is not a virtue much valued today. Although the word itself is widely bandied about (as in, ‘Courage of Young Mum in Cancer Battle’), it is usually in connection with situations not of the courageous person’s own choosing. The acts of courage described in this enthralling book are of a kind so rare in our culture as to be virtually non-existent, &splaying as they do not the passive bravery of the cancer victim, but conscious, self-sacrificing valour on the part of men who did not have to do the extraordinary things they did. Faced with it, we can only stare at these heroes in awed, uncomprehending admiration, for, although their deeds occurred within living memory, they seem like beings from another universe.

Lest the title be thought sexist, it should be pointed out that the women agents of SOE were every bit as courageous, resourceful and resilient as their male counterparts. In fact the author devoted his previous book to these heroines – all too many of whom suffered bestial torture and death, for the price of failure in the field was grim indeed.

The book’s blurb inaccurately describes SOE as the forerunner of the SAS. In fact, the two organisations were set up almost simultaneously, and many of SOE’s difficulties arose from the fact that its operatives were neither fish nor fowl – not professional soldiers like the SAS, nor professional spies, like SIS (MI6), but largely amateurs who fell somewhere in between. Founded in the desperate days of 1940, and famously tasked by Churchill with ‘setting Europe ablaze’, SOE learned, often painfully, by trial and error.

Binney is not concerned with the wider historical debates about the effectiveness or otherwise of SOE. There were those, especially in or close to the orthodox intelligence community, who argued that the operational fruits of SOE fell far short of the resources diverted to the organisation, and that the inexperience of many of the hastily recruited personnel inevitably led to costly and too frequent failures. In addition, said the critics, SOE’s noisy sabotage – derailing trains, blowing up factory machines – positively invited enemy attention and reprisals, making the quiet work of espionage all but impossible.

Indeed, so sharp was the resentment felt by old spying hands at this upstart cuckoo suddenly dumped in their cosy nest that the usual turf wars between rival intelligence agencies exploded into open hostility. It has been credibly argued that MI6’s deputy head, the sinister Sir Claude Dansey, deliberately ‘blew’ SOE’s largest French network, the Prosper circuit, to the Germans, spectacularly queering SOE’s pitch at the cost of 400 agents’ lives.

Binney does not dive into such murky waters. His purpose – one that he pulls off superbly – is to pay tribute to a handful of SOE field operatives (and to one of their trainers), by recounting their wartime careers in a bouncy, Boy’s Own Paper style that gives his account the pace of a page-turning thriller. He takes it as read that what his heroes did was not only worthwhile, but often vital to the Allied war effort.

Binney’s first case history concerns Bill Sykes, not himself an agent but a bizarre character known (on account of his mild, bespectacled appearance) as ‘the Bishop’. But appearances are often deceptive. ‘The Bishop’ was, in fact, a skilled knifeman who – incredibly – could draw and fire a pistol in a third of a second. Sykes had learned his deadly skills policing the Shanghai waterfront, where he teamed up with a fellow spirit, William Fairbairn, to take on the city’s venomous gangs and beat them at their own game. When war broke out, Fairbairn and Sykes offered their lethal arts to the old country, and found a niche in training the novice agents of the infant SOE. Together they developed the Fairbairn-Sykes knife, a fearsome weapon, made by Wilkmson Sword, which became SOE standard issue.

Among the other agents’ careers detailed by Binney is that of his own stepfather, George Binney, who ran a consignment of ball bearings – vital in tank and aircraft production – to Britain under the noses of both the Germans and the nervously neutral Swedes. Since SOE had a natural need for agents fluent in foreign languages and experienced in living abroad, a high proportion of them were foreigners. One such was Frenchman Percy Mayer, who alone secured the strategic island of Madagascar by simply cutting the telephone land lines linking its capital with the beaches where the invasion force was storming ashore. Then there was Harry Ree, who persuaded Monsieur Rodolphe Peugeot to allow the sabotage of his own vehicle factory after Ree arranged for Peugeot to have a personal message broadcast by the BBC to establish his own bona fides. The alternative to internal sabotage, Ree told the carmaker, was to have the factory flattened by the RAF.

Anyone inclined by Peter Sellers’ performance in Dr Strangelove to believe that Wernher von Braun, father of the US space programme, was merely an eccentric boffin with a penchant for making Hitler salutes at awkward moments, should read the testimony – graphically recorded here – of Guido Zembsch-Schreve, who personally witnessed Von Braun laughing as unfortunates toiling in his Dora slave mine were strung up for various trivial misdemeanours. For every Guido, Harry Ree and Percy Mayer (who all survived the war), there was a Gus March-Phillips, whose team made a courageous but suicidal raid on the heavily defended Normandy coast and were wiped out to a man; or a Charles Skepper, who escaped Japanese captivity only to be betrayed in Marseilles to Germans while running a sabotage ring.

Perhaps the most remarkable story here is that of Denis Rake, a flamboyant gay who started his colourful career as a child acrobat in a Belgian circus at the age of four. (Geneticists should note that Rake’s father was also a spy, shot for his part in Nurse Edith Cavell’s Great War escape ring.) Rake’s later career encompassed cabaret singing, radio operating, a Greek prince’s toy-boy, and being butler to Douglas FairbanksJunior. He was a strange spy: he could not abide guns or bangs, and only made a parachute jump if he was pushed out. Nor could he suppress his camp side, and his constant ‘twittering’ seems to have got him and two fellow agents arrested. One of them died in a concentration camp, but Rake survived. Fairbanks accidentally discovered that his discreet butler was an SOE hero, a major with a Military Cross. ‘Oh that,’ said Rake when questioned. ‘That lot of nonsense…’ But then Rake was used to sidestepping persistent interrogation. His own mental trick when tortured, he said, was simply to count numbers. ‘When the brain is empty you can stand a good deal of pain.’ Imagining such grace under pressure, one can only echo the words inscribed on the cross commemorating Captain Oates: These were indeed very gallant gentlemen.

Sign Up to our newsletter

Receive free articles, highlights from the archive, news, details of prizes, and much more.

Follow Literary Review on Twitter