Friday, January 12, 2018

The real “Lions led by donkeys”

Historians have long since demolished the myth that the immense casualty rolls on the Western Front were due to the stupidity of the British generals. (cf. World War One: Getting past the myths).

If any organization deserves to be described as “lions led by donkeys” it is the British Special Operations Executive in World War Two. Tasked by Churchill with “setting Europe ablaze” after the British army was thrown off the Continent in 1940, SOE combined awe-inspiring bravery in the front ranks with arrogant blundering on the part of the top leadership.

Sir John Keegan:

SOE was inefficient as an organization, unnecessarily dangerous to work for, ineffective in its pursuit of its aims, and counter-productive in the results achieved.
The SOE networks in France and the Netherlands were penetrated by Nazi counterintelligence. London headquarters ignored every warning and continued to send agents into the waiting arms of the Gestapo.

Keegan argues that SOE was doomed to failure because liberal Britain led by a romantic Churchill could not comprehend the brutal efficiency of the Nazi security regime or the willingness of millions of Europeans to accommodate the occupiers. (Nora Inayat Khan, for instance, was captured because a French woman wanted revenge on a romantic rival.)

Despite the many courageous acts by SOE officers and their French allies, the actual results were at best mixed, perhaps negative. For all the daring acts of sabotage carried out, SOE and the Resistance rarely were more than an inconvenience to the Wehrmacht.

The best evidence for this is the fact that in June 1944 none of the sixty German divisions in France were assigned to internal security/anti-partisan duties. The German and French police forces handled this role and were effective in it.

MI6 -- Britain’s foreign intelligence service was a staunch opponent of SOE. They had good reasons to be. While the sabotage operations had little effect on the Wehrmacht’s effectiveness, they did draw intense police attention. This, in turn, limited the ability of MI6 agents to collect and transmit the intelligence that was needed by Allied armies after D-Day.

SOE leadership did excel in two things.

They were quite adept at public relations. The operations of the once secret organization were quickly immortalized in books and films. When necessary they were prepared to falsify the record in order to create successes where reality provided only failure and disaster. (The head of the French section, Maurice Buckmaster, worked as a PR agent for Ford Motors before and after his stint in Special Operations.)

Second, SOE did a bang up job burying the true history of their wartime activities. Records were destroyed; others were sealed for decades. The official history was careful to omit inconvenient facts. When all else failed, SOE and the political leaders of Britain simply lied and dissembled.

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