Secret Agent Selection SOE Training, Ep 1

School for Irregulars, not for Softies

Sunshine & Showers, Going Postal

I approach this review of a TV programme with a little trepidation as there will be GPers more qualified than me to critique it and provide historical context. I’d better read the forthcoming comments!

I don’t watch reality shows. I made an exception for one shown on Monday 9th April. It was the first episode of a 5-parter on BBC2, called Secret Agent Selection: WWII. Because the starting premise is the actual training manual that SOE used in its selection process, and the historical adviser is a renowned SOE historian, I sat down with more confidence than I usually have when watching historical fiction.

We often wonder on here how the snowflakes of today would have fared during the Blitz, the Battle of Britain or in the maquis. And where the qualities of derring-do, stiff upper lip, and patriotism have gone. This programme asks whether the qualities that made SOE agents some 75 years ago are still there in people today and whether they can be extracted. Could today’s lot hack it? And by extension, how could ordinary chaps and chapesses become deadly weapons of war, how they were transformed into spies, silent killers, resistance organisers, how could such talents be unlocked …

In the BBC’s own words, “in this five-part immersive living history series, the training programme of one of World War Two’s most covert organisations is being resurrected.”

I realise that a number of GPers boycott the BBC so I hope I’ll manage to render the flavour of the episode and that those who watched it will appreciate my take on it!

Just as well the reviews were published afterwards, as, based on some of them, I might not have bothered! :

“Essentially it was SOE: The Gameshow, the Second World War as knockout entertainment. The model was all those outdoor endurance contests, but in period dress. A diverse cross-section of guinea pigs laid down their mobiles and tried retroactively to qualify for the Special Operations Executive.” (Daily Telegraph)


“It’s a bit like The Apprentice, only instead of the prize being some cash from Alan Sugar, winners get the chance to carry out a bit of state-sponsored murder and sabotage” (Guardian)

I found that the reviews in the DT and the Guardian were the most sneering, and the best ones were in The Times and the Daily Mail (links at the end).

The great thing about this programme is that in the process of watching 14 candidates undergo 1940s-style assessments, we learn a lot about the Special Operations Executive. SOE was one of the most covert wartime organisations, launched in July 1940 by Churchill and told to “set Europe ablaze”, i.e. “to co-ordinate, inspire, control and assist the nationals of the oppressed countries who must themselves be the direct participants.” Another great buzzword re. SOE is “ungentlemanly warfare”, or how to bring victory nearer by unconventional means. It is true that a lot of the recruitment of staff and agents was done in gentlemen’s clubs, old boys’ network and such like but overall their social background was mixed.

The training programme designed to wage warfare in enemy territory has been resurrected and despite some accommodation because of Health and Safety, the candidates underwent pretty much the same training. It owed much to the Handbooks on Guerilla Warfare that then Brigadier Colin Gubbins and another officer had created in the Spring of 1939. In November 1940 Gubbins was appointed Head of Operations and Training and proceeded to set up and organise in earnest an extensive network of training schools and their curriculum.

There were four stages to the training, taking place in various Special Training Schools (STS). During the first stage the candidates did not know what they were training for, they had volunteered for hazardous service and some kind of commando training.

In Episode One of the new TV series, the students faced SOE’s demanding selection process, known as the Student Assessment Board. Misleadingly, the programme intimated that SAB was in place from 1940 when in fact it did not come into effect until June 1943 and took place over 4 days at a country house in Surrey. What was called Preliminary Schools preceded the SAB and their course lasted for up to four weeks and was criticised for being “leisurely”! It is inevitable that a TV programme resorts to some time compression for better “watchability”. It remains that this episode was about the pre-selection process before the actual training begins and consists in a series of physical and mental tests.

In the programme, the location is in Scotland. In fact it was the paramilitary stage of the training that took place in remote locations in Scotland, where some 30 properties were requisitioned. To add some local colour, Shetland cop show actor Douglas Henshall was the narrator; I would have preferred a more unfamiliar voice, maybe with an English accent!

So, 14 modern volunteers are to undergo the same selection process as the recruits of 1940. They are brought by military truck to the secluded house. They all wear 1940s-style clothes, civilian on arrival, then period army uniforms, and are all made to look like in the 1940s, – round glasses, military hair-cuts, wavy hair-dos and stockings! They are addressed by their surnames. They are to have no contact with the modern world and the only news they receive is from the 1940s: One candidate reads out loud from the Daily Express at the communal breakfast table. Pity I did not notice what kind of food they were served!

I am no expert but I understand that there were some inaccuracies about the uniforms and the type of shoes they wore, which would not bother the average viewer.

Professionally, they are a mixed bunch, like their 1940 counterparts were: there was a property developer, a drama teacher, a writer-performer, i.e. a drag artist, an interpreter, a paralegal, a research scientist, a council administrator, two army veterans with one now working for the Border Force, a maths graduate… Back in the day, languages and a knowledge of Europe were an advantage.

Of course, all boxes were ticked on the BBC diversity checklist: black, muslim, disabled (the former soldier who lost a leg by stepping on an anti-personnel mine in Rwanda), gay; and about half the trainees are women.

This is not the correct ratio of wartime recruits.

I only know of one gay agent, an actor who went undercover as a Belgian drag artist, mentioned in the episode; of one muslim agent (see below); of no black agent, nor black members of staff. Correction welcome. SOE’s French section recruited a number of Mauritians, because they had French as well as English but AFAIK they were white.

The SOE muslim agent was Noor Inayat Khan. Born in Moscow to an American mother and an Indian Sufi Muslim father (a preacher of Islamic mysticism), she was educated in Paris and was carrying the British passport as an imperial subject.  She was a gifted harpist, a Sufi who wrote Buddhist fables for children, an anti-imperialist (Khan had no loyalty to Britain but she despised the greater evil of Nazi Germany and fled to England after the fall of France) – and, as “Madeleine”, she became the first female radio operator sent into Nazi-occupied France.

Khan was one of the first women to be interviewed by SOE as the War Cabinet only authorised women agents in April 1942, under the pressure of writer (of thrillers and screenplays) Selwyn Jepson, SOE’s principal recruiter. He was known to the candidates as Mr. Potter and he thought that women had “a far greater capacity for cool and lonely courage than men.”

It is arguable that Khan should not have been selected as an agent.

She was an idealist, had deep moral convictions that preventing her from making ruthless decisions and from lying, took everything literally, had chosen not to carry a gun. As she didn’t qualify for parachute training, she progressed instead to SOE’s radio school. Her instructors doubted she was up to the job and their final report characterised her as being “not over-burdened with brains” and concluded that it was “very doubtful whether she is really suited to work in the field”. A fellow recruit, Yvonne Cormeau, actually requested her to be withdrawn. But SOE was desperate to find radio operators who could be dropped into enemy territory. So she was flown to France in June 1943. Members of her network, called Prosper, were arrested shortly afterwards but she chose to remain in France, trying to relay messages back to London. She was eventually betrayed and arrested.

Contrary to security regulations, she had unwisely kept copies of her radio codes and her past messages in the back of her diary (several agents had despaired at her decision to carry around such a dangerous document), and the Germans gained enough information from them to continue sending messages imitating her. And so three more agents sent to France were captured by the Germans at their parachute landing.

There is no doubt that Khan was brave and committed, but she was a liability dangerous to her colleagues. There is an interesting test toward the end of Episode One: the question asked is, who among your 13 colleagues would you leave behind. One of the candidates judiciously said afterwards that this amounted to, “which person in this group am I least comfortable entrusting my life to.”

Sunshine & Showers, Going Postal

In terms of the number of women employed by SOE, it absorbed the largest part of the FANY (First Aid Nursing Yeomanry) corps by employing some 2,000 of them, largely as administrative staff at the training schools, drivers, wireless operators, secretaries, but also, for a small number of them, as agents in the field.  The personnel employed at the height of SOE’s activities, i.e. by mid-summer 1944, was approximately 13,000, of which approximately 3,200 were women. As far as female agents in the field are concerned, SOE sent in 50 women (not sent in as organisers of Resistance networks but as couriers and wireless operators, even if the reality on the ground could prove different; I know of one who became network leader). Not quite half and half.

As I said above, the value of the BBC programme goes beyond mere entertaining as, interleaved between the challenges, are historical sequences about some of the key moments of SOE and about real agents, like Denis Rake, Francis Cammaerts, Virginia Hall, Yvonne Rudellat…

Hall, an American, soon became a highly wanted woman, with Göring putting out Wanted posters seeking la dame qui boite—the lady with a limp: she had a wooden leg. Rudellat, a French woman living in London lost her home doing the bombing and she joined SOE, soon to be one of the first female agents to enter France, under the name of “Jacqueline”.

Sunshine & Showers, Going Postal

SOE’s recruitment process was as revolutionary as the organisation itself. Its approach to assessment was ground-breaking: the instructors were worried about how the students went about doing the tests as an insight into their personality. As we saw in the programme with shots fired when least expected, they were looking for candidates with nerves of steel. One candidate got it : “You have no idea what’s coming next and that’s the way they want it to be because that’s the way it would have been.” As this early stage, they are looking for potential and they are measuring it daily. The authentic system SOE used for the SAB is recreated in the programme:  coloured poker chips are used to record daily assessment results, – red for outstanding, yellow for good, green for above average, blue for below average and white, for nul points I presume.

One of the first mental tests was about their powers of observation and recall. There were tests of mechanical aptitude. Meccano sets were regularly used during selection: A steady hand while performing complex tasks under pressure was essential for acts of sabotage, like blowing up bridges, railways or factories. At that stage already the instructors would have been trying to discover new talents, who would be a good leader of men, a good assassin or a good saboteur. Anybody with a talent for morse code was quickly identified. Their survival expectancy in the field was the shortest, about six weeks … Still, morse was a lifeline for the agents, it was the only way of communicating with Britain.

On Day 2, our modern recruits have to undergo rigorous physical assessment. The assault course has been reconstructed from the original SOE syllabus. But, for the ropes exercise, going from one tree to another connected by two parallel ropes, the candidates wear a safety harness, unlike their 1940s counterparts.

The instructor is to assess the physical ability and the level of determination of the candidates and a 10-foot wall in particular is the toughest obstacle.

Things begin to unravel a bit for some of the candidates: One missed the exercise, in bed with a migraine. One did not attempt crawling under the barbed wire, one of the easiest obstacles, – her answer, “I was concerned I was going to get my hair caught”, showing a definite lack of determination. In contrast, the amputee got himself over the wall and laconically said “Don’t let it beat you”.

As in every film about SOE, extensive use of the film “Now it Can be Told” is made. This film was realised by the RAF film unit in May-July 1945 and a shorter version of it was screened in London in 1946 under the title “School for Danger”. It is a unique document that the Imperial War Museum now sells in DVD format. It is a composite reconstruction of the work of SOE, notably in France. What sets this film apart is the fact that the people featuring in it are real life agents, SOE staff, RAF pilots, replaying their wartime roles in front of the camera.  The film depicts real procedures and locations used in agent training and that is why clips of this historical record is used in so many programmes on the subject. The two main agents are Harry Rée and Jacqueline Nearne. The scenario was written by Wing-Cdr E Baird and Squadron Officer Jean Wollaston, who also act in the film. The cameraman was Flying Officer W Pollard.

Day Three was about psychological testing. In the 1940s using psychological evaluation was ground-breaking. SOE had to make sure they selected people who could cope with nerve-racking assignments. Cue an archive document about agent Georges Bégué, the first agent parachuted into France, in 1941. On his return, he warned of the enormous emotional strain placed on the agents and urged SOE to place even more emphasis on psychological evaluation. He also suggested that the BBC Overseas Service could broadcast pre-arranged coded messages (messages personnels). This was accepted and widely used. It allowed for reduced radio traffic from agents in France, was also used for very personal messages between agents and their family or to convince somebody local of the bona fides of the agent.

The tests were about word association, – “I give you a word, what is the first thing that comes to your mind”. The black candidate was the most voluble, answering every time with a whole sentence instead of one word! The psychologist said afterwards he was concerned about keeping her on track and focused! Another one was said, from the images she evoked, to lack in ruthlessness.

Then onto the Rorschach ink blot tests, which were cutting-edge science in their day and helped select people with the right psychological make-up.

The next test was outdoors and was called the Pond Test. Two teams were formed with a designated leader who had to take his/her whole team to an island in the middle of a pond and return with a wireless radio left there. SOE selectors were always on the look-out for people who demonstrated strong leadership as, in the field, agents could be required to inspire and run large guerrilla resistance armies.

The pond test gave an interesting result: Team 1 was led by a natural leader who gave clear instructions and the whole team managed to make a raft and row towards the island. However, the raft capsized and fell apart so they had to wade back, without the radio set. Asked how they felt, they said, wet, terrible, and added, disappointed. However the gay guy interjected: “We need to give ourselves a bit of credit. The fact that we did manage to get virtually all the way there with that thing, we did well… We didn’t do it, you know, but give ourselves a bit of credit!”. In chorus, the muslim woman agreed and added: “None of us have any raft-making skills. We put something together to get us there.”. At that point I thought, oh oh, these two belong to the no-losers-we-all-win school, or, we’re all equal and no one can come last in the egg and spoon race of life !

Team 2 had a leader assigned but within minutes a natural leader took over and the instructor muttered “it is a bit of a cluster basically!” However Team 2 did bring back the set as they had among them a guy who thinks outside the box, the mathematician, who looked around in a wider perimeter for materials to find. He found a ready-made raft, as SOE always left one hidden to see who was smart enough to look for it!

So, Team 1 was more organised but ended soaking wet and empty-handed whereas Team 2 was a bit of a shambles but completed the task.

There was an interesting sequence about Francis Cammaerts, a schoolmaster and a pacifist, introduced to SOE by his friend and fellow schoolmaster Harry Rée (see above). He ended up establishing an SOE network in Provence, leading more than 10,000 fighters, which severely hampered German troop movements, and gained a reputation as one of the most outstanding leaders in SOE. He had one serious disadvantage for the secret life, being 6ft 4in (1.93m) tall (his men called him “le grand diable anglais”) but his strong sense of security compensated! Interestingly his SOE training instructors had reported that he would make a competent sabotage instructor, but did not appear to have leadership qualities!


On the 4th and final day of selection, the candidates had to face the most divisive test, the Buddy Rating. In an assessment of each other’s capabilities, they were asked three questions: Based on what you’ve seen this far, which two would you take with you in a mission into enemy territory? Of the 14 students, who would you choose as your leader? And who would you leave behind? They had to stand up and give their selection. Copsey, the amputee, was the person picked most as leader, closely followed by Dewhurst, the property developer. For the toughest question, who they would not follow, the black woman and the gay guy received the most nominations, probably because she was too voluble and scattered, and he “gets ill quite a bit”. Surprisingly, or not, the muslim woman, Bajaj, chose Dewhurst as her “leave behind”, for being the most likely to draw attention to them on a mission when they have to be inconspicuous! Dewhurst, the jolliest of them all, very outgoing, calling everybody “chaps”! She pondered afterwards: “I think we should be proud of ourselves that we all did it! We all stood up and said a name!” Yeah, woman, that was a tough exercise, choose someone you don’t trust, what a dilemma, in this day and age, when everybody is “nice”!!

Anyway, the 4-day process was over and the candidates were now going to be told which ones should proceed to full training. By the end of Episode One, four candidates donned their civilian clothes again and embarked on the truck taking them back to modern life, with a stiff upper lip it has to be said (“if you don’t tick that box, you don’t tick that box”). They were three of the women and the emotional migraine-prone drag artist. I thought the selection was fair.

The Guardian reviewer seems miffed that the black woman was not allowed to carry on. I thought it was pretty obvious from the beginning, what with her lacquered hair, the slowness of her movements, her quivering voice, the way she answered the psychological questions…

Pity that the Beauclerk woman failed to live up to the standards set by her grand-father (Ralph Beauclerk, Intelligence Corps and SOE, I presume). But she had replied “no” to the question, would you kill the gendarme guarding the factory you have to attack; and her concern for her hair getting caught in the barbed wire was a bit lame. Her lack of determination was compounded in the end by her lack of self-awareness when her reaction to her being booted off was, “I’m a little bit surprised”…

Back in the day, up to 35% of students failed to make it through selection. Those who were not deemed to be suitable had to be sent away for some time, to a place called the “cooler” in Inverlair, where they were encouraged to forget the little they had picked up about SOE! It is not recorded how many and who did.

I have high hopes for the math graduate, Stanley, who calmly said “I have often been described as having a quiet confidence”, was outstanding in the Meccano test, displaying an engineer’s brains, and finding the raft. But the most outstanding and “together” candidate is a barely 5ft tall young woman, research scientist Jeffreys. She calmly confirmed that yes she would kill under orders, she conquered the wall which was twice her size with ease, and was altogether pleasant. I am looking forward to watching Jeffreys during parachute training as she reminded me of two female agents, as calm, collected, and determined. One was quite petite (4ft 10 in / 1m47), and she had a specially-made parachute and harness! On their first jump, she led her classmates out of the plane! About the other one, 5ft 1in / 1m54 tall, 25-year-old, her commendation for a post-war award said “she jumped with great coolness and took up her duties with efficiency.”

After reading this review, you might tune in for Episode Two, on Monday 16th April, in which paramilitary training will begin. The students will be schooled in guns, – in particular SOE’s weapon of choice, the sten gun, – explosives, hand-to-hand combat and silent killing techniques …

The motto of that paramilitary training was “train hard for an easy war”. It took place on the western coast of Inverness, “where the courses were as gruelling as the terrain”. Gripping stuff ahead!

“I say sheet for good luck!” as a Belgian agent said.


© Sunshine&Showers 2018

TV reviews:

some books:

Denis Rigden (intro), How to be a Spy: The World War II SOE Training Manual, Crown Copyright 2001, 2004.
Cunningham, Cyril, Beaulieu – The Finishing School for secret agents, Pen & Sword Books, 1998 & 2005

Some feature films and TV series:

Now it can be told, (RAF Film Production Unit, 1946 and Imperial War Museum, 2007)
Odette, dir. Herbert Wilcox, 1950 – about Odette Sansom Hallowes
Carve Her Name with Pride, dir. Lewis Gilbert, 1958 – about agent Violette Szabo
Wish Me Luck, dir. Gordon Flemyng and Bill Hayes, London Weekend Television, three series, 1988-1990