British Special Operations
'Gadget War' Against
Nazis Revealed
By Michael Evans
Defence Editor
The Times (London)
Agents working for the Special Operations Executive behind enemy lines during the war carried out sabotage missions equipped with exploding rats, folding motorbikes and suicide pills...
A top-secret report on the SOE's research and development section, which included a department for camouflaging agents and their sabotage equipment, was among files released yesterday by the Public Record Office in Kew.
The SOE, an offshoot of MI6 set up initially to help the Resistance in German-occupied countries, expanded into a covert organisation of about 10,000 men and women, of whom about two thirds were "in the field". Thirteen of the courageous female agents, attached to the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry, were executed by the Germans, some in gas chambers. Violette Szabo, one of the best known, was only 24 when she died.
The latest declassified SOE files consist of headquarters papers recounting the methods used to recruit, train and deploy the secret agents. Located in six buildings in Baker Street under the cover of the Inter-Services Research Bureau, the SOE employed a plastic surgeon to alter some agents' appearance permanently and someone from the film industry to seek out props for the undercover operators.
On an average day, the film man would be asked to find 150 rat skins "to be cured, filled and armed as explosive devices"; 100 types of coal, to be hollowed out and packed with explosives; and German toothbrushes. The exploding rats were hidden in piles of coal next to boilers at German facilities. When they were thrown into the boilers, the flames set off the fuse. Fake bottles of chianti, made of celluloid, were split into two sections; each was filled with plastic explosives. A raffia cover completed the disguise.
The camouflage section of SOE's research department hid arms and ammunitions for the secret agents inside fake logs made of plaster and "garnished" with moss, green lichen and other tree fungi. Ammunition was also concealed in plaster and papier mâché fruit and vegetables.
At first, this type of subversive operation was not taken seriously by the top brass. The chiefs of staff, and the War Office, Air Ministry and Admiralty all thought "it was a cloak- and-dagger party which did not amount to any real force in the field of operations against the enemy". Gadgets and gizmos for the SOE were given low priority when the research and development section was set up in 1938.
But Churchill had no doubts about the SOE's potential, and in a celebrated remark urged the agents to "set Europe ablaze". By the end of 1940, production of certain devices, such as "pencil" time fuses had risen significantly.
Among the experimental gadgets supplied to the agents were: a one-man submarine carrying an explosive charge capable of sinking a capital ship; a long-range motorised submersible canoe for dropping agents and stores, called the Sleeping Beauty; and a foldaway motorbike that could be put in a parachute container. Incendiary items included briefcases and shaving brushes. Balinese "wood carvings" made entirely from explosives were sold to Japanese troops embarking on ships.
Noxious liquids could be inserted into food supplies, "rendering them unfit (not poisonous) for human consumption". Face cream could be used to sabotage optical instruments.