To understand how clever and inhumane was the Special Operations Executive (SOE), one has to flip back the calendar to the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-71. The surprising defeat of the French army at Sedan and capture of Napoleon III Sept. 2, 1870 resulted in shock and consternation in the rest of France. Members of shooting clubs vowed to continue the war by other means. In this they were aided by the Chassepot rifle, a breach loading weapon with an effective range of 1,500 metres (4,900 feet). This allowed them to snipe at German columns from a considerable distance.
The response of the German army was ferocious. They summarily executed captured “francs-tireurs” (free shooters) as irregular, armed non-combatants, what we now call guerrillas. When that didn’t stop the attacks, they rounded up civilians in nearby villages and shot them instead. Whole regiments, even divisions, took part in these “pacifying actions.”
Moving forward now to 1914 and the start of WWI where Germany asked for permission to transit Belgium (and pay reparations for any damages) in order to get round French defences. Belgium refused, and the war was on.
The Belgian army wasn’t a serious problem, but as the German columns advanced through the country, they claimed they were fired on by civilians, just as they had been in 1870 in France, which outraged German officers who ordered immediate reprisals. This led to the shooting of hundreds, then thousands, of unarmed civilians and the burning of the City of Leuven and its famous library.
The snipers were mostly from the Belgian army, but a precedent had been set; the German army would react to civilian attacks, real or imaginary, with random collective punishments, and those punishments would be an affront to the civilized world.
All of which brings us to July 22, 1940 when Prime Minister Winston Churchill, with no army left on the continent, appointed a civilian, Hugh Dalton, to head up the SOE and ‘set Europe ablaze!’ by sabotage and subversion. The principal saboteurs would, of necessity, be civilian, or would be dressed as civilians. Thus, any of their actions, would be illegal under the Geneva Convention.
Churchill, who had been a Minister in the previous war, as well as a front-line officer, would have been well aware of the German excesses in that conflict. What he was now authorizing was the creation of a force to ensure German soldiers would be faced with real civilian snipers and saboteurs in this one.
The Germans would, no doubt, react as they had to the phantom francs-tieurs in WWI and create new outrages in the Occupied Territories. A case in point, admitted to in a fawning history on the BBC, occurred in Czechoslovakia in 1942 when an SOE hit squad assassinated Himmler’s deputy, Reinhard Heydrich, with a grenade. The Germans responded in typical fashion and murdered 5,000 men women and children in two villages near Prague. In the history books, the Germans were responsible, not the British Prime Minister sucking his cigar and drinking champagne back at Chartwell.
Since the SOE operatives, some of them women, were dressed as civilians, Britain could wipe its hands of any responsibility. It would be the Germans who would be identified as rounding up civilians and shooting them against a stone wall.
Yes, innocent people would die, but what are a few thousand dead men, women and children when you’re running a propaganda campaign to drag America into a European war and besmirch Germany’s reputation?
Can there be a more inhumane or diabolical scheme than this? And still, so many decades later, he has yet to be called to account for instigating these murders.