Christine Granville worked for the Special Operations Executive (SOE), an organization set up to assist European resistance movements and according to Winston Churchill, "to set Europe ablaze." The SOE was formed from three different but overlapping units: a propaganda unit known as Department EH run by a Canadian newspaper magnate; Section D, a division of the Secret Intelligence Service focused on sabotage and propaganda; and a department of the War Office, known as MI R. In July 1940, all three were rolled into one organization - the Special Operations Executive.
Although expectations were high for the SOE, there was trouble in the early months. The organization faced three primary challenges: how to recognize resistance movements, how to communicate with them, and how to best support these movements in their fight against Germany. Although Section D and MI R had developed procedures for helping resistance movements on a small scale, the scope of SOE's mission was new. Determining the exact ways that the SOE was going to carry out Churchill's mandate of "setting Europe ablaze" was unclear.
Radio signals were susceptible to interception, making communication with resistance movements particularly challenging. There was only limited contact with Polish and Czech movements. Once contact was made and the resistance movements obtained support, it was difficult to show how SOE was helping them. Much of the work was clandestine and subtle. News of SOE successes often took time to surface. Within the war department in Britain, there was divided thinking on SOE. Many saw the organization as merely a distraction from the real fighting.
Despite reservations and early roadblocks, SOE evolved. It was determined that it was necessary to get agents into the field to work directly with the resistance movements, and by mid-1941 SOE agents began to infiltrate Europe. Many, like Christine Granville, were dropped via parachute at night to their assigned areas. Granville assisted in connecting different resistance groups in France and Italy and helped organize the concealment and distribution of weapons.
Over time, communication methods became more sophisticated. SOE developed a wireless radio that weighed 40 pounds and looked like a standard suitcase. The aim was for every agent to be a qualified radio operator. In addition, each SOE agent had to be trained in self-defense and be able to use weapons and explosives (Granville preferred hand grenades to guns and always had a few on her in case of trouble). Each agent needed a convincing cover story and alias. Every detail mattered - an agent purporting to be a Frenchman could have his, or her, cover blown simply for wearing shoes made in Britain, or looking the wrong way when crossing the road. Because of her flawless French speaking skills, Granville was chosen for work in France, where she was known as Madame Pauline.
After the war, Despite SOE's successes, Clement Attlee, the British prime minister who followed Churchill, ordered SOE be disbanded at short notice because he felt that it was not appropriate to have an organization focused on sabotage and resistance in peacetime. Some of the personnel were absorbed into MI6, others returned to either the regular armed forces or their former peacetime occupations, or joined the civil service. But Granville, who had no former wartime employment to return to and did not want a desk job, found it difficult to secure gainful employment.
This article was originally published in July 2013, and has been updated for the
May 2014 paperback release.
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