Setting France Ablaze - the SOE in France during WWII, Peter Jacobs

Setting France Ablaze - the SOE in France during WWII, Peter Jacobs

Although SOE operated across much of occupied Europe, its main theatre of operations was inevitably in France, given the proximity to Britain and the size of the country. This book focuses on the organisation’s activities in France, from the first tentative attempts to establish agents in the country to the widespread activities to help the D-Day invasion. SOE sent some 470 agents into France, so even here there isn’t the space to tell all of their stories, but the author does manage to cover an impressively large number of agents.

My main criticism of this book is the tendency to focus too much on the fate of those of SOE’s agents who fell into German hands. I would have preferred a more balanced approach, with more coverage of their achievements and activities before being caught to balance out the seemingly endless series of arrests and executions. This is particularly the case in the first part of the book, where the emphasis seems to be on insertion into France, establishment of a network and its collapse, with little details on what these networks were actually doing. We do start to get more details of their activities later in the book, which is good, but also tantalising, leading me to wonder what early exploits are missed. Of course in some cases agents had disastrous careers – dropping into a trap and never getting operational, but this wasn’t always the case. Where we do get some details, the achievements are rather impressive – from the familiar cutting of railway lines to sabotaging power stations and factories, many SOE agents had impressive achievements to their names.

The best section as far as the agent’s activities is concerned is the look at the D-Day period and the campaign in France, which saw many SOE networks effectively come out into the open to attack the Germans, often played a major role in delaying their movements across France, cutting transport links and even directly attacking German columns. This is the point at which all of SOE’s efforts really paid off.

There is also some excellent material on the German side of the picture, in particular looking at some of their most successful counter-espionage agents, and the methods they used to trap SOE agents. The complex issue of possible double agents is examined with an open mind, and the author is willing to admit when the evidence is too confusing to come to a clear conclusion.

Overall this is a useful examination of SOE’s operations in France, and a tribute to the courage of so many of the agents who attempted to carry out Churchill’s instructions to ‘set Europe ablaze’

1 - SOE and France - The First Year
2 - First Agents
3 - First Lysander
4 - Worrying Times
5 - A French Agent, an English Agent and a German Agent 'La Chatte'
6 - Establishing Circuits
7 - The Twins
8 - Women Enter the Fray
9 - Coloni Henri
10 - End of PROSPER
11 - The Disastrous Double Lysander
12 - Madeleine
13 - The Man Called Gilbert - Agent, Double-Agent or Triple-Agent?
14 - Bad Salesmen, Troublesome Farmers, Dangerous Musicians and Tinkers
15 - Stationers, Stockbrokers, Marksmen and Scientists
16 - The White Rabbit
17 - Radio Games, Deception and Lies
18 - An Economic Means of Achieving Strategic Success
19 - Maximum Effort
20 - Towards Liberation
21 - Violette
22 - To Victory

Author: Peter Jacobs
Edition: Hardcover
Pages: 232
Publisher: Pen & Sword Military
Year: 2015

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