This book looks at the British and American organisations created to fight an unconventional or subversive war against the Germans and Japanase – the British SOE and the American OSS. These are both well known organisations, and the subject of plenty of books, but combining the two is relatively unusual.
The first chapter, on the origins of the two organizations, benefits greatly from the decision to include both SOE and OSS. I would suspect that readers in the UK and US will each be familiar with the history of the SOE and OSS respectively, but combining the two allows us to see how they influenced each other, how they were similar and where they differed. This starts from the basic structure of the two organisations, as they had different roles, continues in the training (with SOE tending to use large country houses as their bases and OSS going for more purpose built bases). I think I would have reduced the size of the chapters on assessment, selection and training and the tools of the trade. These are both very well studied areas, and the space would have better been used to give details of more operations.
The operations chapter covers a wider range of topics than is often the case. We get most of the familiar suspects – Yeo-Thomas, the assassination of Heydrich etc, but we also get OSS infiltration missions into Austria, operations in Burma, and the exploits of the Swedish-American businessman Eric Erickson. There are plenty of agents who I am unfamiliar with here, thus avoiding the common mistake in books on SOE of simply repeating familiar stories.
One nice feature of the operations chapter is that the author has avoided the temptation to focus on SOE’s failures. Plenty of them do get mentioned, but some books can become entirely dominated by them, giving so much coverage to collapse of various circuits that we never find out what they achieved before being destroyed. Here the brief histories of operations are good on their successes.
This is an excellent, if perhaps somewhat short, history of these two unconventional organisations, helping to see how they differed, how they were similar, and what impact they had on the course of the war.
1 – Origins
2 – Assessment, Selection and Training
3 – Tools of the Trade
4 – Operations
5 – The End of an Adventure
Author: James Stejskal