SOE DUTCH WAR DIARIES
To the reader of this diary it will be apparent that apart from the modest success of some small-scale activities improvised during the last few months of the campaign, the story of SOE operations in the Netherlands during this war is one of unrelieved failure.
From the end of 1940 to the spring of 1944, when the “Secret Army” which was to come into action on D-Day should have been steadily gaining in strength, the whole of our organization in Holland was not only completely penetrated, but controlled and directed by the Germans.
The melancholy story of SOE agents being dropped direct to German reception committees has already been told in this diary (*), which also described the failure to erect a new underground organization on the ruins of the old (**).
Most of our trained agents were arrested and of these the majority were executed. When D-Day came no Secret Army of the sort envisaged in our early plans existed. Sabotage was indeed carried out but was mainly sporadic and for the most part organized and directed by the remnants of indigenous underground organizations, rather than from London.
The diarist (a former officer in the Dutch Country Section) feels that some consideration should here be given to the question as to how far this series if disasters could have been avoided from the London end.
The matter can be dealt with in three main sections.
1. Security in the Field
The following remarks, which appear in the Security Section report (undated) on the activities of Abwehr IIIF , The Hague, against SOE (***) although “wise after the event”, are well to the point:- “What strikes one first is that the vulnerability of the organization in Holland was apparently not appreciated: secondly that the probable or possible implications of minor mishaps upon the security of the organization as a whole were not considered and thirdly that no steps were ever taken by means of trap questions or otherwise to find out whether the operators were or were not under control.
“With the exception of very few messages containing both true and bluff checks the traffic from the field relating to the evacuation of KNOPPERS (GOLF and BROADBEAN) only contain bluff checks.
“Now, although the use of a true check ought not to be taken as evidence that an agent is operating freely, persistent absence of the true check ought, at least, to raise the presumption that the agent is under control”. This inference was never drawn.
“Consideration should also have been given to the possibility of JOHANNES not having been killed at once and to his having given something away to the Germans, this if only because any information which the Germans might have gained from him might easily have necessitated the abandonment of the whole enterprise, not because it was dangerous and involved risks but simply because it was foredoomed to failure.
”Not only, however, does there appear to have been a failure to look the facts adequately in the face but also a failure when suspicion had once been aroused to test those suspicions. It would not have been difficult to have put a few tricks questions on the traffic with a view to seeing whether the reaction was that which would be expected if the agent was not under control.
“No trick questions, however, ever seem to have been put even to the agents who were under suspicion.
“Had the whole of the W/T traffic been under constant review in the light of all the known facts: had trick questions been put to the agents; had each mishap been examined with a view to appreciating its possible implications on the position of the others and the organization as a whole; above all had a record been kept which set out in chronological order all the known facts regarding the enterprise and the sources from which such facts were known: a record which would have been readily available for consultation in considering all the above matters; had all this been done then there is little doubt that the SOE organization in Holland would not have met the fate which overcame it.
“if it were possible there would be much to be said for an officer familiar with the difficulties of running a controlled transmitter to be sitting alongside those who are in contact with a W/T operator in the field. Short of that it is suggested that the traffic could be examined by such an officer from time to time.
“In any event it is submitted that it should be the primary duty of some officer to examine and keep under constant observation all the happenings in the field, as well as the mishaps, with a view to satisfying himself as to the true security position and advising those responsible for the offensive accordingly”.
These precautions would, however, be of little avail in the absence of a record or records in the form of a journal setting out all the known facts regarding the organization in the field as a whole and the persons taking part in its activities”.
To this may be added that the Secret Army - which looked well on paper, with lines radiating from a C-in-C to commanders and sub-commanders all over Holland - was over - centralized and therefore more open to penetration. A watertight Zone-by-Zone scheme, such as that drawn up in December 1944, would have been safer, if less impressive.
Uneasy relations between SOE and SIS in the earlier stages of the war further worsened the situation. The extraordinary position arose in which a German agent - known as such for many months to SIS - was accepted as a genuine patriot by SOE simply because no proper liaison on this level existed between the two ‘rival’ organizations (****).
2. Security at HQ
I. Meetings between Country Sections officers (in uniform, with General List badges) and students (usually in mufti) took place in the entrance hall of the Cumberland Hotel, Marble Arch, over a period of years. Students were paid subsistence at this rendezvous, or taken by car to various SOE establishments.
With the capture of our agents this soon became known to the Germans and although it has never been confirmed it is likely that they had this place watched by their own agents in London, to whom they would have furnished the description of Country Section officers obtained from students.
II. After weeks of hard training in isolated stations in Scotland, students were brought to a well-appointed Section flat in Bayswater, given generous pay, subsistence’s and allowances, and left their own devices. Most of them got drunk in West End pubs and night clubs and serious security offences occurred. Some brought women to the flat, where there was no Country Section representative in residence.
For any future operations of this sort it is recommended that students on leave or awaiting training should be housed outside London. When on leave they should be tactfully “conducted” and supervised. When not on leave they should be treated as soldiers, rather than as privileged civilians.
Difficulties of various sort connected with recruitment arose throughout the war. In the early stages, friction with our opposite numbers in the Dutch Government made it almost impossible to recruit students from the Dutch Armed Forces, and the various odd civilians which the Country Section obtained were of very mixed quality.
In the beginning of 1942 liaison with the Dutch was running smoothly and students of a fairly high level of intelligence and capability were sent to us from the Dutch Forces.
At the end of the following year, however, the standard had fallen considerably and student who were not only unintelligent but also illiterate were recruited and trained. In addition certain Dutch officers adopted the undesirable practice of inviting men in the Forces to undertake “special work” in such a way that a refusal appeared to show cowardice.
Consequently students who were either unintelligent or unwilling, or both, dropped out or were sent back to their Unit after some weeks of training.
The Students Assessment Board set up towards the end of the war was helpful in weeding out the “impossible”. But a higher level of personnel would have been obtained had SOE Country Section officers been able to take part with the Dutch in the initial stages of recruitment.