Churchill’s Secret Agents: The New Recruits
April BBC Two
On 22 July 1940 the Special Operations Executive (SOE) officially came into being. Its purpose was to conduct espionage, sabotage and reconnaissance in Nazioccupied Europe, and later in Asia. This was dangerous work, and its agents needed to be highly trained.
Just how highly trained is explored in a new ‘living history’ series in which 14 people who have a historical parallel with individuals who served in the SOE, or in some cases a family connection, put themselves through the same physical, psychological and mental assessments as 1940s candidates.
Along the way, the hopefuls get instruction in weapons, explosives and coding, endure mock interrogations, and learn to use gadgetry worthy of James Bond. The 14, who include a maths graduate, a doctor, a drag queen and an ex-soldier who lost his leg while serving in the army, wear Second World War-era garb throughout and live on the kinds of dishes that were prepared during rationing.
The training is tough from the off, as the candidates first face the Student Assessment Board, a fourday course aimed at finding out who has the raw talent required to go forward to full training. Those who pass both this stage of the process and weapons instruction are then dropped in the middle of the Scottish Highlands, where they have to learn the survival skills required for life in the field. This involves contending with a freezing Scottish lake and a sheer rock face, plus schooling in the techniques used by a team of SOE agents charged with halting Nazi efforts in Norway to develop nuclear weapons.
For those that get through the different stages, and not everyone does, there’s the chance to take part in a 24-hour practice mission aimed at bringing together all of the skills they’ve learned. The series also traces the history of the SOE. Jonathan Wright
This memorial to the SOE in Lambeth features a bust of Violette Szabo, who earned a posthumous George Cross