Before Bond there was the SOE: the Special Operations Executive, an espionage organisation set up by Winston Churchill in 1940. Its mission was to set Europe ablaze by spying on and sabotaging the Axis war machine – and its equipment was no less ambitious. Working in top secrecy from London, the Ministry of Supply’s Charles Fraser-Smith equipped SOE agents with ingenious devices, concealments and disguises. The name he gave to his inventions? “Q gadgets” (that’s you busted, Ian Fleming), as visitors to the Imperial War Museum’s “Secret War” exhibition will learn. Covering the full history of how Britain’s Special Forces worked undercover to help win World War II, it contains a treasure trove of SOE trickery.
Herewith, our favourites from the museum’s collection…
Blade hidden in a pencil
This cutaway shows a thrusting knife (perfect for close-quarter combat during escapes) secreted inside an ordinary-looking pencil.
To remove, it was worked out of the pencil’s blunt end, the twine tied around the blade functioning as a grip. This twine could then be used to lash the blade to the pencil body to form a dagger.
Silk escape map
Printing on silk was difficult (the government turned to board games companies for help with the technique) but such maps had the benefits of being easy to hide, didn’t rustle and were extremely durable. They were issued widely among the RAF but were also used by clandestine operators. This “escape and evasion map” belonged to the SOE agent Michael Lis, who operated alongside Paris Albanians against the Germans.
Remarkably small, so easily concealed among personal effects, SOE’s so-called “pencil” fuses contained a vial of cupric chloride in the copper end. Activation required crushing the vial (typically an agent would simply stamp on the copper with his boot) causing the liquid to start eroding a metal wire that held back a striker.
Next step? Insert into explosives and flee.
These overshoes were designed to be worn in the Far East. The hope was that if the Japanese saw their prints, they would think they were those of a native and remain unaware of SOE’s presence.
Among a handful of change, this disk might go unnoticed. Yet it contains a slide-out blade that’s sharp enough to rip through tough rubber.
Made in the USA and acquired by the SOE, it contained a small cartridge packed with tear gas.
“Wireless” operations were vital to the SOE networks – in the Far East, secret huts were set up in the jungle to facilitate communications. Radio equipment was frequently smuggled throughout enemy territory in small suitcases containing purpose-built miniaturise transmitter and receiver sets, such as this one, capable of working over distances of up to 500 miles.
To find out more, visit Secret War at IWM London, Lambeth Road, London SE1 6HZ. Free entry
Feature image: The Federalist