- Men and women training to serve during the second world
war in Britain's Special Operations Executive (SOE) - the secret agents
who supported resistance movements in enemy-occupied countries - were quickly
made to forget all thoughts about gentlemanly warfare.
- A formerly top secret SOE training syllabus has been
declassified and is about to be published by the Public Record Office.
It reveals how agents were trained to kill using "foul methods"
and to "dispose" of prisoners.
- The men and women recruited into SOE learnt a vast range
of sabotage and assassination techniques. Perhaps most chilling of all,
they learnt methods of survival and suicide to deploy in the event of arrest
and interrogation by the Gestapo, the German secret police.
- The syllabus that is being released was used at "Camp
X", a training school near Oshawa, on the northern shore of Lake Ontario
in Canada. This camp, which was entirely under British command, trained
not just SOE personnel but also large numbers of Americans from the Office
of Strategic Services, the forerunner of the CIA.
- The man in charge of teaching "ungentlemanly"
techniques was Major William Ewart Fairbairn, Camp X's expert on silent
killing. A senior officer in the Shanghai police before the war, he had
two nicknames: "Fearless Dan" and "the Shanghai Buster".
His knowledge of the martial arts of the East was unrivalled in the West.
He was the co-inventor of a double-edged commando knife designed for cutting
a sentry's throat. The unconventional use of many weapons was his special
- Fairbairn was a dour figure. In his leisure hours, he
never read books or newspapers, and he seemed to have no intellectual interests.
One of his former trainees once remembered: "Off duty, his conversation
was limited to two words: yes and no."
- This is what his pupils learnt about unarmed combat:
"At some time or other, most of you, probably, have been taught at
least the rudiments of boxing, under the Queensberry rules. That training
was useful because it taught you to think and move quickly and how to hit
- A stab in the back: the instructor William Fairbairn
shows how SOE agents should use 'foul methods'
- "The Queensberry rules enumerate, under the heading
of 'fouls', some good targets which the boxer is not trained to defend.
This, however, is WAR, not sport. Your aim is to kill your opponent as
quickly as possible.
- "A prisoner is generally a handicap and a source
of danger, particularly if you are without weapons. So forget the Queensberry
rules; forget the term 'foul methods'. That may sound cruel, but it is
still more cruel to take longer than necessary to kill your opponent. 'Foul
methods', so-called, help you to kill more quickly."
- Combat instructors were asked to tell trainees: "Don't
just stop because an opponent is crippled. If you have broken his arm,
for instance, that is only of value because it is then easier to kill."
- Under the heading "Searching a prisoner, if you
are armed" comes the instruction: "Kill him first. If that is
inconvenient, make him lie face to the ground, hands out in front of him.
Knock him out, with rifle butt, side or butt of the pistol or with your
boot. Then search him."Introducing knife fighting, the syllabus states:
"The knife is a silent and deadly weapon that is easily concealed
and against which, in the hands of an expert, there is no sure defence,
except firearms or running like hell."
- Instructors are told: "Students should be taught
how to hold a knife, how to pass it from one hand to another, to thrust
and how to use the disengaged hand to feint and parry. It is unnecessary
to be ambidextrous to be able to use the knife with either hand.
- "Show the vulnerable points, emphasising that the
abdominal region is the principal target. Show how to make an opening for
a thrust in the region, eg by slashing across face, hands, wrist and forearms,
by flinging gravel, a stone, a hat, a handkerchief, etc, in the opponent's
- In pistol training, recruits were taught the "two-shot"
rule: "You must kill your man. One shot may kill him but it is better
to be absolutely certain by putting two shots into him . . . because his
nervous system breaks up immediately."
- Trainees were told how to attack singlehandedly "a
beer cellar containing a number of Germans", killing them ruthlessly:
"You have reached the doorway of the cellar by a stealthy approach,
making no sound whatever. Your automatic is loaded and cocked. Very quietly
turn the handle of the door as far as it will go and then, preparing yourself
for the effort, you kick the door open and burst into the room with maximum
speed and noise and kill your targets before they have a chance to realise
what has happened."
- The syllabus states: "Normally when you are attacking
into a room you will immediately kill everybody in it. There is the occasion,
however, when for one reason or another you wish to hold the people under
the threat of your gun while another member of the raiding party is perhaps
obtaining rope to tie them up or the leader of the party to interrogate
them before they are disposed of."
- Among the many other techniques trainees learnt was burglary,
which was defined in the syllabus as: "The secret entry by an agent
into premises for the purpose of: a) Examining, photographing, stealing
documents or articles profitable to your organisation. b) Reconnoitring
interior of building for any subversive purpose - eg assassination."
- SOE trainees were taught how to set up and run clandestine
organisations in occupied countries, with this lesson on how to deal with
local recruits who double-cross them: "If after checking and testing
a man it is clear that he is a traitor, the organiser can either frighten
him or pay him off (both risky) or kill him. The same course is open if
a man pretends that he is being blackmailed by the enemy. The best method,
however, is to prevent double-crossing taking place by stressing the ruthlessness
and long range of the organisation at an early stage."
- Trainees were also taught how to deal with their own
arrest and interrogation: "If you are arrested by the Gestapo, do
not assume that all is lost; the Gestapo's reputation has been built up
on ruthlessness and terrorism, not intelligence. They will always pretend
to know more than they do and may even make a good guess, but remember
that it is a guess; otherwise they would not be interrogating you."
- Nevertheless, SOE staff officers had no illusions about
the extreme brutality practised routinely by Gestapo interrogators and
acknowledged that in an exteme situation it would be better for an agent
to commit suicide rather than reveal anything that might wreck operations
and jeopardise the lives of hundreds or even thousands of people.
- As a result, in their lecture on what kit to take with
them on operations, trainees were introduced to lethal "L tablets".
The SOE leadership was fully aware that there was a limit to the heroism
of even the bravest and most selfless men and women.
- © Crown Copyright 2001 © Denis Rigden 2001
- Extracted from SOE Syllabus, Lessons in Ungentlemanly
Warfare World War II, to be published by the Public Record Office on August
15 at £19.99. Copies can be ordered for £17.99 from The Sunday
Times Books Direct on 0870 165 8585. http://www.sundaytimesdirect.co.uk