During World War II, with the French campaign of 1940 setting Nazi Germany on the course to dominate and occupy most of Europe and the United Kingdom remaining the only country to face it, the Special Operations Executive, a "spinoff"" of MI6, was organized on Winston Churchill's orders to help "Set Europe Ablaze".
Nicknamed, not inaccurately, the "Ministry of Ungentlemenly Warfare", the SOE conducted espionage and sabotage throughout World War II, as well as smuggling supplies to La Résistance and providing British emissaries to the various rebel leaders.
In a way, the SOE's experience of World War II was closer to the James Bond image than that of the rest of British intelligence, for they were expected to look for trouble more often and, it being wartime and all, they really did have a Licence to Kill. This shouldn't be surprising, since Ian Fleming was the Director of Naval Intelligence's liaison with SOE and got a lot of his ideas from his experience there; his cousin, Christopher Lee, was actually an operative, as was Jon Pertwee. However very few, even of the SOE, would have had eighty women in the space of a two hour movie (given that a lot of them, the radio-operators in particular, were women, that would have been even more impressive). Nor did they engage in car chases that destroyed two dozen cars on a regular basis, and certainly not many would have worried about whether their drink was shaken or stirred. Sometimes Real Life can be boring. Then again, we are talking about the organisation that invented the exploding rat and the cow-pat land mine. And they really did have knives stored in their shoes.
The SOE was headquartered in London at 64 Baker Street (leading to their being nicknamed the "Baker Street Irregulars") with dozens of training camps throughout the U.K. plus facilities in Singapore, Haifa, and Canada.
After World War II, the SOE was abolished and its resources were absorbed by the main body of MI6.
Every action of the SOE is classified and will remain as such until the last living member of the former SOE has died.
Appearances of SOE in fiction:
- Female Agents (2008) is a spy drama about women serving as SOE operatives in occupied France.
- The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare (2024) is an action-comedy mix about the SOE's creation.
- In The Laundry Files, The Laundry is (in its universe) Q Division, the only part of SOE that survived, which is only part of why relationships with MI6 are strained at best.
- In a very similar but coincidentally unrelated vein, Declare by Tim Powers focuses on the lone surviving section of the SOE into the 1960s. Like the Laundry, Operation Declare exists to liaise between Her Majesty's Government and the supernatural.
- The novel Les derniers jours de nos pères (literally "The Final Days of our Fathers") by Swiss novelist Joël Dickers tells the story of a group of French SOE operatives, from their recruitment to the end of the war.
- Foyle's War: The Body of the Week of the "The French Drop" episode was an SOE agent that committed suicide using a grenade. Foyle is not convinced and starts investigating a SOE station at Lavenham. Foyle figures out that the body is not the SOE agent, but a body of a local villager exhumed from the local churchyard. The real SOE agent had been killed in an operation in France after stepping on Land Mine due to outdated intelligence. The SOE tried to cover up the agent’s death by faking his suicide to stop the agent's father, a high ranking member of MI 5, making trouble for the SOE.
- In World War Cthulhu: The Darkest Hour, players assume the roles of SOE members recruited into the network of N, a British Intelligence spymaster and tasked with fighting a hidden war on two fronts: against Nazi Germany and the insidious Cthulhu Mythos menace.
- Karl Fairburne in Sniper Elite III and Sniper Elite 4 works with SOE as an American-raised Brit. He transfers to the American OSS after the events of 4.
- The player characters in RAID: World War II work for "the Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare" with explicit orders to "set Europe ablaze" from Churchill himself - very likely intended to be SOE, though not mentioned outright to be.
- Secret Weapons Over Normandy: The SOE factors heavily into the game's story, with the Battlehawks being established as an offshoot of the organization and placed directly under their command.
- The first Silent Storm game consists in leading a squad of World War Two era special operatives and performing commando raids. In the British campaign, you're a member of the Special Operations-SE2, either an Expy or a fictional subservice of the historical SOE. The player avatar can be either British, American, or Soviet (male or female), and the recruitable operatives include people of both genders from various countries belonging to the Allied side (USA, France, Soviet Union, Australia, Canada...).