The following lesson plans look at the activities involved in the Secret War and particularly those that involved signing the Official Secrets Act. www.legasee.org.uk/oursecretwar/
Lesson Plan 1
This plan focuses on the background to the Secret War and the organisations involved. This plan also shows how the lessons learnt from clandestine activities in the Second World War continued to be useful in the postwar period.
Lesson Plan 3
This plan details the roles involved in the Secret War within the United Kingdom.
Lesson Plan 5
Many of the roles involved in these lesson plans were top secret and people only started talking about them in the 1970s. This plan looks at the impact of this secrecy on oral history.
Lesson Plan 2
This plan focuses on the unique role, women played in the Secret War.
Lesson Plan 4
This plan details the roles involved in the Secret War overseas, with a particular emphasis on German occupied Europe.
During the Second World War, all of the armed forces, and many civilians, had to keep their work secret. In fact secrecy became a way of life. Posters warned ‘Careless Talk Costs Lives’ and ‘Loose Lips Sink Ships’. But for some, secrecy was so important they had to sign the Official Secrets Act. These people were forbidden to speak about their war work for decades.
The Secret Service Bureau was established in 1909 in response to the growing armament of Germany. During the First World War, it was renamed the Directorate of Military Intelligence and from 1916-18 was under the control of the War Office. The number of Military Intelligence (or MI) units fluctuated according to demand. There were ten by the end of the First World War and seventeen by the end of the Second World War. The only two now remaining are MI5 and MI6. MI5 looks after Britain’s national security and MI6 deals with foreign threats. Below is a description of some of the key organisations in the Secret War.
MI5 is also known as The Security Service. During the Second World War, MI5 dealt with espionage and the capture of enemy agents, interception of German and Italian communications and the feeding of misinformation to Germany through the use of double agents.
MI6, also known as the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS), gathered intelligence from overseas. This often involved the use of secret agents operating in Axis and other countries. Despite rivalries, MI6 & MI5 worked closely together.
Also known as the Radio Security Service (RSS), they monitored radio traffic from the Axis armed forces. MI8 was under the control of MI5 until May 1941 when MI6 took over responsibility.
All signals intelligence was sent to the headquarters of the School at Bletchley Park, known by its codename of Station X was also involved in crypto analysis or code breaking.
SOE was set up in July 1940 with the aim to “set Europe ablaze”. Its mode of operation was subversion which it split into four categories: damage enemy material and communications, strain the enemy’s resource of man-power, undermine the enemy’s morale and finally, raise morale of the people of Occupied countries. It conducted these operations through working with underground resistance movements.
None of the events of the Second World War happened in isolation. Being able to intercept enemy codes gave the government and the armed forces valuable information. For example knowing about U Boat movements made the convoys safer. Supporting resistance and partisan movements in Europe, gave them the resources to resist.
The Second World War gave the intelligence agencies valuable information on how to protect Britain’s national security, all through the Cold War and up to the present day. MI5 and MI6 are still the main intelligence agencies today. The present day Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) was created from the work at Bletchley Park.
1. Take one of the organisations listed and write an advert asking for recruits. Of course this wouldn’t have happened, but imagine it did. What sort of skills and character traits might you be looking for?
2. Investigate the role of the intelligence services today
What do you think the intelligence services learnt from the Second World War?
“I was an instructor at the schools and got so involved with it all, as I had French I was so involved with it all I suppose when I was first approached by a chap called John Munn, Colonel Munn he said to me you know, we could do with a pretty active bloke like you to help us in various ways. I’d like to put it forward to Baker Street, which was Headquarters, that we consider you for operational purposes, what do you feel about that? And of course I said yes, I’d like to very much. I met a lot of nice people in SOE, I mean the small groups and individuals we trained for specific jobs based on what they were going to do, including women. To me it was one of the best things that I did during the whole of that period of time. It was functional, well organised and nice people you know and solid people that at the same time they were all very courageous and capable of working under conditions which were pretty tough and that obviously fired me as an individual and I was only too glad to be able to join in.”
“I wanted to go into the Land Army. But my father said “yes, you can go in the Land Army”’ ‘cos I rather fancied the breeches and everything. And he said, “but before you volunteer what you’ve got to do is to work whole day in the garden. And you go out and you dig that potato patch, and then Mummy will give you some tea, and then you’ll go out again”, and then I think by about half past one or 12 o’clock or something I’d had enough so I didn’t want to join the Land Army any more. And then my father came back, and being an only child and, as I said, quite privileged, he said,”oh, there’s an new organisation I’ve heard about it”, we thought it was new, “the FANYs”. So I applied, and I went up for an interview at Baker Street. And it was quite a short interview, from what I can remember. Well then they said “yes, we’ll accept you on a trial basis”
“So after that the Ops Room was sent up to Ormskirk and it was there. I’d been there about five months in the Air Force and I went for commission… I said I want to get into intelligence, I love maps, I like to be more original. Admin I couldn’t do anyway, that’s completely out and code and cipher would be far too formal for me I think. So anyway she put me up for… for intelligence. I get in front of the board and he said ‘we’re looking for Officers in admin and code and cipher’. So I didn’t know what to do, I said ‘well in that case Sir, I’d rather stay and continue with the job I’m doing’ and there was a complete silence and I thought the floor… hoped the floor would swallow me up. And then he… one WAA F Officer, she said ‘may I ask you why you’re not accepting the commission they’re offering you?’ And so I really didn’t know what to say... I thought oh dear I’m going to go back and I’m really going to get it from him I guess. But instead of that he gave me a big brown package, which I gather was my things, sent me off somewhere else to meet… to see a Major… a Colonel, a full Colonel, I have no idea why. He asked me all sorts of peculiar questions including things about sailing and all that, which I’d never done and oh, it was quite difficult. I was getting to the bottom of the barrel and I thought well I didn’t say, I said no but I know what he’s… I said ‘well why do you want to know about sailing?’ ‘Oh we thought you might understand coastlines and things like that’. So that was good because I’d been to Jersey and we used to go all along the coastline there and I loved it. And I said I could even pick out the house that I was going to stay in. I think that’s what gave me my commission. Anyway I got into photo interpretation.”
“I had had enough of school and I had done bits of domestic science and a bit of secretarial but I didn’t come clean about that because I didn’t want to be a secretary anyway. And so I was seventeen and I was bullying my father to let me go into one of the services. He wasn’t awfully keen on my going into the ATS. It didn’t have the best reputation at that particular time but he did know the wife of one of his brother officers was a FANY and he consulted her and she said oh, yes I’ll see Paddy and see what I think, and see what we can do for her, so I was interviewed by her, sent up to London to see Mrs Bingham who was in charge of the SOE FANYs by that time.”
MI5 only had 400 staff
at the beginning of the war
From March to June 1940, MI5 had
reports of suspect activity
Of the 21 German agents that landed
in the UK between September and
November 1940, 20 were captured
Throughout history, women have always had an important role in war. In the Crusades, women such as Eleanor of Aquitaine accompanied their husbands. Women often accompanied armies and would perform a support role, washing, cooking and nursing.
Throughout history, women have had a pivotal role in Britain’s economy. However the First World War opened many new opportunities, seeing the first women police officers for example. The First World War also saw the establishment of the Women’s Royal Navy Service (WRENS), the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corp (WAAC) and the Women’s Royal Air Force (WAAF). The Female Auxiliary Nursing Yeomanry (FANY) was established in 1907 to assist the civil and military authorities in times of emergency. During the two world wars, they provided support to the armed forces and the female agents of the Special Operations Executive used the FANY uniform as cover.
The WRENS had been disbanded after the First World War and were reformed in April 1939. The WAAC had also been disbanded and reformed as the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS). The National Service Act (No2) in December 1941 introduced conscription for women. Women were allowed to choose if they wanted to go in the armed forces, the Land Army or industry. In the First World War, some had played a supportive role as drivers, orderlies and clerks. The Second World War was the first time women were recruited into the armed forces for their intellectual and practical skills. Alongside the vital clerical and domestic roles, women listened and deciphered code and messages, manned anti-aircraft guns, flew planes and became agents in Nazi occupied countries.
1. Imagine its 1941 and you are 18, and about to be conscripted, you have the choice of the armed forces, industry and the Land Army, which would you have liked to have joined and why?
2. After the end of the war in 1945 women were discouraged from continuing in full time work that could be taken by a returning service man. However the world is very different today, how do you think that the Second World War changed the perception of women’s role in the workforce?
“So he gave me the name of a woman, again, I’ve forgotten her name, but she was the head of the Ministry of Labour in London, so I go off to London to see this woman and she told me the sort of inside secret that I ought to be able to get in fairly soon because the WRNS were expanding and they expanded very rapidly and I got in very easily then. But I had to wait ‘til the doors opened. Of course the Lords of the Admiralty didn’t want women. You know, they reluctantly took them in at the beginning of the war, but, you know, it was a man’s service. It wasn’t for women.”
“I was very pleased to be back in London, I was very well received by Buckmaster and all the rest of SOE headquarters. And I was given a free time, some rest where I stayed with my own people and then the time came when it was time for me to... oh no, at first I started to help with SOE and they sent me to be a Training Officer for the new recruits. And I went with them to jump again and I broke my leg, so I had to rest a few months and I was only sent back this time by Lysander five months. I remained in England during five months. And then I was sent back to join my brother in Normandy because they were already planning the landing in Normandy and my brother had been sent there as an organiser and I asked to go with him.”
“I had the idea I would drive an army lorry with yellow gauntlet gloves, very elegant. And was sent to Guildford, there was a training camp, I forget what we called it, your 3 weeks initial training there, where we did aptitude tests. I think the aptitude test were rigged a bit according to they actually wanted but mine for driving a lorry came to nil. She said I had ‘no mechanical aptitude at all’, but my Morse aptitude was ‘very, very good’. Well we had to listen to two sounds and then say if they were same or different. Well if you learnt a bit of the piano, or sung at all, and our school sang in choirs. That was easy. And they said that was good and I was to be shipped off to the Isle of Man to be a wireless operator.”
“Then I re-joined, because I had already become a FANY, and then they started having NCOs, non commissioned officers, doing secret, cipher work and I was appointed to be the first cipher NCO woman cipher worker and must again have been very bad at it because I was completely inexperienced but gradually built up the whole department which you saw in that photograph and in a couple of years it was a very established East African signals and ciphers department and I was by that time a Sergeant FANY in charge.”
By 1943 1 in 3
factory workers were female
The largest of the women’s service
was the ATS with over 250,000
women serving during the war
Over 7 million women
were engaged in war work
Due to the close proximity of Britain to Nazi occupied Europe, it was easy to listen into enemy radio and signals. Therefore much of the clandestine work undertaken in the Second World War was conducted on the Home Front.
It was vitally important to understand what the Axis powers were thinking and doing. MI8 or the Radio Security Service were tasked with intercepting radio signals. So called Y Stations were established across the UK to intercept signals and radio traffic, they were used by the armed forces as well as the intelligence services. Some of this work was also performed by Voluntary Interceptors, amateur radio enthusiasts who were given a small section of the airwaves to cover. The information collected was sent to the mysteriously named Box 25, Barnet, before being sent off to Station X (Bletchley Park). Box 25 was in fact a stately home called Arkley View. Bletchley Park was part of the Government Code and Cipher School, which was responsible for signals and ciphers.
The radio traffic was often in code and an important part of the process was to decipher these codes. Alan Turing, an academic at Bletchley Park invented the “bombe” machine that was able to decipher the Enigma code, one of the most used codes by the German armed forces. Of course the work was never completed, as soon as one code was cracked, another would be invented.
The stories of the Special Operations Executive agents are well known, but behind the scenes an army of people in Britain helped to prepare them for a life undercover. Training schools were set up to teach agents how to act like a spy and how to destroy all manner of machines. Replica clothing and paperwork were created and a whole network of radio operators, clerks and others would all be employed to try and keep them alive.
Just as it was important to listen to enemy radio traffic, so they were also listening to Allied radio traffic. It was important to keep the Allied military plans a secret. One of the biggest military secrets of the war was the lead up to D-Day, it was important that not only the landing site but the invasion date was kept secret and even those working on the plans were kept in the dark.
1. Think about the problems facing the planners of D-Day, how would you try and keep such a big event a secret?
2. You have been asked to find twenty five new Voluntary Interceptors. Write a list of questions you may ask to test their suitability and loyalty!
“Actually, I was there working on operation orders for a few months before I knew that was I was working on, which was Operation Husky, was actually the invasion of Sicily. The retaking of Sicily. It was all so secret. Even I, who was working on it, didn't know where it was until I'd been there a few months. Then after that was finished, the invasion of Sicily, we'd done the operation orders for that, after that I was transferred from the naval floor to the first floor which was COSSAC's headquarters. On the first floor. COSSAC stands for, Chief of Staff to Supreme Allied Commander Designate, because at that time Eisenhower had not been appointed.
The COSSAC was General Sir Frederick Morgan and I was on his staff with 2 other Wrens, also Wren ratings, and 3 WAAFs, and 3 ATS. We did all the initial typing and working on the operation orders for Overlord. They were being changed all the time because these were the orders for the Navy, the Army and the Air Force. Naturally, all the services, they were always having to change things. That was really hard work. Up to the few months before D-Day we did extraordinary hours because they were running out of time. We worked from say 6am to 12 noon, and then we were on duty again at 6pm until midnight. Then on duty at 6am again. That went on. I don't know how long we did that for, but it was just non-stop.”
“Well we were just given sheets of paper with long lists of numbers on it and we had to go through all these numbers in the list, I’m saying, this took all day because there so many, and then we had to extract the sections which were headed for the code for England. We had that number to look for in all these other numbers. “And how long were you doing that then?” About two years i suppose, boring, not talking to anyone all day because there were only about three of us in the office.”
“At the end of the basic training, they then told us what we are actually going to do. They told me that I was going to be an interceptor of German naval radio signals and I would do a very intense, short training course to see whether I would be capable of writing down these signals accurately at a house in Wimbledon called Southmead. The way they ran it was that Lieutenant, Freddie Marshal, who was a Royal Navy Officer would sit in one room, and he had fluent German and he would read out the kind of signals that we would be hearing. We sat in another room and wrote down as accurately as we could, every single sound that we heard. And the speed increased over the two weeks and if at the end of that time you were up to speed and he thought that you could deal with periods of very intense activity or long spells of boredom then you were selected".
“This is not the warfare of the First World War in the trenches, where somebody’s got a wire… a wireless… a telephone line back to General Hague way at the back, this is the whole lot on the move constantly. So wireless was important so interception was important, far more than it had been before. Now the volume of messages was enormous, we were right down with Enigma machines, right down to quite small army units, certainly long… way below battalion and uh so there were thousands of… of Enigma machines in operation, therefore thousands of messages going all day long for which we needed thousands of ‘interceptors’, people who understood Morse and could listen to it”.
The decoded German signals were
known as ULTRA intelligence
The “bombe” machine had
As we have seen on the Home Front, it was very important to find out the plans and intentions of the enemy. The work of the radio operators and listeners didn’t just happen on the British Isles. Listening stations were set up all over the world.
For this plan we are going to look at two of the clandestine activities in Europe and the wider world.
During the Second World War, one of the major hazards of flying over Nazi occupied Europe was being shot down. If they were not initially captured, many tried to flee across Europe to the neutral countries of Switzerland, Sweden, Spain or Portugal. MI9 was set up to help Allied airmen escape. The help of local people as seen by the case of Bob Frost below was vital in helping Allied airmen escape.
The Special Operations Executive (SOE), operated in many of the countries occupied by the Axis forces. Their remit was to assist and support resistance groups. This could take the form of keeping in radio contact with London, supplying armaments or conducting sabotage. The SOE was organised along country lines as each country had different requirements. For example, there was an established resistance in France that the agents could contact, but in Germany itself, there was no organised resistance and much more suspicion so other types of activity had to be conducted.
There have been numerous films and books telling the heroic exploits of Allied escapers and secret agents parachuted into Nazi occupied territory. However there were dangerous consequences. While most Allied prisoners spent the war in Prisoner of War camps and were treated relatively well, in March 1944, 76 Allied airmen escaped from the prisoner of war camp Stalag Luft III in what became known as the Great Escape. Of the 73 recaptured, 50 were murdered on the orders of Hitler in contravention of the Geneva Convention.
The people living in Nazi occupied Europe ran a great risk in becoming members of the resistance or assisting Allied personnel. Secret agents too ran great risks. If they had been caught, they may have been tortured during interrogation and if they survived, sent to a concentration camp.
1. In the three testimonies below, Bob Frost and Fred Gardiner talk about escaping capture, Jean Argles talks about her time as a radio operator in Egypt talking to partisans and Malby Goodman talks about his time as a medic, parachuting into Nazi occupied territory to assist injured agents. Take one of these stories and produce your own story of what you think might happen next.
2. Much has been written about the SOE role in Western Europe. Research and write a short article on the role of SOE in other parts of the world. Think about where you will find this information.
“Eventually I was in the kitchen the general room of the farmhouse with grandfather, grandmother, their daughter, a baby in her arms, and this young man who was her husband and I discovered later that grandfather was the mayor of the village and they took me in and looked after me and put me in an attic upstairs. Looked out of the window in September it’s the time of they have their annual fair and I watched a bicycle ride going by and Ongiel told me later, she was the mother of the little lad, that they were at the fair and she’s thinking to herself ‘oh goodness what have we done? We have this man in our house’ and they knew that the penalties to be paid because notices had been posted that anybody found helping airman would be, if a man – shot, and a woman – sent off forced labour.”
“The work was 24-hours and you had shifts. You were on for perhaps some six to eight hours at a time. The night shift was the longest one, it was quite tiring. The offices we were working in were down in central Cairo, so you had to be taken down, which meant it was even longer because it took you perhaps half an hour to get down to work and back again at the end of the shift. We were working principally at that stage with the underground agents in Greece and the Baltic states and Crete, and also the main lines because we were doing mainline traffic as well to London for major messages. Not the sort of thing that you sent to somebody who is an agent working in an underground movement. But you would send that information about the more generally or any of the information you’d got in Cairo about perhaps the pipelines or air raids or something like that. But it wouldn’t be the same things as saying, please send us 15 machine guns. It would be serious stuff, and also to North Africa. We were also doing a certain amount of work with the boats because a lot of the Greek and Albanian people, people in Southern Europe were using boats, small boats to get in and out of the German occupied areas. We did have special lines to people on these little boats as well, which was quite romantic in a way.”
“Yes and they’d choose somewhere… I can recollect. It was difficult to know because you weren’t told where you were going and it was all done secretly. So you had to put two and two together. I remember on one occasion we landed alongside a river on a stretch of flat ground with forest nearby and the forest was good because the resistance people were hiding in the forest and they could come out when the plane come down or they’d come out and give signals to the pilot that it was safe or not safe to land there. And I remember it was the Danube because I looked at the maps and the only river it could have been was the Danube and it was all done… a lot of guessing attached to it.”
“Someone said ‘Ici Belgique’! I could understand that! So they were all trying to decide obviously what to do with me. And I was fortunate that they were certainly anti-German and one or two were probably connected with the resistance. So I was given a very nice breakfast, well a large piece of plum tart actually. And coffee made with acorns I was told and after a while I was shown into a room, where a doctor came and examined me, gave me some money, which I added to the money which I’d had in my escape pack. And from there I was taken on a bicycle accompanied by two young men also on bikes, to the next village…and so begins a story of going from village to village, town to town, various forms of transport, cycled, walked, pillion of motorcycles, in the rear of the doctor’s car hidden down lying on the floor. And by train, trains eventually and everyone was very helpful and of course they were all risking their lives.”
The wireless telegraphs used by SOE
agents had a transmitting range of up to
The French Resistance received
weapons from SOE
As we have seen, many of the veterans were told that their work was of the utmost secrecy. They weren’t even allowed to talk about it among their colleagues. It was only with the publication of several books in the 1970s that the secrets of the War were finally revealed. Since then, there have been many books, documentaries and films produced.
There are still secrets of the Second World War to be unearthed. Some of the files remain locked. However these new stories add important detail to the historic narrative. Many of the veterans only knew about the area of work they were involved in. Together their stories can provide a detailed picture of the relevant period of war. However some veterans still think that they can’t talk about their wartime role and there is a danger that their stories may be lost.
One of the problems of individuals not talking about their wartime work for 30 years or more is the reliability of memory. Many decades of not talking or thinking about the past, can make accurate recollection difficult. However, sometimes the opposite can also be true. One of the problems of oral histories, is that the stories can be told so many times, that the story is honed over time and can be influenced by books they have read or films they have seen since the war.
One of the main roles of oral history is understanding more about the context of an historical event and how the ordinary men and women experienced some of the major events of the war. This allows historians to build a bigger picture of an event.
1. Get a book from the library or watch a documentary on a part of the Secret War that most interests you. Summarise it and tell your classmates or write a short report on why this interests you and how the book or film has added to your knowledge.
2. Think of a past event, something that happened over five years ago, write down everything you can remember, ask someone who was also there and get them to do the same, see how the different accounts compare.
“Well, they didn’t ask us then they didn’t know, I think a lot of the people wondered what all these girls were doing walking around because they didn’t realise that we were on shift work and doing odd hours anyway and that and we didn’t know what we were doing so we couldn’t say anything, we couldn’t tell them what we were doing. And my son now says, “Oh, my mother couldn’t say anything because it was always it was all top secret, she couldn’t tell you.” So when, when the book – in 1976 the book came out – I said, “Oh, that’s what…that’s what we used to do, we were never told, we had to sign a secrets act, you know, we were told not to say anything, how did they get about it? And so that’s how it all came to light, which was very good because nobody really knew what we were doing.”
“It’s confusing extraordinary actually because I was in the gardens up the road here one day, not long ago and a lady came up to me and she said ‘I’ve been wanting to speak to you! I heard you were an agent during the war? And I wanted to thank you’ and of course I was never an agent but, the only common thing was we were both in a secret organisations the spying and the SOE were completely separate but, they were both secret. Just secrecy was the one thing that was in common nothing else.”
“We didn’t know anything, we didn’t know anything and until 1996 we couldn’t say a word about what we were doing. We didn’t even know until 1996 that we were with SOE, all we knew we were on a special duty squadron doing a highly secretive job, only the navigator knew where we were going, even the pilot didn’t know where we were going on ops, only the navigator knew. We couldn’t keep any records of what we were doing, nothing like that, and consequently a lot of boys when they wrote books when they were on ops from England, they were allowed to keep copies, you know keep a record but we weren’t, it was too secretive.”
“But it was just a job and you just got used to not talking about it. Which is why later on, people ask for your memories, because you hadn’t talked about them, or discussed them, they hadn’t got reinforced over time so, it’s very easy to get your memories wrong. If you see what I mean. because you just, might. I remember, I heard my brother before he died recently, that my father was upset that he never knew what I did during the war. He knew I was in the WRENS but that was all- he never knew what I did and that upset him apparently. You just, you know, it was just one of those things. It couldn’t happen now but in those days, you just did not talk”
The role of Bletchley Park
was only known in
SOE was disbanded on
people worked for the Government
Code and Cipher School by the end
of the war