Pearl Witherington (English, 1914-2008)
In December, I introduced you to my historical boyfriend, Freddy Spencer Chapman. Since then, my research has led me to the more general history of SOE, the Special Operations Executive that operated parallel to – and sometimes in conflict with – established military intelligence during the Second World War.
Chances are, you’ve heard bits and pieces about SOE’s exploits in both fact and fiction. Historian M R D Foot says it was “formed in a tearing hurry during the summer crisis of 1940, at Churchill’s direct prompting” and dismantled in 1946. Churchill’s actual directive was for SOE to “set Europe ablaze”. Now, looking back, what reader or writer could resist such an invitation? Even better, because the organization no longer exists, its six years of secrets can be fully explored without endangering lives. Finally, there’s the romance of it all: clandestine recruitment of a diverse and international group of volunteers who didn’t know what they’d be doing, but were willing to perform “duties of a hazardous nature”.
SOE’s work is at the centre of recent novels like Elizabeth Wein’s Code Name: Verity, William Boyd’s Restless, and many others. I’ve recently been reading some non-fiction sources in an absolute fever of excitement. Currently, I have SOE and the Resistance: As told in the Times Obituaries (ed. Michael Tillotson, 2011) and Forgotten Voices of the Secret War: An Inside History of Special Operations in the Second World War (ed. Roderick Bailey, 2008). Today, I want to share a few highlights in hopes of enticing you to join me.
Skinnarland was an engineer at a hydroelectric plant in German-occupied Norway that was scheduled to produce heavy water for the Nazi plutonium project. In May 1940, Skinnarland took a one-month leave from his job at the plant, joined a group of young Norwegians who hijacked a coastal steamer, and sailed it to Aberdeen to offer their services to the Allies. He brought with him detailed information about the plant’s security systems and volunteered to return for a sabotage operation. After “very basic” parachute training, the RAF dropped Skinnarland back into the Norwegian mountains, in good time for his return to work after a “holiday”! Skinnarland and his associate, Knut Haukelid, spent several months training resisters in…
Continue reading: The History Girls: Setting Europe Ablaze, by Y S Lee.
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