The Special Operations Executive was a secret British organization set up in 1940 to encourage resistance and carry out sabotage in enemy-occupied territory. As the seventh of SOE’s official historians, I have the task of researching and writing the history of SOE’s cloak-and-dagger work against Fascist Italy between 1940, when Mussolini declared war on Britain and France, and 1943, when Italy reached an armistice with the Allies.
It is a unique piece of work that is a privilege to undertake. The public image of SOE remains dominated by the exploits of its agents in Nazi-occupied France, but its reach was global, and opportunities to shed light on SOE activities in countries other than France are important. In the case of Mussolini’s Italy, the risks run by SOE agents who were prepared to resist the Fascists were immense. Italy was an enemy country, not an enemy-occupied one, and anti-Fascist Italians who volunteered to return as secret agents faced a traitor’s fate if caught. The courage of those Italians who were prepared to face the firing squads deserves recognition, and stands as an effective counter to enduring images of Italy’s fighting abilities.
SOE’s official files, which have been steadily declassified since the late 1990s, are held today at the National Archives at Kew. But I can also consult additional archives, both in the UK and overseas, and the IWM holdings have proved especially useful. In recent years, supported by the Gerry Holdsworth Special Forces Charitable Trust, IWM has built a very strong collection of SOE material, including the personal papers and personal recollections of several hundred agents and staff. Today it is the world’s principal repository of non-official SOE documentation.
The personal nature of that material is a great asset to my research. Orders and telegrams and other official SOE records are essential for piecing together clandestine operations, but they can also be quite dull. Letters and diaries add emotion, illuminate personalities, and shed light on the myriad aspects of underground warfare that are not illuminated by official files. When approached carefully, recorded interviews, too, can have great worth.
One colourful example is an interview taped in 1991 with Accrington-born Harry Hargreaves. In July 1943 he was a 19-year-old radio operator with a small SOE team that accompanied Allied forces invading Sicily. The team’s task was to search for sympathetic Sicilians who might help the Allies both in Sicily and on mainland Italy. In charge was 33-year-old Major Malcolm Munthe, son of the Swedish author of the The Story of San Michele. ‘Malcolm Munthe was a cool customer,’ Hargreaves recalls in his IWM interview. ‘As crafty as a bag of monkeys.’ To illustrate this, Hargreaves then recounts a monkey-themed episode in which Munthe sought to secure a night-time car-alarm to protect the team’s fifteen-cwt truck, which, packed with rucksacks of plastic explosive, they had just driven ashore under shellfire and parked in the bombed-out streets of Syracuse. The alarm took the form of an organ grinder’s monkey. 'We want to get one of those monkeys,' Hargreaves remembers Munthe saying, 'because if we put the monkey inside the lorry, and anybody comes and tries to pinch anything out of the lorry, it would wake us up.'
Munthe’s official signals and reports, at Kew, detail his team’s work and achievements. But it is in the IWM, in the engaging accounts and memories of colleagues, that one finds insight into his character.