Things not to do if you’re an agent in a Nazi-occupied country

This past summer I read a nonfiction book about several British agents who went into France during WWII as part of the Special Operations Executive. SOE was created by Winston Churchill to “set Europe ablaze.” Its agents organized local resistance, gathered intelligence, and performed acts of sabotage. (You know, all the type of stuff I like to write novels about.) While reading this particular book, I realized that some of these real-life spies didn’t always get it right, despite their training.

While intelligence successes often remain secret for decades, intelligence failures usually get quick attention. So while most of this list is based on the mistakes of SOE agents in France during WWII, please remember that the British also had numerous successes during the war. And while some of the agents slipped up, they were brave to go into the field. Many of them paid for their mistakes, or the mistakes of their colleagues, with their lives.

So, if you ever find a time machine and decide to transport yourself back into Nazi-occupied Europe, here are few tips, all based on things that really happened:

  • Don’t keep a copy of all the messages you’ve radioed in, and especially don’t keep a copy of them in plain text and encoded, side-by-side in a notebook.
  • If you are send back to a place you used to live, don’t go visit your old friends. They’ll know your name doesn’t match whatever is on your cover identity.
  • On a similar note, if you are sent back to a place you used to live, don’t go to your pre-war hairdresser to get your hair done.
  • Don’t speak English in a non-English-speaking country, especially in a public place.
  • Don’t meet with your contacts at the same cafe week after week. And don’t sit around chatting for hours on end until the Gestapo pulls up.

If you are the one controlling agents from outside the country (say from London), here are a few tips for you too.

  • Don’t trust information sent without the security codes. And whatever you do, don’t remind your radio operators to use both security codes. That will just tip off the Gestapo to ask for the second one, even if your radio operator had managed to convince them there was only one.
  • Lastly, never arrange for more agents to be sent in based on information from a possibly compromised radio. The new agents won’t have a chance.

If any of you are curious about WWII SOE circuits gone bad, you can look up the Prosper network in France, or Operation North Pole in the Netherlands. It’s not happy history, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth learning about. And if anyone does find a time machine, let me know . . .


  1. This is almost comical, especially the one about sitting around chatting in the same cafe until the Gestapo turn up but it’s not funny if you think what the consequences will have been. If any of the readers of your blog have school age kids and live in the UK there’s an excellent exhibition at the Imperial War Museum in London about spies based on the Horrible Histories TV programmes. My children thoroughly enjoyed it.


    1. I would love to go to the Imperial War Museum. Some day I should plan a trip with my sister (the one who likes history). We’ll probably need to give ourselves a week just to get through the museum. And you’re right, Caroline. It’s almost funny because it seems so obvious in hindsight, but most of the agents I read about didn’t survive the war, so it’s also tragic.


    2. Sign me up for that trip! You’ll have to spend most of a day at Churchill War Rooms alone (one of the IWMs). The Map Room is exactly as it was on 16 Aug 1945. They simply turned off the lights & walked out leaving everything (the maps, chairs, misc paperwork) as it was at the conclusion of the war.


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