July 4, 1999
Scratch unit that derailed Nazis
by Hugh McManners
AGENTS in the most secretive department of the Special Operations Executive (SOE) deployed spoof dictionaries and super-strength itching powder against the Germans during the second world war.
Section X, the section charged with creating chaos and destruction within the Third Reich, has previously been regarded as a failure. But unpublished archives reveal that it conducted clandestine operations ranging from the bizarre to the murderous.
Early in the war its scientists developed an itching powder so strong that a few grains rubbed in the eyes could cause blindness. In November 1941 it was given to Norwegian resistance members working in a military laundry who spread it on clothing and bedding used by German sailors. The powder was also introduced into contraceptives sold to military brothels in many occupied countries.
Section X produced forged documents designed to destroy German forces' morale, including French dictionaries which mistranslated phrases and army training manuals which gave instructions on how to feign illness and injury.
Much of the SOE's sabotage was low-key to avoid massive reprisals by the Nazis. Agents delivered supplies of grease contaminated with carborundum, which caused bearings on railways to seize up. Forgers also made ration coupons for food and clothing, which were dropped by RAF aircraft. They were intended to cause administrative chaos and disrupt supplies.
"Section X was always a thing apart within Whitehall and many of its plans were opposed by other departments," said Mark Seaman, a specialist on SOE at the Imperial War Museum. It was never highly regarded afterwards, he said, because few people knew what it was really up to.
"Historians have always said SOE agents never managed to penetrate the Third Reich," he said. "But it is now clear that Section X was operating inside Germany and that from August 1944 onwards this activity increased."
Denis Rigden, a former Foreign and Colonial Office (FCO) intelligence officer, has had access to the archives. His findings in Kill the Führer, to be published by Sutton Publishing in September, also reveal how ruthless Section X could be.
False military documents were given to German double agents who had been discovered in Britain. The men were sent on missions to Germany and given parachutes that did not work. The aim was to kill the agents and plant disinformation. Real agents, both emigré Germans and other nationalities, were parachuted into northern Germany to stalk and kill off-duty U-boat commanders.
"The agents were out-and-out thugs," said Seaman. "Nobody had any problems over the morality of sending these people back to Germany to roam around Bremen and other ports seeing who they could kill. The plan to assassinate U-boat commanders shows how uncompromising the secret war really was."
SOE's plans to assassinate Hitler and other leaders came to nothing. Duncan Stuart, SOE adviser to the Foreign Office, said: "To do anything in Germany was much more difficult than in the occupied countries. Agents had to be absolutely perfect - which meant they had to be German." For much of the war there were no German volunteers.
Despite the problems, Section X had some unexpected successes. Its "deserter packs" contained leave and travel passes and food coupons for German soldiers. Like other forged coupons, they are thought to have caused chaos.