History

"Shadow Knights": The real inglourious basterds

The amazing, little-known story of a top-secret British organization called SOE, sent to take down Hitler

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    Jeffrey Smith

    In a life and death struggle with a Gestapo officer, overeducated agent Harry Ree (holder of a degree in modern languages from Cambridge) tries to remember the dirty tricks he learned at SOE training schools, but can only recall the scene in “King Lear” in which Gloucester’s eyes are gouged out. Ree’s attempt to reenact it fails.

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    Jeffrey Smith

    Half-Indian princess, Sufi mystic’s daughter, children’s book author — Noor Inayat Khan was perhaps the most unlikely of SOE’s secret agents. But after Noor and her family were forced to flee Paris, as they were strafed by Luftwaffe dive bombers, she decided it was her moral duty to become a shadow knight.

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    Jeffrey Smith

    “And now, set Europe ablaze”: With these famous words uttered to SOE’s first ministerial head, Hugh Dalton, Winston Churchill created the Special Operations Executive during the dark year when Britain stood alone against Hitler. It was a move that smacked more of desperation than of grand strategy.

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    Jeffrey Smith

    Brig. Colin Gubbins, the brilliant “Highland toughie” who was SOE’s driving force, performs his favorite party trick — downing a half-pint while standing on his head.

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    Jeffrey Smith

    In the depths of a brutal Norwegian winter, with his men near death from malnutrition in a freezing hut on the most desolate plateau in Europe, SOE agent Jens Poulsson finally managed to shoot a reindeer. Drinking its hot blood and chewing its fat gave him the strength to carry the animal back to his comrades.

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    Jeffrey Smith

    In a suicide mission to stop Hitler from building an atomic bomb, Norwegian commandos had to scale a near-vertical, supposedly unclimbable 600-foot cliff leading up to a heavy-water plant in southern Norway. After placing explosives inside the plant, the commandos fled across the frozen wasteland toward Sweden, chased by thousands of German troops.

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    Jeffrey Smith

    Soon after Noor Inayat Khan slipped into Paris on her secret mission, the underground circuit she had been sent to join was smashed by the Nazis. As a wireless radio operator in occupied Europe, her life expectancy was six weeks. One night, escaping from a Gestapo officer on the streets of Paris, she felt the noose tightening around her.

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    Jeffrey Smith

    One of the Norwegian commandos, Claus Helberg, was chased by a Nazi ski team through the snow-covered wilderness. Helberg eluded all but one of his pursuers. Finally, he decided to stand and face the dogged German soldier. Knowing the man with the last bullet would win, Helberg deliberately allowed his German pursuer to empty his gun at him.

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    Jeffrey Smith

    Harry Ree’s underground network in France was all but destroyed by a traitor named Pierre Martin, who betrayed many SOE agents and French Resistance fighters. Ree’s surviving comrades finally got their revenge, tracking down the high-living Martin in a cafe.

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    Jeffrey Smith

    After she was finally arrested by the Germans, Noor Inayat Khan tried to escape. Her captors offered to keep her in a Paris garrison under relatively humane conditions, if she promised not to attempt another escape.