The SOE in Baker Street

By Richard Moss

Left: Norgeby House at 83 Baker Street. F section of SOE were purported to have several floors at this Baker Street address. Photo: Richard Moss © 24hourmuseum

World War II was a watershed period for the business of spying. For the first time, the allies realised that if they were to infiltrate the vast territory of Nazi occupied Europe, they required an army of spies and agents plus a huge armoury of equipment and gadgetry to support them.

Churchill had already handed the newly formed SOE the job of launching sabotage, subterfuge and guerrilla warfare operations in occupied Europe - with his avowed intention to Set Europe Ablaze.

Right: as the war progressed and SOE's operational capacity grew, 64 Baker Street became SOE's headquarters from October 1940. Photo: Richard Moss © 24hourmuseum

As this plan developed, London and its environs became transformed into the network of secret HQ's, safe houses and workshops needed to co-ordinate operations, train the personnel and develop the equipment. For SOE, the area around Baker Street was the hub of its secret forays into Europe.

By 1943 the various mansion blocks dotted along Baker Street through to Gloucester Place contained a myriad of SOE offices and HQ's. With over 10,000 people working for the organization (about half of these actually agents in the field) the pressure for working space was ever present.

Left: Montague Mansions, just off Baker Street, was one of the many residential mansion blocks where SOE took up residence. Photo: Richard Moss © 24hourmuseum

Bickenhall Mansions, Montagu Mansions and Norgeby House were just three of the residential homes eventually taken. For many at the time, SOE soon became known simply as Baker Street.

In Michael House at number 82, SOE took up residence above the head office of Marks and Spencer, whilst its main HQ was located a little further down at No. 64.

Right: Orchard Court in Portman Square at the southern end of Baker Street. Officers of SOE's section F used rooms in this building for briefing special agents and potential recruits. Photo - Richard Moss © 24 hour museum

In Orchard Court on Portman Square, SOE's F section vetted new recruits for secret missions to France. Many of these recruits were women, including Violette Szabo, who twice went into France only to die at the hands of the Gestapo on her second mission. Of the 52 women sent into France from F section, 12 never returned.

1 Dorset Square. Photograph Tony Smith/Alliance française de Londres

1 Dorset Square was part of the complex of buildings in Baker St and Montagu Mansions also used by the SOE. In fact, it is the only one of the buildings to have a plaque about this on the front.

It was the headquarters of the Free French and Charles de Gaulles and many, many SOE agents were sent out from 1 Dorset Square, as the plaque records, including Odette Churchill, the famous female agent, who despite capture, torture and incarceration survived the war. Her role was the subject of the film "Odette" parts of which were filmed at 1 Dorset Square.

A plaque at Dorest Square commemorating SOE agents. Photograph Tony Smith/Alliance française de Londres

The plaque was unveiled by the Queen Mother in 1957 when the building was given to the French government who gave it to the present occupants, the Alliance française

Dorset Square was also the site of the original MCC cricket ground before it moved to Lords!

Right: Michael House, 82 Baker Street. SOE had the top floor of this building during the war. Staff entered by way of the mews at the rear. Photo Richard Moss © 24hourmuseum

After the end of the second world war, SOE's days were numbered. Interdepartmental rivalries with the likes of SIS and MI6 coupled with the very explosive nature of SOE covert operations meant that SOE was eventually disbanded. After 1946 the various offices and apartments of Baker Street returned to their peacetime functions - or so we're told...

With thanks to Tony Smith of Alliance française de Londres for the information about 1 Dorest Square.

Read our trail The Secret War - SOE Against The Third Reich