It's mid-1940 and the Second World War is raging with much of mainland Europe under Nazi occupation. With the British Army smashed and the USSR and USA yet to commit forces, the prospect of liberating France seems remote. However, a new service known as the Special Operations Executive (nicknamed the Baker Street Irregulars) is preparing to take on the task...
July 1940, Beaulieu Palace, Hampshire.
Major Selwyn Menzies-Taggart sat in the back of his staff car and read through a dossier while the driver negotiated the narrow lanes of the New Forest. He sat awkwardly, the result of a leg wound picked up two months earlier during the disastrous Naarvik campaign in Norway.
In the days following his return to England, lying in a hospital bed, cursing his luck that his war was over before it had even begun, Selwyn was surprised to receive a visit from a Major Colin Gubbins. The visitor spoke in vague terms about a secret war effort and urged Menzies-Taggart to consider helping. The offer was difficult to define but Gubbins had an aura about him and his reputation as a maverick thinker appealed to Selwyn, himself frustrated by the mistakes made in Norway by outdated Allied strategy. After a day to think things over, Selwyn agreed.
He did not know it but he had just joined Britain’s newest secret agency: the Special Operations Executive, called SOE for short.
Their mission was to infiltrate agents into occupied countries and, in the worlds of the Prime Minister Winston Churchill, ‘set all Europe ablaze’. It was a tall order.
Most of Britain’s intelligence networks had been rolled up by the Nazis in the weeks after invasion. Replacing them was proving difficult. Not enough recruits spoke the indigenous languages and a century-old intelligence rule to only employ UK nationals in the services had only just been overturned.
Only now, two months after the fall of Britain's last remaining ally, France, were the first replacement agents ready to recross the Channel.
Upon arriving at SOE headquarters in London’s Baker Street, fictional home to the world’s greatest consulting detective, Sherlock Holmes, Menzies-Taggart soon learned the role Gubbins had envisioned for him. He was to head up F section planning. F stood for France.
His father had been an attache to the British embassy in France and as a boy, Selwyn had spent many school summer holidays in Paris. Crucially, he knew the language and the geography of northern France. It was these skills Gubbins hoped to exploit most.
He was immediately given command of a handful of ready trained agents and inherited a number of missions already prepped to go. His first job was to assess the missions and tailor them as he saw fit. He dismissed all but one as unworkable. But Operation: Catchcold, while dangerous, looked possible and had the merit of offering immediate returns to the war effort.
He greenlit the mission and selected his team.
Although he had yet to meet any of his agents, he was easily able to choose the four he intended to send. All of them spoke French, indeed one was French and another French Canadian; three of the four had been trained by another elite service, the Commandoes; and the last came from the target area.
Selwyn smiled to himself as he closed the dossier. Yes, he thought, if this mission is to work, these are the best four to do it.