Book Review: SOE Equipment Air Dropped in Europe 1940-1945

SOE Equipment Air Dropped in Europe 1940-1945A while back I posted a review of a great little paperback account of Winston Churchill’s Toyshop – the development of clandestine warfare gear for use by saboteurs and resistance movements in occupied Europe during WWII. That book did a great job of telling the story of the development of these gadgets, but didn’t really get into their actual distribution and use. Well, we now have access to a wonderful companion book by Anders Thygesen and Michael Sode about the devices themselves.

Where Stuart Macrae’s book is nearly all text, Thygesen and Sode have produced a volume in which virtually every page includes a nice glossy photo – some period black and white and many full color, taken in collections of this gear today.

This book is organized rather like a museum of SOE gear, with each section cataloging a number of items, with a brief description, development history, and production total for each. They are accompanied by clear and close-up photos of each item. The contents include:

– Initiating and Delay Mechanisms
– Explosives
– Incendiaries
– Weapons
– Containers & parachutes
– Communications equipment
– and more

The book is particularly strong in the areas of explosive initiators and timers, of which there were a surprising variety. Pull switches, pressure switches, time pencils, release switches, fog signals (for detonating railway bombs) and more. All manner of limpet mines and some pretty slick disguised explosives, like magnetic fake bolt heads and dead rats stuffed with explosive. When it comes to firearms, the book’s strength is definitely the Welrod. The authors had excellent access to disassemble and fire at least one Welrod, and the history and explanation of this very cool covert weapon is excellent. The other firearms that were used are pretty much just listed with photographs, as they are commonly available and well documented guns. Oh, except the Colt 1903 converted to be strapped to one’s waist and fired by remote activator, an example of which was captured by the Danish police and is well documented here.

There is much more in this book than I can describe in a short review like this, but hopefully this will give you the gist of the content. It runs to 255 pages, including about 50 pages of reproduced English-language original sabotage instruction manual. The printing quality is excellent, unlike some home-printed niche subject books – this is very definitely a professional hard-cover book and not just a pamphlet.

This is another of those works written to fulfill a personal passion, which will never be widely printed. The English run is just 300 copies, although if those sell out apparently a second volume will be done in a few years. So if you are interested in the subject, act now before they are gone. The price is a rather high, at 65 Euros shipped to the US (that’s about $73 at the time of this writing) or Europe (air dropped, you might say). But that’s the price we pay for well-printed books on very niche subjects. It is not available on Amazon or elsewhere, just direct from the authors via PayPal. Sorry, but the book is now sold out.


  1. “dead rats stuffed with explosive”
    I heard that first delivery was discovered and thus it was never used, however it make Germans suspicious about any dead rat so they lose resources for checking that.
    Can anyone prove or deny that?

  2. Looks an interesting book. I’m not sure if it’s the same one I came across & didn’t buy (stupid of me) and never saw again.
    With regard to the previous comment it reminds me about the story from a beach recce party on the lead up to D-day where they were taking samples for analysis. One of the teams accidentally left a trowel behind, so to alleviate any suspicion if it was discovered, bombers were used to drop trowels all along the French coastline. It may be an apocryphal tale but highlights the ends they went to in keeping secrecy.

  3. Daweo,
    Remember the classic scene from the 1961 movie,’Guns of Navarone.’ The security of the fortress has been compromised and the gun crew is doing a near microscopic search of the guns. A dead rat is found hidden on one of the gun mountings. But the officers know this one and realize it to be a camouflaged explosive planted to disable the gun.
    Naturally, a lowly buck private is detailed to remove it. Using tongs and great care, the private gently begins to carry it away for disposal when suddenly the “rat” expels a shower of sparks and a long drawn-out ‘Phiifft…’ And then silence. After a short pause, the private expels his breath, in relief and in mimic of the “Phiift” and proceeds getting the only laugh in the otherwise deadly serious film.

  4. The Fog Signal was an actual bit of railroader’s equipmwnt adapted to the covert war. A disc full of percussion cap priming and flash powder with a prong clip to hold it on top of the rail, it was intended as an audible warning of fog or an obstruction ahead when crushed by a loco’s guide wheel. When run over, it made a loud BANG that could even be heard over the engine’s own racket. They were place three feet apart to ensure that each ‘bang’ could be distinguished by the engineer.

    The code was simple;

    1 bang; Fog ahead, slow down

    2 bangs; Heavy fog or other trouble, slow WAY down, exercise extreme caution


    Some bright fellow realized that the combination of fulminate and powder could easily set off a fuze, blasting cap or even a length of detonating cord (“Detcord”). So the “special” Fog Signal was born, with a clip on one side to hold any of the three. it was always to be pointed outward, away from the centerline of the track, to avoid being cut off by the wheel’s flange before it could be triggered.

    It was commonly used to set off a block of C-3 under the track ahead of the train, to derail same.

    Another nasty one was “The Mole” aka “Casey Jones”. A bomb triggered by a photoelectric cell, it was to be placed on an engine where it could “see” straight up. When the train entered a tunnel and sunlight was cut off, it would fire five seconds later, blowing the engine apart in the tunnel and resulting in a blockage that could take days or weeks to remove. The photocell had a discriminator (a simple resistor)that kept it from being triggered by slowly fading light, as at dusk; only a sudden cutoff, as going into a tunnel, would trip it.

    There was a similar bomb, more like a limpet mine, that was to be put behind the “journal box” on the left front of a loco. Fired by photocell or timer, it would blow the journal box apart. And by only blasting left-side ones, the enemy could not simply take two “opposite” handed ones from two engines that had been hit once each, to make one engine operational.

    The best part of all these little “toys”, of course, from the Allied operators’ POV, was that they could plant them and make themselves scarce long before the “bang”.

    Considering how much of Europe’s peacetime commerce, and Germany’s wartime logistics, depended upon the highly complex European railway system, it’s probably not surprising that SOE, OSS, and the Resistance spent quite a bit of time “workin’ on the railroad”.



    • Hi @eon

      re: Fog signals/detonators

      When I learnt to drive trains we were taught that any fog signal/detonator was to be treated as a stop signal. The aim of placing three consecutively, should their use become necessary, is to ensure that the crew of the train running over them will hear them.

      Consider that it may take some time for a member of a train’s crew, in the event of an emergency, first to access the fog signals/detonators, and then to walk the required distance along the track to start placing them and then to set them. On a frequently used line, the short headway between trains may preclude the setting of all three.

      That said, I am speaking only from my experience (fortunately, I never had need to deploy them), and it may be that regulations for their use have varied from country to country, line to line and over time.

    • About the “Mole” read somewhere that they put them on the repair equipment first so that there would be a larger jam. Also read that to keep them from being removed they had a notice saying official property of German railway ministry with penalties for removal.

  5. Fog signals are normally called Detonators in the UK (and ROI I think) and are still carried on trains as an emergency device for protection in case of a train failure. Historically I think that it was only a small leap into making them actualy detonators. I read years ago a report about the PIRA in the 1970’s trying to use one to set off a charge on the Belfast-Dublin line, it only faile due to being so out of date it had deterioated.

  6. My father worked on the railway here in the UK from the late 40’s until retirement in the 90’s (with a few years in the RAF on National Service in-between). He often told me about ‘Detonators’ as a signalling device carried on all trains in service (LNER then British Rail). Some of the ones issued were wartime ‘surplus’ charge initiators that were only different in that they had a hole in the main body to take the end of a fuse or ‘det-cord’. They came with lead straps to fold over the rail to hold them in place onto of the rail so the train would run over them… He told me of more than a few accidents with guys losing fingers playing with them as though they were toy caps!

    There is another good book on SOE and OSS equipment that is, if I remember an English translation of a French or Dutch book that I acquired many years ago. It too is highly illustrated… I’ll dig it out and let everyone know it’s title if I can find it!

  7. This reminds me of a salutary experience I had as a boy (1950s). We lived near a railway line, and were occasionally told not to play with railway ‘detonators’ because of the danger they presented. But they did not show us what one looked like! So one day I found this mysterious object near the line, must have been displaced without being fired I suppose. Took it home, out to dad’s shed, got a hammer and punch and tried to open it. Made a hole and then cut it open to find gunpowder and percussion caps which I soon recognised! Fortunately for me I had missed all three caps with my hammer and punch. Sort of Russian Roulette for beginners, I suppose.

  8. Sabotage is always difficult to counter. But some countries did nasty things to deter tampering with the railways (per eon’s comment). During one of the Boer Wars, the British began sticking flat-cars full of Boer POWs in front of the train’s engine in order to make a very credible threat: “If you blow up the tracks or the engine, your friends will be the first to die!”

    Weapon of choice scenario:

    Setting: the woods next to the railway at the half point between the closest town and a prison camp. The original interdiction team sent to this area got captured no thanks to some “mistakes” in the original file (which leads me to believe that high command has been compromised). The team is now being sent by train to the camp. The only good news that came out of this was the final transmission from the team’s radioman, which will reveal the traitor. But sadly, there is bad news. The enemy has dealt with railway sabotage before, and they’ve decided that there shall always be a freight car full of POWs in front of the steam engine as “collateral” should anyone bomb the rails! And to add insult to injury, our friends from the interdiction team are now chained inside that car.

    I’ve somehow managed to get on the prison train without being a prisoner myself, but given that I can’t drive a DRB Class 52, shooting the engine crew is NOT an option! On the other hand, I hope nobody’s trying to dynamite the tracks while fellow operatives are still being held hostage!

    If you’re on the train with me, it may be a great idea to raid the car where the guards keep their guns. Arming the POWs should help in taking over the train. And it would be best to keep the engine crew alive, so we can get off without jumping to our doom. But if you’re messing with the railway between the train’s current position and the prison camp, I hope you’re not setting C4 or anti-tank mines!

    Issued weapons:

    1. Mk.22 Hush Puppy and suppressed Carl Gustav M/45
    2. FN Model D
    3. M1 Garand converted to fire 8×57 IS
    4. Sykes-Fairburn dagger
    5. Backpack of C4 and anti-tank mines
    6. Bootlace garrote (!!)

    Enemy weapons:

    1. Schnellfeuer
    2. PPSh-41
    3. AKM
    4. RPD
    5. MG-42
    6. PTRS-41
    7. RPG-7

    Last option: Screw the budget and add your favorite toys to this list (in code)!

    This activity is completely voluntary. You are not required to save commandoes from being tortured to death. Please keep any and all criticism of this post humane and free of foul language.

    Thank you,


    • Well, the important thing is not to blow up the track between your position and where you want to go. (See “Von Ryan’s Express”.)

      My preferred method as a deep cover agent onboard would be to come up with a change of orders (forged, faked radio transmission, etc.) telling the OIC to take the train and the prisoners somewhere else. Preferably near a neutral border or where I could arrange a resistance “reception”.

      Any shooting would be a last resort. And any termination of any enemy personnel would have to be at the very last minute, and as quiet as possible.

      BTW, being in deep, I would leave all the goodies back at base. A bootlace will do for a garrote, and knives can easily be obtained, with or without the bootlace. The surest way to get caught is to go in all dolled up like Alan Ladd with stuff that practically screams, “Hi, I’m from the OSS”.

      If I have a suppressed weapon at all, it will be one of “theirs”, not one of “ours”.

      Walther P.38 with Gebracht suppressor, anyone?




      • Good points, so would stealing an enemy officer uniform and a suppressed Schnellfeuer help with that? Or would you prefer a Nagant 1895 with a “can” on the muzzle? The other team seems to favor privately owned side arms…

        • Either one is easy to hide under a field jacket. Although if I had to use one, I’d pinch it from somebody else, do the deed, and then return it.

          Let them explain how Unteroffizier Schweick got capped with their pistol.

          (See For A Few Dollars More.)



  9. SAS veterans published some amusing accounts of dropping supplies to teams working inside occupied France in August and September of 1944. One of their biggest hassles was dropping Jeeps from Halifax bombers. Maybe half of the Jeeps were roadworthy after landing.

  10. In 1945 the communist resistants or terrorists according to my my well to do mother in law kept their weapons waiting for the revolution
    Now granddad has died but his son or grandson decids that that old sten in the attic might be worth something I know one attic in the dordogne that even has a suitcase radio
    I have one friend that says at most gun shows he sees people trying to sell stens. The going rate seems to be about 300 euroes and often the clip still is loaded
    About 6 kms north of here at Pillac while dredging a creek they found a container All the contents were intact apparently it may have been hidden under water on purpose

  11. I ordered a copy. Look forward to reading it. Been an SOE fan since I read Set Europe Ablaze 25 years ago.

  12. George Millar’s memoir Maquis is a good book, recounting the author’s experiences as an SOE agent in the Besançon area of France during the later part of WWII…

  13. I just came across a British Railways 1958 training film about the use of detonators after an accident; which includes modern shots of what has replaced the long gone railway it was filmed on.

    It is clear that in Britain at that time any detonator meant stop; and British Railways insisted on lots of them being put down, just to be sure. It shows the detonators exploding after trains have been given ‘permission to proceed over the detonators, and to pass signal at danger’ by a signalman. I suspect proceeding past a detonator (without authorisation) may have made the driver liable to criminal charges.

    The film also includes the ’emergency services’, to wit: a doctor, a policeman on foot , an ambulance, and enough cups for about ten gallons of tea!

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