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the sabotage service


Section D of SIS was formed in April 1938 under Laurence Grand and began its operations against the Nazis in March 1939.  By September 1940 it was operating in over 20 countries across Europe, pioneering sabotage, 'black' propaganda and political subversion. It also had a  section that trawled the world for small arms that could not be traced back to the British government. Section D was the main inspiration for SOE and provided much of the early staffing and expertise  of the latter. In Britain, its Home Defence Scheme was formed in late May 1940 and quickly established a civilian guerrilla force to counter any Nazi invasion.  Its use of civilian saboteurs horrified the War Office and directly led to the formation of the military Auxiliary Units which could be more easily justified under international law. Section D continued to manage the intelligence wing of the Auxiliary Units (Special Duties Branch) until late 1940, and SIS retained a strong interest thereafter.

Section D were the anarchists of the British estabishment, launching a political campaign against the Nazis on the basis of 'the enemy of my enemy is my friend', allying itself in particular with German, Austrain and Slovenian socialist groups. This shocked the Foreign Office, which had originally agreed to 'look the other way' when Laurence Grand explained that it intended to use the methodology of terrorist groups, especially the IRA,  that the British government had roundly condemned as being unlawful. Section D worked primarily through foreign opposition groups based in neutral countries, some of whom were unaware that they were being funded by British intelligence.  This caused bitter opposition from British Ministers in foreign legations, some of whom threatened to turn Section D officers over to local police. 

At first, Section D worked in close partnership with MI(R) in the  War Office and facilitated its expansion in April 1939 (see the forthcoming Secret Warriors). But there was increasing tension caused by the ambition and jealousy of Colin Gubbins. The latter deeply resented that MI(R) was prevented by its charter from engaging  in non-military guerrilla warfare and had to rely heavily on Section D for its funding and supply lines. This antagonism led to a considerable re-writing of Section D history when the post-war history of SOE was written and the near santification of Gubbins as the   commander of the latter.

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The Home Defence Scheme were equipped with incendiary devices that could easily be concealed in the home (rather than the service issue explosives of the Auxiliary Units.


They were issued with a Colt revolver with could not be tied back to the government and a commercial sheath knife.  In the absence of a supply of sub-machine guns in May 1940 the cells were given a gas rattle to serve as a 'distraction weapon'. 

The final straw in the relationship of Section D to the War Office came with the formation of the Home Defence Scheme as a civilian guerrilla force in Britain. It was quickly formed in May 1940 as a continuance of Section Ds work in France and the Low Countries in preparing weapons dumps and training for potential resistance fighters. Until then, no thought had been given to creating a guerrilla force on the precedent of the Polish guerrilla organisation (as opposed to the long term resistance organisation created as Section VII of SIS. The War Office response to what was viewed as an SIS 'private army' was the military Auxiliary Units and Section D for Destruction includes previously unpublished correspondence regarding the relationship between the two bodies. The Gubbins version of the founding  of the Auxiliary Units after the war, part of his ongoing conflict with SIS (which had forced his retirement from the army on only a colonel's pension) gave no credit to Section D. Nonetheless, the official, if unpublished,  history of the Auxiliary Units noted that most  Aux. Unit Intelligence Officers had been helped b the introduction to men who had been trained in sabotage by 'MI5' and who 'were generally outstanding individuals, who eventually became group commanders'. These were SIS Section D recruits who now operated at the heart of the War Office Auxiliary Units and whose role has now been completely obscured. Although most popular attention has gone to the Auxiliary Units (seduced by the romance of hidden bases and a constructed mythology of deadly assassins), it was the Home Defence Scheme, which, at a time when Britain's defences were at their lowest ebb, that would have provided the core of Britain's guerrilla fighters to resist Nazi invasion.

In a minor footnote of History, one by-product of one of Section D's operations, was the creation of the popular wartime song A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square!

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Section D for Destruction: forerunner of SOE and Auxiliary Units

by Malcolm Atkin


Updated Edition 2023

The first comprehensive study of Section D.

Using newly-released documents from The National Archives, the book surveys the operations of Section D across over twenty countries, including Britain. It analyses the fraught relationship of Section D to the Foreign Office and War Office, which resulted in a systematic effort to destroy its reputation, and demonstrates how its history has been distorted by those wishing to establish the reputation and romance of SOE. 

An integral part of the publication is a substantial online appendix provided at for free download. This provide short biographies of known Section D officers, agents and contacts

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