The most recommended books on Special Operations Executive

Who picked these books? Meet our 22 experts.

22 authors created a book list connected to the Special Operations Executive, and here are their favorite Special Operations Executive books.
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Book cover of The Women Who Lived for Danger: Behind Enemy Lines During WWII

Hilary Green Author Of Operation Lightning Bolt

From my list on the secret world of plot and counter plot in WWll.

Why am I passionate about this?

I was born just before the start of World War ll. My father served throughout the war in the RAF but before that he had been a professional singer. I was interested in the idea that the war had sent people along paths that they would never have otherwise explored and I decided to write about four young performing artists and their wartime experiences. The result was the four novels in my Follies series. It meant a lot of research, in the process of which I discovered the work of the Special Operations Executive. This has provided me with material for several more novels, of which Operation Lightning Bolt is the most recent.

Hilary's book list on the secret world of plot and counter plot in WWll

Hilary Green Why did Hilary love this book?

This is the book that first sparked my enduring fascination with the women who were recruited into the Special Operations Executive in World War ll. Binney draws vivid pictures of the women from many different backgrounds who volunteered for this dangerous work. He made me realise that this was no romantic adventure but an existence where danger lurked round every corner, very often with tragic results. Although entirely factual in content, it reads like a novel. Inspiring and chilling at the same time. 

By Marcus Binney,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Women Who Lived for Danger as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

"They flirted with men, and with death." In The Women Who Lived for Danger, acclaimed historian Marcus Binney recounts the story of ten remarkable women -- some famous, some virtually unknown -- recruited to work behind enemy lines as secret agents during WWII. Part of Winston Churchill's Special Operations Executive, formed in 1940 to "set Europe ablaze," the women of the SOE were trained to handle guns and explosives, work undercover, endure interrogation by the Gestapo, and use complex codes. Once in enemy territory, theirs was the most dangerous war of all, leading an apparently normal civilian life but in…


Book cover of Target: Italy: The Secret War Against Mussolini 1940-1943

Peter Dixon Author Of Return to Vienna: The Special Operations Executive and the Rebirth of Austria

From my list on living undercover in constant danger during WW2.

Why am I passionate about this?

Hodder and IVP had already published two of my earlier books—during my three decades as a Royal Air Force pilot and another one leading a conflict resolution NGO—when my journey as a WW2 author began. It all started with my wife's book about her German mother and British Intelligence Corps father (The Bride's Trunk). That got me interested in the links between 'the Corps' and the Special Operations Executive. Three SOE books later, I’m following the organisation into Austria. I've barely scratched the surface of undercover operations and I’m always finding new niches to discover.

Peter's book list on living undercover in constant danger during WW2

Peter Dixon Why did Peter love this book?

Oxford academic Dr. Roderick Bailey is an expert on the Special Operations Executive who made helpful comments to improve my first WW2 book. I love the little-known stories of Italian and British secret agents that populate this book, which is the official history of SOE’s undercover war against Mussolini's Italy. I enjoy tracing the strategic impact of relatively minor actions. Some efforts succeeded, many failed. There were the attempts to make common cause with the Sicilian Mafia. There was the agent paid and supplied by SOE who was really working for Italian Counter-Intelligence. And there was the SOE agent who parachuted into Lake Como, was immediately captured and expected execution, but survived to provide the secret radio link that enabled Italy to surrender and change sides. 

By Roderick Bailey,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Target as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Drawing on long-classified documents, Target: Italy is the official history of the war waged by Britain's Special Operations Executive on Benito Mussolini's Fascist Italy. It is the first full account of SOE's clandestine efforts to strike at Italy and sever its alliance with Nazi Germany, uncovering missions as remarkable as a plot to assassinate Mussolini and plans to arm the Mafia. It is also the first in-depth history of SOE's attempts at causing trouble inside an enemy country as opposed to an enemy-occupied one, issuing a sobering reminder of the terrible dangers that foreign agencies can encounter when trying to…


Book cover of Sisters Of Night And Fog

Simon Worrall Author Of Star Crossed: A True WWII Romeo and Juliet Love Story in Hitlers Paris

From my list on World War 2 love stories.

Why am I passionate about this?

I grew up in a British military family, where the war and its triumphs and tragedies always felt close. My father was a member of the famed British secret agent network, SOE. He parachuted into Greece and faced capture and torture as he helped rescue 7,000 Italian soldiers stranded in the mountains. My mother’s fiancé, Martin Preston, was killed in 1940 in France. My second book, The Very White Of Love, recreated their story in fiction. I have always read passionately about the period and interviewed many other authors about the subject while I curated National Geographic’s popular column, Book Talk

Simon's book list on World War 2 love stories

Simon Worrall Why did Simon love this book?

I loved this novel set in wartime France. Again, it tells the story of two women.

American, Virginia d’Albert-Lake, is being urged by her husband and family to return to the United States so she can be safe from danger in war-ravaged France. But Virginia has no desire to leave her husband Philippe and their friends. She knows she belongs in her adopted country of France. Nineteen-year-old Brit Violette is fluent in French, having spent half her life in France, and she ends up joining the British secret agent network, SOE.

I loved the ways these two women’s lives, told in alternating chapters, were intertwined. I had tears in my eyes as the story came to a tragic end, as both women were imprisoned in the Ravensbruck concentration camp. 

By Erika Robuck,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Sisters Of Night And Fog as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Named a Most Anticipated Book of 2022 by Buzzfeed · Bookbub · BookTrib · and more!

Two women, two countries. Nothing in common but a call to fight.

A heart-stopping new novel based on the extraordinary true stories of an American socialite and a British secret agent whose stunning acts of courage collide in the darkest hours of World War II.
 
1940. In a world newly burning with war, andin spite of her American family’s wishes, Virginia d’Albert-Lake decides to stay in occupied France with her French husband. She’s sure that if they keep their heads down, they’ll survive. But…


Book cover of Jungle Fighter

Robert Lyman Author Of A War of Empires: Japan, India, Burma & Britain: 1941-45

From my list on the war in Burma, 1941-45.

Why am I passionate about this?

I've spent the last 30-years studying, reading about, writing, and teaching the story of the war between the Allies and the Japanese in the Far East during WWII. It includes of course the story of the fighting between the main protagonists, but there’s much more that has been neglected by writers and historians, certainly in the West. It includes the story of Burma and its various people; the role of India and its people as it moved rapidly towards independence and the role of China throughout. Every time I look at an aspect of the war, or read another memoir or open a dusty file in the archives, I come across more exciting material.

Robert's book list on the war in Burma, 1941-45

Robert Lyman Why did Robert love this book?

This book was published after Tom Donovan, the bookseller, came across the manuscript in a boot fair. It’s a brilliant depiction of Hedley’s experience fighting in Burma in 1942 at the height of Japanese ascendancy, through to the Chindits in 1944, and then finally in Burma behind enemy lines with Special Operations Executive (SOE) in 1945. The book engagingly recounts the extent of Hedley’s experience between 1942 and 1945: few officers were involved in the fighting at every stage of the campaign as was he. His role in helping raise the Karen levies against the Japanese in 1945 is a highlight. 

Book cover of Unsettled Ground

Joy M. Lilley Author Of The Liberty Bodice

From my list on WW2 and women of the Special Operations Executive.

Why am I passionate about this?

My name is Joy Gerken pen name Joy M., Lilley. I live in Kent, England with husband Michael and our three rescue cats. We have four children, six grandchildren, and four great-grandchildren. I began writing in 2013 after retiring from a long nursing career. My list is multi-genre, I like to both read and write books from all genres. It broadens my horizons and helps me focus more clearly on my own writing. I recommend all five books to you as I have enjoyed the reading of them all.

Joy's book list on WW2 and women of the Special Operations Executive

Joy M. Lilley Why did Joy love this book?

This is a glorious read that supplies verve, love, and heart. Two siblings are still living with their mother in their fifties in poverty and isolation. There is a serious risk of the inability to cope following their mother's demise. Music is a theme running throughout this charming story of resilience, and the survival instinct.

The two find they are living on the fringes of society, however, the ending proves that light can be spun from darkness.

By Claire Fuller,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Unsettled Ground as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Winner of the 2021 Costa Novel Award


Finalist for the Women's Prize in Fiction


Named a Best Book of the Month by Entertainment Weekly, PopSugar, Bustle, Chicago Review of Books, PureWow, a Best Book of Summer by Daily Beast and one of Good Housekeeping's Best Books of 2021


"Full of dramatic twists and turns right up until its moving, beautiful end." —NPR Books




At fifty-one years old, twins Jeanie and Julius still live with their mother, Dot, in rural isolation in the English countryside. The cottage they have shared their entire lives is their only protection against the modernizing world…


Book cover of Flames in the Field: The Story of Four SOE Agents in Occupied France

Shrabani Basu Author Of Spy Princess: The Life of Noor Inayat Khan

From my list on secret agents and espionage in WW2.

Why am I passionate about this?

I am a writer of Indian origin and have always been passionate about telling the story of the involvement of Indians in both World Wars. Very few people know that 2.5 million Indian volunteered for the Second World War, the largest volunteer force in history. I have always enjoyed reading stories of intelligence operations in wartime, the role of the Resistance in occupied countries and particularly the role of women in the Second World War. I was drawn to the story of Noor Inayat Khan from all these perspectives.

Shrabani's book list on secret agents and espionage in WW2

Shrabani Basu Why did Shrabani love this book?

The story of four women agents from the SOE’s French section and their journey to a death camp in France is movingly told. They travel from different directions and come from different backgrounds but meet their tragic fate together. The book captures the spirit of resistance and their heroism.

By Rita Kramer,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Flames in the Field as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This is the true story of four women, members of the Special Operations Executive (SOE), who were sent into Nazi-occupied France during World War II, and then caught up in a web of deception which resulted in their deaths at the hands of the Gestapo. In this book, Rita Kramer pieces together the women's stories, how they came to be involved in such a dangerous operation as well as their experiences in France, and also analyzes the controversial methods of SOE at a crucial period in the war.


Book cover of Churchill's Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare: The Mavericks Who Plotted Hitler's Defeat

Hilary Green Author Of Operation Lightning Bolt

From my list on the secret world of plot and counter plot in WWll.

Why am I passionate about this?

I was born just before the start of World War ll. My father served throughout the war in the RAF but before that he had been a professional singer. I was interested in the idea that the war had sent people along paths that they would never have otherwise explored and I decided to write about four young performing artists and their wartime experiences. The result was the four novels in my Follies series. It meant a lot of research, in the process of which I discovered the work of the Special Operations Executive. This has provided me with material for several more novels, of which Operation Lightning Bolt is the most recent.

Hilary's book list on the secret world of plot and counter plot in WWll

Hilary Green Why did Hilary love this book?

This is the inside story of SOE. It focuses on the men who were at the helm of this secret organisation. Some of them invented the tools which allowed agents to do their jobs—a limpet mine, pens that concealed a knife, even exploding horse dung. Others taught would-be agents unarmed combat, or how to pick a lock. And it gives an insight into  the personality of the man in charge, Brigadier Colin Gubbins. Invaluable information for my research.

By Giles Milton,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Churchill's Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

'A magnificent story, brilliantly told. Read it!' ANTHONY HOROWITZ

SIX GENTLEMEN, ONE GOAL - THE DESTRUCTION OF HITLER'S WAR MACHINE.

In the spring of 1939, a top secret organisation was founded in London: its purpose was to plot the destruction of Hitler's war machine through spectacular acts of sabotage.

The guerrilla campaign that followed was to prove every bit as extraordinary as the six gentlemen who directed it. One of them, Cecil Clarke, was a maverick engineer who invented a lethal bomb. Another, William Fairbairn, was the world's leading expert in silent killing. Led by dapper Scotsman Colin Gubbins, and…


Book cover of A Vengeance of Spies

Hilary Green Author Of Operation Lightning Bolt

From my list on the secret world of plot and counter plot in WWll.

Why am I passionate about this?

I was born just before the start of World War ll. My father served throughout the war in the RAF but before that he had been a professional singer. I was interested in the idea that the war had sent people along paths that they would never have otherwise explored and I decided to write about four young performing artists and their wartime experiences. The result was the four novels in my Follies series. It meant a lot of research, in the process of which I discovered the work of the Special Operations Executive. This has provided me with material for several more novels, of which Operation Lightning Bolt is the most recent.

Hilary's book list on the secret world of plot and counter plot in WWll

Hilary Green Why did Hilary love this book?

This book plays into my own interest in the work of the Special Operations Executive during World War ll. But it is set some years after the war and deals with the legacy of secrecy and its effect on the men and women who served in  SOE. It is a story of revenge and reconciliation, and the plot has many dramatic twists building up to a nail-biting climax and a bitter revelation.

By Manda Scott,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked A Vengeance of Spies as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

My dear Elsa—
You are grieving and I am sorry, but there are things you need to know…
Because this is not only a confession. It is an accusation.
So, in case you get no further, here is the bald fact.

I killed your grandfather.

War hides many secrets and some of them are better kept. But the secret of Hut Ten was never that kind: it could have been leaked and a life would have been saved.
One man could have made that difference. He didn’t - and vengeance has taken forty years to catch up with him.

This…


Book cover of The Spy Who Loved: The Secrets and Lives of Christine Granville

Sarah Percy Author Of Forgotten Warriors: The Long History of Women in Combat

From my list on women in combat.

Why am I passionate about this?

I’m an academic, writer, and broadcaster, and I’ve always been fascinated by the big questions of who fights wars and why. A puzzle caught my eye: the only profession (short of maybe priest) where women were actively banned in the 1980s and as late as the 2010s, was combat. How could Western democracies ban women from an entire profession? This was especially odd, given that the plentiful historical evidence that women were perfectly capable of combat. So I wrote a book explaining how women in combat fit into the broader sweep of military history, and how the suppression and dismissal of their stories has had a profound social and cultural impact. 

Sarah's book list on women in combat

Sarah Percy Why did Sarah love this book?

The stories of women spies during World War II are not as well known as they should be – especially  because these women were highly trained, incredibly brave, and trained in all kinds of combat techniques.

I find them fascinating because they demonstrate that ordinary women are capable of the greatest feats of physical bravery – these women were not recruited because they were muscle-bound or could shoot a bullseye from a great distance.

They were usually just regular women who happened to speak a European language fluently. Krystyna Skarbek, brilliantly written about in this exciting biography by Clare Mulley, was one such woman – her adventures, including crucial organization of French resistance fighters and rescuing her colleagues from the Nazis – make for irresistible reading.

By Clare Mulley,

Why should I read it?

5 authors picked The Spy Who Loved as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In June 1952, a woman was murdered by an obsessed colleague in a hotel in South Kensington. Her name was Christine Granville. That she died young was perhaps unsurprising, but that she had survived the Second World War was remarkable. The daughter of a feckless Polish aristocrat and his wealthy Jewish wife, she would become one of Britain's most daring and highly decorated special agents. Having fled to Britain on the outbreak of war, she was recruited by the intelligence services long before the establishment of the SOE, and took on mission after mission. She skied into occupied Poland, served…


Book cover of The SIlk Code

J. C. Briggs Author Of The Murder of Patience Brooke

From J. C.'s 3 favorite reads in 2023.

Why am I passionate about this?

Author Dickens fan Victorianist Book collector Crimewriter

J. C.'s 3 favorite reads in 2023

J. C. Briggs Why did J. C. love this book?

I love anything about World War II and spies, and this book takes you right into the dangerous world of espionage.

It’s wonderful, too, to have a female spy, Nancy, who works in London for the Special Operations Executive as a de-coder. She proves to be very clever at her work and suggests that coded messages should be written on silk as silk is thin and easily concealed in a cuff or a collar. Eventually, Nancy, who is half Dutch and speaks French, is sent to France to spy on the Germans.

What follows is a breathtaking tale of courage, betrayal, and loss. It’s fast-paced and authentic. Read the historical notes at the end. Deborah Swift has woven her detailed research into a fast-paced, thrilling, and moving story.

By Deborah Swift,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The SIlk Code as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

'The Silk Code had me absolutely hooked... A great storyline full of bravery, trust, love, survival, betrayal and determination.' NetGalley reviewer,

Based on the true story of 'Englandspiel', one woman must race against the clock to uncover a traitor, even if it means losing the man she loves.

England, 1943:
Deciding to throw herself into war work, Nancy Callaghan joins the Special Operations Executive in Baker Street. There, she begins solving 'indecipherables' - scrambled messages from agents in the field.

Then Nancy meets Tom Lockwood, a quiet genius when it comes to coding. Together they come up with the idea…