SOE's 253 Company, Pioneer Corps

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    The following is an excerpt from SOE's X section history regarding the recruitment and training of German and Austrian émigrés taken from the Pioneer Corps. 253 Company was a special SOE company of the Pioneer Corps.



    ...the German and Austrian Sections of SOE realised that it would be desirable to have available parties of well trained agents who could be sent in either to Germany or Austria, if and when any revolutionary movements or disturbances occurred in these countries, in order to organise such movements into proper guerrilla hands and to generalise the insurrectional tendency. With that end in view, it was decided to comb the Alien Companies of the Pioneer Corps which contained a large proportion of young Germans and Austrians who had been recruited into these companies from among refugees from Nazi Oppression, or who had been liberated from interment in order to join the British Army. It should be borne in mind, however, that these young men had generally come to this country between 1933 and 1939 and had left their country of origin still as boys, or in any case before the outbreak of hostilities, they were therefore not cognisant of the conditions pertaining in their countries of origin during war time and most of them had never done any military service in their own countries. Furthermore, the vast majority of them were Jews, many of whom were handicapped in advance for secret work in their own countries by their racial appearance. They could therefore not have any reasonable chance of survival as secret agents unless conditions of disorder or insurrection prevailed in Germany or Austria.

    In the autumn of 1940, therefore, representatives of the German and Austrian Sections of SOE started in their recruiting campaign, and the country was toured to visit and select suitable candidates from each of the Alien Companies of the Pioneer Corps. It must be borne in mind that, in our efforts to recruit, we were in constant competition with Combined Operations and the Intelligence Corps. No exact figure of the number of individuals interviewed can be given, but no less than 98 men were selected for training and put through the Organisation’s Group “A” and Group “B” Schools and given training in parachute jumping. Of those, 57 men had to be returned to their units at various times for several reasons, such as unsuitability, physical incapacity to stand up to the very severe training, or the trainee having become unwilling to run the risks that would be inherent to has ultimate mission, etc. Besides these, 15 men were at various times transferred to Combined Operations or to Parachute Regiments, to act as guides and interpreters, and finally 28 of the trainees were used by SOE. Of these, 4 were Sudeten Germans, 5 were Altreich Germans and 19 were Austrians.

    The 28 men who were ultimately used by this Organisation had been thoroughly trained both as coup-de-main parties, in terms of 2 and 4, and in subversive organisational work.

    One of the main problems that confronted us was that of maintaining the morale of these trainees at a reasonably high pitch during the period of waiting for the problematical opportunity to use them. This was fairly satisfactorily achieved by creating a special operational school for holding them, at which they were constantly kept interested by carrying out very realistic exercises with the co-operation of the local Army Command and the local Police and Security Forces. Schemes were devised as near as possible to active conditions, details of which will be found in the History of the Training Section.

    All these trainees, with the exception of those who belonged to the REME had been transferred to this Organisation’s special company of the Pioneer Corps, the 253rd, but for various reasons, mainly to maintain their morale, it was found desirable to transfer them to a Combatant Unit and special arrangements were made with the Royal Fusiliers, to whom they were transferred.

    The first parties of Austrians and Sudeten Germans were sent to the Middle East in March, 1942. From there was it was sought to infiltrate them into Austria, but these operations failed.

    The remaining Austrians were sent to Italy in April and May, 1944 and most of them were infiltrated into Austria with the help of the Clowder Mission. (See Austrian Section History.).

    Of the 34 Altreich Germans recruited, one of them was transferred to the Commandos, 4 of them we used in Austria, and nearly all the others had to be returned to their Units in due course, or transferred to the Intelligence Corps or Combined Operations, as suitable conditions for using them in their home country never developed. It is notorious that law and order prevailed in Germany until the last minute, and the only case of a real insurrectional movement developing was in Munich, 48 hours only before the overrunning of that town by the American Forces.

    One German long term trainee was, however, used successfully on two operative in Germany.

    [Source TNA: HS 7/145, transcribed by]
    Aixman and Smudger Jnr like this.

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