December 15, 2010 / 11:02 AM / 8 years ago

Book Talk: Clandestine heroes of World War II

NEW YORK, Dec 15 (Reuters Life!) - Daredevil saboteurs in Nazi-occupied Europe during World War Two went to extremes to help the Resistance, risking arrest and execution.

These true-life James Bonds worked for the Special Operations Executive (SOE), a secretive British organization assisting resistance movements in occupied Europe. Its mission, ordered by Winston Churchill, was to “set Europe ablaze.”

The SOE story, and its agents’ exploits, are told in “Shadow Knights: The Secret War Against Hitler,” part of a Pulp History book series of little-known stories of heroism.

The book is illustrated with both historical material like period photos, maps and propaganda posters, and colorful, often extremely violent art that evokes 1950s pulp book covers.

Author Gary Kamiya spoke to Reuters about the book, Norwegian commandos who thwarted Adolf Hitler’s nuclear ambitions and the enduring fascination with World War Two.

Q: What’s the idea behind Pulp History?

A: “We wanted to have stories that were punchy and little known. The sweet spot is finding areas of history that are underserved, underreported, whether by academics or by journalists, that lend themselves to highly narrative-driven prose. We managed to come up with stories that were pretty propulsive ... merging the look of graphic novels and the new, literate comic books, but without the full design of a graphic novel, which have illustrations on every page.”

Q: What attracted you to these stories?

A: “I’d always been fascinated by great writing about war. When I was a kid, I read a lot of Bruce Catton, one of the great Civil War historians, but I had not heard of the organization that is the subject of my book. I became interested in the Special Operations Executive one day when I was leafing through a Time-Life book about World War Two.

“Two photographs provided the seed for this book. One was of one of my heroes, Noor Inayat Khan, the Indian princess who had an extraordinary career as an underground radio operator despite being raised as a pacifist and a Sufi. She had this remarkable transformation from being the most unworldly person imaginable to taking on the most dangerous job in the world. The second was of a Frenchman about to be executed. Just at the moment they’re going to fire, this guy is smiling sardonically. It made me think, what kind of person would be able to go to the end spitting defiance at his captors?”

Q: Why does World War Two still hold people’s imagination?

A: “It touches something extraordinarily deep in our psyche, because it was the last necessary war. We’ve had a procession of dubious wars since then. Compared to those, World War Two is a pure war from the point of view of being justified. These stories of ultimate heroism and sacrifice have an enduring appeal.”

Q: What’s the SOE’s legacy?

A: “The SOE earned its stripes in D-Day. They armed and prepared and trained the Resistance. Without them it would have been really toothless. The Resistance played a significant role slowing down the German Panzer division that raced toward Normandy...It’s a very paradoxical organization, because it could be seen inspiring insurgencies throughout the modern age, but it could also be seen as the precursor of the CIA. It’s state-sponsored insurgency.”

Q: You give SOE agents credit for affecting Hitler’s nuclear ambitions. What did they do?

A: “It’s a complicated issue. Norwegian commandos were sent into Norway on a suicide mission to blow up a heavy water plant that the Germans were using to work on an atomic bomb. The Allies had no idea how far the Germans had advanced. One of the ironies of the war is that by kicking out all the Jewish physicists, (Nazis) scuppered their own program. But the Allies didn’t know that. For all they knew, Hitler was on the verge of atomic bombs, so these Norwegians pulled off one of the most astonishing and heroic feats in the annals of sabotage. It ended any chance Hitler had to make an atomic bomb.”

Q: With its happy ending, this would make a good movie.

A: “Every single one of the Norwegians survived to the end of the war and became national heroes ... I’m interested in pursuing Hollywood angles. I’ve written a couple of teleplays based on the book. These guys are essentially the origins of James Bond. Ian Fleming worked for Naval Intelligence, where he knew about the Special Operations Executive. When Bond is fiddling around with all these fiendish gizmos, that’s straight out of SOE. It had a dirty-tricks laboratory of mad scientists, who were inventing exploding turds, or a rat that would blow up.”

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