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Oral History, the British Cultural Imaginary, and the Lives of the SOE’s Amateur Agents


  • Durham University
  • Imperial War Museum

The audience at a demolition class at Milton Hall in 1944

Formed in July 1940, the Special Operations Executive (SOE) was Britain’s pioneering irregular warfare agency that coordinated Second World War resistance networks and operations, with many of its recruits ‘amateur agents’ drawn from normal civilian life. The SOE’s legacies endured long after its disbandment at the war’s end, with its former members occupying key roles in government, the civil service, and wider areas of British professional and cultural life. 

This studentship will therefore research how the wartime SOE service of selected officers and agents shaped their later lives, and how such careers influenced post-war British institutions and society. It will be centred on the research collections in the Imperial War Museum, London (IWM), and particularly the oral testimonies held in the ‘SOE Sound Archive Oral History Recordings’. The project will also explore other resources and methodologies as appropriate.

While the full shape of the PhD dissertation project will be developed by the student in consultation with the supervisory team, it is anticipated that the research will encompass the following strands:

  • Archival and historiographical research (in the IWM and other UK collections) in order to evaluate material available on SOE personnel;
  • Identification of a series of suitable case studies on individual SOE members to provide the focus of the dissertation;
  • Research into the pre-war background and wartime service of the identified case studies, to understand the cultural assumptions about secret service and covert action that motivated individuals;
  • Research into the post-SOE careers of these individuals, analysing the networks formed across different areas of post-war British society and how former SOE members influenced the political and cultural spheres. 

Work on this project will begin in January 2024.