The Early Conflict between MI6 and SOE

The following document was written by the British Director of Naval Intelligence in April 1941. It shows the conflicting priorities between the collection of intelligence on the one hand and the organisation of sabotage and subversion on the other. From the point of view of the Naval Intelligence Department (NID), the intelligence gathering abilities of the Secret Intelligence Service, or MI6 as they are more commonly and incorrectly known as, was of more importance than the subversive activities of the Special Operations Executive (SOE) in wartime Europe. The strained early relationship between SIS and SOE is well known but it is interesting to see it spelt out so directly by the DNI in this document.


The collection of Naval Intelligence is still in a large measure dependent on the S.I.S. and I am, therefore, closely interested in the security of S.I.S. agents and of their communications, and in the expansion of the organisation as a whole.

2. Since the establishment of S.O. 2 as a separate entity, charged with sabotage in enemy countries, S.O. 2 and the S.I.S. have been in keen competition. I am aware of the competition in questions of transport, recruitment, communications, equipment and the “use of cover” all over the world. The following are some examples:-

(a) Spain.
The position of the S.I.S. in this most difficult country is becoming daily more precarious in the face of attempts by S.O. 2 to create a “sabotage organisation” in the Peninsula, with untrained personnel. Spanish suspicions have been aroused by certain S.O. 2 intrigues with the Left, and the endeavours which the Naval Attaché has made to direct S.O. 2 activities have led to his being compromised to a certain degree. The A.N.A. Europe, Commander Furse, is also under suspicion and the Ambassador has been forced to adopt a very strong line with S.O. (E) for fear that his own work might be jeopardised.

(b) Portugal.
Episodes have occurred, resulting from the use of Portugal as a base for S.O. 2 operations in the Peninsula, which have made an Intelligence service much more difficult to maintain.

(c) Sweden.
The exposure in Stockholm of British sabotage agents in 1940 was followed by a complete ban on subversive activities in Sweden. Already, however, S.O. 2 have set to work and our relations with the Swedish Authorities are becoming difficult.

(d) Norway.
The opportunities afforded for sabotage have led S.O. 2 to initiate projects there on a scale that cannot but endanger the permanent Intelligence Centres which have been established and which are planned for the future.

3. These examples are not very illuminating in themselves. It is necessary to visualise the small British communities resident in neutral capitals and the suspicions under which they already labour, to see that the arrival in the guise of consular officials or N.C.S.O.s of even one or two inexperienced saboteurs, makes the delicate positions of the permanent S.I.S. organisation even more precarious – particularly as S.O. 2 use S.I.S. communications and are thus in frequent contact with the resident agent.

4. It, therefore, happens again and again that an S.O. 2 project, however good in itself, is often carried out at the expense of the more permanent S.I.S. work.

5. My own contention is that at the present juncture Intelligence is of primary importance and that, therefore, steps should be taken to ensure that the S.I.S. is given precedence in regard to its requirements now and in the future.

6. To obtain the grant of this priority, I would submit that a directive should issue from the Chiefs of Staff Committee laying it down as a general principle that the collection of Intelligence in regard to the enemy and the safeguarding of the means of collecting this Intelligence in the future must have priority over other subversive activities. This S.I.S. should be granted priority in transport, communications, recruiting, equipment and the right to official cover when a conflict of interests becomes apparent.

7. In order to establish whether such a conflict is likely to arise, the S.I.S. should be put in full and detailed possession of all present and future plans and projects of S.O. 2 and they should have the right of veto in principle and in details on these projects.

8. It is recognised that to prevent abuse of this veto, a right of appeal should be given to S.O. 2; the appeal to be to the three Directors of Intelligence or through them to the Chiefs of Staff.

9. I believe that this is not only desirable for the reasons I have stated, but particularly in order to remove the possibility of the S.I.S. excusing failure to produce Intelligence on the grounds that their efforts are nullified, in particular instances, by the activities of S.O. 2.

[signed] John Godfrey, D.N.I., 3 April 1941.

[Source: TNA file: ADM 223/480]