Thread had to be the right thickness, and preferably sourced from the region where the agent was going. Such differences, which in other circumstances might seem tiny and insignificant, could give a spy away. For instance, in the s, many men still wore detachable collars, which fastened onto the shirt with small studs, like cufflinks.
In Britain, the stud hole on the back of the collar was a vertical slit; on the continent, it was horizontal—something a German officer could easily check. To make a suit look used, Adlington and his colleagues had a simple solution: wear it, night and day, for a week. Once the suit had begun to crease from wear, a technician would rub a thin layer of Vaseline over the creases, to darken and set them. Workers would even intentionally make holes in the material, just so they could darn them, SOE seamstress May Shrubb told an interviewer from the Imperial War Museum.
We had to take their measurements and we made about four or five shirts for each of them. At the height of operations, the SOE outfitted 16 agents a day. By , the organization was dispensing more than 90, articles of clothing annually. But the SOE only kept a stock of clothing on hand for their male agents, as fashions for women varied too much, not just from country to country but from town to town.
There were also far fewer female agents—approximately 50 women out of 1, total agents in France—so female spies got bespoke outfits. Agents also changed their hairstyles based on local trends, and the women adapted their makeup. And Yvonne Cormeau, another covert radio operator, recalled being told not to dye her hair, have a manicure, or wear noticeable makeup, as such glamorous touches would be out of place in the rural area where she was being sent.
Men altered their facial hair—either to fit in with the locals or to change their appearances. Gaston Cohen managed to escape France when agents in his Paris-based covert network, Juggler, a subdivision of the Prosper circuit, began to be arrested. He then returned for a new mission with a freshly grown moustache.
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Very sad! One problem was supply: French shoes, for instance, were hard to come by, and more complicated to make properly than a shirt or a dress. Outfitted from head to ankle in clothing made by SOE tailors in the French style, Stonehouse and his handlers had somehow forgotten his feet.
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Luckily, the German soldiers took no notice, and Stonehouse played it cool with the old woman, then replaced his shoes as soon as humanly possible. In one instance, an SOE saboteur and his radio operator were accidentally dressed in identical outfits before being parachuted into the Netherlands. Imagine one tall, lanky man and another short, plump man jumping out of a plane with matching socks, shoes, shirts, ties, raincoats, and briefcases.
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The spies managed to change before their matching get-ups attracted attention, but both men were captured five months later, when the German detected their radio transmissions. Foot—the official historian of the SOE, who was allowed access to government archives 33 years before the documents became public—writes of another close call in his book Resistance. Foot reports that a refugee tailor employed by the SOE had brought two bolts of striped cloth to England when he fled continental Europe, which the SOE used to equip each male agent destined for the Continent with a pair of striped pajamas.
Though passing as natives did not protect these agents from torture, they were less likely to be executed than if they had been identified as British spies. Thousands of SOE agents, clothed in garments designed to disguise them, successfully infiltrated enemy territory and returned home alive—thanks, in part, to the work of seamstresses and tailors who imitated foreign clothing right down to the button holes.
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The Insignificance of Being a Spy
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