During World War II, Britain had a program called Special Operations Executive (SOE) that trained and sent out saboteurs, assassins, radio operators, and insurgency organizers. The SOE was not initially trusted by the military and traditional intelligence services, but it was effective enough to lead to modern special forces programs. The original program accepted candidates from all walks of life and, unusual for its time, of both sexes. Yet the training was tough, and the question posed by this series is, can 14 contemporary men and women make it through the same course?
The diversity of the group chosen for this reality show is not very different from what a class in the 1940s might have looked like. One candidate is Asian, one is African, almost half are female, and one male is an amputee. (Historically, one of the SOE's female agents was an amputee; there was a male amputee, too, but, oddly, he is not mentioned.) Age was not much of a limit because life experience and accomplishment were favored. Several of the candidates on this show are well over 40. Only two have had military training. There is a physician, a mathematician, a paralegal, a scientist and at least one candidate owns his own business. More than one speaks a second language fluently. This last ability was mandatory in 1940 when agents were typically dropped behind enemy lines throughout Europe and in Africa. Some candidates on the show were born in foreign countries including a Polish woman and an American man, which was not untypical of the original SOE candidates. (700 Americans and a large number of Eastern Europeans went through SOE training.)
The course, including survival training, took place in a remote Scottish area. The first phase of SOE training, the hallmark of which was psychological tricks, is evaluation. Students are told to test their ability to memorize the map of a compound, but the class is unexpectedly subjected to a bit of excitement when men rush into the room shouting, and one of them fires a gun. Afterward, the class is asked to write a detailed account of what just happened. The trainers not only evaluated candidates' written reports, but they watched how each candidate behaved during the ruckus. Taking cover, for example, is reasonable, but if they cried and curled up in a ball, then SOE training might not be an ideal fit for them.
The program was good experience even for those who could not cut it. One of the women voiced an extreme fear of heights, but she overcame it when she had to climb in a rope-and-tree exercise. One of the staff's tricks is that when they give you an obstacle course, you can choose not to do all of the obstacles if you want, but you are going to lose points if you do not do most of them. One woman was asked by the female trainer why she did not crawl under the barbed wire. "I was afraid my hair might get caught in the wire." You could see from the look in the trainer's eyes that she was thinking, "Okay, princess."
An amazing sight was the one-legged man who was one of the few to make it over a high wall. Another who made it over was a woman who must have been the shortest person in the class. (I will call her J because IMDb does not seem to have a cast list.)
Another task involved dividing the class into two groups and having each group, in turn, solve a problem in an outdoor setting. The group waiting its turn would be indoors so that they could not see the other group perform. For each group, the trainers assigned one candidate to be the leader, and the first group accepted the leader they were given - I will call him D - and he really took charge. Eventually they completed the task but only after several disasters and taking a long time to complete it. The second group, while they were waiting, anticipated that they might be asked to choose a leader, so they used their waiting time to elect one, a male I will call C. This caused confusion when the trainers selected a woman (I will call her W) to lead the group. One of the trainers later scratched her head while noting that W took charge out of the gate, but after twenty seconds C took over. Then several of the other group members began to chime in with suggestions verging on orders. The trainers, at that point, did not know about the election that had happened.
The second group ended up doing better than the more organized group. The task involved building a raft to cross a pond, and one of the members of the second team took a little walk around the edge of the pond and discovered a ready-made raft among the reeds. Not having to build a raft made the task go faster. The ready-made raft, by the way had been planted. If this seems unfair, think about it. Suppose you are in the middle of Nazi-occupied territory and you have to get away across a river or lake before the enemy comes for you. Are you going to try to build a raft from scratch or are you going to give a quick look around to see if there might not be a boat you could steal? In the SOE, thinking outside the box earns you well-deserved points.
At the end of the first phase, four candidates are cut and sent home. The woman who overcame her fear of heights makes an inspirational story, but she was too slow and timid to be a secret agent. The princess whose hair could not be brought into proximity with barbed wire was cut loose, too, as was the man who had to miss most of the evaluations because he was laid up with migraines. (Not tonight Adolf, I have a headache!) The rest go on to firearms training, hand-to-hand combat, sabotage (explosives), radio operation, codes and other skills that SOE agents need. Firearms training is a challenge. These are mostly Brits, and only the few who have had military training know anything about guns, but D, who had been to a shooting range on a trip to Las Vegas, had some bad habits and could hardly be trained out of them.
Several candidates - including D and J - have had some training in martial arts, but in hand-to-hand combat SOE emphasized "dirty fighting" including eye-gouging and groin checks. After some work on fighting skills, each candidate was told that there is a Gestapo officer in a room, and your mission, should you accept it, is to enter that room, identify the target (a dummy seated at a desk), "kill" him, and get out of there alive.
A negative trick in this exercise was the placement of two additional "guard" dummies that popped out from behind a curtain. Many people in a life or death situation develop tunnel vision. They only see one threat and not all of the other factors - including other potential threats. Some candidates attacked the seated dummy with deadly force but totally ignored the two guards. "You'd be dead," the trainers told them. A positive trick was that a thick wooden stick, suitable as a club, was on the desk in front of the seated "officer"; yet few of the candidates touched it or paid it any attention. One candidate only picked it up and used it on the second guard after he had used his hands to "kill" the other two dummies. The point was that anybody who had the presence of mind to pick up the stick would be able to kill all three enemies quickly, which would be an advantage - and possibly one necessary to real-world survival - in a one-against-three situation.
The occasional lessons on the historical SOE are not always candid. For example, the assassination of Nazi leader Reinhard Heydrich in occupied Czechoslovakia did not go as smoothly as we are led to believe, rather showing that no amount of training guarantees complete mission success. We are told that two SOE agents attacked Heydrich using a machinegun and a hand grenade, but the narrator leaves out the fact that the gun failed to work and the grenade only wounded Heydrich. Had antibiotics been well-developed at the time, Heydrich might actually have survived, but they were not, and so the hated Nazi leader died a long, lingering death over more than a week.
The washouts continued during the second phase. D was a garrulous and confident candidate with business experience and martial arts training, but his reaction to being told about mistakes he made - in the Gestapo officer exercise, for example - was to explain away his behavior and choices in what one of the trainers described as a cavalier manner. D was good at rationalizing his mistakes rather than learning from them. Even after he was told to go home, he maintained that the trainers had just not seen what he had to offer. No. They saw what he had to offer, and his reaction to being washed out was an example of it.
B was an American male and, at 56, perhaps the oldest member of the class. He voluntarily withdrew well into the course because he realized he could not take the stress. There is a reason for age limits in these kinds of programs. Several members of the reality show's class were in their forties, but one often can do things up to the age of 45 that the same person might not be able to do at 55. It should also be noted that C, the one-legged man who does so well at all of the tests, is an ex-paratrooper. Experience counts.
By the time the class gets to the task of climbing a sheer cliff, there were only eight candidates left, fifty-fifty male/female, but two of the women were sidelined during that exercise for medical reasons(?). Of the two women who did climb, one nearly gave up, leaving J seemingly the only female candidate in the top half of the class, and she later excelled in the mental/manual skills taught at the "finishing school" in the final phase of the course where she learned to be a saboteur.
Out of the original 14, only six graduated.
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