Since 1993, as part of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office's commitment to Open Government, a programme has been under way to release the files of the Special Operations Executive (SOE) and transfer them to the Public Record Office. Four blocks of files have so far been released, covering SOE wartime operations in the Far East (transferred June 1993), Scandinavia (June 1994), Africa and the Middle East (September 1994) and Eastern Europe (March 1995). Because of the covert nature of SOE operations, and their focus on propaganda and sabotage as part of the war effort, these files cast a new perspective on a number of wartime issues. As such, they are a valuable addition to the archive already open at the Public Record Office, including the Foreign & Commonwealth Office wartime records which were released in 1972.
It is important, however, to place the SOE papers in their proper context. While the release of any block of files must offer scope for finding material which is historically significant, retained papers can acquire a false sense of mystery, so that when they are released their importance is distorted. The reasons for withholding papers are often more to do with the method of collection or distribution of information than with the actual substance. The SOE files, therefore, should be seen as illuminating a new angle of the historical picture, rather than altering its composition. The purpose of this History Note is to show how SOE files contribute to the understanding of one historical episode, the Katyn Massacre, first brought to light in 1943 when the German authorities announced their discovery of a mass grave of Polish officers in Katyn forest near Smolensk.
The exact number of those killed at Katyn has never been established, but following the discovery of bodies at other sites the total seems to have been at least 15,000. The German revelations were accompanied by an accusation of Soviet guilt: the Soviet Government rebutted this charge, and accused the Germans of the killings. A mass of evidence was adduced on both sides, but conclusive proof of responsibility for the massacre was not available until 1990, when the Soviet Government admitted that Stalin had ordered the execution of the Polish officers, which had been carried out by the NKVD or Soviet Security Service, forerunner of the KGB.
The reactions of the British Government to the discovery of the Massacre, as documented in the files of the Foreign & Commonwealth Office, have been available in the Public Record Office since 1972. While the SOE documents add little to the factual detail, the nature, purpose and perspective of the SOE documentation sheds some new light on the British Government's approach to the tragedy and its possible implications for relations between the Allies and the successful prosecution of the war against Germany.
The Katyn Massacre: an SOE Perspective is in two parts. In Part I, a brief account of the Special Operations Executive and its records explains the nature of the documentation. This sets the context for Part II, a short study on the Katyn massacre and the British Government's reaction to it, written in the light of recently-released SOE documents on Eastern Europe.