MRD Foot: Historian who chronicled the work of the SOE


The historian MRD Foot was the foremost British chronicler of the work of the Special Operations Executive (SOE) during the Second World War, particularly with his book SOE in France: an account of the work of the British Special Operations Executive in France 1940-1944 (1966). It was not received uncritically, with both the French resistance and the Americans feeling that their roles in the defeat of the Nazis had been under-represented, and some former SOE agents actually suing for libel. But Foot, who had been in the Army himself throughout the conflict, and drew on the experience to inform his work, was undeterred and returned to the subject matter again in several more books.

Born in London in 1919, Michael Richard Daniell Foot won scholarships to both Winchester school, and then New College, Oxford. His PPE studies were interrupted by the outbreak of war and, coming from a military family, he chose to postpone his higher education and join the Royal Artillery. Hoping for a more stimulating environment he got himself transferred from a searchlight battery to the staff of Combined Operations, where he was put to work evaluating intelligence reports.

This was one step nearer to the front. Sight of the enemy came when he accompanied a raiding party to the French coast, where his task was to confirm intelligence received about the defences. Shortly before D-Day he was moved to the staff of the Special Air Service Brigade as Intelligence Officer. There he served with service personnel from several of the Nazi-occupied countries.

In August 1944 he was sent into Brittany to eliminate a German officer notorious for his interrogation of allied prisoners. The mission failed. Foot was captured, escaped twice, only to be severely beaten by the French peasants on whose farm he and a fellow escapee had sought to hide. Returned to German custody, he was lucky to be part of an exchange for severely disabled prisoners. His war was effectively over and he was later demobilised with the rank of major and with the Croix de Guerre for his service in the liberation of France. Nevertheless, Foot kept up his contact with the Army by joining the Territorial Army, of which he remained a member for many years.

Regaining his health, Foot returned to Oxford and graduated in 1947. He then taught history and politics at Keble College, Oxford. He also applied himself to research which resulted in a book, Gladstone and Liberalism (1952, co-authored with JL Hammond), one of the popular Teach Yourself History series. In 1956, British Foreign Policy since 1898 appeared. Men in Uniform: Military Manpower in Modern Industrial Societies followed in 1961. Between 1968 and 1974 he edited the first four volumes of the Gladstone diaries (1825-54), the latter two with Colin Matthew.

Foot remained at Oxford until 1959, when he joined the Cabinet Office as an official historian. Between 1967 and 1973 he was Professor of Modern History at the University of Manchester, and from there he was appointed director of the Foreign Office's European Discussion Centre at Wilton Park, West Sussex. From 1975 he worked as an independent researcher and writer.

In spite of his varied output, Foot is undoubtedly best remembered for his books on occupied Europe. He was selected as official historian for the book that became SOE in France.... But, although he was eventually given access to the mass of British secret papers on SOE and accounts by individual agents, he was hampered by stringent conditions that would have daunted a lesser writer. Many SOE files had been destroyed, he had no access to the French files and he was discouraged from seeking out former SOE members for discussion. Furthermore, he was to tell no one what he was working on during his researches, including his wife.

Controversy followed publication, with some agents objecting to the way they had been portrayed, and former French Resistance members furious at the way Foot punctured the more romantic myths about their activities. A CIA reviewer declared that the reader "is likely to get an inadequate impression of the scale of the American contribution to the support of resistance in Europe". But whatever insiders thought of these volumes, outsiders with an interest in the subject found them exciting, inspiring and eminently readable. His work encouraged and facilitated the development of intelligence and security studies at British universities.

He returned to the subject in Resistance: an analysis of European Resistance to Nazism 1940-1945 (1977), and more books followed, among them Six Faces of Courage (1978); MI9: Escape and Evasion 1939-1945 (1979) with James Maydon Langley; SOE, The Special Operations Executive 1940-1946 (1984); Art and War: Twentieth Century Warfare as Depicted By War Artists (1990); Open and Secret War, 1938-1945 (1991); Oxford Companion to World War II (1995) with ICB Dear; Foreign Fields: the Story of an SOE Operative (1997); and SOE in the Low Countries (2001).

As a lecturer on these subjects Foot could command and fascinate his audience, but the questions at the end tended to be polite rather than controversial. He always looked the quintessential Englishman, and even in late life remained slender and youthful looking. He enjoyed the company of educated women who found him attractive. An Independent reviewer of Foot's Memoirs of a SOE Historian (2008) wrote: "In 1943 he and the economist Thomas Balogh effectively swapped girlfriends, one the future novelist Iris Murdoch, the other her close friend, Foot's first wife, the philosopher Philippa Foot. He tells little of his three marriages. But he reveals much that he considers proper, has an eye for vivid detail, and possesses total recall."

David Childs

Michael Richard Daniell Foot, historian: born London 14 December 1919; CBE 2001; married firstly Philippa Foot (marriage dissolved), secondly Elizabeth (marriage dissolved; one son, one daughter), 1972 Mirjam Romme; died 18 February 2012.