Go to main content

Secret Agent Selection

08 May 2018 | by Guest

Dr Mike Rennie is a psychologist who works closely with the Ministry of Defence, serving as a lecturer and academic mentor both at home and abroad. He has also acted as a behind-the-scenes expert and advisor for the BBC, and here recounts his experience working (and briefly appearing) on the show Secret Agent Selection: WW2.

Last year I was approached by a television production team asking whether I would be interested in a project to recreate the training and selection of Special Operations Executive agents in the Second World War. As a military psychologist, involved in training officers, I jumped at the chance to investigate the early input psychologist had in selection and training of these agents.

The use of psychometrics in the military at the time was focussed on specific aptitude testing, mostly for job specialism (Vernon and Parry, 1949). There would still be a need to assess for competency in skills, such as Morse code and wireless operation, but there was also much more to being an agent.

Also to be considered was the range of backgrounds of the men and women being recruited, not the usual population military selection was aimed at.

As to the production itself, there were a number of issues that needed to be addressed. One was that records were destroyed after the war. Another was that in the early days of the SOE, the Conducting Staff were creating the process as they went along and only after agents had returned from the field could their feedback inform the selection process.

Books like M.R.D Foot’s SOE 1940-1946 and Secret Agent by David Stafford, provided us with insight as to the activities and personalities involved in the SOE, however they lacked detail regarding the psychometrics used. The one training manual available was based on the curriculum from a Canadian Special Training School (STS) for the OSS and was focussed on training specific skills.

Some very helpful information did come to light from personal memoirs such as The OSS and I, a recollection of William J Morgan’s time as Conducting Staff at an STS. Despite being blind in one eye (a fact he managed to hide from the military), Morgan, who held a PhD in Psychology from Yale, was selected to train OSS (Office of Strategic Services) agents at SOE Schools. He later dropped into occupied Europe to co-ordinate guerrilla attacks on German forces and also fought the Japanese. After the war, he used his experience to develop the selection process for the CIA, the successor to the OSS.

Morgan details a number of tests that the candidates were put through. Taking an approach used by the German Wehrmacht , candidates where observed in a variety of settings and activities. It was important to see how they would approach a problem, work with other members of a team and react to adversity, as much as whether they would be successful or not. Anybody familiar with the Army Officer Selection Board would recognise this approach, which is still used successfully to this day.

Bringing this German approach to selection, alongside the more scientific American approach, seemed to work well, but there is a lack of detail to the psychometrics involved.

Morgan mentions that the Rorschach test was used along with tests of verbal and non-verbal intelligence. Amongst the tests there was a modified version of the Bennett Mechanical Comprehension test as used by the Royal Navy, which involving building models with Meccano and, of course, aptitude tests in coding in Morse.

These were easily replicated for television, and for the specific intelligence and psychometric tests, tools like Murray’s Thematic Apperception Test (1943) and early versions of the Raven’s Advanced Progressive Matrices developed in 1936 were selected. These would have been available to the SOE psychologists and there was some evidence that they or similar tests would have been used in selecting agents for training.

For my part one of the most difficult things was to step away from my current role, which is to develop leaders and officers. The focus of SOE training was to develop agents that would be effective on operations. Agents had to work in small teams and the selection process had to consider which agents would be able to complement each other as part of a team.

Often specific skill sets had to be considered and temperaments within the team had to be balanced. This required a different approach to the traditional military officer, as having too much of a military bearing could be deadly. Indeed, one agent, a young army officer, had a lucky escape after automatically returning a salute from a German soldier in France.

It’s difficult to say how effective the selection and training was. The psychologists and Conducting Staff knew that they were preparing agents for missions from which many of them would not return: a fact that was never far from the minds of the staff and participants on the show. One thing did stand out though, the fact that in the SOE’s four day selection process I could see the prototype to many aspects to modern day military selection, which stands as testament to the psychologists and conducting staff who developed the process.


  • Bennett, G. K. (1951). Mechanical comprehension test, manual (Rev. ed.). Oxford, England: Psychological Corp.
  • Foot, M.R.D., (1984), SOE: An Outline History of the Special Operations Executive 1940-1946.London, England. BBC
  • Morgan, William J. , (1957),The OSS and I. Pocket Book, USA
  • Murray, H. A. (1943). Thematic apperception test. Cambridge, MA, US: Harvard University Press
  • Raven, J. C. (1936).Mental tests used in genetic studies: The performance of related individuals on tests mainly educative and mainly reproductive. MSc Thesis, University of London
  • Vernon, P. E., & Parry, J. B. (1949). Personnel selection in the British forces. London, England: University of London Press

The final episode of Secret Agent Selection: WW2 airs tonight at 21:00 on BBC 2.


Top of page