In the early twentieth century, a British man named Baden Powell founded the Boy Scout Movement. From this humble organization, Scouting spread across the globe. Dedicated to teaching boys leadership, honor, and the beauty of nature and conservation, Scouts have held prominent roles ever since the organization’s founding.
Many Scouts took these lessons to war as well. During the Great War, Scouts acted as runners between trenches, while at home they helped organize recycling drives during both world wars. Others chose to serve more directly.
John Skinner Wilson, a Scoutmaster with the British Scouting Movement, believed he should take more direct action at the outbreak of World War II.
Recruited to Scouting by Baden Powell in 1937, Wilson had earned the World Organization of Scouting’s only award, the Bronze Wolf, for his exceptional services to Scouting across the globe. He helped start the movement in locations as remote as Japan, as well as in closer locales such as Scandinavia.
Wilson was 52 years old by the time World War II came round. He applied his knowledge of Scouting to train spies for Winston Churchill’s Special Operations Executives. Leaving Scouting to take a more direct role in the war, Wilson’s exacting standards would form the basis for training future Special Air Service men and Royal Marine Commandos.
Besides the training and experience of Scouting, Wilson also relied on his experience as a police officer in India to train future generations of heroes and leaders. In his spare time, he wrestled tigers and helped found Boy Scout troops. His time in India earned him the nickname “Baghmarra,” the Leopard Killer.
Wilson’s Patriotic School offered a grueling, brutal training program that required all applicants to sign a secrecy act. Applicants were even observed at night to see if they talked in their sleep.
Training involved a three-step process which started with three weeks of training with explosives, handguns, and plenty of physical training. Those who passed the first step received more specialized training in the Scottish Highlands. Finally, the recruits learned code-writing, deciphering, and the nuances of psychological warfare.
Wilson and his flagship class’ first target would be the Nazi nuclear program. Both the British and Americans caught wind of Hitler’s efforts to build atomic bombs, and both agreed those efforts needed to be encouraged to fail.
An early attempt to halt the creation of heavy water in Nazi-held Norway ended in failure and the death of 34 commandos. Wilson and ten operatives would make their own attempt on the Norsk Hydro Plant.
Wilson’s force successfully parachuted into Norway, landing in the perilous Hardanger Plateau. As well as evading enemy patrols, at one point the squad also had to scale a 600-foot ice cliff to enter the plant. This proved the easiest path by dint of being undefended, as the Nazis considered it impassable.
Once the group hand infiltrated their target, they not only managed to sabotage the plant through the tried and tested method of blowing up the heavy water apparatus, but they also escaped and returned home.
The Nazi nuclear program stalled. As the war dragged on and the Allied forces moved in, Hitler’s dreams of a nuclear weapon never materialized.
Wilson and his Executives were lauded both by the British and the Norwegian governments. Churchill himself offered the agents any reward they desired, and Wilson was made an Officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire.
The clandestine nature of such work meant the heroic escapades of the Scoutmaster and his trainees were not widely known at the time. Years later, Wilson’s memoirs were discovered in the British Imperial War Museum. They revealed his heroic efforts for King and Country.
In true old school espionage fashion, after the war Wilson returned to Scouting. He traveled the world to observe the various scouting organizations which were based on his friend’s model. His efforts before, during, and after the war exemplified the principles of duty and leadership as promoted by Scouting and military service.