Special Operations in World War II Spec Ops post 7
After the Civil War, it would be eighty years before the US military saw the need for Special Forces and much of the impetus came from across the ocean.
“Enterprises must be prepared, with specially trained troops of the hunter class, who can develop a reign of terror, leaving a trail of German corpses behind them.” Winston Churchill
Churchill spoke these words during the dark, early days of World War II when the Allies were on the defensive on all fronts.
The First Special Service Force was a joint American-Canadian commando unit activated on 20 July 1942 at Fort Harrison, Montana. The men were chosen for their outdoor backgrounds and the unit was initially slated to conduct behind the lines missions into Norway to destroy hydro-electric plants, or so they were told. One has to keep in mind subsequent commando raids on Norway’s heavy water production—which were part of the Nazi nuclear weapon program. Sometimes things are not what they appear to be, another lesson elite soldiers have imprinted early in their career. As a novelist, I’ve learned that some of the best ways to develop plot is to take what appears to be one thing and make it another.
The Norway mission for the First Special Service Force was scrapped and instead they were shipped in the other direction to fight on American soil: at Kiska in the Aleutians.
Then, in an example of how flexible special operations forces need to be, they were shipped from Alaska to Italy in 1943, a radically different environment. In their first action they took a German position in the mountains in two hours that had held off Allied divisions for weeks. After several more engagements, they were nicknamed the Die Schwartze Teuflen—the Black Devils—by the Germans.
During the Anzio campaign, even though they were only at half strength, they held a quarter of the entire beachhead until the breakout, an example of force multiplying which is a cornerstone of Special Operations. They were the first unit into Rome and fought up the peninsula until near the end of the war when they were disbanded. Their exploits were displayed in a feature film, The Devil’s Brigade.
A key lesson learned from this unit was the need to be flexible. To adapt to one’s environment quickly, and to even adapt to a changing goal quickly. While we control what we do, we don’t control the world around us. Therefore when the world changes, we have to accordingly shift to achieve our goals. When I saw that the future of publishing was shifting from print to digital, much faster than pundits were predicting, I made the daring decision to walk away from my lucrative traditional publishing career and build my own publishing house. I went from selling 3 eBooks my first month to over a half a million in a year.
When we discuss the Area Study in a later blog, you will see one of the first things you must do is analyze the environment in which you live and work.
Several other ‘special’ units fought during World War II, including Darby’s Rangers, the origin of our current Special Operations Rangers; the Alamo Scouts in the Pacific which never numbered more than seventy men, yet won forty-four Silver Stars while never losing a single man in combat; and Merrill’s Marauders in Burma.
What all these units had in common was the philosophy of striking quick and deep behind enemy lines, leaving him confused and paralyzed. While some army documents say these units were the forerunners of Special Forces, they were more the prototype for our current Ranger Regiment although their lessons were most certainly incorporated into Special Forces.
While the First Special Service Force might officially be the grandfather of modern Special Forces, in reality, most Green Berets look back toward another World War II force—the OSS, Office of Strategic Services, founded by Colonel ‘Wild’ Bill Donovan. Again, this was something that came from a British idea—the OSS was patterned after the British SOE—Special Operations Executive.
William Donovan is still the only man to have won our nation’s four highest awards: the Medal of Honor, the Distinguished Service Cross, the Distinguished Service Medal and the National Security Medal. He earned the nation’s highest combat award as a Lieutenant Colonel during the First World War. Returning to the States, he made a fortune as a lawyer on Wall Street. When war broke out again, he used his connections to convince President Roosevelt to form an American unit modeled on the British SOE.
The OSS was designed to operate behind enemy lines in small groups, primarily through linking up with partisan groups, particularly the French Resistance, although they operated in all theaters, such as Yugoslavia and Italy. In France, these small cells were called Jedburgh teams and usually consisted of an officer from each the Americans, British and Free French.
In the Pacific theater, guerrilla units formed by men who disappeared into the jungle after the Philippines were overrun by the Japanese formed the basis of covert units there. Colonel Volckmann is credited with helping organize much of the resistance in the Philippines and developing quite a bit of the guerilla warfare doctrine US Special Forces utilized in its early years and still does today in the war against terrorism. I’ve read original After Action Reports (AARs) from Volckmann’s units in the archives at the JFK Special Warfare Center & School at Fort Bragg. The lessons learned in them apply just as well to the present day and to places such as Iraq.
In Burma OSS Detachment 101 organized eleven thousand Kachin tribesmen into a fighting force that by war’s end had killed over ten thousand Japanese while losing only two hundred and six of its own. This was made into a movie called Never So Few starring Frank Sinatra based on the excellent book of the same title.
One story about the OSS from the book Bodyguard of Lies that made a strong impression on me was about a Jedbergh team that was sent into a French Resistance network that the Allied commanders suspected had been compromised and taken over by the Gestapo. They believed this because of the messages they were getting back from the first team sent to work with that network. The way operators tapped out messages in Morse code was specific to each individual (their ‘fist’) and even though the code words the previous team was sending back were proper, they knew the person sending was not who he claimed to be.
Prior to departing, the second team was given a briefing containing information that was false, the team members believing of course, that the information was true. When they parachuted in and were immediately picked up by the Gestapo, they were tortured and eventually gave up this information, which the Germans had to believe was indeed true. It didn’t occur to the Germans that the English and American ‘gentlemen’ who ran the SOE and OSS would deliberately sacrifice a team of their own people like this. But as Churchill said, and what John Cavet Brown took for the title of his book: “In war-time, truth is so precious that she always be attended by a bodyguard of lies.” And sometimes people have to pay the price to be that bodyguard. It was a clever scheme and very effective, except, of course, for the members of the sacrificial team. Makes you think doesn’t it? More on this later.
At the end of World War II, the powers that be finally accepted there was a need for a covert operations unit at a strategic level. The CIA was formed out of the OSS in 1947. There were those in the Army though, who had served in the OSS, who felt the military needed a force that could work with indigenous populations either in a guerrilla or counter-guerilla mode and that the CIA was more focused on intelligence gathering rather than actual military operations (a turf battle that is still going on today in the War on Terrorism). As the chill of the Cold War descended on the world, the need for this type of force grew stronger. In 1952 Colonel Aaron Banks, a former OSS operative, convinced the army to form Special Forces to exploit resistance potential in Eastern Europe. This unit was to be trained on lessons learned in France, the Philippines, in Burma, and other theaters of operations. Thus in 1952, the first Special Forces unit consisting of a grand total of ten men was formed on Smoke Bomb Hill at Ft. Bragg, North Carolina.