What of the “supersoldiers,” the Western commandos who often operated in conjunction with local resistance fighters and garnered so much attention both from contemporaries and from posterity? What was their impact?
Their dramatic contributions cannot be denied. Heroic World War II special operations have provided rich inspiration for a long line of books, movies, and television shows, ranging from Alistair MacLean’s The Guns of Navarone (1957) and ABC’s The Rat Patrol (1966–68) to Hampton Sides’s Ghost Soldiers (2001) and Quentin Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds (2009). One would have to have a heart of stone not to chortle over escapades such as that carried out by two young SOE officers wearing German uniforms who in 1944 kidnapped a German general on Crete and drove him in his own staff car through twenty-two checkpoints to a hideout and an eventual transfer by sea to Cairo. But was this mission worthwhile? The loss of one general did nothing to shake the German hold on Crete. The loss of the brilliant field marshal Erwin Rommel might have been more significant, but an attempt by British commandos to kidnap or kill him in North Africa in 1941 was a “total failure” that resulted in the loss of thirty valuable men.
Similar questions of cost-effectiveness could be raised about many other equally daring exploits. As could questions of morality. Operations in occupied territories inevitably subjected the local people to savage retaliation by the Germans or Japanese. They also implicated Britain and America in actions that were denounced by their enemies as “terrorism”—with considerable justification. Was it worth it?
Field Marshal Slim, one of the most respected commanders of World War II, wrote that “special units and formations . . . did not give militarily a worth-while return for the resources in men, material, and time that they absorbed.” He thought they were positively deleterious because they skimmed off the best men from ordinary units, thereby lowering “the quality of the rest of the Army.” Slim famously concluded, “Armies do not win wars by means of a few bodies of super-soldiers but by the average quality of their standard units.” Another British soldier groused about “anti-social irresponsible individualists” who contributed “nothing to Allied victory” and “who sought a more personal satisfaction from the war than of standing their chance, like proper soldiers, of being bayoneted in a slit trench or burnt alive in a tank.”
Similar thinking was prevalent in the senior ranks of all the Allied armies at war’s end. Stalin naturally rushed to disband partisan formations that were not fully under his control and therefore could pose a threat to his regime. The Red Army and NKVD secret police were to spend several years after World War II suppressing nationalist guerrillas in Ukraine, the Baltic Republics, Poland, and other parts of the Soviet empire. In Britain, of all the special formations created during the war, only the Special Air Service, Special Boat Service, and Royal Marine Commandos survived and that only after an interregnum. (SAS was deactivated in 1945, reactivated in 1947.) The U.S. Marines, with their strong sense of egalitarianism, had disbanded their Raiders even before the war’s end and would not field discrete special operations forces for another sixty years. The U.S. Army likewise did away with its Rangers. They were briefly revived during the Korean War, then disbanded again, until being reactivated again for good in 1969 to fight in Vietnam. The OSS also was dissolved after the war but had a faster rebirth as the CIA in 1947. The “unconventional warfare,” that is, guerrilla warfare, mission—which before World War II had been performed by a combination of militia and regular soldiers on an improvised, ad hoc basis, and during the war had been carried out primarily by the OSS—was divided in the postwar era between the CIA and the Army Special Forces, which were established in 1952.
The post-1945 record thus reveals initial skepticism about the utility of special forces followed by their begrudging acceptance and eventually an enthusiastic embrace in the post-9/11 era. This ambivalence is not hard to explain. While the limited use of such operatives in World War I, most notably T. E. Lawrence, had been almost exclusively positive, the record in World War II was more extensive and more mixed. Missions behind enemy lines gathered valuable intelligence and kept enemy troops tied down on internal security duties. But raids also suffered heavy losses and left civilians vulnerable to retaliation. Even when successful, such pinpricks seldom had much of an impact on the course of the campaign. When asked after the war about the impact of the French Resistance on the German war machine, Armaments Minister Albert Speer scoffed: “What French resistance?”
There were some sabotage operations that really hampered the Germans. In 1942 Greek partisans with the aid of the SOE blew up a portion of the Athens–Salonika railway that carried supplies to Rommel’s Afrika Korps, hampering its retreat after the Battle of El Alamein. In 1943 an SOE team disguised as students on a skiing holiday blew up a Norwegian heavy-water plant that was needed for Germany’s atomic-bomb program. In 1944 SOE agents in France replaced the normal axle oil in a train used to transport German tanks with an abrasive grease that gums up the works. This helped delay for seventeen days the arrival of a Waffen SS armored division in Normandy at the start of the Allied invasion. All those operations, and a few others, had genuine strategic significance. But such examples are rare.
Against these successes must be weighed the more numerous failures, such as the infamous commando raid on the French port of Dieppe in 1942 or, on a lesser scale, the SAS attacks the same year on the Libyan port of Benghazi. In his rollicking memoir, Fitzroy Maclean, an aristocratic British diplomat turned soldier, described how he and a few other SAS operatives, including Randolph Churchill, were successfully escorted eight hundred miles across the desert to Benghazi in a specially modified Ford station wagon by the Long-Range Desert Group, only to find that, apparently having gotten advance warning, the Italian garrison was on its guard. They had no choice but to sneak out of town. On the way home, their vehicle overturned and Maclean woke up from a morphine haze to find himself with a “fractured collar bone, a broken arm and what seemed to be a fractured skull.” After recovering, he participated in another, even bigger raid on Benghazi that likewise caused scant damage to the Axis but inflicted considerable casualties on the SAS and its supporting forces. Maclean was lucky to escape what another participant called “a complete fiasco.” On a subsequent mission, David Stirling, founder of SAS, was captured by the Germans and spent the rest of the war a prisoner. To its credit, the SAS did manage to destroy nearly four hundred German and Italian aircraft on the ground. This was a serious but hardly mortal blow to the Afrika Korps, which could not possibly have been defeated save by the employment of conventional force.
Part of the problem in the war’s early days was that training and doctrine, coordination and planning for special operations were still in their infancy. Early operations were often amateurish. But even the more professional forces at war’s end still had a high rate of misfires. The Alamo Scouts, a small American outfit engaged in reconnaissance missions behind Japanese lines in the Pacific, was unique in having no fatalities. Most special-warfare units suffered heavily. Britain’s commandos, for example, saw nearly 10 percent of their men die in action—a far higher rate than in the regular army. Civilians in the areas where irregulars operated paid a particularly stiff price. Ray Hunt, an American guerrilla leader in the Philippines, concluded that his efforts were of “great value to the American army in the latter stages of the war,” but he nevertheless wrote that “the Filipino people would have been better off” had there been no uprising because so many of them “were killed, maimed, despoiled, and brutalized.” Hunt knew, of course, that the Filipinos would have been liberated eventually by the U.S. Army even if not a single guerrilla had taken up arms.
Perhaps the most important impact of behind-the-lines operations was psychological. Special operations were a bonanza for propagandists who portrayed every mission as a triumph against overwhelming odds—whatever the facts. (Fitzroy Maclean wrote after one of SAS’s forays into Benghazi, “We were gratified to find ourselves and our operation described in the popular press in such glowing terms as to be scarcely recognizable.”) The fighting spirit of the Western publics was thus boosted in dark times as was the pride of occupied peoples who were led to believe they had aided in their own liberation.
From the Western perspective the latter consequence was to prove a mixed blessing. Proxy armies are always difficult for their sponsors to control—often impossible. By arming and aiding indigenous resistance movements (SOE alone distributed a million Sten submachine guns around the world), Allied operatives were in many cases putting guns into the hands of people who would soon turn on them.