The history of the past few hundred years is dotted with missions undertaken by special soldiers using these tactics, which demonstrates that ambushing and skirmishing can prove highly successful against a large regular army. For example, in the Peninsular War of the early nineteenth century, the Duke of Wellington realised his British forces were not sufficient to tackle Napoleon’s French army and used Spanish irregular forces to harass the enemy. In Spanish, those men were called guerrillas and the name stuck.
A few years later, during Napoleon’s famous retreat from Moscow in 1812, it was Cossack skirmishers who harried and ambushed the great French army as it headed back home through the snow, inflicting far more damage than the regular Russian forces had.
In the American Civil War of 1861–5 both Union and Confederate generals employed skirmishing tactics and used guerrillas behind enemy lines to cause maximum damage with little loss of life. In the Boer War of 1899–1902 the South African Boers used ‘commandos’ – small units of horsemen – to harass the might of the British Army to great effect.
During the Great War of 1914–18, when the massive French and British armies repeatedly failed to penetrate the enemy network of defences in massive frontal assaults, Allied Special Forces played a very limited role in the Allied victory. It was sustained deployment of regular forces, with a huge loss of life on both sides, that eventually defeated the Germans.
The idea of Special Forces remained very much alive, however, not least in Germany. In 1935, two years after Hitler had come to power, a naval captain, Wilhelm Canaris, was appointed Chief of the Abwehr, or Counter-Intelligence. Over the following years, with the prospect of another major war certain, Canaris established a large Intelligence apparatus which included a section responsible for special military units and sabotage. It was within this section that Germany’s first Special Force, the Brandenburgers, came into being on the eve of World War Two. In planning the role of these soldiers, military advisers studied the exploits of Colonel T.E. Lawrence – Lawrence of Arabia – during the previous war. They examined how Lawrence and a small, elusive band of saboteurs had been able to create chaos among the Turkish enemy in Arabia, bring confusion to the Turkish forces and win victories out of all proportion to their numbers even though they had no armour, no heavy weapons, no guns and no back-up.
Canaris decided that the new force would consist of small, highly mobile units and that this mobility would be the key to defeating a much larger enemy. He now needed to select the right type of men for the job. Recruits should be men who had lived overseas and been engaged on the land or in open-air activities, where they would have become tough, independent and strong-willed and gained a knowledge of foreign languages, cultures and customs. Naturally these young men should be super-fit, but Canaris further decreed that they should all be volunteers. This rule of accepting only volunteers into the Brandenburg units was to be maintained throughout World War Two.
The first recruits were all racial Germans who lived in German communities outside the borders of the Third Reich. Many lived in small towns and villages close to the German and Austrian borders, where most people spoke German and the language of the neighbouring country, for example, Poland, Hungary or Czechoslovakia. Indeed Canaris, by now promoted to the rank of Admiral, would boast that there was not an area or country in Europe with which Brandenburgers were not familiar, nor a language they could not speak fluently.
The training was severe. Recruits were taught the usual Special Forces skills, such as parachuting, weapons handling, skiing, marksmanship and the use of small boats and canoes. Their instruction also included fieldcraft, which involved having to survive on food they gathered from the wild. All exercises were undertaken using live ammunition; all recruits were schooled in producing explosives using only flour, icing sugar and potash; and methods of silent killing included the garrotte and the hunting knife. Much of this training was conducted in the coldest weather to hone the volunteers into first-class soldiers and saboteurs capable of spearheading battles, gaining vital objectives and generally seizing the initiative.
There was, however, one major difference between this German formation and most of the other Special Forces that would be created during the next half century. The Brandenburgers carried out many of their operations fully or partly disguised and, in some cases, wearing no item of uniform whatsoever. Full disguise meant that every soldier wore an enemy uniform; partial disguise meant wearing an enemy helmet or trench coat. On some occasions Brandenburgers would wear civilian clothes but carry concealed weapons.
This elite body of fighting men won their spurs in May 1940, during the first vital hours of Hitler’s strikes into new territory. At the forefront of the main German attacks were Brandenburg units tasked with seizing and holding four bridges until the huge conventional forces of Panzer (tank) troops and infantry arrived to drive across the bridges without hindrance.
The ground had been prepared thoroughly. Detachments of Brandenburgers fluent in the languages of the countries to be invaded and disguised as local farmers and peasants had spent the previous three months slipping back and forth into enemy territory to report back to their commanders on enemy numbers and defences. By the time of the invasion the German high command had an intimate knowledge of all aspects of the resistance they would face.
The four hundred-metre-long Gennep bridge, near the Dutch town of that name, carried the railway line from Goch in Germany across the River Meuse and into the Netherlands. The Germans had learnt that the bridge had been primed with explosives which could be detonated by one sentry in a matter of seconds. Senior officers believed that if the Dutch were given time to destroy it the first phase of Hitler’s Blitzkrieg would be a failure. The German plan was for the Brandenburgers to attack and kill the sentries before the bridge could be blown up. This achieved, two fully laden troop trains would cross it and begin the war on the western front.
At midnight on May 9 a dozen Brandenburgers dressed as Dutch military policemen crossed the Meuse two kilometres upstream of the bridge and made their way to the river bank. No one challenged them. At 1 am they were in concealed positions, and remained there until dawn, when they heard the steam trains making their way towards the bridge. As the Germans approached the bridge, the Dutch sentries on duty ran to intercept them, raising their rifles ready to shoot. But the sentries stopped when they realised the six men facing them on the other side of the bridge were wearing the uniform of the Dutch military police. Within seconds the sentries had been grabbed from behind by the Brandenburgers, who slit their throats. The Germans now controlled the eastern side of the bridge.
On the Dutch side of the bridge, other sentries then heard the train approaching from Germany, and they were under orders to blow up the bridge if any trains approached. On duty in the middle of the bridge – from where the explosives could be detonated – was a lone elderly sentry. He watched spellbound as the train approached and before he realised that he should detonate the charge six men had leapt from the slowly passing train. He was killed and the detonator defused. The invasion of the Netherlands had begun without a single German soldier being killed or wounded. The operation, the first major mission carried out by Germany’s Special Forces, had been a complete success. In fact this was only one of the attacks by Brandenburgers in the war’s Blitzkrieg phase, during which the new units proved to be highly effective. The daring of these special soldiers had opened the way for the invading German armoured and infantry divisions to make their extraordinary dash to the English Channel, sweeping aside the defences of western European countries within a few weeks.
Just a few weeks after the invasion, a Brandenburg officer, Lieutenant Klaus Grabert, was tasked with a special mission. He was to select twelve of his best men for an audacious raid which would prevent the Belgians opening sluice gates and flooding the entire area around the town of Nieuwpoort, as this would halt the German advance. Exactly the same strategy by the Belgians had thwarted the Germans in the Great War.
Within twenty-four hours the chosen twelve arrived in Ghent for briefing. Their task was to foil the Belgian plan by capturing the pumping station on the south bank of the River Yser. Belgian army greatcoats and caps had been collected and the men were taken to Ostend in a captured Belgian military bus. In the chaos of the ongoing fighting the bus passed unchallenged through thousands of unarmed Belgian troops who clogged the roads and Ostend itself. Once in the city, a French-speaking Brandenburger asked what was going on and was surprised to hear that the Belgians had surrendered and the British forces had dug in at Nieuwpoort and were still fighting. The Germans also learnt that charges had been laid at the bridge into Nieuwpoort.
The Brandenburgers drove on, though the road was so clogged with traffic, fleeing refugees and Belgian troops making their way back to Ostend that the twenty-five-kilometre journey took four hours. But still no one stopped the bus to ask questions. The British garrison at Nieuwpoort was small, consisting of a few Lancers in armoured cars and some infantry platoons. Heading at speed towards Nieuwpoort behind the Brandenburgers was the powerful German XXVI Corps, which had orders to attack the British forces now concentrating on Dunkirk and wipe them out in the town and on the beaches.
As the sun began to sink in the west the bus arrived at the bridge and immediately came under fire from British troops on the other side of the river who were guarding the vital crossing place. The driver brought the vehicle to a skidding halt on the bridge, swinging it broadside so that it formed a barrier. Out leapt the twelve men, who tore off their Belgian greatcoats and began returning fire with machine guns and rifles.
Lieutenant Grabert and a corporal made a plan of action. The two of them would wait until dark and then crawl across the bridge towards the British position. When they came across any wires which they suspected led to the explosive charges they would cut them and keep moving forward. When they finally reached the other side of the bridge they would open fire with their machine pistols, the signal for the other Brandenburgers to storm across the bridge. On reaching the British side the twelve men would then spread out, shout orders and fire weapons from different angles at different targets, so as to give the impression that they were only the forward unit of a much larger force. It was the sort of desperate, some would say suicidal, gamble that many other Special Forces would copy in future years.
Sliding along on their stomachs, Grabert and the corporal each carried insulated wire cutters in one hand and a machine pistol in the other. It wasn’t long before they discovered the wires leading to the explosive charges. To their anguish, the charges had been fixed to the structure of the bridge, which meant they would have to crawl along the footpath rather than the road. This, they feared, could put the entire operation at risk, because if any Very lights were fired over the bridge and illuminated them, they would be exposed to British fire.
Each time a Very light was fired the two Germans froze, praying that the British machine-gunners would not spot them. Sporadically, the British gunners would lay down some rapid fire and these bullets passed only centimetres above the heads of the two Germans. They continued to move forward on their bellies, but only immediately after a Very light had expired, because then there were a few moments of absolute darkness. They discovered another pair of wires and then, some twenty metres further on, a third pair; they cut both. They were now certain they had made safe the bridge and they put the next part of their bold plan into operation.
Sheltering behind a girder near the British-held end of the bridge, they opened fire with the machine pistols, each firing three magazines at the enemy positions. Grabert also threw three grenades at the machine-gun post. At the sound of their comrades’ machine pistols the ten other Brandenburgers leapt to their feet and ran flat out across the bridge, firing as they went.
Sixty seconds later the twelve Germans had formed a group and all began firing at will, hurling hand grenades and causing confusion among the British soldiers. One enemy position after another was taken by storm as the dozen fearless soldiers threw grenades and followed these with rapid machine-gun fire. The tiny group of defenders were soon pushed back from the pump house and three Brandenburgers checked that the sluice gates had not been opened or primed with explosive charges.
Expecting a counter-attack, the twelve men took up defensive positions, but none came. One hour later Grabert and his corporal cautiously moved forward to check the British positions, only to find that the British soldiers had disappeared into the night. Not one Brandenburg man had been killed or seriously wounded and the mission had been a complete success. In a short, sharp mission executed with skill and courage, the twelve Brandenburgers had prevented the Allies from flooding the area along the Flanders coast – and the way was now wide open for the Germans to advance to the Dunkirk beaches some forty kilometres to the south.