OSS In the European Theater II

Aaron Bank’s team parachuted into occupied France at the end of July. They were met at the drop site by a motley group of Frenchmen toting Sten submachine guns, which had been smuggled in previously by the British. After the Jedburghs provided a secret password to confirm their identity, the greeting party loaded them and their equipment bundle onto a charcoal-fueled truck that emerged from its camouflaged position beneath a cluster of trees. Driving to a local farmhouse, the resistance men delivered Bank, Denis, and their radio operator to a local chief of the Maquis, as the resistance was known.

The Maquis leader, who referred to himself as Commandant Raymond, briefed the Jedburghs on the local situation. His nationalist resistance forces had not yet attacked the Germans, he explained, because they first wanted to receive more Allied weaponry and an explicit authorization from the Allied high command to commence guerrilla warfare. Raymond also filled them in on the activities of the French Communists in the area, who were running a separate resistance organization. The Communists were hijacking his supply trains, and they had stolen supply drops intended for his forces.

Bank and Denis wanted to work behind the scenes and keep their presence hidden from the local population, which was certain to contain enemy informants. They insisted that their parachutes be buried, as otherwise the Maquis would give the fabric to their wives or girlfriends, who would spin it into garments of such striking composition as to arouse suspicions. Their efforts to maintain a low profile were quickly sabotaged when some of the resistance members leaked word of their presence to local villagers. With a mixture of delight and dread, the Jedburghs were feted in village after village with champagne toasts and chants of “Vive les Américains!”

The nationalist resistance fighters in Bank’s area of operations had all served in the French Army and thus already possessed basic military skills. Bank nevertheless insisted that they receive training in guerrilla tactics, explosives, and firearms before guerrilla warfare commenced. “I explained to Commandant Raymond that the organization should be trained properly and achieve reasonable strength before we started needling the enemy,” Bank recalled. Bank and Denis trained the resistance leaders, who then gave the training to their rank and file while the Jedburghs went on to the next group.

By the time these resistance forces were ready, the Germans had abandoned hope of retaining Normandy and were retreating eastward toward their homeland. Resistance forces therefore sought to trip up the Germans and help advancing Allies smash them before they could get away. Raymond’s fighters began with several hit-and-run attacks, including an ambush of a twenty-vehicle German convoy. The Germans responded with counterinsurgency tactics that would have garnered plaudits from Genghis Khan. Descending upon the town nearest to the guerrilla attack, they hauled out a dozen men and executed them on the spot.

In the interest of protecting innocent men from reprisals, several mayors urged the resistance to stop ambushing the Germans. Denis notified the mayors that “sacrifices had to be made if they wanted France liberated.” The resistance fighters “would be considerate,” Denis maintained, but “we would not reduce the activities we consider necessary.”

Commandant Raymond was apparently more sympathetic to the views of the mayors, for he reduced guerrilla activities for a time. The resistance stepped up its attacks when German forces began a full-scale evacuation of the area in the face of the advancing US Seventh Army. Rebels ambushed German convoys, built roadblocks across avenues of retreat, and hunted down German stragglers. Traveling to see friends and relatives near the front lines, they obtained information on German troop dispositions and passed it on to Bank and other Allied officers. Their efforts did little, however, to impede the departure of the main German force in the area, the 11th Panzer Division.

Once the Germans had completed their withdrawal from Bank’s operational area, the usefulness of the French resistance forces fell sharply. With no Germans left to bother, resistance groups busied themselves fighting one another. The nationalists clashed with the Communists, who had proven more intent on seizing towns abandoned by the Nazis than on harassing the withdrawing German forces.

The life-span of resistance operations was similarly short in most of the other areas of France where the Allies sent men and materiel. Still, even a few weeks of interference with German movements could contribute meaningfully to the Allied campaign, and many of the Jedburghs and Operational Groups did help the Maquis reach that level of achievement. General Eisenhower, now the Supreme Commander of Allied Forces in Europe, was sufficiently impressed with the results attained by the OSS in supporting the resistance that he decided, in late summer, to give the OSS more personnel, aircraft, and supplies for the mission.

Casualties among the Jedburgh teams and Operational Groups were surprisingly light. A significant minority of teams, however, fell into German hands, a misfortune that usually involved torture and ended in death. Several groups landed in the wrong place. Others were betrayed by French collaborators. One French spy notified the Germans when Marine Operational Group Union II entered the village of Montgirod in the company of French guerrillas. The Germans killed several of the guerrillas, along with a number of residents of the village, but the OSS men managed to escape. On their way back to the limestone plateau where the local Maquis were based, they ran into a German column of two hundred soldiers. The Germans chased the OSS team to a nearby village, encircling the community after the Americans took refuge in its houses. Residents begged the Americans to surrender in order to spare the village from annihilation by the Germans, whose reputation for draconian punishments had preceded them. Surrounded and outmanned, the Americans laid down their weapons. Their surrender may have contributed to the fact that the Germans sent them to POW camps instead of putting them to death.

The Jedburghs and Operational Groups were also constrained in their effectiveness by the small size of the two programs. Only 9 Jedburgh teams dropped into France during the first 19 days of the Normandy invasion. Between June 25 and the end of July, another 15 teams entered France, and 50 more arrived during August and early September, bringing the total number of Jedburghs to 222. A total of 20 Operational Groups, with roughly 640 men, dropped behind German lines. By comparison, the British Special Air Service, a unilateral British special operations force, inserted 1,574 personnel into occupied France during the same period.

The Allied resistance support effort, of which the OSS contribution was only a small fraction, was itself but a small fraction of the Allied disruption of the German reinforcement of Normandy. Although the Maquis caused some delay to German force movements by sabotaging rail lines and miring German forces in counterinsurgency operations, the other two tools for keeping German divisions away from Normandy—deception and bombing—figured far larger. Operation Bodyguard, an extraordinary deception plan involving dummy aircraft, ghost armies, and false disclosures to double agents, convinced Hitler to keep several dozen divisions in north-central France and Norway to contend with invasions that never materialized. American and British bombing of logistical targets in France did much more than the Maquis to slow the transit of German reinforcements toward Normandy, a point conceded even by the greatest OSS advocate, Donovan. The impact of Maquis depredations on the subsequent German retreat from France was similarly modest. Resistance forces accounted for the liberation of only 2 percent of France’s 212 urban centers.

As the end of the war approached, with Allied thoughts turning from the defeat of the Axis powers to the future political landscape, the Jedburghs and other OSS special operators found themselves enmeshed in a multitude of struggles between nationalist and communist resistance movements for control of the postwar world. The OSS men seldom had the knowledge or the experience to influence events to the advantage of the United States. As one British officer lamented, the OSS demonstrated a “capacity for blundering into delicate European situations about which they understand little,” not to mention a “permanent hankering after playing cowboys and red Indians.”

In Yugoslavia, OSS Major Louis Huot threw American support behind Josip Broz Tito after concluding, quite erroneously, that “Tito was planning no Communist revolution for his country” and was instead “working out the pattern of a new and democratic popular front movement which would embrace all the elements in his community.” In Italy, the OSS unwittingly abetted Communist guerrillas through the indiscriminate distribution of weapons to resistance groups. The OSS men handed out firearms to all Italian factions equally on the presumption that they would use the weapons solely to dislodge the Nazis, when in actuality the Communists used their weapons more against nationalist rivals than against the Germans.

The British, who were considerably more attuned than the Americans to the perils of communist resistance organizations, choked off assistance to communists and bolstered nationalists in key European countries during the war’s last months. This foresight may ultimately have saved France, Italy, and Greece from falling into Moscow’s orbit after the war. The British were unable, however, to prevent OSS bungling from facilitating communist subversion in parts of the Far East. The most serious consequences were to be felt in French Indochina.

Like Major Huot in Yugoslavia, the OSS men who parachuted into Indochina in July 1945 took at face value Vietnamese Communist professions commitment to an inclusive postwar government. Communist leader Ho Chi Minh assured the young OSS officers that his Viet Minh guerrillas needed American weapons only to defeat the Japanese. Yet the Viet Minh made little use of the duly provided weapons until the Japanese surrender, at which time Viet Minh troops brandished them in seizing Hanoi ahead of Vietnamese nationalists and the French. That seizure made possible Ho Chi Minh’s establishment of a Marxist-Leninist dictatorship in northern Vietnam, leading to a prolonged war between France and the Viet Minh, and an ensuing war between the United States and North Vietnam.

As the death knells began to toll for the Axis powers, William Donovan embarked on a campaign to write the OSS into the federal government in permanent ink. Even in times of peace, he argued to Roosevelt, and after Roosevelt’s death to Harry Truman, the nation would need a strategic intelligence agency and an arm for covert and clandestine operations. Donovan convinced friends in the media to write positive stories about the OSS, in some cases leaking classified documents on sensitive operations to showcase the organization’s triumphs. A number of heavyweights weighed in on the side of the OSS, the heaviest being Eisenhower, who declared that in Europe the value of the OSS “has been so great that there should be no thought of its elimination.”

Other men of influence, however, lobbied for the abolition of the OSS. Principal among them were individuals whom Donovan and his lieutenants had antagonized in recent years, mainly through intrusions into their perceived bureaucratic territory. J. Edgar Hoover and John Grombach of Army intelligence deluged President Truman and the press with allegations of incompetence and scandal within the OSS, sprinkling a good bit of fiction in with the incriminating facts. Truman received a scathing report on the OSS written by Colonel Richard Park, who had served as Roosevelt’s military aide, in which it was alleged that “poor organization, lack of training and selection of many incompetent personnel has resulted in many badly conceived, overlapping and unauthorized activities with resulting embarrassment to the State Department and interference with other secret intelligence agencies of this government.”

At war’s end, Truman decided to close the OSS down. He transferred select pieces of the OSS to the State Department and War Department, but most, including the special operations forces, were buried in toto in the OSS graveyard. The influence of the harsh critiques on the decision remains something of a mystery. Truman had other reasons to shutter the agency, foremost among them the tide of demobilization that was sweeping away most of America’s machinery of war.

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