Operation AMBASSADOR Guernsey 1940

Op Ambassador. An RAF crash launch moored alongside an MTB, with another one just ahead. It shows clearly how much smaller they were, so no wonder they were damaged by a destroyer’s wake when moving at speed.

The immediate reaction to the PM’s memo was that Second Lieutenant Hubert Nicolle, late of the Guernsey Militia and now in the Hampshire Regiment, landed at le Jaonnet Bay on the south coast of Guernsey on 5 July. Despite the almost farcical beginning of his operation (it was reputed that he had to purchase his own folding canoe from Gamages, before going to Plymouth to board a submarine.) it was remarkably successful. He met up with two old friends who agreed to help him. One was his uncle, who was the assistant harbour master at St Peter Port, and was thus able to give him reliable information on the naval situation; whilst the other, a local baker who supplied bread to the Germans gave him the exact ration strength (469 all ranks) plus their locations – main body in St Peter Port with the rest manning machine gun posts around the island. His was only a reconnaissance mission which included checking on the suitability of the landing site for the main operation (to be codenamed: AMBASSADOR). He would be replaced by two more ex-Guernsey Militia who would then stay on the island and be ready to guide a large raiding party composed of No 3 Commando under Lieutenant Colonel John Durnford-Slater. This officer (later Brigadier, DSO and Bar) was in fact the very first commando soldier of the war, having been promoted from Captain to Lieutenant Colonel and chosen to raise and command No 3 Commando (Nos 1 & 2 did not at that time exist). As he explains in his autobiography:

‘I had wanted action: I was going to get it. I should have been delighted to join at any rank, but was naturally pleased to get command. I was confident I could do the work and made up my mind to produce a really great unit.’

Back in Guernsey all was going well, the two new men (Second Lieutenant Philip Martel and Second Lieutenant Desmond Mulholland) arrived safely on the night of 9/10 July in the same manner as Nicolle via submarine and folding boat, and after he had briefed them, he rowed out to the submarine which had brought them to Guernsey, leaving them on the shore. Unfortunately, from that moment onwards, everything started to go wrong. The raiders were due to arrive on the night of 12 July, meet their guides, assault the aerodrome burning aircraft, destroying fuel stocks, etc. However, bad weather delayed the operation for 48 hours during which time it was impossible to contact the two guides. After they had hidden for two days they returned to the beach, found no one there and nothing happening. They realised that something had gone seriously wrong so decided to steal a boat and try to get away, rather than putting their innocent families, who still lived on Guernsey, at risk. So, whilst they hid – first in a barn then in a house – near Vazon Bay, word was passed to Dame Sibyl Hathaway in Sark, whose son in law and daughter owned the house in which they were hiding, to ask for her help. She tells in her memoirs how she took some tinned supplies over to Guernsey, pretending to be in charge of her daughter’s property. She met the two men who asked her if she could arrange for a fishing boat from Sark to pick them up, and she had the unenviable job of telling them that was impossible as the Germans guarded all the fishing boats very carefully. Also, it was impossible to get sufficient petrol. Despite this setback Martel and Mullholland managed to steal a boat at Perelle Bay – just west of Vazon Bay – but it was smashed to pieces on the rocks and they were left stranded. They would be forced to give themselves up before they could be rescued.

Whilst this drama was taking place, the main operation, Op AMBASSADOR, was suffering its own setbacks. In view of the 48 hour delay, the plan had to be amended. The original idea was for a force of forty men from 3 Commando, under Captain de Crespigny, to land first and create a diversion, whilst No 11 Independent Company attacked the airfield. This company would be split into two groups, the larger group of sixty-eight men, under Major Todd, would come ashore at Moye Point directly south of the airfield, whilst the rest of the company (another twenty men under Captain Goodwin) landed a mile or so further west. Two destroyers, HMS Scimitar and Saladin would transport them and escort seven RAF sea rescue launches (known as ‘crash boats’) that would take the men from ship to shore.

On the morning of 14 July, the intended day of departure, an officer sent from the Combined Operations Staff in London intercepted Durnford-Slater and told him that everything had changed, because they had discovered that the German garrision had been reinforced just where his commandos intended to land. Nothing daunted, a new plan was worked out on the spot, the force would now land at Petit Port on the south side of the island in Moulin Huet Bay, and departure was fixed for 1800 hours that evening. After completing all their preparations – assisted by some cadets from the Royal Naval College, Dartmouth, they set off on a lovely summer’s evening. ‘Lieutenant Joe Smale’s party was to establish a roadblock on the road leading from the Jerbourg Peninsula to the rest of the island,’ wrote Dornford-Slater in his autobiography, ‘so that we would not be interrupted by German reinforcements. My own party was to attack a machine gun post and put the telegraph cable out of action. Captain de Crespigny was to attack the barracks situated on the peninsula and Second Lieutenant Peter Young was to guard the beach. Peter did not relish this job as he wanted more action. ‘All right’ I told him, ‘if it’s quiet come forward and see what’s going on.’

As the party left harbour more problems began to occur. Two of the crash boats were found to be unfit and had to be left behind, which meant reorganising the loading details, transferring stores between boats and deciding that some of the crash boats would need to make at least two journeys inshore. The whaler of HMS Scimitar would also have to be used to ferry the commandos ashore. The convoy was about fifteen minutes late in starting and then was further delayed as one of the crash boats had to wait behind for stores and didn’t then catch up until just before last light. It was a moonless night, so they did not see the Island until they were only some two miles away when the south coast suddenly appeared out of the gloom looking: ‘…dark and foreboding’. At about 0045 hours Durnford-Slater fortunately recognised the gap in the cliffs and was able to fix the place where they would climb up them. They clambered down rope netting on the side of their destroyer and boarded their launches in a calm sea. He comments: ‘It was dead easy.’

However, the other party was not having such an easy time, having missed Guernsey completely and also having problems with the crash boats which were leaking badly. One of the commandos in this group was Sir Roland Swayne MC, then a young officer in the Herefordshire Regiment, who had been selected for commando training. His recollections of AMBASSADOR were recorded by the IWM Department of Sound Archives and he makes the point that it was the method of transportation which had let them down:

‘It was beautifully planned from an army point of view but the naval preparation was very inefficient, partly due to inadequate equipment of course. … it was a wonderful idea and it could have been a very, very clever raid. But the means of transport were absolutely hopeless. They towed gigs and whalers and I think the crash boats were towed – they may have gone under their own steam – but the gigs and whalers were towed by destroyers. Well, of course, it was much too fast for them and they got damaged going there. And when we got out from the destroyer into these boats they were all leaking. We decided to put into Sark and anyhow get rid of half the people on board so that there was a chance of this boat getting back to England under its own steam. And we were making for Sark when the destroyer spotted us. Somebody on the destroyer – it was a soldier actually – spotted something in the water. He knew that there were people missing and he drew the attention of a ship’s officer and he got the ship diverted to pick us up and we got home. It was very lucky we got home.’

Everything had also started to go wrong for Durnford-Slater. The pair of launches carrying his party had left the destroyer and set off on the agreed course, the naval officers in charge of the launches carefully watching their compasses rather than the coastline. Durnford-Slater soon realised that they were heading out to sea in the direction of France.

‘“This is no bloody good”, I said to the skipper of our launch, “we are going right away from Guernsey.” He looked back and saw the cliff. “You’re right! We are indeed. It must be this damned de-gaussing arrangement that’s knocked the compass out of true. I ought to have it checked.” “Don’t worry about the compass,” I said, “let’s head straight for the beach!”

Thereafter they navigated by eye and were soon just about 100 yards from the shore. They had another scare when a large half-submereged rock was mistaken for an enemy submarine, but their real problems came when the boats, which did not have flat bottoms, grounded on rocks instead of smooth sand – their 48 hour delay having affected the state of the tide – so they had to jump out into armpit-deep water! They struggled ashore, with not a dry weapon amongst them and started to climb up a long flight of stone steps towards the houses at the top. As they reached them the neighbourhood dogs began to bark, but fortunately an Avro Anson aircraft began to circle right above them (this was part of the agreed cover plan) which helped to deaden the noise they were making. It worked! They reached the machine gun nest and the cable hut but found them both unoccupied. It was the same at the barracks – no one at home! Disappointed, they realised that they were now running well behind schedule, so decided to abort the mission and head for home. On the way down the steps, Durnford-Slater, who was at the rear, tripped and fell, his cocked revolver going off accidentally. This at last produced some reaction from the Germans, who started firing their machine guns out to sea, whilst the commandos were forming up on the beach to reembark.

Getting away proved to be just as difficult. Because of the rocks, the launches could not get near enough and men and weapons had to be ferried out in one small dinghy, until it was dashed on the rocks and everyone had to swim for it. Somehow they managed to reach the launches and were pulled to safety. But the drama was not yet over. They were by now much later than had been anticipated, indeed the destroyers had already reluctantly decided to head for home, but the captain of HMS Scimitar made one last sweep and fortunately saw their frantic torch signals, came to the rescue and the bedraggled party was saved. All that is except for four men – Commandos Drain, Dumper, McGoldrick and Ross, who couldn’t swim – what an admission for a commando to have to make. They were left behind, managed to evade capture for a few days, hoping to be picked up, but were eventually arrested while walking down the road to the aerodrome in broad daylight and finished the war in Stalag VIIIB in Upper Silesia. This of course still left Martel and Mulholland and so another Guernseyman in England, Stanley Ferbrache, volunteered to try to rescue them. He was taken over in an MTB and landed at La Jaonnet on 3 August, made contact with his uncle, Albert Callighan and his mother, Mrs Le Mesurier, who told him that the two men had already given themselves up to the German authorities the previous week. Ferbrache collected all the information he could (he is reputed as even walking around the airfield perimeter unchecked), and was safely taken off Guernsey on the night of 6 August.

That was the end of the ill-fated Operation AMBASSADOR. Sir Roland Swayne comments in his taped interview that it was a ‘… brave idea’, but goes on to say:

‘but we weren’t remotely ready. We didn’t know what kind of boats we wanted, we didn’t know how to do it, there wasn’t a proper planning body to prepare for these raids. In any case there was a fearful shortage of weapons and everything… we had no Tommy guns and we didn’t have the Remington Colt which we were issued with later… we were armed with .38 revolvers which was, I always thought, a poor weapon. There was a shortage of ammunition for teaching the soldiers to shoot. Some of them had hardly done any practice on the range, it was all frightfully amateurish.’

His sentiments were echoed by the Prime Minister who was most displeased by the failure of Operation AMBASSADOR. He sent a scathing message to the HQ Combined Forces which included the words: ‘Let there be no more silly fiascos like those perpetrated at Guernsey.’ Next time they would have to do a great deal better – or else!



A Commando points to the destruction of a village during a daytime attack on Norway.

After the small scale raids of 1940 the policy of the Combined Operations was to greatly increase the size of the force attacking the enemy coast. This was instigated by the arrival of Combined Operations new commander, Admiral Sir Roger Keyes. Keyes had been involved in the failed Dardenelles campaign and in planning of the raid on Zeebrugge towards the end of the First World War. This meant a ramping up in the scale of operations that were to be given to the Commandos, along with an expansion of the Commandos and the acquisition of suitable craft to carry out these tasks.

First target for the Commandos in 1941 was to be the Lofoten Islands off the coast of occupied Norway, just above the Arctic Circle. On these islands were major cod and herring-oil factories, this product being used extensively by the Germans for the production of explosives. The tasks for the Commandos was to destroy the factories, sink any vessels involved in the production, neutralise any German resistance and bring back any Norweigian volunteers.

A Special Service Brigade was created by No. 3 and No. 4 Commandos along with a number of Royal Engineers. Under the command of Brigadier J. C. Haydon, they were to be transported by two infantry landing ships and escorted by five destroyers of the Royal Navy under the command of Captain C. Caslon.

Due to the nature of the approaches to the ports on the islands the destroyers could only give very limited fire-support if required, so two destroyers scouted ahead to check there were no enemy vessels in the vicinity. Enemy resistance was unknown so the Commandos were issued with 48-hour rations and plenty of ammunition.

Surprise was complete as the Commandos approached their embarkation points off the islands. The four ports which were to be targeted; Stamsund, Henningsvaer (No. 3 Commando) and Svolvaer and Brettesnes (No. 4 Commando) were lit up in the early morning of 4 March, making their navigation that much easier. The Commandos were embarked upon their landing craft and got ashore without any enemy opposition being encountered. Instead their arrival was greeted with great enthusiasm by the local Norwegians, even though the destruction of the factories meant many of them losing their only source of income. Volunteers to accompany the Commandos back to the UK was immense, with over 300 opting to return.

The number of prisoners captured during the raid numbered over 200, along with the destruction of eleven factories, oil tanks and the sinking of five ships all for no loss amongst the Commandos.

A similar raid was carried out in June to the Spitzbergan Archipelago. This time the troops involved were from Canadian units that had been schooled at the Combined Operations training centre. They were to destroy the mining facilities on the islands to deprive the Germans of its use now that they had begun their campaign against Soviet Russia and evacuate the population. This was carried out with great success and no loss.

During October of 1941 the head of Combined Operations was changed again. This time Captain the Lord Louis Mountbatten took charge, a position he would hold for the next two years. His first job as Chief was to formulate a plan to raid the Norwegian coast once more with similar objects as the one on Lofoten, this time along the south-west coast on the islands of Maaloy and Vaagso. These tasks included destroying any German installations and shipping, disrupting fish-oil production and killing or capturing the German defenders.

The town of South Vaagso on Vaagso Island was an important harbour for the Norwegian fishing fleets, being a sheltered port the ships would use this as a stopping-off point to await fair weather before venturing northwards. Opposite the town was the small island of Maaloy. This was a natural defensive position, being in the centre of the fjord and the Germans built coastal batteries along the south coast facing Vaags Fjord.

The Commandos trained extensively for the raid and set sail on Christmas Eve 1941. They reached their starting point for the raid by Christmas Day but due to heavy seas the raid was postponed, allowing the men to enjoy their Christmas dinner in the wallowing sea. By the evening of Boxing Day the force of ships, led by the cruiser HMS Kenya, had crept up the fjord.

The following morning was to be the day of the assault.

Just before 09.00 on 27 December the guns of Kenya opened up, firing starshell to light up the dark morning. This lit the target for the destroyers as well as the RAF bombers that had arrived overhead to lay down a smoke screen.

The landing craft then made their way to their targets, the Germans were taken completely by surprise. The men from No. 2 and No. 3 Commando with additional units from No. 4 and No. 6 Commando were split into five groups. Group 1 were to land on the south of Vaagso Island at the village of Hollevik. They were to secure the village then move northward to the outskirts of South Vaagso and remain as reserve. Group 2 was to attack the town of South Vaagso, eliminate resistance and destroy any military or economic targets. Group 3 was to assault the small island of Maaloy capture it and destroy four coastal artillery batteries emplaced there. Group 4 was to be a floating reserve, whilst Group 5 was to be taken by destroyer up Ulvesund and cut communications between South and North Vaagso. The force commander was to be Brigadier J. C. Haydon once again.

Group 1s task was accomplished with great ease as there was little resistance, a stronghold being knocked out. These men then moved around the coast to South Vaagso to reinforce the landing by Group 2.

Group 3 were next to go in with their assault on Maaloy. As the landing craft approached the island the bombardment from the destroyers was lifted and the RAF bombers flew in at low level to lay a smokescreen to cover the last leg of the journey, one aircraft being shot down in the process. The men landed as the Germans were still getting over the concussion of the naval bombardment, the Commandos quickly rounded up the surviving defenders and found that the bombardment had destroyed three of the four coastal batteries, the last one was hastily commandeered by the Commandos and used to engage a flak ship. The island was captured in twenty minutes, and the men were tasked with searching for intelligence. Part of Group 3 was then moved over the water to South Vaagso to reinforce Group 2 which had met substantial resistance.

Group 2 landed just to the south of the town, as they advanced they were met with a hail of accurate fire. By now the German defenders were fully alert and as it transpired later the garrison was reinforced by fifty crack troops being rested from the Eastern Front. House to house fighting then took place with heavy sniper fire from the Germans taking its toll on the Commandos. As this was happening a section of Group 2 was taken further north of the town where they successfully destroyed a herring-oil factory.

Group 5 fared better, landing to the north of the main battle where they blew craters in the road to block any potential reinforcement and destroyed the telephone exchange at Rodberg.

By 10.00 the southern part of South Vaagso had been taken with the help of the floating reserve but with heavy casualties, reinforcements arrived in the shape of Group 3 from Maaloy and Group 1 from Hollevik. This weight of men swung the balance in favour of the Commandos, the Germans eventually capitulating. The Germans suffered 150 killed along with ninety-eight captured. A number of Norwegian Quisling, Nazi sympathiser, were also captured. All demolition tasks were completed with factories and a power station being destroyed as well as the coastal batteries. The Commandos began their withdrawal at 13.45, the losses being nineteen killed (including Royal Navy personnel) and fifty-nine wounded, many of these being officers due to the earlier sniping.

This was to be the first time all three arms had combined in an attack on German occupied Europe, and laid the foundations for future assaults. It also led to Hitler reinforcing his northern flank and therefore spreading his already stretched forces even thinner.

K-Verband Assault Boats

German Small-S-Boat of the Italian Type SMA

Formation and Training

The daring activities of the assault boats and their crews remain obscure. Few details and facts have emerged from that period. Most men of these units fell in action, were murdered by partisans or failed to survive captivity in Eastern Europe. The War Diaries were destroyed or have been lost. Therefore very little knowledge of their operations has been preserved. Additionally the history of the assault boats is allied closely to that of the frogman and naval sabotage units (MEKs) and cannot always be separated out.

The K-Verband assault boat flotilla was formed and trained at three locations: Lehrkommando 600 (List/Sylt, Weisskoppel), Lehrkommando 601 (Sesto Calende, Laggio Maggiore, Italy) and Lehrkommando 602 (Sta. Anna, Stresa Aerodrome, west bank of Tessin estuary).

Head of Lehrkommando 600 was Kptlt Heinz Schomburg, the unit being known occasionally as Sonderkommando Schomburg. He had been head of K-Verband Command Naval Appointments Division at Lübeck and before taking charge of the Lehrkommando was liaison officer for German Naval Command Italy to X-MAS Flotilla.

Amongst others the following instructors served at Lehrkommando 600.

Kptlt Richard Rett; Oblts Gerd Prensemeyer, Walter Hesse; Lts Erhard Beyer, Ernst Haeusler, Walter Ertel.

The following assault boat flotillas were formed.

K-Sturmboot Flotilla 611

Flotilla Chief: Kptlt Wilhelm Ulrich

Pilots: Lt Hans Gercke, Georg Kulow, Walter Schiedl, Ulrich Pagel; Officer-applicant (R) Bernhard Meier

K-Sturmboot Flotilla 612

Flotilla Chief: Kptlt Ernst Wilhelm Witt

Pilots: Oblt Wolfgang Dallwig, Lts Hans-Hermann Priesemann, Horst Eichhorn; Officer-applicants (R) Karl Geschwandtner, Max Hofer

K-Sturmboot Flotilla 613

Flotilla Chief: Oblt Wilhelm Gerhardt

Pilots: Oblt Johann Kruse, Lt Christian Hansen, Oberfähnriche Gerhard Jänicke, Hans-Peter Johannsen, Fritz Kraus, Heinz Krieg, Manfred Kurek, Officer-applicant (R) Karl-Gustav Hoff; Rank unknown, Heinz Kroohs.

Of K-Sturmboot Flotillas 614 and 615 nothing is known except that the latter came into existence in March 1945 under Oblt Friedrich Böttcher. It is somewhat confusing that until August 1944, Flotillas 611 to 613 had generally been known as Sturmbootjotillen 1, 2 and 3.

The training of assault boat pilots was as uncompromising and comprehensive as that of the German naval sabotage units (MEKs).1 Boxing, wrestling, judo, long distance swimming, fast marching, shooting and hand-grenade throwing were to the forefront in the sporting curriculum. Pilot training began on Italian MAS boats. Continuation training followed at Stresa on the SMA boat, a development of the MTSM. Knowledge of the so-called SA-boat groups is scanty:

Group 1: Oblt Freiherr Leopold von Troschke

Group 2: Oblt Karl-Heinz Ritschke

Group 4: Oblt Karl Beier, Lt Arnim Bayer, Lts (S) Helmuth Möhring, Rudolf Veurel, Walter Wangerin, Alfired Ziegler

Group 12: Oblt Hans Gimbel

It is not impossible that these were all Abwehr men.

Light and heavy assault boats were used by Wehrmacht assault pioneers for river crossings. A powerful outboard with hand tiller was used. These boats were also used by the Brandenburg Küstenjäger for coastal work. In Italy the K-Verband used mainly Italian, or copies of Italian, midget MTBs, e.g. one or two-man SMA-type boats. The armament of the two-man assault boat was two small-calibre stern torpedo tubes, but for close-in fighting hand-grenades and Panzerfäuste were also used.

Operations on the Ligurian Coast

The assault-boat flotillas were controlled by K-Staff South at Levicio. The first to arrive on the Italian Riviera was 1 Sturmboot Flotilla on 15 August 1944, commanded by Kptz Werner Hartmann. Those serving at Staff included Kptlt Thiersch, No. 1 General Staff Officer (1a), Oblt Haertling (adjutant), Marineoberstabsarzt Dr Heinz Neumann (flotilla surgeon) and Kptlt Heinz Schomburg, head of the Sonderkommando. MEK 80 Supply headed by Kptlt Krumhaar and KFZ Süd (Vehicles South) also came under this umbrella. MEK 80 had a complement of about 350 men and fought for a long period as infantry in the anti-partisan role on the coastal slopes of the Appenines. X-MAS Flotilla was attached to MEK 80.

Chief of K-Staff South West, at Ville Franche near Nice in August 1944 and later at Opicina on the Adriatic, was KKpt Haun, whose task at the time was the formation and operational planning for the German-Italian flotillas. Operations of 1 Sturmboot Flotilla commenced on 16 and 17 August 1944 from San Remo against the Allied invasion feet but claimed no successes. After six one-man and fourteen two-man additional assault boats arrived on 20 August, a fresh attack was made off the bridgehead on the night of 25 August. A large ship five miles south of Cannes, a destroyer and a patrol boat three sea miles east-south-east of Cap d’Antibes were claimed hit. Sinkings could not be confirmed because of the strong defences are doubtful. All assault-boats returned safely. Italian boats reported having hit a cruiser, after which they were driven off.

In a sortie on the night of 27 August a hit was claimed on a British MTB or patrol boat: a small ship, presumably an escort, was claimed sunk. The following night eight 2-man boats operated without success against the bridgehead. On the return leg the Italian boats were fired on by destroyer Bofors but not hit. In the night operation a German assault boat attacked a gunboat at 12 metres range. The Panzerfaust2 failed. After numerous hits the German boat caught fire but the flames were soon extinguished. Whilst hurling a hand-grenade the second pilot then fell overboard but reached his base after a three-hour swim.

On 28 August 1944 German Naval Command Italy announced with regard to the operational opportunities for small units that the principal landing places of the Allied invader lay between St Tropez and Marseilles and were out of range. The convoy traffic between Corsica and that stretch of coast was strongly escorted east of the line Cannes-Calvi, however, and the assault boat operations there on moonlit nights seemed very promising. Despite this evaluation, on the night of 30 August a single one-man and eleven two-man assault boats left Monaco to attack the bridgehead. The German boats slipped through the British defence line of five gunboats off Ville Franche but found no worthwhile targets. Nine boats returned to Mentone, one to San Remo after surviving an air attack and another reached Monaco. One boat was abandoned off Cap Martin, salvage was attempted.

On 10 September a mixed force of six German and Italian assault boats launched a fresh attack supported by 14 Marder manned torpedoes but this failed because of the strong air and sea defences. Four days later, on 14 September, boats of 1 Sturmboot Flotilla hunted from San Remo but found no targets. The flotilla was 18 boats strong at that time.

After a long inactive pause, on 11 December five two-man, 16 one-man and three Italian MAS boats sailed for the Bay of Ville Franche, but bad weather forced an early return. An MAS boat was disabled and boarded by the enemy. A German assault boat was scuttled by its pilot after receiving damage, the pilot was then captured.

After an unsuccessful sortie along the Ligurian coast on the night of 20 December, K-Verband Command reported to SKL:

Further preparations for Sonderkommando Schomburg in the framework of the Western Offensive has run into difficulties because the relevant Army offices have apparently not been notified of its mission and to some extent consider its operations inopportune. The Admiral K-Verband has therefore ordered the Sonderkommando disbanded and released for other pressing duties.

On the night of 10 January 1945, two of five two-man assault boats fought enemy destroyers off San Remo. Neither scored a hit. All German boats returned to base undamaged. A week later on 17 January two assault boats got close inshore south-east of Nice and encountered a string of eight patrol boats. The lay of the harbour could not be determined. At the same time other assault boats attacked Livorno, Viareggio and Piscina di Pisa. Loud explosions were heard but whether ships were sunk or damaged is not known.

The last attack on the Ligurian coast occurred on the night of 22 April 1945 when Sturmboot Flotilla 611 Hitler Jugend attacked Allied shipping off Livorno in company with Linse explosive boats. The German vessels were probably tracked by radar, fired on and either sunk or forced to withdraw. Some crews were picked up by Allied warships but the other survivors, unarmed, who swam ashore were murdered there by partisans.

Operations in the Adriatic

In autumn 1944 the Sturmboot flotillas received new, improved stepped-planing boats. The first trials of these were run at Fiume on 6 October. Crews were drawn from Lehrkommando 600. The new craft were simple but robust and very manoeuvrable. They weighed in at 600 kgs, were 6.3 metres long and could manage 30 knots, gasoline consumption being 15 to 20 litres. The turning circle was a favourable 60 to 75 metres diameter. 3 Sturmboot Flotilla under Oblt Gerhardt took over the first boats.

2 Sturmboot Flotilla under Kptlt Witt was to operate from Pola. On 26 October the naval transport chief agreed to supply a transport vessel to the forward base at Lussin. On 2 November the flotilla transferred from Sesto Calende to Opicina and arrived at Pola on the evening of 3 November with 23 MTM and 3 SMA boats. An MTM pilot was killed in an accident on the way. After six assault boats had reached Lussin-Piccolo, all survived a machine-gun and rocket attack by Mosquito fighter-bombers. That same day, 20 November, 2 Sturmboot Flotilla was sent out to search for survivors from the German hospital ship Tübingen, which had been attacked and sunk. One boat was lost to bad weather.

On 24 November, sixteen assault boats and nine boats of 3 S-boat Flotilla arrived at Pola to attack shipping anchored off the Dalmatian islands of Dugi and Otok, but the operation was called off for bad weather.

On the night of 3 December assault boats of 2 Flotilla set out for Pola to engage enemy naval units reported in the Cigale area near Lussin, but nothing was achieved. Two days later in a fresh sortie the Punta Nera lighthouse was destroyed. The Allies had converted it into a military radio station. The crew escaped.

On the night of 16 December, MEK men were landed from assault boats on the islands of Isto and Meiada: on the following night other assault boats, protected by two S-boat groups, attacked Meiada. While the S-boats were forced to withdraw by heavy fire at 0045, Sturmboot crews blew up the quay and storage sheds at Zapuntelo.

In the last known operation in the Adriatic on 18 and 19 January 1945, involving an attack on Zara by nine S-boats and assault boats of K-Flotilla 612, the assault boats were forced to abandon the attack with engine breakdowns. Even the SMA boats, copies of Italian midget MTBs with 52-cm torpedo tubes built in Germany, could not cope with the heavy seas. Off Zara, S-boats duelled with a large ML escort and received several hits.

Rhodesia’s War

Special Forces Hit ZANLA Base at Nyadzonya: August 1976
At just after midnight on the morning of Monday 09 August 1976, a column of ten Unimogs, four Ferret scout cars, and 84 officers and men of the Selous Scouts, under the command of Capt. Rob Warraker, crossed the border into Mozambique just north of Umtali. Their destination would be the large, recently discovered ZANLA logistics camp on the Nyadzonya River, a tributary of the Pungwe.
Intelligence gleaned from a captured terrorist had led Special Branch to believe that there was a large ZANLA base somewhere on the Pungwe River. However, it was only a chance sighting by a RhAF Canberra, flown by Wing Commander Randy Durandt, that confirmed the existence of a base housing up to 1 000 ZANLA cadres. Urgent preparation for Operation Eland got underway as the Selous Scouts Commanding Officer, Lt Col. Ron Reid-Daly, was cautiously given the go ahead by General Peter Walls, a decision supported by the latest estimate of 5 000 housed in the camp.
The vehicles were armed with 20mm Hispano cannons (a ‘gift’ from the Air Force), twin 7.62mm MAGs, .30” and .50” Browning machine guns, a 12.7mm Soviet heavy machine gun, and an 81mm mortar.

In March 1976, the Rhodesian government appeared to be on top of the war. Ian Smith was conducting a cosy series of talks with Joshua Nkomo about a settlement–a settlement which as far as Smith was concerned would never include black majority rule. To most whites the war seemed restricted to the border areas. In the towns and cities, where the vast majority of whites relaxed in comfortable suburban cocoons, life seemed perfectly normal. The army was doing well; the police informer network was flushing out guerrilla sympathizers; the blacks in the armed forces and the police (who outnumbered the white members) were loyal. Salisbury clearly felt able to fight a long war, with blacks and whites fighting side by side against what it called ‘international communism’. It was only a question of time before the West came to its senses, or so the argument ran.

Indeed, international factors were about to influence the course of the war, but not in the way Rhodesian whites expected. The power most immediately concerned was South Africa. When the Nkomo-Smith talks broke down at the end of March 1976, Pretoria was determined to push Salisbury towards an urgent settlement. The reason? Despite military successes in the Angolan civil war, the South African army had been forced by political constraints to retreat. The Cuban-backed People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) had claimed a huge victory. For Pretoria the long-dreaded nightmare had become a reality. More than 20,000 Cuban combat troops were positioned in Angola. They would be bound to aid the attacks by the South West Africa People’s Organization (SWAPO) into South African-ruled Namibia/South West Africa. Pretoria did not want any escalation of the Rhodesian war into Mozambique which might suck Castro’s men into another country contiguous to South Africa.

FRELIMO-ruled Mozambique was totally absorbed in consolidating its independence. The almost total exodus of Portuguese whites had left the country in chaos. Mozambique was dependent upon Rhodesian tourists and food and transport revenues. Although Samora Machel was anxious to avoid all-out war with Rhodesia, his commitment to the guerrilla struggle was unequivocal. But the escalation of hostilities made war between Rhodesia and Mozambique inevitable. On 23 February 1976 the Rhodesian air force strafed the village of Pafuri, a mile beyond the south-eastern tip of Rhodesia. Four days later Mozambique seized two Rhodesian train crews. Then Smith repeated his errors of 1973 when the Zambian border was closed. He halted all Rhodesian rail traffic through Maputo (formerly Lourenço Marques). In retaliation, on 3 March, Machel cut all links and put his country on a war footing. One-sixth of Rhodesia’s rolling stock, as well as massive amounts of sanctions-busting exports, were caught inside Mozambique. Rhodesia was now completely dependent upon the two rail lines to South Africa. This was a leverage Pretoria would soon employ.

The war began to creep towards the centre of the country. At Easter 1976, three South African tourists were killed when travelling on the main road to South Africa. Convoys on the main routes south were then inaugurated. The rail line via Beit Bridge was sabotaged. Then the other rail artery, the Bulawayo-Botswana line, came under attack. Some ZIPRA members of ZIPA who had fled from Mozambique rejoined their comrades operating from Botswana and Zambia. Under intense OAU pressure from mid-1976, ZIPRA forces began to infiltrate across the north-western Zambezi and the north-east of Botswana. In August 1976, Operation Tangent was opened to counter the new ZIPRA moves. The previous month, guerrillas had also attacked a restaurant and a nightclub in Salisbury with Chinese stick grenades, injuring two whites.

The Rhodesian government was more concerned about FRELIMO support for ZANLA incursions from Mozambique. Between February and June 1976 the Mozambique government estimated that 40 Rhodesian raids had been launched across the border. Rhodesian intelligence reported that about 900 guerrillas were preparing to cross into Rhodesia in August from the Nyadzonya camp. Smith’s commanders wanted to launch an Entebbe-style raid and wipe out the guerrilla concentration. This would also bolster sagging white morale. Smith was wary; Vorster had warned him not to raise the tempo of the conflict and thus risk the entry of Cubans into the Rhodesian war. On 5 August a group of about 60 guerrillas attacked a security force base at Ruda, north of Umtali. No casualties were caused, but it was unusual for the guerrillas to hit a base in such numbers. Three days later four territorial soldiers from Umtali were killed in a mortar attack in the Burmah valley, south of Umtali. A fifth Umtali man died in pursuit operations. For a small, close-knit community such as Umtali the loss of five local men was a major blow. The townspeople demanded action against the guerrillas ensconced across the border only a few miles away.

Smith had the support of the other hawks on his war council. The target would be Nyadzonya about 40 km north-east of Umtali. On 9 August Operation Eland comprising a convoy of vehicles containing 84 Selous Scouts crossed the border. The column was made up of seven armoured Unimogs and four Ferret armoured cars (pre-UDI donations from the British). Two of the Unimogs were armed with Hispano 20mm cannon scavenged from retired Vampire aircraft. The Selous Scouts, including many blacks, particularly a turned ZANLA commissar, Morrison Nyathi, and an attached SAS member who spoke Portuguese, were dressed as FRELIMO soldiers. The vehicles, too, were disguised as Mozambican. After deploying some of the force along the route, 72 men led by a South African, Captain Rob Warraker, drove coolly into a major ZANLA base containing over 5,000 personnel. The SAS man ordered, in abusive Portuguese, the gate to be opened. It was 8.25 am. Dropping off a mortar unit at the entrance, the Scouts drove onto the parade ground, where excellent intelligence had accurately predicted that the inhabitants would be assembled. While the SAS man and a Shona-speaking Scout harangued the assembly with revolutionary clichés, the ZANLA cadres began to swarm around the Rhodesian vehicles. Eventually, as those pressed right against the vehicles realized that whites were inside, Warraker gave the order to fire. Initially at pointblank range, three twin MAG machine guns, one .50 Browning machine gun, one 12.7mm heavy machine gun, two Hispano-Suiza 20mm cannons, three .30 Brownings on the Ferret armoured cars and the personal weapons of the Scouts opened up. Carnage ensued. Hundreds were shot, burnt or drowned while trying to escape in the nearby Nyadzonya River. The commander of the Selous Scouts later wrote that the raid was ‘the classic operation of the whole war…carried out by only seventy-two soldiers…without air support…and without reserves of any kind’. ZANLA, however, insisted that Nyadzonya was a refugee camp and later held up the raid as the worst atrocity of the war. It seems that, although nearly all the personnel in the camp were unarmed, many were trained guerrillas or undergoing instruction. According to ZANLA documents captured later, 1,028 were killed (without a single security force fatality). ZANLA had been totally surprised.

So was Vorster when he heard the news. He immediately terminated Operation Polo, the code-name for the South Africans who had secretly stayed on in Rhodesia after the official withdrawal in August 1975. Helicopter pilots, mechanics, and liaison officers were summarily withdrawn. The Rhodesian air force’s strike capacity was cut in half. Worse followed. Although the closure of the Mozambique border had caused genuine congestion on the two railways to South Africa, artificial choke points soon developed, particularly when it came to vital supplies such as arms and oil. Vorster was angry; the cutbacks in pilots, petrol and bullets made sure Smith knew it. And there was more. On Vorster’s instructions, Dr Muller, the foreign minister, declared that South Africa supported the principle of majority rule in Rhodesia. The unsayable had been said. Politically Vorster had pulled the rug from under Smith.

OSS In the European Theater I

Before parachuting into occupied France, an OSS Jedburgh team is briefed on numerous topics. Agent John K. Singlaub is shown second from the right.

OSS operatives interrogate a German prisoner recently captured by French partisans known as Maquis. John Singlaub is at the left with his hand on his hip.

In the European Theater, Office of Strategic Services [OSS] special operations forces began in the same manner as the rest of the OSS in Europe, as a caboose hitched onto the long train of British secret activities. Winston Churchill had created the Special Operations Executive (SOE) in the summer of 1940 with an injunction to its chief to “set Europe ablaze.” In its first years, though, the SOE had set only a few brushfires, most of which were stomped out by the black boots of fascism. Efforts to support French resistance fighters had run up against French resentment stemming from the Dunkirk evacuation in June 1940 and the Royal Navy’s annihilation of French ships at Oran the following month, as well as the effectiveness of German and Vichy authorities in hunting down subversives. German intelligence smashed the main French resistance network in 1942 after one of its members fell asleep on a train with a briefcase containing the names of the network’s 250 leading members. A German Abwehr agent swiped the briefcase and passed it on to his superiors, who tracked the 250 individuals for several months before rounding them up in one fell swoop.

Donovan wanted to parachute OSS commandos into France right away, but he was rebuffed by the British, who feared that inexperienced Americans would, in their overconfident and overeager manner, inadvertently tear through the fine webs of espionage and resistance that the Special Operations Executive had been spinning across France. Donovan’s first effort to support anti-Nazi resistance would take place in French North Africa, where anti-British sentiment made US involvement a more attractive option. During the run-up to the Operation Torch landings, the OSS did not yet have any military forces aside from Detachment 101, so Donovan assigned the task of resistance support to his intelligence chief for the region, William Eddy.

Born in Syria to American missionaries, Eddy had lost a leg in World War I as a Marine, then had joined the English Department at the American University in Cairo, where he distinguished himself by introducing the sport of basketball to the Egyptian people. To find Frenchmen willing to risk their hides in support of the Allied invasion, Eddy maneuvered among French exiles and Vichy French officers in North African bistros and bordellos. Securing promises from a variety of senior French leaders, he became convinced that French military officers in Algeria and Morocco would turn against the Germans en masse on the eve of Torch. Eddy assured Lieutenant General Dwight D. Eisenhower, commander of the invasion, that these turncoats would allow US forces to seize much of French North Africa unopposed.

When the Allied invasion forces came ashore on November 8, 1942, most of the expected antifascist resistance failed to materialize. Pro-Allied Frenchmen seized only two facilities, a military headquarters and a communications complex in Algiers, and both were quickly retaken by Vichy French officers loyal to the Germans. As news of Eddy’s failure filtered in from North Africa, Donovan attempted to stave off defeatism among the headquarters staff by pointing to times in US history when even more severe setbacks had not precluded ultimate success. At daily staff meetings, he read aloud from a history of the War of 1812, ending each recitation by shutting the book and pronouncing, “They haven’t burned the White House yet.”

After Torch, Donovan shifted his attention to southern Europe. Using 1,100 newly acquired Army personnel, he formed a small number of commando-type forces, which he named Operational Groups. Composed of four officers and thirty noncommissioned officers who were fluent in European languages, the groups received training in parachuting, sabotage, and guerrilla warfare. Donovan planned to insert an Operational Group into Sicily to organize an antifascist uprising ahead of the Allied invasion, but invasion commanders aborted his plan as the invasion date neared out of concern that it would tip off the enemy about the main invasion. The only OSS man to land in Sicily on the invasion date was Donovan himself, who managed to scrounge a ride on a landing craft that took him to Gela just a few hours after Darby’s Rangers had stormed the mine-strewn beach. Donovan convinced General Theodore Roosevelt Jr. of the 1st Army Division to order a staff officer to drive him toward the front, and then Donovan talked that officer into approaching Italian forces, upon whom he could fire the jeep’s machine guns. “Donovan got behind the machine gun and had a field day,” the officer recalled. “He was happy as a clam when we got back.”

Donovan’s efforts to put an Operational Group ashore ahead of the Salerno landings likewise fell victim to the caution of four-star generals, but he was able to land a twenty-man group at Salerno on the first day of the invasion. To the dismay of Donovan, who again found his way onto the beach on opening day, the OSS team evidenced more concern about requisitioning fancy cars and other luxury items than organizing resistance fighters. The group leader commandeered the finest hotel in the area and compelled the wait staff to serve him seven-course dinners in black tie. One OSS veteran attributed the problems to the presence of “too many prima donnas who were driven by ambition without the sterner stuff which is a prerequisite for success.” The Operational Groups redeemed themselves to a degree in subsequent raiding operations on Italian islands and the Italian coast, blowing up rail-track and machine-gun emplacements to draw German troops away from the Winter Line.

When Donovan was read in on the plans for the invasion of France, he beseeched high authorities for permission to insert OSS special operators into Normandy in support of the conventional forces. The Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force consented to the use of the Operational Groups and the Jedburghs, the latter a joint venture between the OSS and SOE, in helping the French resistance blow up bridges and railroads and otherwise discombobulate German efforts to reinforce the Normandy defenses. Resistance operations were one of three delaying instruments that the Allied high command would employ, the other two being deception and aerial bombardment. By Allied estimates, the Germans had thirty-one divisions that could reach Normandy by the twenty-fifth day of the offensive. They could throw the invasion force back into the sea if they could get just fifteen of those divisions to Normandy by the sixtieth day.

Of the hundreds of OSS operators whom destiny was to toss into occupied France, none would be more significant to the history of special operations than Aaron Bank. One day in the spring of 1943, as a young railroad training officer at Camp Polk, Louisiana, Bank was strolling by the adjutant’s tent when a recruiting notice on the bulletin board caught his attention. His pulse quickened as he read that volunteers with foreign language skills were needed for special missions. Bank had been looking for a chance to escape Camp Polk and the Louisiana swamplands, having been subjected daily to wet heat, oversized mosquitos, snakes that slithered into sleeping bags, and a boring job. He knew German from speaking with his grandfather, and French from conversing with his mother, whose wealthy Russian family had sent her to high school in France before their emigration to the United States. During the 1930s, he had spent time in France as a lifeguard and swimming instructor at one of the private beaches of Biarritz. While presiding over aquatic recreation on the Bay of Biscay, he had practiced his languages with wealthy tourists, both French and German.

Bank contacted the recruiting office at once. The captain who interviewed him began by testing his fluency in French. It became clear immediately to both men that Bank’s French was superior to the captain’s, so they quickly dispensed with that part of the interview. The captain then asked, “Would you volunteer to operate behind the lines in uniform or civilian clothes?”

So nervous was Bank that he blurted out an answer before thinking the question over. Yes, he said, he would be willing to volunteer for those operations.

That was it. The captain told Bank that he would receive reassignment orders within the week. Bank recollected that upon hearing the news, “I was in a state of euphoria, floating on a cloud, eagerly awaiting my release from an unpleasant assignment.”

Bank received orders to report to Washington, DC, in civilian attire. When he arrived in the nation’s capital, an OSS duty officer directed him to the Congressional Country Club in Bethesda, Maryland. Depleted of members by the Depression, the club had come to such dire financial straits that its board had decided to lease the club’s 406 acres and facilities to the OSS for the modest sum of $4,000 per month. The fairways of the golf course had been converted into obstacle courses and rifle ranges, the sand traps into demolition beds. In the early-Italian clubhouse, the ballroom now served as a hall for lectures on the arts and sciences of modern war. The dining room, once the place for Maryland’s well-heeled to take their families for a prime rib dinner or a Sunday brunch, was now a military mess hall where cooks dished up mass-produced meats and starches.

Bank and the other volunteers began with a battery of physical and mental tests aimed at weeding out those unfit for the highly dangerous and unusual missions that lay ahead. Instructors ran them for hours on the obstacle course and cross-country trails to measure their stamina. Under the observation of clipboard-toting psychologists, sleep-deprived candidates took part in guerrilla exercises that subjected them to high stress levels and compelled them to essay impossible tasks. As a means of assessing resourcefulness and creativity, they were required to solve difficult problems, such as moving a large object that was too heavy for a man to carry.

Those who passed these tests underwent a training regimen similar to that of the British Commandos. They learned raiding and ambushing, and they practiced the destruction of bridges, culverts, railroads, canal locks, and electric transformer stations. To hone their physiques, they climbed ropes, performed pushups with packs on their backs, and punched out five-mile runs.

From the Congressional Country Club, the recruits were taken to Area B, a secret training site in the Catoctin Mountain Park. Chestnut, hickory, and black birch trees shaded the site’s log cabins, which were only one ridge away from the airy presidential retreat that Franklin Roosevelt called Shangri-La, later renamed Camp David by Dwight Eisenhower. At Area B, the trainees learned hand-to-hand combat from William Ewart Fairbairn, a thirty-year veteran of the Shanghai police. Fairbairn demonstrated how to strike a man’s nerve centers and pressure points with fists, elbows, and knees, and how to break a man’s bones with a rapid strike from the side of the hand. During knife exercises, he trained them in the severing of arteries and the piercing of vital organs.

Bank was one of the trainees deemed worthy of participation in the Jedburgh program. He and the other selectees traveled to Britain for advanced training at a series of specialized schools, culminating in final exercises at a site that in classified correspondence was called Area D or ME-65. Located in the flatlands of Peterborough ninety miles north of London, it was an Elizabethan manor whose real name was Milton Hall. The manor’s massive gray castle, built of stone walls measuring three feet in thickness, was surrounded by a 500-acre park of gardens, terraces, and fields, and beyond lay 20,000 acres of forests and pastures.

The Jedburgh candidates were housed among the castle’s fifty rooms, whose oak-beamed ceilings overlooked collections of Cromwellian armor and swords. In the sunken gardens and rose-bordered terraces, the Jedburghs practiced wrestling and martial arts, while the snapping of small arms fire could be heard from the croquet court. A climbing wall, built onto a corner of the castle, served as the training ground for scaling operations. Instructors taught the trainees how to dress like Frenchmen, and required them to memorize the multitudinous uniforms of German and French military and police forces. Bank filed every facet of the experience into his memory, where all of this knowledge was to remain until, nearly a decade later, he would draw upon it in forming a new organization on the Jedburgh pattern, the US Army Special Forces.

Despite the rather comfortable conditions of Milton Hall, morale sagged during Bank’s first weeks. The British commanding officer was a strict disciplinarian, better suited to whipping teenaged enlisted men into shape than cultivating maverick officers in their twenties and thirties. When no other activities were scheduled, the martinet refused to let the aspiring Jedburghs leave Milton Hall, instead forcing them to participate in inane drills and roll calls, or subjecting them to long and boring monologues about his own service in India years ago.

American and French trainees groused about the British food. The Americans found the British to be snobbish and the French to be petulant, while the Europeans bemoaned the crudeness of the Americans. After an inebriated American spouted off in the presence of foreign officers, the British lodged an official complaint against the offender for “violently insulting and abusing the British people, their army, and their part in our mutual war effort.”

By February 1944, the atmosphere had become so toxic that Bank and another officer went to the London headquarters of the OSS to plead for intervention. The Americans at Milton Hall, they reported, were on the verge of mutiny. The OSS leadership took the matter up with the Special Operations Executive, which acted promptly to rectify the situation. Jedburgh trainees were given weekend passes to London, where they could drink pints of strong English ale at the pubs of Covent Garden or dance with English girls at the Palladium Ballroom. Frenchmen were ushered into Milton Hall’s kitchen to add flair to the cuisine. The trainees were assigned batmen, who tended to all of their laundry, ironing, boot shining, housekeeping, and gear cleaning. Soon, men of all nationalities were gathering together at the castle’s drawing room for evenings of song, drink, and good cheer.

The planners for Operation Overlord decided that the Jedburgh teams would consist of three men, with one French officer, one American or British officer who spoke French, and one enlisted radio operator. Because the Yanks and Brits heavily outnumbered the Frenchmen, the French officers were allowed to pick the members of their teams. Like suitors seeking the hands of the princesses with the largest family fortunes, American and British officers courted the Frenchmen who seemed the most likely to stay alive in occupied France. Bank went after a small French lieutenant, Henri Denis, paying for extravagant weekends in London’s finest hotels and restaurants to seal the deal.

Bank’s team, and most of the other Jedburgh teams, would not parachute into France until well after D-Day. As with the Italian landings, Allied leaders worried that inserting large numbers of special operators ahead of the invasion would put the enemy on alert that something large was afoot. Allied planners also anticipated, correctly as it turned out, that few French civilians would assume the risks of backing the resistance until the Allied invasion force had firmly established a foothold on the continent and begun to roll the Germans back.

Most of the OSS men to enter France, like most who had entered Italy, would arrive long after their organization’s leader. General Marshall and Navy Secretary James Forrestal had notified the invasion commanders that under no circumstances was Bill Donovan to be permitted ashore at Normandy. They had not been amused by Donovan’s appearances in Italy, which had posed a grave security risk, since Donovan had knowledge of the Allies’ most vital secrets. The wily Donovan nonetheless wormed his way aboard the flagship of one of Overlord’s top naval commanders, who happened to be an old friend. The admiral had the good sense to prevent Donovan from disembarking until the second day of the invasion, after large sections of the Norman shoreline had been secured. Donovan hitched a ride to the shore on a Duck amphibious truck, taking with him the head of the OSS London station, David Kirkpatrick Este Bruce, a former state legislator who was married to the daughter of banker Andrew W. Mellon.

Once on land, Donovan led Bruce toward the sound of the guns. They reached an American antiaircraft battery, whose commanding officer was astonished by the appearance at the front lines of an old man wearing the Congressional Medal of Honor. Before them lay a large open field in which three French peasants were digging up vegetables. Intent on getting even closer to the fighting, Donovan gave the battery commander the preposterous story that the peasants were his French agents. They were expecting him, Donovan continued, so he needed to move forward without delay to glean vital information. The artillery captain warned Donovan against stepping any farther, stating ominously that Germans lay not far ahead. Paying him no heed, Donovan proceeded toward the French peasants.

The peasants disappeared when they saw Donovan and Bruce approaching. The two American spy chiefs then headed to a hedgerow at the edge of the field. German machine guns opened fire, forcing them to dive into the nearest shrubs.

Turning to Bruce, Donovan intoned, “David, we mustn’t be captured. We know too much.”

“Yes, sir,” replied Bruce.

“Have you your pill?” Donovan inquired. He was referring to the suicide pill that OSS officers carried in case they fell into enemy hands.

Bruce admitted that he was not carrying the pill. He had not expected to be anywhere near German forces.

“Never mind,” Donovan grunted, “I have two of them.” Donovan dug into his pockets to retrieve the pills, but he could not feel them. In frustration, he began to empty the pockets. Out came several hotel keys, a passport, newspaper clippings, travel orders, photographs of grandchildren, and currencies from various countries. The pills were nowhere to be found.

“We can do without them,” Donovan said finally, with the resignation of a miner who has dug in every direction without finding quarry. “But if we get out of here,” the OSS boss continued, “you must send a message to Gibbs, the Hall Porter at Claridge’s in London, telling him on no account to allow the servants in the hotel to touch some dangerous medicines in my bathroom.”

The German machine-gun fire continued. Donovan whispered to Bruce, “I must shoot first.”

“Yes, sir,” Bruce responded, “but can we do much against machine guns with our pistols?”

“Oh, you don’t understand,” Donovan said. “I mean if we are about to be captured I’ll shoot you first. After all, I am your commanding officer.”

Fortunately for the two men, Allied forces arrived and put an end to the German gunfire. Donovan and Bruce were able to return safely to the beach later in the day, and by evening, they were back on a US warship, enjoying a hot meal.


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.


Jedburgh Team Ian (from left): Gildee, Bourgoin, and Desfarges

Map of France indicating the parachute zones for OSS Jedburgh teams, 7 May 1944

Airpower was the principal means of carrying the struggle into the German rear areas, but it was not the only one. Underground resistance movements grew up in the occupied countries, and the Allies encouraged them. The Special Operations Executive (SOE) was set up in July 1940 on Churchill’s orders to “set Europe ablaze.” Its remit was twofold: to spread propaganda in occupied countries and to equip and train resisters. It was joined in its activities by the US Office of Strategic Services (OSS), established in June 1942 (although this forerunner of the CIA had additional responsibilities, including espionage). With the invasion of France in the summer of 1944, the British and Americans endeavored to support and direct the efforts of the resistance to aid the AEF, principally by interfering with German lines of communication. In acknowledgment of the important role the French resistance was expected to play, SHAEF, shortly after the landings, recognized the Forces Françaises de l’Intérieur (FFI) as a regular armed force of de Gaulle’s legitimate government of France.

Resistance Movements and Their Allied Helpers

Much myth, born of the desire to bolster national self-respect, has grown up about resistance movements in the Western countries conquered by the Germans. In truth, although only small numbers enthusiastically welcomed the conquerors, not insignificant sections of society were happy about the triumph of extreme right-wing ideology and the political and economic opportunities presented by occupation. By far the largest segment rejected active collaboration but would not go so far as to engage in active, or even passive, resistance. Most people preferred to get on with their lives and ignore the authorities, to the extent they could do so without inviting adverse consequences. Only a very small minority chose to join the underground, at least before the German defeat appeared imminent. Fear of betrayal and savage German responses to perceived terrorist acts, especially indiscriminate reprisals, certainly helped limit the number of resisters and make them unpopular. However, passive resistance became increasingly widespread as time wore on. This most commonly took the form of subtle, minor sabotage—mislaying files, frustrating telephone calls, misdirecting trains by relabeling freight trucks, and so on. As more time passed and people were emboldened by German reverses, this sometimes escalated into overt noncooperation, slowdowns, demonstrations, and strikes.

For the first three years or so of the occupation, resistance movements were small, inchoate, fragmented, and localized; many were communist inspired, although diverse political and social (indeed, criminal) elements were eventually drawn in. This limited flowering did not take place until later in 1943, when the German introduction of forced labor compelled young men to choose between unpalatable compliance and disappearing from official view; the growing intensity of the labor drives fed the underground with recruits from the réfractaires, although the vast majority were more concerned with remaining hidden than with fighting. However, as the Germans’ fortunes declined and the prospect of Allied victory grew, participation in the underground also grew, as did passive resistance. The ranks of the “September resisters”—those who joined as the Germans retreated—dwarfed those who had shown commitment while the outcome was still in doubt. For many, fighting the occupiers took second place to settling scores with collaborators and political or personal foes and establishing a favorable postwar political position. It was with this aim in mind, for instance, that the communist resistance precipitated the uprising in Paris on 19 August. Fearing both German reactions and communist success, de Gaulle and his military commanders urged an immediate American move on the capital.

In the Soviet Union and the Balkans, the combination of mountains, forests, swamps, vast expanses, and low population densities made it possible for units of partisans, often of substantial strength, to undertake operations. An increasing flow of recruits and general cooperation from the population were guaranteed by the brutal ideological and racial policies adopted by the Germans in the east but not mirrored in the west (save, of course, for the “final solution” of the “Jewish question”). The geography of France and the Low Countries, and the much more selective use of terror by the occupiers, militated against the flourishing of the sort of partisan warfare that characterized the war in the east and southeast. In northwestern Europe only the terrain of the Vosges and the Ardennes was suited to guerrilla activity, and both regions were limited in terms of area and importance. The rugged and thinly populated Massif Central and the alpine plateau of Vercors near Grenoble were more suitable, and Maquis activity was greater there; however, both were far from any important German lines of communication. The only attempt to rise up against the occupiers was made in Vercors in mid-June, but it was savagely crushed in July. In regions of more immediate interest to the invaders, Normandy’s underground was very weak; by and large, the Germans and the Normans got along pretty well before the landings. For both historical and terrain reasons, there was a much stronger resistance movement in Brittany, which would become very active and be of much help to Third Army.

SOE and OSS propaganda had some influence in the occupied countries, and this increased as the war wore on and Germany’s fortunes declined. Their active branches provided arms for nearly half a million Frenchmen (and for fewer Belgians and Dutchmen), as well as training and communications. To support the invasion directly, ninety-nine three-man Jedburgh teams, trained in guerrilla warfare, were inserted between June and September to step up efforts. They were tasked with liaising with (and, if necessary, leading) resistance groups and organizing equipment drops so they could conduct actions designed to aid the field armies. Each army group and army headquarters had a Special Forces (SF) detachment to coordinate Jedburgh operations. They did not, however, have direct communications and had to work through SFHQ at SHAEF.

To intensify pressure on the enemy rear, a British Special Air Service (SAS) brigade was deployed in support of the invasion. It consisted of two British and two French battalions and a Belgian squadron. Its tasks were to arm and train resistance groups, locate targets for the Allied air forces, and delay and disrupt enemy reinforcements and logistic activities. To these ends, the brigade conducted forty-three operations. The SAS came under the command of 1 Airborne Corps, not SFHQ.

Results of Special Forces and Resistance Activities

The SAS claims that it reported 400 targets for air attack; inflicted more than 12,500 casualties; destroyed or captured 640 vehicles; achieved 164 cuts of railway track and 33 derailments; and destroyed 7 trains, 29 locomotives, and 89 rail trucks. The casualty claims are probably exaggerated, and the other achievements added little to the destruction wreaked by the air forces. Nevertheless, the brigade fulfilled its mission. It is impossible to quantify the damage and casualties inflicted by the Jedburgh teams; their achievements are not amenable to objective analysis. However, it is clear that many of them had an impact, some of it considerable. More could have been achieved if the Jedburghs’ insertion had been more timely; the rapid advance that followed the breakthrough meant that several teams had hardly landed before spearheads arrived in their operating area. Both types of SF provided a level of professionalism that made the resistance groups they worked with much more effective. Their operations helped boost the morale of the occupied population, at least when they did not result in savage reprisals, and lowered that of the enemy; they also helped tie down German troops (albeit not of front-line caliber) and equipment.

The accomplishments of the resistance in aiding the Allied landings and advance are difficult to assess, as they are encrusted with legend and distorted and exaggerated by special pleadings, often politically motivated. The intelligence provided by the resistance was occasionally of great value (e.g., on the V weapons), but most of it was either too partial (in both senses of the word) or imprecise to be useful or of uncertain reliability. Sabotage of rail, power, and telephone lines was a useful supplement to aerial bombing, but only the latter could destroy high-value targets such as bridges or locomotive repair sheds. Ambushes and raids on German units were only harassing in nature, although they no doubt lowered enemy morale somewhat. Probably more important than sabotage in disrupting German communications was passive resistance—the subtle, often imperceptible sabotage by railway and communications workers described earlier.

Behind German Lines: Conclusions

General Eisenhower has been quoted as saying that active resistance efforts were worth half a dozen divisions to him. This was probably an exaggeration designed to please the prickly de Gaulle. Despite the high level of publicity accorded to these activities during and after the war, they accomplished relatively little of direct operational significance. There were exceptions, however, in the wake of the German retreat—for instance, bridge seizures like that at Morlaix and Verdun in August and, notably, the securing, intact, of the Antwerp docks by the Belgian resistance before the arrival of 11 Armored Division. Tactically, resisters were frequently of value to the Allies in providing local knowledge that helped speed the advance.

The FFI, embodied as paramilitary units, proved most useful as an adjunct to Allied armies as the enemy withdrew. In Brittany 20,000 former resisters helped Third Army mop up the Germans left in the peninsula and mask the “fortress” ports into which most of them withdrew—indispensable help, given the early shift of Patton’s main effort to the east. During the army’s subsequent, rapid drive to the Meuse, a combination of XIX Tactical Air Command and FFI forces covered its long, exposed Loire flank. The most important contribution of the FFI occurred in the south, where the more favorable terrain, combined with massive withdrawals from Army Group G to feed the Normandy battle, offered great scope to the estimated 75,000 resisters and the reinforcing Jedburgh, SAS, and OSS operational groups. On 7 August Colonel General Blaskowitz had to report that he was no longer coping with merely a terrorist movement but with an organized military force in his rear; a week later, when the invasion started, he controlled only the Rhône valley and a coastal strip. The FFI helped prevent his demolition of the Mediterranean ports, and it harassed and speeded the German withdrawal. The decision was then made to integrate FFI units into First French Army to replace North African troops before the onset of winter, and by the end of October, more than 60,000 had been absorbed.

Even if later claims of their contribution were overblown, the Allies received a good return on their investment in SF. It could have been greater, however. Higher-level commanders did not really appreciate the potential of this new capability; in addition, insertion generally took place too late, and there were frequent communications and resupply problems. As a result, the operational-level impact of the Jedburgh teams was less than it could have been. Moreover, a faulty command and control structure prevented the synergistic coordination of SAS and Jedburgh actions. The fact that formations greatly appreciated the teams’ tactical assistance upon linkup (e.g., acting as guides, providing local knowledge and liaison with FFI contingents) was of only some consolation to the originators of the concept.