JSOC Missions

USASOC’s shoulder sleeve insignia worn by Delta operators, depicting the historical Fairbairn–Sykes fighting knife inside the outline of an arrowhead.

No proof ever emerged that American POWs were being held in Laos or anywhere else in Indochina, but one American soldier who did become a prisoner during this period was Brigadier General James Dozier. The Italian Red Brigades terrorist group kidnapped the general from his apartment in Verona, Italy, on December 17, 1981, setting in motion a crisis that exposed the bureaucratic limits of JSOC’s power.

Ordered by Defense Secretary Weinberger to send a team to Italy to help with the search for Dozier, Scholtes dispatched a Delta element led by deputy Delta commander Colonel Jesse Johnson. But an extraordinary dispute between U.S. European Command, the State Department, and JSOC over whom Johnson was to report to slowed the team’s work. The chain of command for JSOC—at the time considered a purely counterterrorist organization—ran straight from Scholtes to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and from there to the defense secretary and the president. The exception was when a JSOC element had been deployed to a foreign country, but not yet committed to action. Then, the U.S. ambassador to the country was considered in charge. But when Johnson’s team arrived in Italy, European Command, which otherwise ran all U.S. military operations in Europe, tried to assert its authority. The result was a messy and time-consuming dispute that the Joint Chiefs failed to settle. Further complicating matters, the Pentagon also deployed an ISA signals intelligence team to Italy. The team took to the skies in helicopters equipped with electronic directional finding systems that located numerous Red Brigades safe houses by locking on to the terrorists’ radio transmissions.

The full-court press from Delta, the ISA, the National Security Agency, and the Italian authorities eventually located Dozier and his kidnappers in a Padua apartment, where Italian agents rescued him on January 28. The episode showcased the burgeoning skills of the United States’ secret operators, but also highlighted the challenges of inserting them into a national security bureaucracy not designed to accommodate them.

Scholtes fought frequent battles with that bureaucracy to keep his forces away from missions for which they were not designed. At the time, that included invasions of sovereign countries. “Boss, we’ve got some hellacious capabilities, but I’d hate to wipe them out—some of these really good, talented Delta or SEAL Team 6 operatives—for something that’s not critical to their mission,” he told Vessey.

This was a constant struggle for Scholtes and his successors. A case in point was the 1981 order the Pentagon gave JSOC to prepare to invade Suriname. The huge bauxite reserves in the former Dutch colony on South America’s northeastern Atlantic coast meant that Alcoa, the massive U.S. aluminum firm, had major holdings in the country. A 1980 military coup that deposed the elected government and installed the brutal Dési Bouterse as a leftist dictator placed those properties—and, more importantly, the Western expatriates who worked on them—at risk. JSOC began planning an operation to oust Bouterse and free any Western hostages in late 1981, infiltrating operators undercover to reconnoiter possible targets and to photograph the route from the airfield to the capital, Paramaribo. “[Det 1 MACOS] people … went down to Suriname and surveyed all the airfields under the guise that they were bird-watchers,” said a JSOC staffer. “We had lots of guys go down there. It was easy to get people in and out.” JSOC was confident it could pull the operation off. “It really would have been a piece of cake,” the staffer said. “Think of a little town with the worst police force you can think of and that’s what they had.”

But the mission began to expand, particularly when it became clear that Bouterse might take and hold Western hostages in several different locations. “The Rangers and Delta were part of the recovery for these people,” said a Pentagon special operations official. “We’d have to go to several different locations and bring the expats to the airfield. At the same time we’ve got to take over the radio and TV stations in Suriname and grab the president. It was getting kind of complex.” As a result, by 1982 the operation had evolved from one that involved only JSOC to one in which XVIII Airborne Corps would have a major role.

The JSOC tactical command post and representatives from the units in the invasion plan moved to Hurlburt Field, Florida, for six weeks. The Pentagon wanted the Rangers to conduct an airfield seizure, which was becoming their specialty, with XVIII Airborne Corps’ 82nd Airborne and 101st Airborne (Air Assault) Divisions flowing in behind them. The two divisions were “preparing to move out,” said a senior JSOC official. “I thought we were going to war.” But in a dynamic to which JSOC would grow accustomed during the next two decades, the Reagan administration called off the 1982 operation late in the planning process. The administration remained interested in overthrowing Bouterse: in late 1983, after the CIA had considered and then dropped a plan to engineer a countercoup to topple Bouterse earlier that year, JSOC was still planning and rehearsing a carrier-launched full-scale invasion. Delta operators visited Suriname undercover on reconnaissance missions before the administration again decided against the operation. However, the prospect of a JSOC-led invasion of Suriname continued to surface for the remainder of the 1980s. “That was always on the books,” a Delta operator said.

Events in fall 1983 ensured that JSOC’s planning effort for Suriname was not completely wasted, however. When a military coup October 14 in Grenada resulted in hard-line Marxists being replaced by even more zealous Marxists, President Reagan decided to invade the tiny Caribbean island nation. The initial plan had JSOC in the lead, with important roles for Delta, Team 6, both Ranger battalions, TF 160, and Det 1 MACOS. JSOC’s plan borrowed heavily from the command’s Suriname work. “For every target we had in Suriname, there was a like target in Grenada, so that speeded up our operations,” a JSOC staffer said. “Suriname was kind of a big joke to us, but it really turned out to be the Grenada model.” The Grenada operation, named Urgent Fury, would be JSOC’s first combat mission, but placed the command in a role for which it was not designed: spearheading an invasion, rather than reacting to a terrorist incident. Although ultimately successful, Urgent Fury was a fiasco that, like Eagle Claw, exposed the limitations of even the most elite units and had long-term ramifications for U.S. special operations forces.

On Friday, October 21, Scholtes briefed the services’ three-star operations deputies in the Pentagon on how JSOC envisioned conducting the assault. He was due back October 23 to brief the Joint Chiefs, but that morning the Iranian-backed Islamic Jihad militant group killed 241 U.S. servicemen, including 220 Marines, in Beirut, Lebanon, by destroying their barracks with a truck bomb. The Marine losses prompted the Corps’ commandant, General Paul X. Kelley, to petition Vessey for a prominent Marine role in the Grenada invasion scheduled less than forty-eight hours from then. Vessey relented. Carefully drafted plans had to be hastily rewritten as Vessey gave the Marines all targets in the northern half of the island.

The late addition of the Marines resulted in U.S. Atlantic Command changing the operation’s H-hour (the mission start time) from 2 A.M., which had been JSOC’s preference, to first light, allowing Grenadian forces and their Cuban allies to take JSOC forces under heavy, effective fire when they conducted their air assault and airborne missions. TF 160’s Black Hawks were riddled with bullets as they tried to infiltrate Delta and Team 6 operators. U.S. forces, who outnumbered trained enemy forces on the island about ten to one, eventually triumphed, but with the loss of nineteen men killed in action, of whom thirteen were JSOC task force personnel. These included four Team 6 SEALs who drowned after a night parachute jump into the sea forty miles from shore and three Rangers killed when three Black Hawks collided as they landed during an air assault.

The operation was hobbled by a confused chain of command, a failure to properly prepare (U.S. forces conducted no rehearsals and invaded without any good maps of Grenada), poor to nonexistent communications between different elements of the invading force, and woefully inadequate intelligence. (Scholtes had refused ISA commander Jerry King’s offer to have his unit conduct advance reconnaissance for the task force, because he had no faith or trust in him, a personality conflict that limited cooperation between the two organizations throughout the 1980s.) As many as a third of U.S. killed and wounded in action may have resulted from friendly fire. The invasion was the United States’ first major combat operation since the fall of Saigon and it revealed that much had been forgotten about the importance of unity of command and thorough preparation. The Pentagon had established JSOC in part to avoid a repeat of the ad hoc nature of Eagle Claw. But Grenada showed that while JSOC and its component units worked reasonably well together, there was still much progress to be made when it came to coordination with conventional forces.

JSOC was also hamstrung in this regard by the obsessive secrecy that permeated and surrounded the command. It was a principal factor behind the shambolic performance in Grenada, because many senior conventional force commanders were not even aware of JSOC’s existence, let alone knew how best to employ its units. “It was so, so top secret that it was extremely difficult to do our job,” said a senior JSOC official. The extraordinary level of secrecy that shrouded JSOC’s missions, units, and personnel became a touchstone for the command and its subordinate elements, to the extent that an operator’s commitment to this code of silence was considered a demonstration of his special ops bona fides. But Scholtes, like other JSOC commanders after him, chafed against it because of the constraints it placed on his operations. Indeed, it had come as almost a relief when the Fayetteville Times first reported JSOC’s creation in October 1980.

Grenada left deep scars in JSOC’s collective psyche. Scholtes remained deeply embittered by the eleventh-hour interference in his plan. Nor was he the only senior JSOC officer angered by the events surrounding the commitment of the elite forces to the fight. The Det 1 MACOS commander, Colonel John Carney, retired in disgust shortly after the operation. Scholtes would eventually have an opportunity to air his frustrations in a way that counted. But not all the mistakes resulted from issues beyond JSOC’s control. There had been several major errors internal to Scholtes’s task force. Urgent Fury put JSOC on notice that the command and its subordinate elements still had a way to go to become truly effective combat units.

JSOC Gets Its Feet Wet

The peaceful resolution of the hostage drama gave Scholtes and JSOC time to draw breath and consider their role in the Reagan-era national security structure. A February 1981 memo from Caspar Weinberger, the new administration’s defense secretary, directing each service to “maintain and continue to develop its own [counterterrorist] capabilities,” not only helped solidify the position of JSOC and its constituent units, but more generally set the tone for the increased role the military’s covert and clandestine actions would play in the 1980s.

In that context, it is important to note that JSOC still didn’t have a monopoly over these actions. At the direction of “Shy” Meyer, the Army chief of staff, the Field Operations Group was renamed the Intelligence Support Activity, or ISA, and on March 3, 1981, became a permanent entity located in Arlington, Virginia, just outside Washington, D.C. But because JSOC was considered a purely tactical counterterrorist organization and ISA was to have wide-ranging national-level clandestine intelligence-gathering missions, the Pentagon did not place “the Activity,” as it became known, under Scholtes’s command. Instead King, who remained in charge, reported straight to the Army’s assistant chief of staff for intelligence.

A day before ISA’s official establishment, and in conjunction with the CIA, the Army stood up a covert aviation unit code-named Seaspray, with a mission to move men and matériel in civilian, or at least, civilian-looking, rotary and fixed wing aircraft. Such missions and units are referred to as “covered air.” Seaspray was the covered counterpart to Task Force 158, which had survived the hostage crisis denouement to earn a new name—Task Force 160—and a permanent home at Fort Campbell, Kentucky. But although TF 160 was also a secret unit, its function was purely military, while Seaspray could be used to clandestinely infiltrate CIA or military intelligence operatives. The covered air unit soon amassed a small fleet of nine Cessna and Beechcraft King Air planes, as well as several Hughes MD500 helicopters (the civilian version of the Little Birds), which could be rigged with weapons and/or pods for operators if need be. The unit also acquired an innocuous cover name—1st Rotary Wing Test Activity—and a home at Fort Eustis, Virginia, conveniently close to Camp Peary, the CIA’s training center better known as “the Farm.” Like ISA, initially Seaspray did not report to JSOC.

As new covert units proliferated, the two special mission units dedicated to direct action—Delta and SEAL Team 6—continued to evolve. For Delta, that meant learning to cope without Beckwith, who left the unit in October 1980. Meyer, the Army chief of staff, called Scholtes and suggested that he make Beckwith his director of operations. Although not a career special operations officer, Scholtes had great respect for the out-of-left-field mind-set with which Beckwith was trying to imbue Delta, but he still regarded the colonel as something of a loose cannon. He told Meyer that he would keep Beckwith on his staff as a special assistant, but had no intention of making him his operations officer. Beckwith retired shortly thereafter.

Scholtes also quickly became disenchanted with the hard-drinking, free-spending ways of “Demo Dick” Marcinko, Beckwith’s Team 6 counterpart.4 Marcinko had built his unit into a tightly bonded 175-man organization that pioneered new tactics to take down a variety of maritime targets, from oil rigs to cruise ships. Initially based at Naval Amphibious Base Little Creek, Virginia Beach, Virginia, before moving to nearby Fleet Training Center, Dam Neck, where it would remain, Team 6 trained hard—and expensively. The unit’s annual small arms ammunition allotment was larger than that of the entire Marine Corps. But the resources lavished on the team and the sheer pleasure Marcinko took in flouting authority combined to antagonize just about every other officer in the Naval Special Warfare community and many beyond.

So long as the largesse seemed focused on mission-essential training and equipment, Marcinko was on reasonably solid ground with Scholtes. But it wasn’t long before the straight-arrow infantry general began to think things had gotten seriously off-kilter at Dam Neck. Events came to a head when Marcinko invited Scholtes to an evening function at the team headquarters at which several men were to be promoted. When Scholtes arrived, Marcinko told him Maine lobsters were on the menu. Scholtes inquired as to how the team came by the lobsters. “I flew them down,” Marcinko replied.

“The evening progressed and they got so shitfaced they couldn’t stand up,” said a senior JSOC official. Scholtes waited until the SEALs had had a chance to sober up the next day and then told Marcinko he was writing a letter of reprimand and sending it to the chief of naval operations, “because last night was an absolute disgrace.” The CNO invited the JSOC commander to his office in Washington to talk. The admiral told Scholtes that Marcinko was the “best man” to lead Team 6. “He was outstanding to get this unit started, because he had to fight your system, he had to fight the Navy system,” Scholtes replied. However, the general added, Marcinko was not the best choice to lead Team 6 into the future.

By early 1981, JSOC’s staff had grown to about eighty personnel. The command had already moved out of Delta’s compound and into three World War II–era barracks that had a twelve-foot fence and round-the-clock civilian guard force, but just one secure phone line to Washington between them. Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger agreed with Scholtes that JSOC needed new facilities and arranged a meeting between the general and some Pentagon bureaucrats he’d ordered to make it happen. In the meeting, Scholtes listed everything that he needed in his new headquarters. A Pentagon officially dutifully wrote it all down. But Scholtes overlooked one item: windows. As a result, his new headquarters was built on Pope Air Force Base (adjacent to Bragg) in record time, but with no windows.

Within six months of Reagan’s inauguration, Scholtes’s Pentagon bosses gave JSOC a new mission that would come to dominate much of the command’s training for the next two decades: countering the spread of weapons of mass destruction. They told the general to talk with Energy Department experts to determine the threat that terrorists might pose by gaining access to nuclear material, and to figure out ways to counter that threat.

JSOC’s interest in weapons of mass destruction would grow, but during the early 1980s its focus was on the threat of nuclear-armed terrorists, rather than attacking enemy countries’ facilities. “We never got into those [nation-state] types of scenarios,” said a senior JSOC official. “Ours were small nuclear weapons held by terrorists in a hostage situation against one of our cities or against a U.S. facility.” The command worked closely with the Energy Department and its national laboratories, running exercises everywhere from downtown Los Angeles to the Nevada desert to ensure they could all work together if terrorists ever gained access to a nuclear device. The exercises were invaluable for uncovering small flaws that could derail an operation. The L.A. exercise, for instance, which featured Delta operators working with a team from the national labs trying to secure and disarm a “nuclear” device held by “terrorists” played by FBI agents, revealed that “scientists with big beards have a hell of a time wearing a protective mask,” the senior JSOC official said. This was a problem because Delta was using “a lot of tear gas in there.” (The exercise was part of JSOC’s three-year mission to help with security preparations for the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. During the games themselves, JSOC positioned its joint operations center at Los Alamitos Army Airfield in Orange County, with a Team 6 element down the coast at Coronado. Team 6 also placed undercover operators with satellite communications on a cruise ship that was going to be at harbor in L.A. during the day but sail offshore to become a casino at night. JSOC wanted the SEALs, who had signed on as crew, on the ship so that they could communicate back to the JSOC in case terrorists took it over.)

At the Department of Energy’s request, the Pentagon also tapped Delta and Team 6 to provide “red teams” to test the security of nuclear power plants in the United States. The operators had to base their plans on whatever “open source” information they could find in libraries. They found numerous weaknesses in the plants’ security programs. “We had no trouble getting in them,” said a JSOC staff officer. “But the more we did, the more they wanted.” Often the units would break into a power plant’s safe, only to find a consultant’s report gathering dust inside that identified the same weaknesses the operators had just exposed. “They were wasting our time,” the staffer said.

Modestly sized joint exercises soon became a regular occurrence for the headquarters and its subordinate units. “We tried to do an exercise every quarter and it was either a hostage rescue or a hit on a terrorist facility,” a senior JSOC official said. Away from the larger exercises, the units were training constantly. Scholtes put JSOC on a readiness cycle, so each unit kept a small element ready to deploy on four hours’ notice. The troops had to know the basics of the mission before they took off so that they could pack whatever mission-specific gear they might need, but any other details were to be briefed in flight. For larger operations, JSOC aimed to get more forces in the air within eight hours of being alerted, but rarely made that target due to the complexity of organizing the various air elements required for such missions.

For all the training, what the operators really yearned for was a chance to test their skills in combat. An opportunity seemed to present itself at the very start of JSOC’s existence when, in late 1980, intelligence suggested Americans captured during the Vietnam War were being held in a prison camp in the jungle near the central Laotian town of Nhommarath. The “intelligence” took the form of RD-77 satellite and SR-71 Blackbird spy plane photos of a wooden stockade with what some analysts interpreted as the number “52” marked out on the ground, as if prisoners there were trying to signal U.S. overhead reconnaissance. Not everyone was convinced. “I didn’t see it,” said a JSOC staffer who viewed the photographs. Nonetheless, at the direction of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, JSOC began tightly compartmented preparations for a rescue operation code-named Pocket Change and set for May 1981.

But the effort was complicated by the bizarre intrusion of retired Special Forces Lieutenant Colonel James “Bo” Gritz (pronounced “grites”). In March 1981 Gritz informed the White House he was planning his own rescue mission. The government told him to stand down, but he continued his efforts, this time (unbeknownst to JSOC) in collusion with the Intelligence Support Activity. Gritz’s appearance on the scene, which had the potential to jeopardize the operation, pushed JSOC’s timeline to the right, but the command continued planning. Scholtes considered on-the-ground confirmation of the presence of American prisoners essential before launching the mission. He wanted to assign the task of gathering that intelligence to a few Delta operators, but, to his displeasure, the CIA insisted on employing Laotian mercenaries for the purpose instead. The mercenaries returned to say they’d found no evidence of American prisoners, prompting a fierce debate over the reliability of their reporting.

JSOC rehearsed extensively in Hawaii for the mission, which would involve a task force launching from the tiny Pacific island of Tinian in the Northern Marianas and using an abandoned and overgrown U.S. military airfield in Thailand as a forward staging base. With the airfield under control, C-5 transport planes would have landed, bearing JSOC’s own version of a Trojan horse: white, civilian-style eighteen-wheel trucks, each hiding two TF 160 AH-6 Little Birds with folded rotor blades. As Delta operators made their way overland to the prison camp TF 160 personnel would have driven the trucks close to the Laotian border, before stopping and launching the helicopters.

TF 160 kept this rarely used technique—known in JSOC as “Smokey and the Bandit” after the 1977 trucker comedy starring Burt Reynolds—up its sleeve for decades, because it offered a clandestine way to move a lethal capability close to a target. “Our guys were trained and even had the truck licenses,” said a TF 160 veteran. The unit had its own trucks, but locally obtained vehicles would suffice “with maybe a couple of days’ work and some welding,” he said. When the time came to launch the aircraft, the crew would roll them off the back of the truck and have them flying within three minutes. “You have to be really well trained,” the TF 160 veteran said. “It’s absolutely an incredible capability.”

The Little Birds’ role was to provide fire support to the Delta assaulters, and, in particular, to destroy the prison camp’s three wooden guard towers. The delays caused by Gritz’s interference meant it was now 1982. Army General John Vessey had replaced Jones as Joint Chiefs chairman. When briefed on the plan, Vessey refused to believe that the Little Birds could take out the guard towers. JSOC had replicas built at Fort A. P. Hill in Virginia and held a nighttime demonstration there for the chairman that ended with the AH-6s turning the towers into splinters, much to his amazement.

Not for the last time, the preparations were for naught. The discovery that Gritz was still involved in planning a rescue effort—with help from ISA, no less—was bad enough, but then the story showed up in the press. “We were flying missions over [the camp] taking pictures of it every chance we got and after the newspaper article came out about Bo Gritz putting his team together, a week later, the next picture we got, there was nobody in the camp,” said a JSOC staffer. “They deserted the camp.… That’s what stopped the mission.” However, a Delta officer involved in the planning said the mission was canceled because of a CIA report, which the Agency said was based on the word of a Marine detailed to the Agency who’d gone into Laos and gotten “eyes on” the camp, that no Americans were there. “I don’t think there were ever Americans in there,” the Delta officer said. A Pentagon special operations official said the mission was scrubbed because the Thai government withdrew its approval. Whatever the reason, the mission faded away, leaving in its wake rancor and bitterness, but also a certain amount of relief. Army Colonel Don Gordon, the JSOC intelligence director, had strongly advised against an operation. “This is not worth it,” he told Scholtes. “We lose half the force if we screw this thing up, [and] if you lose half your force in the middle of Laos you’ve got a problem.” Nevertheless, JSOC was prepared to launch the raid, said a senior official at the command. “But thank God we didn’t,” he added.

As preparations for the Laos mission continued through summer 1981, JSOC ran its first real-world mission at the end of July in the tiny West African nation of the Gambia. There, Marxist rebels had taken advantage of President Dawda Jawara’s attendance at the royal wedding in Britain to launch a coup and seize more than a hundred hostages, including American, French, Canadian, British, Swiss, and German citizens. The Gambia had no military to speak of, so efforts to reverse the coup fell to neighboring Senegal and the Gambia’s Western allies. JSOC flew a five-man team into Dakar, the Senegalese capital. Working from the U.S. embassy, the team coordinated with three SAS personnel Britain had sent into the Gambia. Once Senegalese paratroops had secured the airport in the capital city of Banjul, and the SAS had effected the release of the hostages, Delta’s Major William G. “Jerry” Boykin and Sergeant First Class Tommy Corbett plus a radio operator flew in to organize their evacuation to Dakar on an Air Force C-141. The coup was over within a few days. JSOC hadn’t seen combat, but had at least gotten its feet wet without embarrassing itself.

Bruneval Raid

27/28 February 1942

Today the Parachute Regiment forms an elite and vital airborne element of the British Army. Trained to conduct a range of missions and ready to form the spearhead for rapid intervention, it is light by design as its operations are usually based on speed. The paras formed during the Second World War, and an early raid to capture an enemy radar site at night, and then dismantle it so that parts could be taken back to Britain for expert evaluation, sounds more like a tale of fiction rather than fact. But that was exactly the task that was given to paratroopers on the night of 27/28 February 1942, and the raid on Bruneval must surely be one of the most audacious of the war.

The development of radar was vital to both sides during the Second World War, and each wished to retain a technical edge over the other. This meant finding out what the other side was doing – and there was no better way for the British to know how German radar had evolved than to analyse its components.

The low-UHF band Würzburg radar was Germany’s primary ground-based gun-laying radar during the war, having entered service during 1940. Reconnaissance flights carried out by the RAF’s Photographic Reconnaissance Unit during late 1941 had identified installations along the northern coastline of France but their purpose had initially remained unknown. Some were convinced that the installations coincided with increasing RAF Bomber Command losses and British intelligence had concluded that Germany had significantly developed its radar techniques. And so a request was made to the headquarters of Combined Operations for one of the installations to be raided, with a view to identifying and understanding the German technology and, better still, capturing equipment and returning it to Britain for further examination. This would enable the British to effectively neutralize the system through the development of suitable countermeasures.

One installation in particular was considered accessible and, therefore, suitable for a raid. It was at Bruneval, just over 10 miles to the north of Le Havre, with the radar installation being located on a clifftop to the north of the village. Extensive German defences along the coastline would make a commando raid from the sea difficult. Not only might it prove costly in terms of lives lost, but any advanced warning that a raid was in progress would allow the German garrison located at the installation to destroy any secret equipment rather than risk it being captured. It was, therefore, decided that an airborne raid would take place to seize the technical equipment intact, after which evacuation of the equipment would be carried out by sea.

At that time, airborne operations were still in their early days. The first carried out by the British, called Operation Colossus, had taken place in February 1941 with mixed results. It had been undertaken to test the concept of conducting an airborne assault and to assess the RAF’s ability to deliver such a force. The target chosen was an aqueduct near Calitri in southern Italy, which supplied water to several ports used by the Italian military, and its destruction would hamper Italian operations in North Africa and Albania. The raid was carried out by thirty-eight members of X Troop, part of a new unit called 11 Special Air Service Battalion, which had been formed from 2 Commando. Although the aqueduct had been damaged, the raiders were captured and the aqueduct soon repaired, and so enemy operations had not been hampered for long, if at all. Nonetheless, the concept had been tried and valuable lessons learned. The raid was considered successful enough to expand British airborne forces and so, in September 1941, the battalion became the 1st Parachute Battalion and was assigned to the 1st Parachute Brigade. A call for further volunteers led to the 2nd Battalion being formed, with the Parachute Brigade becoming part of the newly formed 1st Airborne Division.

The idea of an airborne assault against the Würzburg installation at Bruneval was first put to the headquarters of the 1st Airborne Division during the early days of 1942. Its commander, Major General Frederick Browning, was full of enthusiasm, as it offered a chance to boost the morale of his new organization and an opportunity to instantly make its name. At the time only the 1st Battalion was fully trained, but Browning wished to retain this intact for any larger-scale operation that might be required in the near future, and so he gave the task to C Company of the 2nd Battalion, a unit largely made up of men drawn from Scottish units.

The raid was given the codename Operation Biting. The plan, using an assault force of 120 paratroopers to capture and then hold the radar installation and its surrounds while vital parts of the radar were dismantled and evacuated back to England, was to be based on total surprise. Chosen to lead the raid was the commander of C Company, Major John Frost.

Bruneval would be the first major British airborne raid of the war and so training would require close co-ordination between airborne troops and aircrew. The RAF element of the task was given to the Whitleys of 51 Squadron under the command of Wing Commander Charles ‘Pick’ Pickard, a holder of the DSO and the DFC and already known to the British public, having starred in the 1941 wartime propaganda film Target for Tonight, in which he featured as a Wellington pilot of ‘F for Freddie’.

There was little time for much training, as Biting had to be completed by the end of February, when the combination of the moon, a rising tide and the general weather conditions were likely to be suitable for the raid to take place. However, the training was as thorough as possible. It was mainly conducted from Tilshead in Wiltshire and involved much time on Salisbury Plain, including a parachute drop with 51 Squadron. The paras also spent time in Scotland, where they practised night embarkations on landing craft from the Combined Operations training base at Inverary in order to prepare the men for the evacuation by sea once the radar had been dismantled, when they would be using six landing craft from the landing ship HMS Prince Albert.

The naval part of the operation was to be led by an Australian, Commander Frederick Cook, and was dependent on suitable sea conditions on the night. Although the Prince Albert would be protected by a group of motor gunboats (MGBs), the lowering of landing craft in a high swell was never easy and finding a specific part of the French coastline at night in less than ideal conditions would be a challenge. Cook would transfer to one of the lead landing craft for the final run ashore, and also on board one of the craft would be Donald Priest, a scientist and radar engineer from the Telecommunications Research Establishment, who would only land if the entire area around the radar installation was considered totally secure. If so, Priest’s task would be to assist in the dismantling of the radar and to make a brief technical assessment of the equipment. If, however, there was any doubt about the security of the area then Priest was not to go ashore and under no account was he to fall into enemy hands; he would, therefore, have two soldiers to protect him. The evacuation plan was for the landing craft to beach two at a time to collect the paras and radar equipment. Although each landing craft was to be armed by a Bren light machine-gun team, another two support landing craft, carrying thirty-two men of 12 Commando, would provide additional firepower to cover the raiders as they withdrew from the beach. Once the paras had been evacuated they were to be transferred to the faster MGBs for the run back to the south coast of England while RAF fighters provided air cover over the Channel as first light broke.

As the men arrived back at Tilshead they were still unaware of what their actual target was to be. Given the time available, and the fact that this kind of operation was new, training had gone very well. Information about the radar site had been gathered from every source available, including observations from members of the French Resistance on the ground, which included valuable details about the German garrison at the site. Furthermore, a model of the installation and surrounding buildings had been built using the aerial reconnaissance photos taken by the RAF, which all helped provide the men with an understanding of the task they faced. The men were then given more information and carried out their final training along the Dorset coast, although they were still unaware of exactly where their target was to be.

The radar installation at Bruneval was located on a reasonably flat plateau and was essentially made up of two main areas: the radar station, contained in a building a hundred yards from the edge of the cliff and manned by signallers, and an enclosure of smaller buildings housing a garrison of enemy troops, believed to be about a hundred in strength, and another shift of signallers. The compound was surrounded by guard posts with an estimated thirty guards on shift at any one time. There was a further detachment of soldiers to the north with responsibility for manning coastal defences in the area. These included a strong defensive point near the intended evacuation beach, and pillboxes and other defensive positions along the top of the cliff, which included a number of machine-gun nests overlooking the beach. The only good news was that the pebble beach, some 300 yards long, was believed to be free of mines, with the only known hazard being barbed wire along its stretch. However, regular enemy patrols were known to be active and the mobile reserve, although garrisoned further inland, could be in the area within an hour.

Based on all the intelligence he had, Frost decided to divide his force into five teams, operating as three main groups each of forty men, and given the names Drake, Hardy, Jellicoe, Nelson and Rodney. Three groups – Drake, Hardy and Jellicoe – would capture the radar site and a nearby building housing the technicians and guards, while Nelson would secure the area of the evacuation beach and Rodney would provide protection for the three main assault groups by taking up a position between the radar installation and the direction of enemy approach.

Frost was to lead the twenty men of Hardy and capture the villa housing the radar operators while 22-year-old Lieutenant Peter Young would lead the ten men of Jellicoe to capture the radar. The other group, the ten men of Drake, would be led by Lieutenant Peter Naumoff. They were to deal with the other buildings at the farm at La Presbytère, where up to sixty enemy troops were believed to be housed, and to divert any enemy fire away from the other two assault groups.

After capturing the installation and the garrison, the task of photographing the radar set and then dismantling it would fall to Flight Sergeant Charles Cox, a radar technician from the RAF who had volunteered to take part in the raid. Cox would be attached to Hardy, but time would not be on his side and so it was crucial for him to remove specific parts that had been briefed to him prior to the raid. These parts would then be loaded onto a hand trolley and taken with the men down a gulley to the beach for evacuation.

While the three main assault groups had the challenge of capturing the radar installation and its surrounds, the task faced by the forty men of Nelson was also crucial. Half the men were to be led by the youngest officer taking part in the raid, Second Lieutenant Euan Charteris, the son of a brigadier and just 20 years old. His group was to secure the beach and take out the two enemy machine-gun posts known to be in the area. When it was time to evacuate the beach they would then signal the flotilla of landing craft to come ashore to pick them up. The rest of Nelson, led by 21-year-old Captain John Ross, the second-in-command of C Company, were to protect the beach by holding the road leading from Bruneval village. Ross’s group would then cover the evacuation and be the last to leave the beach. The forty men making up Rodney were to be led by Lieutenant John Timothy. His group would be last to drop, with the task of protecting the eastern flank, as this was the direction from which the main threat of reinforcements could be expected, particularly from La Presbytère.

As the training neared an end, the date of the raid was narrowed to a four-day period starting on 24 February. The day before, a final rehearsal took place but, despite all conditions seemingly favouring the raiders, it proved to be a drastic failure when the landing craft for evacuating the raiders became grounded several yards offshore.

The men were now fully aware of their mission and the target but their training never seemed to go exactly to plan. Then, with poor weather over the next few days, there were concerns that the raid might not take place at all. On two consecutive days the men had packed their equipment and prepared to move, only to be told the mission had been postponed. It was mentally draining as well as totally frustrating.

The three nights considered suitable for the raid came and went and it now looked like the opportunity had been missed. Then, on the morning of 27 February, the men woke to find a bright, clear sky. It was bitterly cold, but the wind had gone and visibility was good. Frost received word that headquarters had extended the period for the op to be carried out by twenty-four hours, and so the men were told to prepare once more. Then finally, soon after midday, Frost received the word that the mission was on. The weather conditions were going to be near perfect, with clear skies, a full moon and good visibility, but then came the news that Bruneval and its surrounding area were covered by snow.

The likelihood of snow had seemingly not really featured in the planning. None of the combat clothing or equipment was for winter warfare, but it was too late to do anything about that now. The naval evacuation force left southern England during the afternoon to take up its position about 15 miles off the coast, then it was the turn of the men of C Company to leave Tilshead for the short journey to the airfield at Thruxton.

Soon after 9.30 pm they boarded their aircraft to the sound of pipes, to stir the men and send them into battle. An hour later the twelve RAF Whitleys were airborne, each carrying ten men and equipment, and heading for the south coast of England, where they joined up before heading out across the Channel. On board the conditions were dark, cold and cramped. The men sat on the floor and huddled together along the sides of the fuselage, with sleeping bags and blankets to keep them warm.

Diversionary air raids had been planned for the night to keep the Luftwaffe and anti-aircraft flak batteries occupied and these were already in full operation. The Whitleys crossed the Channel at low altitude to avoid being detected by enemy radar. The clear visibility meant that navigation was not a problem and so the aircrew had little trouble locating the drop zones. Then, descending to below 500 feet, the Whitleys made their final run-in towards their drop zones.

On the ground there was little for the Germans at Bruneval to be concerned about. It had been a perfectly normal evening and although they were aware of RAF bombers approaching Le Havre, this was not unusual. The diversionary raids had done their job. The Germans suspected nothing.

The Whitleys initially paralleled the French coastline towards Le Havre and then turned towards Bruneval. It was now just after midnight and they were only minutes from the first drop. Their track took them about half a mile inland and they were now in their required order for the final run-in for the drop, with Pickard’s aircraft leading.

Inside Pickard’s aircraft was Charteris. He was the first to jump. Seconds later he was on the ground, but as he looked around and surveyed the scene, nothing was recognizable to him. Within minutes the other members of his group from the two lead aircraft, the men making up half of Nelson, were assembled with their equipment and ready to move, but there was no sign of Ross and the other half of the team. Unbeknown to Charteris at that time, Ross and his half of Nelson had been dropped in the correct place, but Charteris’s team had been dropped more than 2 miles short. The problem now was for him to decide in which direction they should go. Charteris had to take a chance and so he led his men off in a northerly direction, believing that to be correct. Ross, meanwhile, having waited a few minutes to see if Charteris and the men would turn up, had decided to move off regardless.

Frost and his main assault group arrived over their drop zone just five minutes after the lead element. The forty men of Drake, Hardy and Jellicoe then jumped and, five minutes later, the four aircraft carrying Timothy’s group, Rodney, arrived. They, too, then started to jump.

For Frost and the men of Drake, Hardy and Jellicoe the drop went as planned. They came down in the centre of their drop zone, and just twenty minutes later were in position and ready to commence their attack. For Timothy, however, the men of Rodney had initially become separated after a couple of wayward drops and one aircraft had to circle round for a second time. Nonetheless, Timothy had managed to get most of his men into position to provide protection for the main assault.

With his men ready, Frost gave a long, hard blast on his whistle as the order to open fire. Grenades and automatic fire rained down on the villa. The paras had taken the Germans completely by surprise, but what had come as a surprise to the raiders was that only one German had been encountered in the building; he stood no chance. Meanwhile, the assault on the radar by Young and the men of Jellicoe was fully underway. Frost and his men could hear the battle raging just a hundred yards or so away but it soon fell silent. A number of Germans lay dead and one radar technician was taken prisoner. Young’s group was still fully intact.

Everything had, so far, gone according to plan. Now it was Charlie Cox’s turn to do his bit. He had been in Frost’s group since leaving Tilshead but had to remain in the rear while the fighting had taken place. It was now time for him to set about his task. He quickly moved up to the radar and familiarized himself with the major components before dismantling what he could and placing the pieces of equipment on the trolleys ready for evacuation.

The German troops nearby were now fully alive to what was going on. The low-flying Whitleys, followed by the sound of explosions and gunfire, had initially caused confusion amongst the troops at La Presbytère as to what the target was likely to be. There was a much larger Freya radar installation nearby but they had now worked out that it was the Würzburg that was under attack. Having quickly made their way to the area, they could see the paras a few hundred yards away and were now in a position to counter-attack.

The rapid fire that suddenly came down on the paras from the area known as the Rectangle did not exactly come as a surprise. It had, indeed, been anticipated and planned for, but the speed at which the Germans had got to a strong position was a major concern. The incoming fire was fierce and accurate and the paras soon suffered their first casualty.

While Cox continued to dismantle the radar, Frost reacted by ordering Naumoff to take Drake to counter the threat coming from the Rectangle. The enemy troops were now getting stronger but the men of Drake continued to hold them at bay, each minute helping towards the mission’s success.

Frost was now aware that Nelson had become split during the drop and, as yet, had been unable to secure the evacuation route and the beach. He was having further difficulties with communicating with his groups because two radio operators were missing. They had been on board the aircraft that had been forced to go round again to make a second drop, but there was a further problem as some of the radio sets did not seem to work.

Ross, with only half the men available to him, had split them into three small groups, with two of his sergeants leading a group each: one went to the beach and the other to attack an enemy position on the cliff. Ross, meanwhile, took his small group to clear a network of enemy defensive positions. At first everything had gone well, but one of the small groups had been spotted and a heavy firefight had soon broken out. The sound of heavy machine-gun and semi-automatic fire could be heard for miles around. The flashes of weapons firing around the cliffs and down towards the beach had lit up the darkness of the night sky. The Germans seemed to be firing down on one group of paras while another group had gained a height advantage further up the cliff and were now firing down on the German emplacement. The defenders were well dug-in but rather static in their positions, whereas the paras were able to move and fire from different directions; also, the German defenders simply had no idea of the strength they were up against.

It had now turned into a full-scale battle and Frost could clearly hear just how ferocious the fight had become, but with no radio contact with Nelson he was unable to determine who was where. With casualties likely to mount he ordered Young to take Jellicoe down to the beach and to provide Ross with whatever support he could. It would not be any easier for Young to determine who was where either and so the men of Jellicoe proceeded as quickly, but as cautiously as they could. Meanwhile, Frost had instructed Timothy to send some men of Rodney towards the beach to add weight to the assault on the German positions that were dug-in, while using the rest of his group to counter the enemy approaching from the direction of La Presbytère.

The paras had now been on enemy soil for an hour, but to the men trying to get away it was starting to feel as if it had been much longer. Cox was still working as best he could to dismantle the radar but it was clear he was not going to be allowed much more time to do so. The situation was starting to become desperate as the enemy were getting more of a foothold in the surrounding area. Finally, having secured as much equipment as they could, and still under heavy fire, the raiders were ordered by Frost to withdraw to the beach. He knew the escape route had still not been cleared but he felt that it would be better for the men to try and fight their way to the beach rather than to stay where they were. But pulling fully laden trolleys across the snow-covered rugged ground proved hard work. As the paras made their way to the beach, a burst of heavy machine-gun fire made it obvious the evacuation area had still not been cleared.

Meanwhile, having been dropped some way short of their intended drop zone, Charteris and the rest of Nelson had made their way quickly to the scene. Charteris’s initial heading from their drop point had been good and he had soon been able to establish where they were. There had been the odd skirmish on the way to the beach but nothing his men could not handle. It had taken them well over an hour to reach the scene and when he arrived the battle had reached something of a stalemate. Moving quickly across unfamiliar terrain at night, and carrying equipment, some of it quite heavy, had meant that his group had now split into smaller units. So, having reached the cliff overlooking the beach, Charteris gathered what men he could as he assessed the situation as well as possible given the dark and the confusion, before leading them quietly down the slope of the cliff towards a villa on the beach that was occupied by enemy troops.

Charteris could wait no longer and, with his small group of men, stormed into the fight. They announced their arrival by lobbing grenades at the villa while some kept up constant fire on German positions overlooking the beach. The paras were now at their most vulnerable as they charged down the road towards the villa. It was a moment of outstanding bravery and swung the momentum of the battle in favour of the paras. Charteris was the first to reach the villa, along with one of his sergeants, David Grieve. They stormed the building with grenades and Sten machine guns firing, only to find just one startled German soldier inside; the rest had escaped. With the villa captured, Ross appeared; his men having cleared out the last of the defenders as others had fled to safety. At last the beach was in British hands. It was nearly 2.30 am.

Back up on the cliffs the enemy had reoccupied the villa that had housed the radar operators and guards. Frost, fully aware of the threat now posed from the rear, decided this would have to be dealt with. He could not afford to have more enemy troops firing on them from so close behind as his men tried to make their way down the cliffs. Rounding up what men and equipment he could, he led his men back across the plateau towards the villa. As they got closer they charged the building with all guns blazing. The sight of paras charging back to the villa came as an unwelcome surprise to those inside. The villa had been reoccupied, but not in sufficient strength to prevent the paras from regaining the building. With the Germans retreating back to safety, Frost returned towards the clifftops and gave the order for his men to make their way down towards the beach.

Once again, the trolleys laden with pieces of radar equipment were dragged down the gulley. With them was the German radar technician who had been taken prisoner. Down on the beach the scene was one of devastation. A handful of German prisoners stood under guard, their hands held high, but there was no sign of the evacuation flotilla of landing craft. Unbeknown to Frost, the flotilla had received no signals from the raiding party and had spent much of the time avoiding an enemy patrolling vessel that had nearly discovered them.

With Nelson left to protect the beach from any counter-attack from inland, flares were fired as a last desperate attempt to signal the flotilla. It was just what Cook and his men on board the landing craft had been waiting for. Finding a small beach at night along an extensive coastline, with all beaches and cliffs looking much the same, was never going to be easy, but Cook had managed to position the flotilla perfectly. They had been little more than a mile offshore and had witnessed the assault and the raging battle that followed, but Cook could not risk sending the landing craft ashore until the beach was secure.

Now it was time to begin the evacuation. The landing craft moved in quickly. The sight of the cavalry, in the form of landing craft, approaching the beach was a most welcome sight for the raiders, but suddenly machine-gun fire rattled down from the cliffs above. The landing craft had been spotted. With German troops firing on the paras from the cliffs above, and with the landing craft also coming under enemy fire, there was no time to land two by two and so, as the commandos on board returned fire on the German positions on top of the cliffs, all six craft came ashore at the same time.

For several minutes there was confusion and chaos on the beach. There was a further problem when a number of German troops came out of hiding in the cliffs and started to open fire on the landing craft below. The paras piled on board any landing craft they could find but the evacuation was now taking place later than planned, which meant the tide had changed and was now on its way out. Some landing craft got stuck on the pebbles and some left the beach completely overcrowded, while others left only partially loaded. Fortunately, though, the radar equipment was quickly evacuated, as were the German prisoners. Somehow, the raiding force was evacuated off the beach with Frost being the last to leave.

Having reached the safety of mid-Channel the paras were transferred to the faster MGBs to complete their transit back home. The journey back across the Channel passed uneventfully as the MGBs were escorted by four naval destroyers while air cover was provided by RAF Spitfires.

The raid on Bruneval was undoubtedly a success. It had cost the lives of just two men: 28-year-old Private Hugh McIntyre, who had been killed at the radar installation during the German counter-attack, and 24-year-old Private Alan Scott, who was killed on the cliffs during the evacuation. Eight others had been wounded and half a dozen had been left behind and were subsequently taken as prisoners of war; one had been wounded and five never made it to the landing craft during the rush and chaos of the evacuation.

The raid was made public when it was given great coverage by the media. It had come at a time when hitting back at the enemy was essential and was seen as a great morale boost, not only for the men of Combined Operations, but also for the British public at large. Prime Minister Winston Churchill had taken great interest in the raid; after all, it was exactly what units such as the paras and commandos had been formed to do.

Ten gallantry awards followed the success of the operation and were announced in the London Gazette on 15 May. For leading the raid John Frost was awarded the Military Cross, as was Euan Charteris, and there was a Distinguished Service Cross, one of three awarded for the raid, for Frederick Cook, while two other members of the evacuation party received the Distinguished Service Medal. There was also a Military Medal for Charlie Cox, the RAF radio technician who had volunteered to take part in the raid. His was one of three MMs awarded for the raid; the others were to Sergeant David Grieve, who had stormed the villa on the beach with Charteris, and Sergeant Gregor McKenzie, known as ‘Mac the Knife’, who had fought in the same decisive action. Nine others were awarded a Mention in Despatches. There was also subsequent recognition of Pick Pickard’s leadership of the Whitleys that had dropped the paras at Bruneval; Pickard received a bar to his DSO.

The success of the raid also ensured the expansion of British airborne forces and resulted in more airborne battalions later in the year. But it was the technical knowledge gained by British scientists that was the most important aspect of the raid. Examination of the Würzburg equipment showed the radar was vulnerable to new jamming techniques being considered at the time and this led to the development of Window, which were aluminium strips dropped in bundles as an effective countermeasure against German radars. It was a development that would save countless lives throughout the rest of the war.


Laksevaag bunker depot, looking north-west, July 1943.

Among the locations in which Welman submersibles were tested was the Queen Mary reservoir at Staines, Surrey.

The plan to sabotage the dock at Bergen, 1943

At the end of November 1943, an audacious raid was made against the German-occupied port of Bergen. The intention was to place explosive charges under the Laksevaag floating dock that supported the Bergen-based U-boats and German ships in the harbour.

The craft

This was the first and only operational use of Welman craft. These were basically one-man-operated submersibles that could carry a removable warhead. According to a wartime report, ‘the operator sat in comparative comfort in the dry, with warm hands and feet and could take food, with the knowledge that if necessary, the craft could be surfaced and the hatch opened eliminating any fear of claustrophobia.’

With an explosive charge attached, they measured just over 20ft long, with a hull diameter of just over 2½ft. Their range was about 30 miles at a maximum speed of around 4 knots, and they could safely dive to 100ft, allowing them to pass under torpedo nets. If necessary, they could stay submerged for some ten hours.

However, one big problem with the design was that they had no periscope. So, to assist with navigation, the craft were fitted with a gyro-compass that was accurate to 10 degrees per hour. Without a periscope, it was necessary for the craft to surface so that the operator could find his bearings through the windscreen and four portholes, or simply open the hatch and look out.

The basic design for the Welman originated from the aptly named Col John Dolphin of the Royal Engineers in mid-1942, and was developed in association with Special Operations Executive’s Professor Dudley Newitt. The idea was that the Welman would be carried by a submarine or flying boat to within 20 miles of its target, before being released to stealthily make its attack, attaching its time-delayed explosive charge to the hull of a ship before escaping undetected.

Three prototypes went into development at SOE’s Station IX, a highly secret facility not far from the town of Welwyn, just north of London; thus the craft was called a Welman (Welwyn One-Man Submarine).

A number of other submersibles were also being developed around the same time, including Chariots, which required operators to sit in diving suits ‘on’ the craft, rather than ‘in it’; and Welfreighters, which were bigger than Welmans and could carry three men inside. There were also the larger three-or four-man X-craft and the very much smaller single-man ‘Sleeping Beauties’ (submersible canoes capable of diving to 40ft). The disadvantage of all these other craft was that they required a bit more training before they could be used. Furthermore, the Welman was generally cheaper and easier to produce than many of the other submersibles.

The plan

The theory of the proposed raid had been tested during trials, when a Welman successfully got past anti-submarine protection, including nets, and placed a dummy charge on HMS Howe. Mock attacks were also practised against HMS Titania, with a dummy charge being successfully placed beneath her.

The 30th Flotilla, manned by officers and men of the Royal Norwegian Navy, were already operating from the Shetlands using motor torpedo boats (MTB) to attack targets in Scandinavian waters, and they agreed to be the first to try the Welmans, with Bergen as the target.

An intelligence report on the port dated 1 November 1943 states that until June 1941, there was only one 500ft-long floating dock at Bergen, which was moored off the end of the jetty at Laksevaag. However, with the development of the U-boat facilities there, more floating docks were provided; as of November 1943, it was reported that there were three 270ft-long and two 350ft-long floating docks in the area.

On 20 November 1943, MTB 635 and MTB 625 left Lunna Voe, Shetland, carrying four Welmans to be used in the raid. The four men undertaking this dangerous mission were Lt Carsten Johnsen of the Royal Norwegian Navy, Lt Bjørn Pedersen of the Norwegian Army, Lt Basil Marris of the Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve, and Lt James Holmes of the Royal Navy.

Preparing for the mission

In training, Pedersen had a lucky escape when his craft experienced technical problems and sank in 180ft of water. He escaped and ascended to the surface without any form of breathing apparatus, and was dragged from the water unconscious with blood coming out of his ears, nose and mouth. Fortunately, he was very fit and had good medical attention that saw him recover within a few hours, at which point he apparently asked if he could have another go.

Marris also had a dangerous moment during a Welman trial while being towed at a depth of around 60ft, when water started entering his craft and it reared up vertically. Via a communications line to the surface vessel, he reported that ‘his feet were getting wet’. Hauling the craft to the surface with the extra weight of water presented some difficulties and, while the recovery operation was underway, the communications line came adrift. However, once clear of the water, Marris was able to get out. It was reported that he ‘had his nerves well under control’, although the medical officer in attendance confirmed he was suffering from shock.

The men taking part in the raid were fully aware of just how dangerous the mission would be and were each issued with a handgun, though it is debatable how useful these might prove in the event of trouble. The main concern was simply being able to navigate without being either spotted or heard at the times when they were surfaced.

There were two ways to navigate a Welman. One was to dive the craft and work to a previously calculated formula – a method that was favoured by Holmes, as he did not want to be distracted by any light, landmark or other object of interest. The other method was to remain surfaced and steer via various landmarks and lights, only submerging when a threat was immediately apparent. This was the method chosen by the other three men.

The attack

As planned, the attack on Bergen progressed with the craft being launched from the MTBs at the entrance to the fjord at Solsviksund. The intention was they would make their way first to the island of Hjelthholmen, outside Bergen’s heavily defended harbour. Here, they would camouflage the Welmans and remain in hiding until continuing the raid the following evening. Unfortunately, however, during the day of 21 November, there was a great deal of unexpected activity in the vicinity by Norwegian fishermen that resulted in the Welmans being discovered. It was thus feared the Germans could have received word that some sort of attack was about to happen.

Nevertheless, at approximately 18:45 that day, 2nd Lt Pedersen left Hjelthholmen in his Welman to begin his attack run. He was followed at 15-minute intervals by Lt Holmes, Lt Marris and Lt Johnsen, in that order.

The sea was calm, but fine rain and local fog hampered navigation. Fortunately, Holmes had fitted his craft with a waterproof cape that meant he could sit his Welman low in the water, presenting a smaller silhouette, but when needed he could come to full buoyancy, open the hatch all the way and stand up with a pair of binoculars.

Pedersen, taking the lead, soon observed the tail of a convoy heading into Bergen and kept to starboard of this close to land, avoiding a German watch boat that was signalling the convoy. As he rounded a projecting headland, he suddenly saw a small boat heading straight for him. He immediately dived towards the entrance to Byfjorden and proceeded for some 15 minutes submerged.

Once resurfaced, he expected to see the lights from two lighthouses, but visibility was poor due to the rain on the portholes in the Welman’s small conning tower, and he could only see one light. He therefore opened the hatch and stood up to get a better view. At that moment, he saw the outline of a minesweeper some 40–60 yards away, which was signalling another vessel hundreds of yards away. The signalling immediately stopped and the light was instead directed straight at Pedersen. In a few seconds, other searchlights converged on him.

Before he could even half submerge, shots were fired from a 20mm gun that threw water up around the bows of his Welman. Knowing that the game was up, and fearing that if he were to dive, depth charges would be dropped that could kill both him and his comrades, Pedersen stood up and surrendered, dropping all his papers over the side. Unfortunately, they did not sink and were later recovered by the Germans.

The Welman was taking in water having been hit, though Pedersen later reported that they had apparently not shot directly at him, as at such a short range they could not possibly have missed. To assist in sinking his craft, therefore, Pedersen opened the trim tank flooding valve. As a rubber dingy approached, he opened the main vent and jumped into the water.

The other Welman operators apparently heard the shooting and realized that the Germans would know an attack was in progress and make their defences ready for them. They immediately aborted the mission and turned back.

Johnsen subsequently abandoned his Welman in Hjeltefjorden, near Vindnes, and swam to the shore. Marris, who had struggled with navigating, also made for the shore, abandoning his Welman near Brattholmen. Holmes also came ashore, making his way to Sotra. Assisted by the Norwegian resistance, the three men all met up at Sordalen further up the coast.

The aftermath of the raid

Between November 1943 and February 1944, the three men remained in hiding in Norway, making one abortive attempt to reach the UK by fishing boat in late December. This failed due to extremely bad weather and the poor condition of the boat. Many attempts were also made to recover them by MTBs and submarine chasers from Shetland, but none was successful, until 5 February 1944.

Pedersen, meanwhile, having been taken aboard the minesweeper, was interrogated by the Kriegsmarine the whole night. The next morning, the Gestapo arrived and took him away for further questioning. He had been wearing a Royal Navy volunteer reserve uniform and claimed to be a British officer rather than a member of the Norwegian forces. This was a story he stuck to, as it is thought that he would probably have been executed had the Germans known his true identity.

It was acknowledged by the British authorities later that during the subsequent questioning, Pedersen displayed very marked coolness and presence of mind. He gave such answers that the Germans were completely misled as to the plan of the operation, the number of craft taking part and the arrangements made for the recovery of the officers engaged. He spent the rest of the war in a prison camp in Germany.

Although the raid had not been successful, lessons were learned. Two further submersible raids took place using X-craft, which resulted in the floating dock finally being destroyed in September 1944.

On 2 September 1949, the British Naval Attaché in Oslo contacted the Director of Naval Intelligence informing him that a Welman submarine had been recovered at Bergen. It was agreed that it would be donated to a local museum. It is James Holmes’ Welman that is now on display at the Naval Museum in Horten, Norway.


Art by Geoffgeoffp

Kampfgeschwader 200 was a secret fighting force of World War 2, so secret that individual units within it were unknown to each other; so mysterious that even today, most diaries and documents dealing with it are, according to both Allied and German authorities, either “missing” or “destroyed”. Yet it presented the Allies with one of the most dangerous threats of the entire war, and the unravelling of its intricate web of operations became top priority.

Despite the disappearance of official KG200 records, some documents, orders, records of prisoner-of-war interrogations, and intelligence reports confirming the existence and operations of the unit were found. Former members of KG200 were traced, though the pictures each could, or would reveal was always limited, for personnel were deliberately kept in the dark as to the activities of their comrades. And most, even after all these years were still unwilling to talk… an attitude less surprising when one takes into account the fact that their former commanding officer, Oberstleutnant Werner Baumbach (the Luftwaffe’s greatest and most decorated bomber pilot), failed to mention a single word about KG200 in the autobiography he published after the war!

KG200 (Battle Wing 200) was officially formed by order of the Luftwaffe high command (OKL) on 20 February 1944. The first components of the new unit came from the amalgamation of the 1st and 2nd Test Formations (both composed of many squadrons) of the Abwehr 5th Branch (air intelligence) which already had many captured Allied aircraft. By early July 44, the unit already had over 100 trained crews and was operating 32 different German and Allied aircraft types.

This large fleet of aircraft included Ar-232s, B-17s, B-24s, Bv-138s, Bv-222s, Ju-52s, Ju-88s, Ju-188s, Ju-352s, Ju-290s, Ju390s, He-111s, He-177s, Pe-2s (Soviet), and Sb-2s (Soviet) to name a few… These aircraft used operationally on all fronts carrying out a great variety of missions ranging from reconnaissance, to cargo transport, to the covert ferrying of agents in and out of enemy territory, to bombing and missile attacks! Many a German agent was dropped in Allied territory by this unit, what better disguise than a B-17? These aircraft were also used to shadow 8th Air Force bomber formations sending out a constant stream of radio updates of the air battle with up to the minute altitude and heading of the big bomber boxes; and this, without fear of attack from Allied fighters. Some of these aircraft were redesignated so as to not attract attention, for example, the B-17s in Luftwaffe service were referred to as the Dornier 200.

KG200 was a huge organisation operating over the entire European Theater of Operations. With bases from the shores of the Baltic to the Algerian desert to the coast of France and back to deep inside the Soviet Union, KG200 was like a gigantic octopus veiled in a shroud of secrecy we will probably never totally uncover.

Werner Baumbach

Oberstleutnant Werner Baumbach (wearing his Knights Cross with oak -leaf clusters) served with KG 30 and became one of the prime exponents of the Junkers 88 in the dive-bombing role. He fought with distinction during the Battle of France, the Battle of Britain, on the Eastern Front and in the hard-fought actions carrying supplies to the USSR round the north of Norway. He was Geschwader Kommodore (commander) of the elite Kampfgeschwader 200 from October 44 to March 45 being promoted to Oberst and becoming “General of the Bombers” – the highest post in German bomber Command. After the war he resumed his flying career in Argentina where he died on 20th October 1953, aged 36, while test flying of all things, an Avro Lancaster recently delivered to the Argentine Air Force.

1942 Med Junkers Ju 88 Werner Baumbach – Andrey Zhirnov

KG200 General Information

Unit formed 20 February 1944 and disbanded 25 April 1945


Feb 44 to Oct 44 —> Oberst Heinz Heigl

Oct 44 to Mar 45 —> Oberstleutnant Werner Baumbach

Mar 45 to Apr 45 —> Major Adolf Von Hernier

Note about Luftwaffe Formations

Staffel = Squadron * Gruppe = Wing * Geschwader = Group

So when you see the II/KG200, it stands for the second gruppe (wing) of geschwader (group) 200. And 5/KG200 stands for the 5th staffel (squadron) of geschwader (group) 200. In our case, the 5th staffel was part of II/KG200. Roman numerals denote the wing number and Arabic numerals the squadron but all are part of KG200.

KG200 was divided as follows:

STAB/KG200 (staff flight)

Base: HQ at Berlin-Gatow

Aircraft types: Fw-200 and Ju-188

I/KG200 (1st Gruppe)

Composed of 4 staffeln (squadrons)

I/KG200 handled agent work and then also included bombing operations:

Base: HQ at Finow

1/KG200 (1st squadron)

This staffel handled the long-distance operations.

Base: Finow

Aircraft types: Fw-200, Ju-290, Ju-390, Ju-52, Ju-252, Ju-352, Ar-232, He-177, B-17, B-24

2/KG200 (2nd squadron)

Handled short and medium range operations.

HQ at Finow but was divided into four “outstations”: “CARMEN” in Northern Italy covered the western and southern Mediterranean, North and West Africa. “KLARA” and “TOSKA” handled the Eastern Front and “OLGA” (Frankfurt) handled Western Europe, England, Ireland and Iceland.

Aircraft types: Ju-52, Ju-88, Ju-188, Do-217, He-177, B-17, B-24

3/KG200 (3rd squadron)

Handled transport with flying boats and some training duties.

Base: Baltic island of Ruegen (later at Flensburg)

Aircraft types: Ar-196, BV-138, BV-222, Do-18, Do-24, He-115

4/KG200 (4th squadron)

Handled training and technical matters.

Base: Finow

Aircraft types: Ar-96, Bf-108, Bü-181 and a few other training types

III/KG200 (2nd Gruppe)

Composed of 3 staffeln (squadrons)

II/KG200 Provided pathfinders, radar-jamming aircraft, bombers, Mistels and Mistel training

Base: HQ at Burg

5/KG200 (5th squadron)

Was a pathfinder, bomber and radar-jamming unit

Base: Burg

Aircraft types: Ju-88S, Ju-188A & E

6/KG200 (6th squadron)

Was the operational Mistel unit.

Base: Rechlin

Aircraft types: Mistels 1(Bf-109F & Ju-88A), 2(Fw-190A-6 & Ju-88G-1) and 3(Fw-190A-8 & Ju-88G-10 or H-4)

7/KG200 (7th squadron)

Was the Mistel training unit.

Base: Rechlin

Aircraft types: Mistels S1(Bf-109F & Ju-88A4), S2(Fw-190A-8 & Ju-88G-1) and S3A(Fw-190A-6 & Ju-88A-6)

III/KG200 (3rd Gruppe)

Composed of 1 staffel (squadron)

An experimental unit responsible for fitting the Fw-190 fighters with torpedoes.

Base: Berlin-Staaken

Aircraft type: Fw-190F-8

IV/KG200 (4th Gruppe)

Handled the Fi-103(manned V-1 flying bomb).

Base: Prenzlau

Aircraft types: Fi-103R1, R2, R3 and R4, He-111, He111Z (Zwilling), Go-242 and DFS-230(glider)

Geoffrey J Thomas, Barry Ketley: KG 200: The Luftwaffe’s Most Secret Unit, Hikoki Publications, 2003, ISBN 1-902109-33-3.

Shrouded in secrecy during World War II and obscured by myth ever since, Kampfgeschwader 200 (200th Bomb Wing) remains one of the Luftwaffe’s most fascinating formations. Considered a special-operations unit, KG 200 delivered spies while flying captured Allied aircraft, conducted clandestine reconnaissance missions, and tested Germany’s newest weapons–such as a piloted version of the V-1 rocket (essentially a German kamikaze).

Covers some of the KG 200’s more sinister operations, including suicide missions and the unit’s role in defeating a French Resistance insurrection in June-July 1944

Includes information on aircraft used and known personnel losses

Features rare photos and color illustrations of KG 200 aircraft

Extortion 17

The moon had set and the sky was black as the insurgents on a corner turret of a compound 200 meters south of the Logar River scanned the darkness for targets. Looking north, they could see the gray outlines of the mud-brick villages dotting the strip of vegetation that in daylight ran like a green ribbon through the center of the valley, but now was just another shade of black. For years the valley had been inhospitable to invaders. U.S. soldiers built a combat outpost there in spring 2009, but never succeeded in controlling more than a thousand meters around the tiny base, which they abandoned two years later. Now the Americans were back. For hours their airplanes had been circling above the valley, clearly audible in the still of the night. There were also two types of helicopter in the air: the large, twin-rotor ones, a pair of which had landed to the northeast four and a half hours previously, depositing dozens of soldiers who were now scouring a village compound; and the smaller attack helicopters, which the men on the tower had heard firing at their colleagues north of the river.

The helicopters were prize targets for the insurgents, but shooting down a blacked-out helicopter on a dark night using the rudimentary sights on a heavy machine gun or a rocket-propelled grenade launcher was not easy. The Taliban in the valley were getting closer, however. Two months previously they had volley-fired more than a dozen rocket-propelled grenades at one of the twin-rotor helicopters, forcing it to abort its mission and leave the valley.

It was about 2:39 A.M. when the men heard the distinctive sound of another twin-rotor helicopter. Searching the night sky for its black silhouette, they shouldered their rocket-propelled grenade launchers in order to be ready should it appear. The aircraft was coming from the northwest, but approaching quickly.


It was the middle of the night of August 5, 2011, a little more than three months since the bin Laden raid. The Ranger strike force that landed at 11:01 P.M. in the Tangi Valley of eastern Wardak province, about thirty-five miles south-southwest of Kabul, was hunting Qari Tahir, who had been the valley’s senior Taliban commander since June 6, when the task force had killed his predecessor, Din Mohammad. Signals intelligence had located Qari Tahir (also known as Objective Lefty Grove) in a compound on the river’s north side at 6:55 that evening. The strike force quickly put a plan together and, after getting it cleared through the JSOC chain of command in Afghanistan, launched from Forward Operating Base Shank in neighboring Logar province at 10:37 P.M. on two Chinooks. The forty-seven-person force landed unopposed about 2,000 meters to the east of the target compound, and proceeded to walk toward it, a patrol that took place at an altitude of between 6,500 and 7,000 feet.

The Rangers had a lot of friends in the sky: an air weapons team of two AH-64 Apache attack helicopters; an MQ-1 Predator drone; an AC-130 gunship; an MC-12 Liberty surveillance plane; and a PC-12 surveillance plane. The patrol took almost an hour to reach the target compound. Half an hour into that movement, the Apaches watched four individuals leave the compound and join four others. Armed with assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenade launchers, the eight men moved off in a northwesterly direction. The Apache pilots decided the men were displaying hostile intent based on the weapons they carried. After discussing the situation with the ground force, the Apaches attacked at 11:40 P.M., firing sixty rounds of 30mm chain gun ammunition and killing five of the small group. Of the three survivors, one stayed put. The Apaches killed him a few minutes later with another sixty rounds of “thirty mike-mike.” The two who were left moved off northwest. Others joined them as they walked parallel to the river.

At 11:54 P.M. the assault force paused about 100 meters east of the compound to prepare for its actions on the objective, before moving forward and, at twenty minutes past midnight, using the seven Afghan Partner Unit soldiers on the mission, beginning the call-out. The assault force then cleared the buildings, finishing just after 2 A.M. The Ranger platoon leader also sent a small element forward to check out the site where the Apaches had killed six men.

Meanwhile, the AC-130 continued to track the two escapees from that attack. Their group had grown until it numbered thirteen men, of whom eight were seen entering a compound about two or three kilometers northwest of the Rangers’ original objective at about 1:30 A.M. The usual course of action in the case of “squirters” fleeing the objective or “movers” departing from near it was for some of the assault force already on the ground to interdict them. On other missions, the assault force kept an element aloft in helicopters that could land and intercept suspected insurgents trying to escape. In those cases, the force in the helicopters was called the airborne reaction force or immediate reaction force. But neither option was available that night. The assault force did not have time to clear the objective, sort through their detainees and the corpses of the people the Apaches had killed, and then move northwest and deal with the small but growing group of squirters and movers before daybreak. The Task Force East commander, who was also Team 6’s Gold Squadron commander, decided to use an immediate reaction force at Forward Operating Base Shank to fly in to the valley and interdict the group that had escaped the original assault force. Using an immediate reaction force this way—especially when the original assault force was not under attack—was rare. But after checking with the Ranger colonel in charge of the Afghanistan task force, at 2 A.M. the Task Force East commander ordered Gold Squadron’s 2 Troop to interdict the suspected insurgents that had gathered northwest of the objective.

With no Task Force Brown MH-47s available, two conventional Army CH-47D Chinooks flew the mission. To minimize the risk to the aircraft, however, the immediate reaction force crowded onto just one helicopter. The other flew empty and broke off a few minutes before the Chinook with the SEALs on board made its final approach. The helicopter carrying the Gold Squadron troop was flown by a mixed five-man Army Reserve and National Guard crew. Its call sign was Extortion 17. It was headed to a landing zone about a kilometer northwest of the compound in which the eight individuals had taken refuge. On the helicopter were fifteen Gold Squadron operators (including the troop’s commander, Lieutenant Commander Jonas Kelsall), five Gold Squadron support personnel, two SEALs from a West Coast team, an interpreter, and seven Afghan Partner Unit soldiers, plus a military working dog. The immediate reaction force was wheels up from FOB Shank at 2:24 A.M.

Extortion 17 was flying into a high-threat environment. On June 6, insurgents in the valley had shot fourteen or fifteen rocket-propelled grenades at another Chinook, forcing it to abort its mission to infiltrate U.S. troops. To mitigate the threat to Extortion 17, the AC-130 gunship (7,000 feet above ground level) and both Apaches were supposed to be covering its approach, scanning the ground for insurgents. At 2:38 A.M., flying in a southeasterly direction, the pilots announced they were a minute out from the landing zone. Twenty-three seconds later the Apaches announced that the landing zone was “ice,” meaning no Taliban were visible. But as Extortion 17 slowed to about 50 knots on its final approach, insurgents on a turret 220 meters to the south shouldered rocket-propelled grenade launchers and, unnoticed, took aim at the helicopter, which was now no more than 150 feet off the ground and flying across their forward field of view. Their first round missed. But the second was a better—or luckier—shot. The Apache crew members saw a red flash as the round launched, followed by another as the rocket—probably an OG-7V 40mm antipersonnel round—hit an aft rotor blade and exploded on impact, severing about ten feet of the blade. Less than two seconds later the resulting imbalance twisted the aft rotor pylon off the helicopter. The helicopter went into a violent clockwise spin, ripping off the forward pylon. Within five seconds of being hit, the Chinook fuselage fell out of the sky, crashing into the bank of the Logar River in a fiery impact that killed all aboard.

On the AC-130, they’d heard the reports of an RPG and swept the area with their sensors looking for the Chinook. They saw the fireball but initially couldn’t believe that was the helicopter. But after several long seconds of searching for Extortion 17 they realized the awful truth. At 2:40 A.M. and ten seconds, one of the Apache pilots reported: “Extortion is down.”

As is the norm in all but the largest or most vital operations, the shoot-down changed the mission focus, in this case from a raid to personnel recovery. The Ranger assault force released its detainees and moved 3,900 meters on foot to secure the crash site, arriving at 4:45 A.M., just before the arrival of a quick reaction force from the conventional Army.

Later that day JSOC’s signals intelligence assets picked up a midlevel Taliban leader saying that his fighter had shot down the helicopter, and that he was moving him to Pakistan for his own protection. The task force followed the phone on which the leader was speaking, tracking it—as well as the guerrilla leader and his RPG gunner—deeper into Wardak province. Lieutenant General Joe Votel, who had assumed command of JSOC from McRaven on June 10, ordered the task force to kill the two insurgents at the first opportunity. Task force aircraft followed the pair’s vehicle, waiting for a chance to strike without harming civilians. That came on August 8 when they stopped at a compound and wandered into some nearby trees.6 With an F-16 waiting to deliver the blow, the task force seized its chance at vengeance. Several 500-pound bombs and Apache gun runs later, both men lay dead. But their demise was little compensation for JSOC’s loss.

The downing of Extortion 17 marked the greatest number of casualties ever suffered by U.S. Special Operations Command, as well as the single biggest loss of American lives in the Afghan war. The Naval Special Warfare community reeled in shock. For Team 6, still basking in the glow of the bin Laden operation, the loss was almost immeasurable.

An investigation led by Brigadier General Jeffrey Colt, an experienced special operations aviator, soon determined the facts behind the shoot-down of Extortion 17. But in the wake of the tragedy, some saw an opportunity to make political hay. Freedom Watch, a conservative political advocacy group, held a news conference in May 2013 at Washington, D.C.’s, National Press Club with a few of the bereaved families. It was followed by a congressional hearing in February 2014. At these events critics suggested that the Obama administration had “put a target” on the backs of the Team 6 operators by identifying the unit as the one that killed bin Laden. But none of the critics produced evidence that the insurgents who downed the helicopter knew who was on board, nor did they provide proof of any conspiracy or egregious failure beyond what the investigation had revealed.


At the time of the Extortion 17 disaster, JSOC’s Afghanistan task force had 3,816 personnel, about 2.4 percent of the Coalition’s 155,000 personnel. The command’s cutting edge was its nineteen strike forces, divided up between the subordinate Task Forces South, Central, East, and North. The task force’s main effort was aimed at enhancing security in Kandahar and Helmand provinces, a task that fell to the Ranger-led Task Force South. Supporting efforts included: expanding what JSOC called Kabul’s “security bubble,” which was the shared responsibility of the Ranger-led Task Force Central and the Team 6–led Task Force East; “degrading” the Haqqani Network in Paktia, Paktika, and Khost provinces, which fell in TF Central’s area of operations; “degrading” Taliban and Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan operations in Kunduz and Baghlan provinces, which was the job of the Delta-led Task Force North; and denying Al Qaeda sanctuary in the eastern provinces of Kunar and Nuristan.

In the year preceding the Extortion 17 shoot-down, JSOC forces in Afghanistan conducted 2,824 missions, of which 2,608 were night raids—an average of more than seven raids a night. Only 301 missions involved shots fired, the vast majority of which occurred during daytime missions (one reason why JSOC was so determined to retain the right to conduct night raids). The “jackpot” rate—the rate at which the assault forces captured or killed the man they were seeking—was 1,381, or about 49 percent.9 But these numbers hid a growing disillusionment among the operators with the way the war was going. In particular, it was hard for the veterans of JSOC’s killing machine in Iraq to muster the same enthusiasm for the command’s efforts in Afghanistan.

There were signs by 2012 that JSOC personnel had given up hope of victory in Afghanistan, where, unlike Iraq, it was hard to see tangible benefits from the nightly missions in the form of a declining rate in violence. “In Afghanistan at the strike force level, at the troop level, they knew that this war is not going to end, [that] we’re not going to win,” said a Ranger officer. “In Iraq I think they knew they could win.” This view was not confined to the Rangers. “I don’t want to say Green’s morale was low, but Green was fucking bitter,” the Ranger officer said of his Delta brethren. The attitude of the Green operators in Sharana was “Fuck this, this doesn’t make a difference; these raids don’t matter.” The same was true of the Rangers. In 2011, “I have to convince NCOs to go out,” the Ranger officer said. “I have to yell at them to go on a mission. They’re like, ‘Sir, fuck this. It doesn’t matter. I don’t want to do this. This raid, for this low-level IED guy is not going to change anything.’ Morale changes. They’re fucking run ragged … They don’t want to do this.”

Setting the record straight: Myths and misinformation about Extortion 17

2020 Nigeria Hostage Rescue

Dissecting The U.S. Hostage Rescue Operation In Nigeria: Here Are All The Assets That Took Part In The Raid

During the early hours of 31 October 2020, United States Navy SEALs from the Naval Special Warfare Development Group (DEVGRU), parachuted from Air Force Special Operations aircraft, and conducted a successful rescue operation of an American hostage in northern Nigeria killing six of the seven captors. The hostage, 27-year-old Philip Walton, had been kidnapped in front of his family at his home in the village of Massalata in neighboring Niger on 26 October by armed gunmen, who intended to sell him to armed terrorist groups in the area.

In 2020, Niger experienced a multitude of attacks by extremists linked to both Islamic State (IS) groups and Al-Qaeda. About two months prior to the kidnapping of Walton, IS-linked militants killed six French aid workers and their Niger guide while they were visiting a wildlife park near the capital Niamey. Additionally American aid worker Jeffery Woodke was kidnapped from Abalak in October 2016, and is believed to be held in Mali.

Philip Walton is an American citizen and the son of missionaries, who has lived in Massalata with his wife and child for two years. His father lives in Birni-N’konni, and has lived in Niger for about 30 years.

Walton was kidnapped by six men armed with Kalashnikovs, from his farm in Massalata in southern Niger in the early morning of 27 October 2020. The kidnappers initially demanded money from Walton, but abducted him after he was only able to offer US$40. The kidnappers then demanded a US$1 million ransom from Walton’s father via a phone call.

The Nigerian Interior Ministry announced the incident via a statement read on national radio, which claimed that the kidnappers had searched Waltons home before fleeing with him. The country sent additional security reinforcements to the area and began efforts with the United States to secure the release of Walton.

Walton was rescued on 31 October 2020, in northern Nigeria. Officials from the US Department of Defense and US Department of State have not linked the kidnappers to any terrorist organization.

US President Donald Trump hailed the operation and the rescue team on Twitter, where he said that the operation was a “big win for our very elite U.S. Special Forces” and added “[…] we got our young man back.” Trump also referenced the rescue at a campaign speech in Pennsylvania stating; “The kidnappers wished they had never done it.” and “…we got our young man back.”

Meanwhile, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo also reacted on Twitter where he described the operation as “outstanding.” White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany spoke on Fox & Friends about the rescue and stated that the president prioritizes the safety of American citizens.

Mick Mulroy, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense and retired CIA officer, said “These types of operations are some of the most difficult to execute. Any mistake could easily lead to the death of the hostage. The men and women of JSOC, and the CIA should be proud of what they did here. And all Americans should be proud of them. “ Eric Oehlerich, a retired Navy SEAL, said, “Men in these top-tier special forces units train their entire adult lives to be ready when called upon, hostage rescue operations are inherently dangerous. Those men put someone else’s life above their own, they do so selflessly….it’s an illustration of utter commitment.”

Niger kidnapping signals Salafi-jihadis’ growing influence in West Africa

Salafi-jihadi groups’ strengthening in West Africa is incentivizing attacks on foreigners, even in areas where Salafi-jihadi groups have a limited presence. Six criminals kidnapped an American farmer, Philip Walton, in southwestern Niger near the Nigerian border on October 27. The kidnappers, who were not themselves members of a Salafi-jihadi group, demanded nearly $1 million and threatened to turn Walton over to Salafi-jihadi militants if the ransom was not paid. US Special Operations Forces rescued Walton on October 31. The kidnappers’ threat reflects the growing influence of Salafi-jihadi groups in the border region of northwestern Nigeria and southwestern Niger.

Salafi-jihadi groups are increasingly active in and around the region of northwestern Nigeria and southwestern Niger where Walton was kidnapped. Three groups are active in this area. The Islamic State’s West Africa Province (ISWA) has two branches: one based in northeastern Nigeria and its environs, and one based in the tri-border area of Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso. The latter group is commonly referred to as the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS). Al Qaeda–linked Ansaru also operates in northwestern Nigeria.

All three groups have recently resumed activity in or advanced toward northwestern Nigeria. On August 9, ISGS killed eight French aid workers in southwestern Niger’s Giraffe Zone, expanding its operations to an area previously considered safe. ISWA is already active in southeastern Niger and regularly claims attacks in Niger’s Diffa region and in northern Nigeria. ISWA’s area of operations may be expanding westward, and the group is active in regions outside its control.

ISWA may also be competing with Ansaru, an al Qaeda–linked group that resurfaced in northwestern Nigeria in 2019. ISWA and ISGS have recently stepped up attacks targeting foreigners and aid workers. US security forces rescued Walton in Nigeria, which may indicate the kidnappers’ intent to transfer him to ISWA.

Two major areas of Salafi-jihadi activity may be merging across northwestern Nigeria. ISGS’s eastward shift and ISWA’s westward advance could connect the two main areas of Salafi-jihadi activity in West Africa and increase interaction between the two groups. This interaction could include sharing tactical and strategic guidance, accessing each other’s safe havens to weather counterterrorism pressure, or even coordinating joint attacks.

Salafi-jihadi groups will likely benefit from lucrative illicit economic activity along the Niger-Nigeria border. The area of Walton’s kidnapping is a key crossing point for trafficking and smuggling, including the moving of migrants toward the Maghreb and Europe. A greater presence along the Niger-Nigeria border may allow a Salafi-jihadi–criminal nexus to exploit these routes for transit and profit-making. Salafi-jihadi groups may also expand ties with local criminal groups to facilitate their expansion into new areas. 

Rising Salafi-jihadi threats in West Africa will increasingly strain Niger, a US partner. Niger is already fighting Salafi-jihadi groups on two fronts and may now confront the merging of these two theaters along its entire southern border. Niger is a key player in counterterrorism efforts in West Africa and contributes troops to counterterrorism missions in Mali and Nigeria. Niger also hosts US and French forces. A serious uptick in Salafi-jihadi activity in Niger could worsen its already struggling economy by disrupting tourism and targeting the significant humanitarian presence in the country.

Operation Kingpin: The U.S. Army Raid on Son Tay, 21 November 1970 Part I

Raiders exit a deliberately crashed helicopter at the Son Tay prison camp in North Vietnam. Painting: Mikhail Nikiporenko/USAF


In 1968, 356 American prisoners of war (POWs) were being held in camps north of the Demilitarized Zone in the Republic of North Vietnam. One of these facilities was Camp Hope, located near the Son Tay citadel, just twenty-three miles northwest of Hanoi. It had been activated on 24 May 1968, and over the course of the next several months fifty-five American POWs were moved into the small compound. After U.S. intelligence sources located the camp, the Interagency Prisoner of War Intelligence Committee (IPWIC), headed by the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), began to focus its reconnaissance efforts to determine whether American POWs were being held at Son Tay.

In May 1970, the U.S. Air Force’s 1127th Special Activity Squadron (Headquarters Command) received aerial reconnaissance photos taken of Son Tay that showed a coded message “spelled out” by the prisoners indicating the number of personnel interned and the location of a possible pickup site eight miles to the northeast at Mount Ba Vi. (The 1127th believed that the work parties from Son Tay were being sent to Mount Ba Vi to chop wood either for the kitchen fires or for camp construction projects.) The 1127th provided the information to Brig. Gen. James Allen, the deputy director of plans and policy under the deputy chief of staff for plans and Operations, Headquarters, U.S. Air Force, who commissioned a preliminary study of rescue possibilities and presented the findings to Brig. Gen. Donald Blackburn, the special assistant for counterinsurgency and special activities (SACSA), Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS). Blackburn immediately asked the DIA to conduct a photo reconnaissance mission of both Son Tay and another suspected POW camp called Ap Lo. On 2 June, DIA provided Blackburn with SR-71 photos that confirmed the presence of “someone” in both camps. Three days later Blackburn briefed the JCS and recommended an in-depth feasibility study be conducted with options provided to the JCS by 30 June. He later recalled, “The JCS wanted more detail before they would make a determination of whether we should go on with this thing or before they would agree to a joint task force to be set up to plan this operation.”

JCS approved the study, and on 10 June SACSA convened a twelve-man study group from all three services and DIA. But Blackburn realized it would be difficult to get a mission approved. “I knew from the start that we would be singing to a reluctant choir. My inhibitions stemmed from my days as Chief SOG in Viet Nam … There was an off-and-on policy at the time about bombing in the north, and they did not want to rock the boat by these ground operations.”

The initial concept-of-operations brief to the Joint Chiefs was delayed from 30 June until 10 July, at which time Col. Norman Frisbie, USAF, the senior member of the preliminary study group, told the JCS that a rescue effort was feasible, and he presented an expanded concept of the operation. Initially, Blackburn and his staff considered inserting a controlled American source (CAS) agent (Vietnamese recruited by SOG) into the vicinity of Son Tay. The agent would verify the presence of POWs and call in a helicopter-borne rescue force that would be prepositioned on the Laotian border. This concept was discarded because of fears that prepositioning forces in Laos would alert the North Vietnamese and compromise the mission. Consequently, the planning group recommended that a combined fixed-wing and rotary-wing air element (two C-130Es, five HH-53s, one HH-3, and five A-1Es) be launched from Thailand to insert and support a Special Forces ground-assault force that would rescue the POWs. The navy would provide a massive three-carrier air strike into North Vietnam as a deception to focus enemy air defenses and radars away from the inbound rescue force. The JCS approved the concept and directed commencement of detailed planning and training.

On 8 August, a joint contingency task group (JCGF) was formed under the JCS with SACSA as the office with primary responsibility. Brig. Gen. Leroy J. Manor, USAF, commander of the Special Operations Force at Eglin Air Force Base, Florida, was designated as the commander, and Col. Arthur D. Simons, USA, J4, XVIII Airborne Corps, Fort Bragg, North Carolina, was assigned as the deputy. Admiral Moorer, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told Manor, “You have the authority to put together a task force and train that task force.” Manor was pleased with the clear direction and support. He said later, “We had practically a blank check when we left there to go ahead with this. We had the authority we needed to get whatever resources we needed personnel-wise or equipment-wise or whatever. All the resources that were available in the military were ours to put this together. It is the only time in my 36 years of active duty that somebody gave me a job, simply stated, and the resources with which to do it, and let me go do it!”

Immediately upon establishment of the JCT, Colonel Simons returned to Fort Bragg and requested volunteers for a classified mission involving considerable travel and risk. Over five hundred men from the John F. Kennedy Center for Special Warfare showed up for the initial meeting. Some men, not knowing the nature of the operation, elected not to return for a follow-on screening. Each of those men who did return was personally interviewed by Colonel Simons, Lt. Col. Joseph Cataldo, a Special Forces medical officer, and two sergeants major. Eventually 120 men were chosen as the nucleus for the army component of the Son Tay force. “Every one of these people had been to Viet Nam. Some of them had had two or three tours in Viet Nam.”

At the same time, the air force crews were being selected from personnel assigned to the Aerospace Rescue and Recovery Training Center at Eglin. This squadron possessed the only stateside heavy-lift, air-refuelable H-3 and HH-53 helicopters. Some HH-53 crews from the 40th Air Rescue Squadron and the 703d Special Operations Squadron were even returned to Florida from Southeast Asia to participate in the operation. Additionally, the 1st Special Operations Wing at Hurlburt Field, Florida, and the 56th Special Operations Squadron in Thailand supplied pilots and co-pilots. According to Col. John Allison, “All of the foregoing crew members volunteered, and after being interviewed by General Manor or Lieutenant Colonel Warner Britton, were selected to participate on the mission. Colonel Britton was the Air Force representative who participated in the feasibility study and was pilot of Apple 1 on the mission.”

Once chosen, all the men were taken to Duke Field at Eglin to begin training. Eglin was chosen as the training site because it had all the necessary resources and provided the isolation required to maintain security. The training began on 20 August and terminated on 8 November 1970. During the interim, the air and ground planning staffs assumed the joint planning function. Regularly scheduled joint meetings were held to plan the logistic and training activities. In Washington, intelligence agencies continued to gather extensive information on Son Tay. “Both SR-71 and drone (low altitude) resources were programmed to obtain aerial photography of the objective, the surrounding area, and the tentative route.”

Operational security was considered essential to the success of the mission. The Security Staff Section was established on 11 August 1970 and given the responsibility of maintaining security and counterintelligence for the project. Work areas were surveyed, visitor control was established, classified material control was instituted within the work space, and all messages leaving the command were screened by the Security Staff. All the personnel involved in the planning, support, or execution of the raid had their phones monitored. Brigadier General Manor received a daily report detailing the highlights of possible violations. Additionally, a cover and deception plan was developed for the training and deployment phase and a counterintelligence plan to provide specialized assistance in gathering information on possible organized threats to the mission.

As training progressed, Brigadier General Manor and Colonel Simons frequently traveled to Washington to assist the SACSA planning cell and brief the necessary senior officials. Manor recalled that on 8 September

Simons, Don Blackburn, and myself had an appointment to brief the chiefs and I was the briefer, the commander of the task force. I pointed out to the chiefs that we had determined that this [the Son Tay raid] is feasible. It can be done. This is how we plan to do it and I outlined the concept. We will be ready to do this on the 21st of October.8 Admiral Moorer [Chairman of the JCS] said, “We could approve it here, but of course, it has to go to a higher level for [final] approval. You will have to brief the secretary of defense.” Secretary of defense was Mr. Melvin Laird. We weren’t able to schedule a briefing before him until the 24th of September. And at the same time, we briefed the Director of CIA [Central Intelligence Agency] [Richard Helms]. Apparently he had been briefed before … They were rather noncommittal, although Secretary Laird said that he agreed with the concept and he agreed that it was feasible, and we would have to wait for higher authority. We knew, of course, that it would have to go to the White House. But it wasn’t until the 8th of October that we had an opportunity to brief the White House. Then we briefed Dr. Kissinger and General A1 Haig. A1 Haig, then, was the military assistant to Kissinger. The briefing was well received there. No changes made in concept. They didn’t have any problems with how we planned to do this, and they had confidence we could do it.

Kissinger told Manor that the mission might have to be delayed from 21 October to 21 November. Unbeknownst to Manor, President Nixon was working to gain the release of POWs through diplomatic means, and he was concerned that a raid could compromise those initiatives. Kissinger authorized Manor to continue training. On 1 November, Admiral Moorer authorized Manor to conduct in-the-ater coordination. Prior to this time no one beyond CINCPAC (commander in chief, Pacific) (Admiral McCain) was aware of the proposed operation. Blackburn, Manor, and Simons flew to Saigon and briefed General Creighton Abrams (commander, U.S. Military Assistance Command, Vietnam) and General Lucius Clay (commanding general, Seventh Air Force). Both generals wholeheartedly supported the mission and offered “any resources” under their control.

Upon completing the brief in Saigon, Blackburn flew back to Washington, and Manor and Simons flew to the aircraft carrier USS Oriskany and briefed VAdm. Fred Bardshar (commander, Task Force [CTF] 77), Capt. Alan Hill (CTF 77 operations officer), and Comdr. P. D. Hoskins (CTF 77 intelligence officer). From these briefings the navy developed a three-carrier diversionary strike into North Vietnam designed to divert attention away from the inbound helicopter raid force. Bardshar was directed not to inform his immediate superior, Admiral Weisner (commander, Seventh Fleet). “I [Manor] later worked for Admiral Weisner, and he would occasionally bring this up to me—in a good natured way—that I had gone around him to get his force to do something.”

On 10 November, the raid force with its logistic support departed Eglin, and it arrived at Takhli Royal Thai Air Force Base (RTAFB) on 14 November 1970. Additional C-141s departed on the tenth and twelfth, arriving as scheduled on the sixteenth. On the morning of 18 November, Moorer briefed Nixon on the Son Tay raid. Also present were Kissinger, Laird, Helms, Secretary of State William Rogers, and Haig. Later that afternoon the raid was approved.


Camp Hope, located near the Son Tay citadel, was activated on 24 May 1968. Three contingents of American POWs were brought into the camp, the first group on 24 May, the second on 18 July, and the third on 27 November 1968. After confirming the existence of personnel in the camp (June 1970), the U.S. intelligence community began extensive coverage of the compound and surrounding area. Photo intelligence during the planning phase of Son Tay consisted of coordinating the reconnaissance, photo interpretation, and target material production. All photography came from either SR-71 overflights or Teledyne Ryan’s Buffalo Hunter reconnaissance drones and was orchestrated through the DIA. Both Camp Hope and the nearby camp Ap Lo were entered as national intelligence requirements and a priority drone coverage effort from Strategic Air Command (SAC) was requested.

In September 1970, seven drone tracks were drawn up by the Son Tay planners to ensure full coverage of both the camp and surrounding areas. This allowed the planners to identify helicopter landing zones (LZs), infiltration and exfiltration routes, and airborne staging areas, and to develop detailed intelligence on the POW camp itself. From these photos a scale model of the POW camp was produced by the CIA for use by the planners and operators. (The model was codenamed Barbara and now resides in the aviation museum at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio.)

Camp Hope, designated Son Tay Prisoner of War Camp N-69, was located at 21 degrees, 08 minutes, and 36 seconds north and 105 degrees, 30 minutes, and 01 second east. It was bordered on the west by the Song Con River which flowed south to north and bent slightly to the east three hundred feet from the camp. The river was about forty feet wide and fordable by foot troops in the dry season. There was a sixty-foot, single-lane, three-span bridge to the north that became a gravel road to the east of the compound. The road was bordered by power lines and air-raid pits. A small canal bordered the compound in the south. The entire area, from the bridge to the canal, including the compound and surrounding buildings, was no larger than three football fields laid side to side.

The compound itself was approximately 140 feet wide by 185 feet long north to south. Its walls were 6- to 12-inch-thick masonry and between 7-1/2 and 10 feet high. There was concertina wire on the south wall. Entrance into the compound was either by a vehicle access gate on the east wall or a smaller access gate on the south wall. Inside there were five main buildings, three guard towers, and two latrines. On the north end of the compound were two smaller buildings. The building on the west wall (5C) was surrounded by concertina wire and considered to be a maximum detention cell. The other building, located against the north wall, contained holding cells (5D). The large adjoining buildings in the center of the compound also contained holding cells (5A and 5B), and the large single building housed the guard relief and interrogation cells (5E).

Son Tay Prisoner of War Camp and the Movements of the Assault (Meadows), Command (Sydnor), and Support (Simons) Groups. From JCS

Outside the compound were several structures that supported the guard force including: guard quarters (7B), kitchen and guard mess (11, 12), administration building (7A), family housing (13 A, B, C, and D, E [not shown]), and numerous support buildings (8A-F). The nighttime guard force was estimated to be one guard per watch-tower and a minimum of two guards in the compound with possible relief personnel in 5E. The outside force could number up to two platoons, located primarily in the guard quarters in 7B. Although they were probably not manned, automatic-weapon positions were stationed around the camp at the south, east, and north ends.

Located approximately four hundred meters south of the Son Tay POW camp was another facility originally designated as the Son Tay secondary school. This facility was later presumed to be the headquarters for a missile battery and was reclassified as a military installation after the support element mistakenly landed by the compound and was engaged by enemy forces. The installation was similar in size and construction to the Son Tay compound. It had a masonry wall surrounding the outside. A canal resembling the Song Con River ran north of the facility, and a gravel road bordered the compound on the east side. Inside the walls were at least four buildings, three one-story barracks and a two-story headquarters facility. (According to Col. Elliot Sydnor it was never actually determined how these buildings were used.) Very little intelligence was gathered on the installation prior to the mission because it was not part of the objective area. Based on photo interpretation of the Son Tay compound and surrounding area, intelligence experts estimated that a total of fifty-five personnel might be held prisoner at Camp Hope. (Colonel Richard A. Dutton, USAF [Ret.], a former Son Tay POW, stated that on 27 November 1968 there were a total of fifty-two prisoners.) A physical profile of the average Son Tay POW was developed by Dr. Cataldo based on World War II and Korean War data. Estimates of body weight, disease, and psychological state were made. It was determined that most of the POWs would have lost 20 percent of their body weight and been inflicted with either malaria, intestinal parasites, goiter, malnutrition, peripheral neuritis, active dysentery, or tuberculosis. A psychological profile based on interrogations of returning POWs was prepared for POW-handling purposes. The profile was as follows:

Overhead View of the “Secondary School” Showing the Movements of the Support Group. From JCS

The POW has heard very little noise, has had very little physical exercise and lives in dimly lit rooms. He has two meals a day, usually consisting of cabbage soup plus bread or rice. Fish and pumpkin occasionally supplement the diet with less than two ounces of meat per week. Sometimes a banana or some other fruit is provided. Flour and sugar cookies are rarely given to the POW. Restriction of total protein intake plus physical inactivity will cause marked muscular atrophy plus a slow reaction to stimuli. A few POWs will maintain a strong hope for liberation, and some will have given up hope, but the majority are probably unsure and live day to day driven only by a natural desire to survive. Therefore, for the most, the sudden realization that “liberation is here” will be shocking.