OSS In the European Theater I

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes, sir,” replied Bruce.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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OSS In the European Theater II

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

OPERATIONS BEHIND GERMAN LINES 1944

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

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

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

Resistance Movements and Their Allied Helpers

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

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

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

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

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

Results of Special Forces and Resistance Activities

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

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

Behind German Lines: Conclusions

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

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

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

Air Force Special Warfare Post WWII

A U.S. Air Force Helio U-10B Courier (s/n 63-13093) from the 5th Special Operations Squadron in flight over Vietnam in 1969.

A Farm Gate B-26B over Vietnam.

Air force had continued its special duty flight of transport planes with the Twenty-First Troop Carrier Squadron, during Korean War days familiarly known as the “Kyushu Gypsies.” The unit later moved to Okinawa and, when C-130 aircraft began rolling off the production lines in the late 1950s, some went to the Gypsies. At a stroke this development virtually quadrupled the distance over which clandestine air missions could be carried out. After tours with the CIA and with psychological warfare headquarters in Europe, Heinie Aderholt, perhaps the single most important figure in the evolution of air force unconventional warfare, returned to the Gypsies as a major, leading its special operations detachment. With the air force’s blessings he supported CIA operations in Tibet and Thailand. With the advent of the C-130 the air force had a capability for long-range covert missions.

Short hops into primitive airfields, which would characterize the air effort in Southeast Asia, were a different matter. In the late 1950s the air force introduced its twin-engine C-123 “Provider,” but that went to standard transport squadrons. The army was developing the C-7 as a short-haul light transport. The Provider could carry a bigger load but lacked the short-takeoff-and-landing capacity of its competitor. Conditions in Vietnam and Laos demanded aircraft capable of taking off and landing in these short spaces. In 1962 the air force deployed a Provider version modified for this. Colonel Aderholt took a hand too. During the interval he was assigned to the air branch of CIA paramilitary operations staff, Aderholt had learned of a new single-engine plane that could be ideal. He pressed for adoption of the HelioCourier and succeeded (CIA knew this craft by one name [L-28], the air force by another [U-10]). These three aircraft became mainstays of the air wing within the Studies and Observation Group as well as the CIA proprietary Air America. The war, particularly in Laos, could not have been conducted without them.

Combat capability began with the “Jungle Jim” unit. Partly a result of the air force responding to President Kennedy’s demands, and partly to the service’s dawning awareness that the US military as a whole was reconfiguring itself for counterinsurgency, chief of staff General Curtis E. LeMay moved ahead smartly. Identified with high technology throughout his career, here, in 1960, LeMay approved a unit outfitted with prop-driven T-28 fighter-bombers and B-26 light bombers. This was deliberate. Rapidly transitioning to supersonic aircraft, the air force realized that slow-flying prop planes would have more time to spot targets and strike them. The innocuous 4400th Combat Crew Training Squadron ran its flag up at Auxiliary Field No. 9 of Eglin Air Force Base, Florida, in April 1961. At the time, Hurlbut Field, as it was renamed, consisted of wood-frame single-story barracks, plus sheds left over from World War II. It is today the headquarters of the Air Force Special Operations Command, descendant of the Special Air Warfare Center created there-and rivaling Fort Bragg as an unconventional war mecca-in 1962. Soon enough Jungle Jim left for South Vietnam, where it was given the code name Farm Gate and stationed at Bien Hoa. Officially the aircraft trained crews for the South Vietnamese air force. In actuality they flew strike and bombardment missions, with American pilots accompanied by South Vietnamese observers.

In Laos the strike capability began with Project “Mill Pond,” a CIA operation utilizing B-26 bombers with air force crews seconded to the agency and flying in civilian clothes The ubiquitous Aderholt organized Mill Pond too. And when he returned to the United States, promoted colonel, this officer briefly commanded the First Air Commando Wing, the air force’s initial venture with a full-scale counterinsurgency unit, along the lines of those who’d flown in Burma during World War II. Wing mixed together fighter-bombers, transports, and liaison aircraft, and it became the parent organization for Farm Gate.

A major innovation of air force special warfare during the Vietnam War was the gunship. This was a large aircraft-the C-47 would be the first used, followed by the C-119 and then the C-130-providing a stable platform for side- and/or front-firing heavy weapons and cannon, soon supplemented by electronic systems for targeting. The early C-47 version got the nickname “Puff the Magic Dragon.” When these aircraft entered the force they went to the First Wing. More advanced planes joined the Fourteenth and Twenty-Fourth Wings. All of them were redesignated special operations wings in 1968. The gunships were especially effective in helping to defend outposts or patrols that were under attack, and in armed reconnaissance missions along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. The gunships became established elements of air Special Forces. By 1966 there were six thousand men and 550 aircraft assigned to air special operations.

After Vietnam

Air force special operations, reassigned to the Tactical Air Command, which remained dominated by a mafia of jet fighter pilots who had risen through the Vietnam air campaigns, had held on. It had even developed a new capability-unconventional warriors akin to the army’s old airborne “pathfinders,” airmen who would drop in to a target ahead of mission aircraft and mark it for aircraft landings, the insertion of troops, or be ground observers guiding air strikes. These warriors would not get their name of “Special Tactics Units” until the 1980s-at this time they were known simply as “Brand X”-but they already had the capacity to work alongside Navy and Army Special Forces. With the new units came new terminology, reflecting more closely the multiservice nature of the troops, no longer known simply as Special Forces but as “Special Operations Forces,” the name that is familiar today.

US Special Forces in Korea

With the beginning of the Korean War in June 1950 the US military quickly rediscovered its need for all the sorts of unconventional forces it had relied upon in the big war. The military activated a Ranger company for the Eighth Army command two months into the con? ict and then, in a frenzy of activity, sixteen more between that October and February 1951. These were direct action units, mostly assigned to infantry divisions. They were taken out of service in 1951, but Ranger training continued with the purpose of having a cadre of qualified experts in every army unit. About 700 Army Rangers, a couple of hundred marines in a provisional raider unit, a hundred UDT sailors, and nearly 250 British Royal Marine Commandos made up the United Nations special warfare force.

Almost simultaneously new entities appeared in Korea to focus on partisan activities akin to those of OSS Detachment 101 with the Kachin Rangers, or the British SOE with the Resistance in Europe. At least a half-dozen of these organizations materialized, or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that a special operations capability was created and then existed under a succession of cover names. It morphed constantly, mixing military and CIA officers in a kaleidoscope of patterns.

The nature of the war in Korea led to a particular style of operations. The Korean peninsula’s relatively small expanse posed problems. North Korea’s tight political controls limited the ability to recruit partisans. In particular after the late 1950 intervention by the People’s Republic of China, enemy troop density was very high and impeded operations. The difficult terrain complicated supply problems for troops in action. On the other hand there were many offshore islands ringing the peninsula. Special Forces began making incursions onto the islands, establishing bases on them, and then mounting attacks on the mainland. Unconventional warfare more resembled the commando raids of World War II than it did the Resistance war.

By 1952 the island-based raiding force was known as the Far East Liaison Detachment (Korea). An army component the 8240th Army Unit, ran the offshore partisans. Sections Leopard, Wolfpack, and Kirkland were the feld commands. Typically an American leader, senior staff, and communications specialists squired forces of Korean partisans. For example, Section Wolfpack in March 1952 had seven Americans but planned to recruit 4,000 Korean fighters. Some months later there were a dozen Americans for 6,800 Koreans. At that time Leopard was reporting its strength at 5,500. A few months later the high command reorganized again, taking cadres from this force to create the United Nations Partisan Forces Korea, which it anticipated would attain a strength of up to 20,000 within a few months.

The air force also replicated its Carpetbaggers from the big war. This began with a detachment of the Twenty-First Troop Carrier Squadron. Captain Henry (“Heinie”) Aderholt led this unit, which made supply drops and inserted agents throughout the theater. He used volunteers from his and other squadrons to fly low-altitude night missions, employed them for a month, and then sent them back to their units. On the offshore islands that lacked airfields, planes would land on the beach at low tide, doff their loads, then fly away before the water came up. Throughout the war the Carpetbaggers lost only two aircraft.

Air commanders also created an Air Resupply and Communications Service, with wings stationed in Europe, in the continental United States, and at Clark Air Force Base in the Philippines. The wings moved supplies, dropped leaflets, broadcast propaganda on loudspeakers, and flew liaison missions, using a mixture of B-29 bombers, flying boats, transport planes, and early model helicopters. The best-known-if not much celebrated-mission over Korea took place on January 15, 1953, when “Stardust 40,” a 581st Wing B-29 piloted by wing commander Colonel John K. Arnold, was shot down near the Chinese border. Three men died. Arnold and seven other crewmen bailed out and were captured. Held as war criminals, they were put on trial in Beijing, accused of making germ warfare attacks on China. There has been a persistent controversy over the veracity of these claimed attacks. The US airmen were released in 1955. The air force had meanwhile deactivated the special warfare units.

Cold War

Cold War competition put a premium on propaganda, which in the US military was the province of “psychological warfare,” another unconventional technique that had been given a powerful impetus by World War II. President Truman had an abiding interest in these tactics. In 1951 Truman established the Psychological Strategy Board as the unit of his National Security Council apparatus responsible both for spurring propaganda plans of all types and for approving US covert operations. The conjunction of psychological and unconventional warfare would result in the revival of Special Forces.

In 1950 the army created a chief of psychological warfare at the headquarters level. Robert McClure, who would rise to be a major general, got the assignment. In World War II McClure had been the chief of psychological operations for the supreme allied commander, Dwight D. Eisenhower. McClure’s staff division not only supervised “psy-war” efforts in Korea, it took on the special operations portfolio. General McClure gathered a small group of offcers who had led partisan resistance in the Philippines, or had fought with Merrill’s Marauders or with the OSS in Burma, China, Yugoslavia, and elsewhere. These men reviewed the record, convincing themselves that fomenting partisan resistance in war should be the goal for an unconventional warfare force, and that peacetime preparation would optimize that function. They encouraged General McClure to propose the creation of “Special Forces.” The general, very receptive to the proposal, also had a good relationship with army chief of staff General J. Lawton Collins, who liked the idea and pushed it through army channels.

At Fayetteville, North Carolina, home to the army’s huge airborne base Fort Bragg, General McClure had a Psychological Warfare Center. There, on June 20, 1952, the army created its Tenth Special Forces Group (Airborne), under Colonel Aaron Bank, a veteran of OSS missions from World War II and one of the unconventional warfare advocates from McClure’s office. Colonel Bank began with just ten men in his group. They were relegated to an abandoned barracks at a back corner of Bragg known as “Smoke Bomb Hill.” Since that day more than six decades ago, the United States has never been without Special Forces. Indeed they outlived the original infatuation with psy-war-the Psychological Warfare Center at Bragg would be supplanted by a (still extant) Special Warfare Center toward the end of 1956.

Very early on the Special Forces adopted the basic pattern of organization they have ever since maintained. The term “operational detachment” was quickly adopted but not used in the field. There were four echelons of command. The field unit was the “A-Team” (hence the current nomenclature “Operational Detachment A”). These teams were to recruit, train, and lead partisans or to perform special missions. At the intermediate level the B-Team would command all the bands in a region and furnish supplies and support to the field units. The C-Team was intended to perform the same functions for all Special Forces in a country, and the D-Team, a regional command, would control forces in two or more countries. The C-Team could be likened to an infantry company. The B- and C-Teams could be divided between a forward headquarters in the field and a rear echelon organizing the support and located at a “Special Forces Operating Base.” With the aim of fomenting behind-the-lines resistance to an enemy-at that time Soviet-occupier, the Tenth Special Forces Group oriented itself toward Europe.

The A-Team was designed to function along lines similar to the techniques used by the partisan commands in Korea. Americans would work with bands of up to 1,500 fighters. To train and lead those partisans the US officers and noncoms needed to possess all the military skills present in a much larger organization. Intelligence, communications, weapons expertise, demolitions, and medical care were all required specialties. In addition, since men could be killed or incapacitated and not easily replaced, Special Forces very early began to cross-train its soldiers in other disciplines so an operator could step up to fill in for a fallen comrade. Depending on the popularity of Special Forces and the size of the US Army at different times, A-Teams have fluctuated in size from a half-dozen to fifteen operators, with a dozen (two officers plus ten non-commissioned officers) being the most typical size. At times when staffing was tight the problem of cross-training became particularly acute.

In June 1953 riots in East Germany suggested the possibility of more intense uprisings in Eastern Europe. The Tenth Group had finished its training and the Joint Chiefs of Staff had hashed out issues over its place in American war plans. The Tenth Group was posted to Bad Tölz, Germany, a month later. There it perfected its craft in maneuvers against the US Seventh Army-the American contribution to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), created in 1947 to defend against a Soviet invasion of Europe-the forces of other NATO members, and in field exercises.

Tensions persisted between Special Forces and the conventionally trained combat commanders whose horizons ended with a vision of Soviet tanks flooding across the East German and Czech borders to attack NATO. The Special Forces received little support from Seventh Army brethren. Over time the strength of the Tenth Group tumbled by half. Under pressure from conventional commanders, with their desire for boots on the front lines, and without a practicable partisan resistance to organize, the Special Forces tended to drift more to Ranger-style missions, that is, the commando-type role, which had more appeal for NATO commanders. Special Forces trained with or engaged in exercises against foreign paratroops, rangers, commandos, and clandestine units of Germany, France, England, Norway, Greece, Spain, Italy, Turkey, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Pakistan.

Nevertheless the Special Forces concept had been established. Perhaps the concept had not flourished, but the force expanded. A new group formed at Fort Bragg, deployed to Hawaii, and after changes in name and base, wound up on Okinawa as the First Special Forces Group, focused on Asia and sending missions to Thailand, South Vietnam, South Korea, the Philippines, and Taiwan, where they helped train Rangers or unconventional warfare units in those lands. This expanded the Special Forces envelope, introducing a task that would become a mainstay of its activity. It was here, in the Pacific, that the shadow warriors first created “Mobile Training Teams” for these instructional missions.

The silent warriors who had left Fort Bragg were again replaced, by a re-formed Seventy-Seventh Special Forces Group. As the 1950s ended, Special Forces formed an experienced-typically ten years in service and with average age of about thirty-and well-trained corps of unconventional warfare specialists with a presence in both Europe and the Pacific. There were three Special Forces groups totaling roughly 2,000 soldiers. The air force maintained its Carpetbagger capability in the form of an air transport detachment, still under Heinie Aderholt, most recently distinguished by cooperating with a CIA covert operation in Tibet. The marines kept up a ranger capability with their Force Reconnaissance Battalions. The navy lagged behind somewhat, having permitted its frogman force to atrophy after the Korean War. But all that was about to change.

A SPECIAL JOB FOR “SCARFACE OTTO”

Johnen’s Bf-110 G-4 at Dubendorf.

In the dark skies over southern Germany on the night of April 28, 1944, a fierce shoot-out erupted when several squadrons of Luftwaffe fighter planes pounced on a British Royal Air Force bomber stream. During the confused battle, a three-seat Me-110 fighter, piloted by Leutnant Wilhelm Johnen, strayed into the airspace of neutral Switzerland.

Swiss antiaircraft-gun crews at Dübendorf Air Base bathed the German plane with powerful searchlight beams; then they fired red and green flares, signals for it to land. The plane approached the runway, and the searchlights were extinguished. Suddenly the Me-110 gained speed as if to escape, and the searchlight beams again caught the aircraft. The dazzling glare temporarily blinded Johnen and forced him to land.

Moments after the Me-110 rolled to a halt and the pilot shut off the engine, there was a tapping on the cockpit. A voice in German told the crew, “Please get out. You are in Switzerland. You are interned.” Glancing around, the Luftwaffe men saw that they were surrounded by twenty Swiss soldiers holding weapons aimed at the airplane.

Leutnant Johnen and his two crewmen promptly realized that they would have to take quick action to destroy secret devices on the Messerschmitt. The plane was equipped with the new night-flying radar, the Lichtenstein SN-2, which could track U.S. and British bombers from a distance in excess of four miles.

Also on board was an important new weapon that the Germans had given the nickname Slanted Music. It was a pair of top-mounted cannon that could fire directly upward and was designed to attack the vulnerable underside of Allied bombers.

Perhaps even more devastating to the German war effort should it fall into the hands of Allied intelligence was a set of top-flight Luftwaffe code books. Joachim Kamprath, the radio operator, had violated strict orders and brought the codes with him.

Before heeding the order to emerge from the Me-110, Kamprath tried futilely to badly damage the radar by kicking it. Paul Mahle, who manned the twin guns that fired upward, tried desperately, but failed to destroy them.

The tapping on the cockpit grew more insistent, so the Germans quickly stashed the secret code books into the pockets of their flight suits and climbed down onto the tarmac. After smoking a cigarette and chatting with the affable Swiss soldiers, Paul Mahle, the gunner, said he had to get back into the plane to retrieve some personal items. Without waiting for an approval, he scrambled into the cockpit.

Several Swiss soldiers were right on his heels, and they pulled the struggling gunner by one leg as he tried to reach a switch that would have touched off a delayed-action explosive device and blown up the aircraft.

Then the three interned menthe Swiss didn’t regard them as captiveswere escorted to the air base canteen, where they were given food and wine. After the Germans excused themselves to go to the men’s room, two Swiss soldiers followed, saw them flushing pages from the secret code books down the toilet, and snatched the remainder of the sheets from them.

Twenty-four hours later, the German high command in Berlin erupted in near-panic. Swiss officials refused to return the Me-110 that had violated their tiny nation’s airspace. Berlin feared that the secret equipment and the code books might be slipped to Allied intelligence by the Swiss.

Suspecting that the three Luftwaffe men had committed treason, the Gestapo immediately arrested their families. Reichsführer Heinrich Himmler, once a chicken farmer and now Gestapo chief and head of the elite Schutzstaffel (SS), probed the possibility of using Nazi espionage agents already in Switzerland to murder the three downed German airmen.

At his battle headquarters at Wolfsschanze behind the Russian Front, Adolf Hitler flew into a rage on being told of the Swiss episode by his longtime trusted chief of staff, Generaloberst (four-star general) Alfred Jodl. However, the führer rejected Himmler’s murder plan and also a scheme by the Luftwaffe chief, rotund Reichsmarschall Hermann Goering, to heavily bomb Dübendorf Air Base.

Instead, Hitler sent for one of his favorites, SS Sturmbannführer (Major) Otto Skorzeny, a folk hero on the German home front, a sinister figure known as “Scarface Otto” to the Allies. A burly 6 feet, 3 inches tall and weighing 250 pounds, the “commando extraordinary,” as he came to be known in the Third Reich, was handed a seemingly impossible assignment: locate and destroy the Me-110 being held by the Swiss.

The mission would require exceptional stealth, cunning, and courage, traits that Skorzeny had in abundance. As an engineering student in his native Vienna, he had fought fifteen of the ritual saber duels popular among some Teutonic types. In one encounter, young Skorzeny’s left cheek to the tip of his jaw had been laid open. It was sewn up on the spot without anesthetic and the duel resumed.

After joining the SS in 1940, Oberleutnant (First Lieutenant) Skorzeny fought in the Balkans and later in Russia, from where he was invalided home with severe head wounds. He commanded a desk until late July 1943, when the führer assigned him the daunting task of rescuing Hitler’s crony Benito Mussolini, who had been in almost absolute control of Italy for twenty-one years.

Mussolini had been taken prisoner by Italian partisans after having been booted out of his office by shy, diminutive King Victor Emmanuel III, and was being held prisoner in a peacetime tourist hotel on a towering peak in the Appenines known as Gran Sasso. After spending two weeks prowling around Italy in civilian clothes, Skorzeny had discovered where Mussolini was incarcerated.

On September 12 Skorzeny and a handful of Fallschirmjäger (paratroopers) swooped down on Gran Sasso in gliders, snatched the deposed dictator from under the noses of more than two hundred Italian guards, and bundled the famous prisoner into a light Storch aircraft that had just made a dangerous landing near the hotel.

The bulky Skorzeny wriggled into the little plane designed to carry two passengers and, along with Mussolini and a Luftwaffe pilot, Hauptman (Captain) Heinrich Gerlach, lifted off from a short, boulder-strewn plateau. On reaching the edge of the plateau, the Storch plunged downward into a yawning valley and Gerlach was able to right the aircraft just before it crashed. Flying at treetop level, the pilot set a course for Rome, which was still in German hands.

Now Otto Skorzeny had been given an equally “impossible” taskfinding and blowing up the Me-110. As he had done in his search for Mussolini’s whereabouts, Skorzeny, a conspicuous figure because of his great bulk and ugly dueling scar, put on civilian clothes and slipped across the border into Switzerland at night.

Skorzeny ambled around the perimeter of Dübendorf Air Base, seeking some sign of the German aircraft, asking questions of natives living nearly and of civilian employees as they left the facility. Swiss authorities had moved the Me-110 deep within the mountainous country, the commando learned. Finding it would be akin to discovering the proverbial needle in a haystack. So Skorzeny, for one of the few times in his life, had to admit defeat.

Now behind-the-scenes diplomatic maneuvering took place, and a strange deal was worked out between Nazi Germany and Switzerland. On the morning of May 17, 1944, Hitler’s military attaché watched intently as the Messerschmitt, which had been brought back to Dübendorf, with its secret equipment, was doused with gasoline and burned to a crisp.

For its part in the arrangement, the Swiss government was permitted to purchase from Germany twelve high-performance Me-109G fighter planes, a major concession since the seriously depleted Luftwaffe needed every available aircraft to combat the almost daily and nightly raids by British and U.S. bombers against targets in the German homeland.

As a component of the secret agreement, Leutnant Wilhelm Johnen, radar operator Joachim Kamprath, and gunner Paul Mahle were released from custody and returned to Germany. The three airmen were held blameless once the true details of the Dübendorf episode became known to German intelligence, and their families were released from prison.

Perhaps the airmen’s fate would have been different had the Gestapo learned about the Luftwaffe secret code books, most of which presumably were in the hands of Swiss authoritiesor maybe being scrutinized by U.S. and British intelligence.

Russia Beslan School Takeover


Overhead map of school showing initial positions of Russian forces.

September 1, 2004.

Chechen terrorists’ preference for large-group attacks and the holding of large groups of hostages was seen two years earlier with the takeover of a Moscow theater. The organization, with other ethnic groups joining them, increased the pressure on the government and the public by taking over an elementary school on the first day of classes.

On September 1, 2004, at 9:00 A.M., 32 terrorists, including Chechens, Kazakhs, Russians, Ingush, Ossetians, and at least 10 Arabs, drove up in a military-style GAZ-66 truck and shot their way into School No. 1 in Beslan in North Ossetia, Russia, near Chechnya, during the morning and took 1,200 people, including hundreds of students and parents, hostage on the first day of school. At least 11 adults died in the initial shootout with the terrorists, who were wearing camouflage. At least two female terrorists wore explosive belts. The terrorists set up a pedal mechanism to an explosive and threatened to blow up the school if rescuers attacked them and said they would kill 50 hostages for every kidnapper killed, 20 for each wounded.

The school had been defended by only three security guards; one was killed and the two others were injured in the initial shootout.

By mid-afternoon, 15 children, who were hidden in the boiler room by their English teacher, ran to safety. The terrorists had attempted to open the heavy iron door with two grenades, with no success.

The hostage-takers demanded the release of 30 Chechen prisoners and Russian withdrawal from Chechnya. By phone, the terrorists asked to talk to the presidents of Ingushetia and North Ossetia.

The terrorists initially refused to permit medicine, food, and drink to be brought in for the hostages. By the third day, the tap water was running short, and some children drank urine. Many of the children stripped to their underwear to try to escape the suffocating heat in the school. The terrorists also rejected safe passage.

Some of the hostages later said that the terrorists were Wahhabis, wearing long beards and prayer caps.

Hundreds of Russian troops surrounded the school with armored vehicles. The perimeter broke down, however, and numerous armed townspeople joined the siege. In the afternoon of September 2, 2004, the terrorists fired rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs), setting a car alight. They again fired RPGs the evening of September 3, 2004, injuring a police officer.

A local legislator said on September 2, 2004, at 9:00 P.M. that 20 male hostages had been executed inside the school. The male hostages had been herded to a different location, away from the children and women, and shot. One man had been executed an hour into the siege.

On September 3, 2004, the terrorists freed 26 young children and their mothers. Gunfire was often heard coming from inside the school. Talks were suspended. Freed hostages said the terrorists had mined the school and suspended 16–18 bombs from the ceiling of the gymnasium, where many of the hostages were herded.

The terrorists used gas masks to ensure that if would-be rescuers flooded the area with knockout gas, as had been done in the 2002 Moscow theater siege, they would not be affected.

On September 4, 2004, around 1:00 P.M., the 52-hour siege ended when troops rushed the school after hearing explosions in the gym. The troops had not planned on rushing the school, but had no choice when the terrorists opened fire on fleeing children. At least 338 hostages, including 156 children; 10 Russian Special Forces rescuers; and 30 terrorists died from gunshot wounds, fire from the explosions, shrapnel, and the collapsing roof of the gymnasium.

More than 1 percent of Beslan’s population was killed.

Itar-TASS reported that the attack was financed by Abu Omar as-Seyf, an Arab alleged to represent al Qaeda in Chechnya, and directed by Chechen rebel leader Shamil Basayev. An escaped hostage said she recognized some of the terrorists as having earlier done construction work on the school, leading investigators to suggest that they had hidden their weapons in the school during construction.

A Muslim group claiming loyalty to Ayman al-Zawahiri claimed credit on a website.

On September 5, 2004, the Russian government announced on state television that it had lied to the public about the scale of the hostage crisis. The broadcast made no apology that the government had claimed that only 354 hostages were inside the school. Questions remained about how many terrorists there were (reports varied from 16 to 40); how many terrorists were alive, free, or captured; how many people died; and how many had been captive. Many believed the death toll was higher than the official figure of 338. (On September 6, 2004, the government dropped the number to 334, including 156 children, and said that 1,180 hostages were involved.)

A captured terrorist identified as Nur-Pashi Kulayev was put on Russian state television on September 6, 2004. He was injured and had trouble talking, but said that “we gathered in the forest and the Colonel—it’s his nickname—and they said we must seize the school in Beslan.” He credited Basayev with giving the orders. He noted that another Chechen commander, Aslan Maskhadov, also gave orders. His group included Arabs, Uzbeks, Chechens, and people of other nationalities. “When we asked the Colonel why we must do it, he said, ‘Because we need to start war in the entire territory of the North Caucasus.’ ” Many of the school terrorists had also taken part in the June raids in Ingushetia that killed 90 people. The Washington Post reported that a Western intelligence service indicated that some of the terrorists came from Jordan and Syria.

Authorities detained relatives of Basayev and Maskhadov on the second day of the siege.

Russian authorities said that surveillance tape of the terrorists indicated that they had argued among themselves as to whether to escape or continue the siege. The group was led by four men and took phoned orders from Chechen commander Basayev. The leaders included a Chechen, a Russian, an Ingush, and an Ossetian, and were identified by their code names of Abdullah, Fantomas, The Colonel, and Magas.

Fantomas was a bodyguard of Basayev.

Abdullah (aka Vladimir Khodoyev, variant Khodov), had fought alongside Basayev earlier. He had upbraided the other gunmen when they permitted hostages to take a drink of water late in the takeover.

The Colonel was often in the gym and was believed by the survivors to be a Russian.

Magas (aka Ali Taziyev), 30, was a former police officer who disappeared on October 10, 1998, while working as a guard for a local official, according to press accounts. He and another police officer were guarding the official’s wife in a market when Chechens kidnapped the trio. She was ransomed in late 1999. The other officer’s body was found in 2000. Magas joined the terrorists and led an attack in Ingushetia in June. Some authorities believed he had staged the kidnapping and had joined the terrorists earlier. He became head of the Ingush Jamaat, a group allied with the Chechens. He led the June raids in Ingushetia, killing dozens of prosecutors and policemen. Magas is a common name, first heard in the terrorist milieu in the April 2004 assassination attempt against Ingushetian president Murat Zyazikov. Police initially believed he was Magomed Yevloyev. A man by that name was killed in Malgobek, but it was later determined that he was an unrelated murder suspect. Another Magomed Yevloyev was killed in Galashki, but he also was not the right Magas.

All four leaders were killed in the gun battle.

The terrorists videotaped the siege; the tape was shown on Russian television on September 7, 2004, and picked up around the world. Authorities also reported that they had tapped into a walkie-talkie call from a terrorist. President Putin reported, “One asks, ‘What’s happening? I hear noise,’ and the other says, ‘It’s okay, I’m in the middle of shooting some kids. There’s nothing to do.’ They were bored, so they shot kids. What kind of freedom fighters are these?” Russian demanded the extradition from the United Kingdom of Zakayev and other Chechen separatists who had been given political asylum.

Security services reported on September 8, 2004, that the terrorist leader shot one of his own men who did not want to take children hostage, then blew up the two women by flipping the electronic control on their detonators. Police also said they had been aided by a local police officer. Authorities said the gym explosion had been an accident when the terrorists were trying to rearrange the explosives. The Kremlin also backtracked on saying that 10 Arabs were involved but continued to claim that a multinational group of extremists was involved. Moscow offered a $10 million reward for the capture or killing of Basayev and Maskhadov. The next day, Chechen rebel websites offered a $20 million bounty for President Putin’s capture.

By September 9, 2004, Russian officials had identified six Chechens and four Ingush as involved in the attack squad. Bomb techs defused 127 homemade bombs in the school.

On September 10, 2004, President Putin approved a parliamentary investigation into the attack. He also complained about American and British calls for negotiations with Chechens, suggesting that this was equivalent to calling for negotiations with al Qaeda. Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov complained that Western countries were giving asylum to Chechen separatists.

On September 16, 2004, a key advisor to President Putin, Aslakhanov, said that the president had been prepared to release 30 Chechens during the siege. Aslakhanov said that he was about to go into the school to talk to the hostage-takers, with whom he had spoken by phone three times, when the explosives went off.

The next day, Basayev, using the alias Abdallakh Shamil, said on Kavkaz-Center, an Islamic website based in Lithuania, that his group was responsible and threatened more attacks on Russian civilians if independence was denied. He said:

The Kremlin vampire destroyed and wounded one thousand children and adults by giving the order to storm the school for the sake of imperial ambitions. . . . We are sorry about what happened in Beslan. It’s simply that the war, which Putin declared on us five years ago, which has destroyed more than forty thousand Chechen children and crippled more than five thousand of them, has gone back to where it started.

The posting said that the terrorists “made a fatal mistake” by allowing a Russian emergency services vehicle onto school grounds to remove bodies of people killed in the initial storming of the building. He claimed that two terrorists who went outside to watch the removal of the bodies were shot by troops. He said that the terrorists had deployed 20 mines, connected together in one circuit. “I personally trained this group in a forest, and I tested this system. Either all bombs would have exploded or not a single one. . . . We suggest that independent experts should check the fragments and types of wounds,” implying that Russian bombs had killed the children. The posting claimed that there were 33 hostage-takers, including 2 Arabs. Basayev said that the operation cost 8,000 euros (circa $9,800) plus some weapons stolen from Russian forces. “I don’t know bin Laden, don’t receive any money from him, but would not mind.”

On January 29, 2005, the parliamentary investigating commission said that some law enforcement officers were involved. Two accomplices had been detained, three were being sought, and paperwork was in the process to arrest two more. On May 29, 2007, a Russian court granted amnesty to three police officers who had been charged with negligence for failing to prevent the attack.

On May 17, 2005, the trial began of lone surviving terrorist Kulayev on charges of murder and terrorism in the case. On May 16, 2006, the chief justice of the Supreme Court in North Ossetia ruled that Kulayev had taken part in murder and terrorism. On May 26, 2006, he was sentenced to life in prison.