An intense, if also much briefer, conflict awaited America’s special operators in Grenada, a 133-square-mile mound of volcanic ash in the eastern Caribbean. The island was home to 110,000 people, and to the peaks and craters of the volcanoes that had brought it out of the seafloor 2 million years earlier. In 1979, the Marxist-Leninist Maurice Bishop had seized control of the island’s government by coup d’état, and thence had become a recipient of Soviet and Cuban military largesse. Although Bishop’s hostility to the United States was plain, he permitted American faculty and students to remain at St. George’s University Medical School, an institution established by four American entrepreneurs to serve Americans who had failed to gain admission to medical schools in the United States. Approximately six hundred Americans were at the school when the crisis erupted in October 1983.
The war, if it could be called that, sprang from a coup at the beginning of October. While Prime Minister Bishop was visiting socialist brethren in Hungary and Czechoslovakia, one of his Communist rivals, Bernard Coard, convinced members of the Grenadian Party Central Committee to turn against him. Upon Bishop’s return, the committee stripped him of his powers and put him under house arrest. Ten thousand of Bishop’s supporters showed up at his house, compelling the guards to hand the prime minister over, but then a column of armored military vehicles drove into the mob and gunned their way to Bishop, whom they executed.
The new regime rounded up suspected enemies and imposed a shoot-on-sight curfew. Americans at the medical school were confined to their dormitories, their communications with the outside world severed by the snipping of telephone wires. To President Reagan, it had all the makings of another Iranian hostage crisis. Unlike Carter, whose fear of provoking others always inclined him toward diplomacy rather than force, Reagan had few qualms about responding in the way that leaders of great powers traditionally responded when challenged by an ant-sized adversary in their own neighborhood—squashing the ant under a boot heel.
Reagan directed the Pentagon to invade Grenada in just a few days’ time. The ultimate objectives, the White House stated, were the rescue of the Americans and the replacement of the Communist government with a democratic one. Owing to uncertainty about the strength of the Cuban and Grenadian soldiers defending the island, American planners decided that the operation demanded more than just special operations forces. US Atlantic Command created an ad hoc organization, Joint Task Force (JTF) 120, to command an admixture of 7,300 special and conventional forces. The task force staff made a concerted effort to assign the special operators missions that capitalized on their special capabilities, tasking Delta Force with rescuing hostages, SEALs with scouting beaches for amphibious landings, and Rangers with surprise assaults on hardened targets. The “Nightstalker” airmen of the 160th Special Operations Aviation Battalion, a unit created in October 1981 to provide the dedicated air assets for special operations that had been sorely missing in Eagle Claw, were slated to make their combat debut in Grenada.
Hours before the invasion began, at the final briefing for Joint Task Force 120 commander Vice Admiral Joseph Metcalf, representatives from the State Department demanded a change to the operational plan. The task force, they said, needed to seize the island’s Richmond Hill Prison during the invasion’s first hour, rather than later in the day as originally scheduled. By launching the operation at the very beginning of the invasion, the diplomats explained, the United States would deny the Grenadian government time to move or harm the inmates. Under questioning by military planners, the State Department’s representatives could not say who was incarcerated in the Richmond Hill facility or who was guarding it.
General Scholtes, the JSOC commander, recommended delaying the operation by twenty-four to forty-eight hours in order to gain more information on the prison. The State Department overruled him. An intelligence briefer assured the task force that the island defenders would put up little resistance, characterizing the whole invasion as a “walk in the park.” They could expect that the locals would “wave at them” as they flew into the country.
Early in the morning of October 25, at an airfield on Barbados, Delta Force boarded nine Black Hawk helicopters of the 160th Special Operations Aviation Battalion for the assault on the prison. The helicopters were supposed to depart at 1 a.m. so that they could reach the target well before sunrise and take it down under cover of darkness. They did not take off until 6:30 a.m. An official government account attributed the delay to “chaotic planning, last-minute inter-service bickering at senior levels, and Air Force delays.” Given the assurances about the weakness of enemy defenses, though, the delay did not seem especially important.
By the time the Black Hawks had covered the 160 miles between Barbados and Grenada, the Caribbean was glistening sapphire blue under the morning’s tropical sun, and the denizens of the volcanic island were wide awake. The helicopters had nearly crossed the one mile of ground between the sea and Richmond Hill when shell bursts from ZU-23 antiaircraft guns interrupted the steady swishing of helicopter blades. From positions that American reconnaissance had not had time to locate, the Grenadian gunners hit the first six helicopters in quick succession. On board the Black Hawks, smoke billowed from damaged engines and fuel spurted from punctured hoses. One helicopter crashed in flames. In the face of this wholly unexpected resistance, the mission commander ordered the remaining helicopters to turn tail. The American special operators sustained twenty-four wounded and one killed during the abortive raid.
At this same time, two companies of Rangers were assaulting the airfield at Point Salines on the southwestern tip of the island. Their transport aircraft also encountered unexpectedly fierce antiaircraft fire, but most of the Rangers were able to leap from the aircraft and parachute safely onto the airfield. Forming into squads and platoons on the tarmac, the Rangers composed themselves before they had to fight the airfield’s Cuban military construction troops. The Cuban troops were not exactly prime military specimens—many of them were overweight and over forty years of age—but they did bring to bear BTR-60 armored personnel carriers, recoilless rifles, and machine guns. With attack aircraft from the carrier USS Independence providing close air support, the Rangers overpowered the airfield’s defenders in a few hours, taking 250 Cubans prisoner. They then rescued 138 American medical students from campus buildings near the airstrip.
Reinforcements from the 82nd Airborne Division arrived by air at Point Salines to begin the push toward St. George’s, the capital city. Conventional forces took most of their planned objectives over the next two days. They were not, however, able to reach the enemy barracks at Calivigny as quickly as high authorities in Washington desired. At noon on the 27th, the Pentagon notified Admiral Metcalf’s headquarters that the barracks had to be taken before dark. According to intelligence reports, the barracks served as the nerve center of the Cuban military forces on the island, and was guarded by six hundred crack Cuban troops and six antiaircraft cannons. Although the task was better suited to conventional infantry, Metcalf had to call upon the Rangers because all of the conventional infantry were tied up. The Rangers, who had been relaxing at Point Salines in expectation of an imminent return to the United States, hustled aboard Black Hawks for a late afternoon assault.
As it turned out, the much-feared barracks were empty. In the process of landing in the narrow streets, though, three helicopters were lost to collisions or faulty landings. Three Rangers were killed and nearly two dozen wounded.
Tallies taken after the nine-day war revealed that special operations forces accounted for a disproportionate share of American casualties, including thirteen of the nineteen American fatalities. General Scholtes blamed his command’s losses on ad hoc organization and the misuse of special operations forces by conventional commanders. Scholtes advocated a new joint combatant command with permanent standing capabilities and authorities of sufficient size to handle a Grenada-sized crisis on its own. His arguments made a strong impression on several US senators who met with him in closed-door session.
The problems of Grenada served as ammunition for a small but influential group of officials at the Pentagon and on Capitol Hill who were campaigning to increase the size and authorities of special operations forces. Within the Pentagon, the reformers encountered the coalescence of opposition at every turn, so they eventually concentrated all of their efforts on Congress. A burgeoning “SOF Liberation Front,” consisting primarily of former SOF officers in the Defense Department or on congressional staffs, pressed the case for change to sympathetic congressmen. The neglect and mishandling of special operations forces, asserted the cadres of the Liberation Front, demanded that Congress create a joint SOF command with a separate SOF funding line.
After 1941, the Balkans provided a much-required supply of natural resources for the Reich. One source, citing post-war reports from the Nuremberg trials, stated the Balkans provided “50% of petroleum, 100% of chrome, 60% of bauxite and 21% of Copper” for the German war machine. To protect both this vital source of resources and the lines of communication for its substantial occupation forces in Greece, Germany had some 18 Divisions in Yugoslavia, along with numerous other independent formations. This was an ulcer in the side of Germany as they sought to find troops to bolster their deteriorating position on the Eastern Front. These forces were still not sufficient to dominate the country and consequently they occupied the major urban areas and important communication nodes, while Partisan forces controlled the rugged countryside and were free to attack at will. The resulting situation for the Germans was dismal. In fact, in some areas morale was so low amongst German troops that many thought their prospects were better against the Russians and took the extraordinary move of volunteering for transfer to the Eastern Front rather than take their chances against the Partisans.
To Field Marshal Maximilian Freiherr von Weichs, who was not only the Commander of Army Group F responsible for Yugoslavia and Albania but also oversaw Luftwaffe General Alexander Löhr’s Army Group E in Greece, it was very apparent that he lacked the manpower and equipment to gain total victory in the field over the Partisan masses. The terrain was extremely well suited for guerrilla operations and very much favored the Partisans. He believed that the elimination of Tito, the personification of the Partisan movement and its center of gravity, would eliminate their will to fight. Hitler, who had personally ordered the elimination of Tito, shared this belief.
The task to locate Tito was assumed by several German intelligence organizations, including SS special operations expert Major Otto Skorzeny, operating independently on Hitler’s direct orders, and elements of the Brandenburg Division, the Abwehr’s special operations arm. The Brandenburgers had been involved on the attack on Jajce and now had their agents looking for clues as to Tito’s new location. The detailed task went to the Brandenburg Lieutenant Kirchner and his troops, and in a series of events to be discussed later, Tito and his headquarters were discovered from several sources to be in Drvar.
Planning and Preparation
Planning for the operation began in earnest. Field Marshal von Weichs signed the order on 6 May, and balancing synchronization of the operation with operational security, General Lothar Rendulic issued the Second Panzer Army order for Operation RÖSSELPRUNG two weeks later, on the 21st of May, allowing only three full days for subordinates to conduct battle procedure. Given potential security leaks in the form of Partisan agents, this was a prudent move. Rendulic, whose Second Panzer Army paradoxically did not include any panzer divisions, directed that the XV Gebirgs (Mountain) Army Corps, commanded by Lieutenant-General Ernest von Leyser, was to execute the operation.
A heavy bombardment of Partisan positions in and around Drvar by Fliegerführer Kroatien (Air Command Croatia) aircraft was to precede a parachute and glider assault by 500 SS Fallschirmjäger Battalion whose task it was to destroy Tito and his headquarters. Concurrently, XV Corps elements would converge on Drvar from all directions, in order to linkup with 500 SS on the same day, 25 May 1944. Speed, shock and surprise were key for the paratroopers of 500 SS to accomplish their mission.
500 SS Fallschirmjäger Battalion was a relatively new unit. It was formed in the autumn of 1943 by direction of Hitler’s headquarters for the purpose of performing special missions. Sometimes referred to as a penal unit, it included many volunteers but for the most part initially, the enlisted ranks came from ‘probationary soldiers’. These were soldiers and officers who were serving sentences for minor infractions of a disciplinary instead of a criminal nature, imposed in the draconian environment of the Waffen SS. Dishonored men of all ranks of the SS could redeem themselves in this battalion and once joined had their rank restored. The unit conducted parachute school at the Luftwaffes’s Paratroop School Number Three near Sarajevo, Yugoslavia in November and finished in Papa, Hungary, early in 1944, as the school relocated there. After training was completed the unit participated in several minor Partisan drives before returning to its training grounds on the outskirts of Sarajevo in mid-April and remained there under strict security measures. While there, the 27-year-old SS Hauptsturmführer (Captain) Kurt Rybka took command of the battalion.
Rybka received an outline of the operation on 20 May and more detailed orders the following day. Realizing there were not enough gliders or transport aircraft to deploy 500 SS in one lift, he devised a plan where 654 troops would conduct the initial assault at 0700 hours, and a further 220 would reinforce as a second wave some five hours later. The intelligence picture that was portrayed to him was based on available sources, and recent air photos were used to aid in the planning. The suspected location of Tito’s headquarters, a cemetery on dominating ground, was given the codename ‘Citadel’ and the important crossroads in town was entitled the ‘Western Cross’.
The town was to be secured by 314 parachute troops. They were split into Red (led by Rybka), Green, and Blue Groups and were based on elements of the unit’s three rifle companies. Another 354 troops, based on remaining members of the rifle companies and the heavy weapons company, were split into six assault groups for specific missions. Panther Group of 110 soldiers, the largest, was to capture Citadel and destroy Tito’s headquarters. Greifer Group of 40 soldiers was to destroy the British military mission. Sturmer Group of 50 men was to destroy the Soviet military mission. Brecher Group of 50 men was to destroy the U.S. military mission. Draufgaenger Group was to capture the Western Cross and the suspected nearby Partisan communication facility. Of the 70 personnel in Draufgaegner Group, 40 belonged to the Brandenburg Benesch Group (some of whom were Chetniks and other local Bosnians) and six came from an Abwehr detachment commanded by Lieutenant Zavadil. These attachments were given specific intelligence collection, translation and communication tasks. Beisser Group of 20 soldiers was to seize an outpost radio station, then assist Greifer group. Finally, the second wave, base on the Field Reserve Company (basically the training company) and the remainder of the unit was to insert by parachute at 1200 hours.
For security reasons, the Battalion’s soldiers were not briefed on the operation until several hours before it was launched, but preliminary moves began on 22 May as the unit, dressed in non-descript Wehrmacht uniforms for security reasons, was transported by truck to three assembly areas, Nagy-Betskerek, Zagreb and Banja Luka. There they linked up with their Luftwaffe transport from Fliegerführer Kroatien, some of which had been brought in from France and Germany specifically for the operation. The 1st and 2nd Squadrons of Towing Group 1, and 2nd and 3rd Battalions of Air Landing Group 1, all with 10-passenger DFS 230 gliders and towed by either Hs 126 or Ju 87 (Stukas in a towing role) aircraft, would transport the glider-borne force. The 2nd Battalion of Transport Group 4, with about 40 Ju 52 transports, would deliver the parachute force. By 24 May, battle procedure was complete.
German intelligence claimed about 12,000 Partisans were active in the area of operations, but Yugoslav sources place this number around 16,000, not including auxiliary support, schools, or members of the SKOJ (Communist Youth League of Yugoslavia). Immediately surrounding Drvar were the First (Nikola Tesla) and Six Proletarian Divisions of the First Proletarian Corps, with the Corps HQ based six kilometres to the east in Mokronoge. Of immediate concern was the Third Lika Brigade of the First Division stationed five kilometers south of Drvar in Kamenica, whose four battalions of were the most potent reaction force.
Within Drvar itself there was a mixed bag of military liaison missions, support and escort troops and both the Supreme Headquarters of the NOVJ and the Central Committee of the Yugoslav Communist Party. The Central Committee of the Communist Youth League of Yugoslavia was located in town, and had just held a congress of over 800 youths in attendance, some of whom were still in the process of departing. As well, the AVNOJ (Anti-Fascist Council of the National Liberation of Yugoslavia) had their headquarters on the outskirts of town and in the nearby village of Sipovljani there was the Partisan officers’ school with about 130 students. The Soviet Union, Britain and the United States all had military missions to Tito’s headquarters in some of the adjoining small villages. Finally, Tito’s Escort Battalion of three companies, two of which were with him, was present to provide personal protection to the Marshal and the various headquarters and missions.
Tito’s personal headquarters was initially located in a cave immediately north of Drvar and overlooked the town. When rumors surfaced that this location had become compromised, he moved his main headquarters to another cave in the town of Basasi, some seven kilometres to the west. His Drvar cave was used primarily during the day and he would return to Bastasi at night for security reasons. The location the Germans believed housed his headquarters, the cemetery at Slobica Glavica (Objective Citadel), was, in fact, sparsely manned.
Tito’s birthday was the 25th of May. On the evening of the 24th, a celebration was held in Drvar, and, due to the festivities finishing late, Tito decided to spend the night in his Drvar cave. Despite his initial concerns that caused him to relocate to Bastasi, he felt confident all would be quiet. It almost proved to be a fatal error.
Tito, still somewhat sluggish from the previous evening’s celebration, awoke to the attack on Drvar. Operation RÖSSELPRUNG began according to plan on 25 May with a preparatory aerial bombardment of suspected Partisan location in Drvar, including the cemetery. This bombardment was to begin at 0635 hours and consisted of five squadrons of Ju 87 Stuka dive-bombers, older He 46 medium bombers, and Italian made Ca 314 and Cr 42 medium-bombers. It appears that the plan was closely followed. P-Hour began at 0700 hours. Although dense smoke from the bombardment reduced visibility, most pilots were able to orient themselves on the Western Cross and land gliders or drop their paratroops relatively close to designated objectives. Several gliders did land off course, including one in front of the main headquarters cave in Bastasi, where members of the Escort Battalion immediately killed the occupants before they could exit. Between two and four others landed in Vrtoce and the occupants had to fight their way into Drvar. German sources claim the parachute jump was made at 60 to 75 metres above ground level, but pictures taken from the ground of the jump indicate the it was somewhat higher.
Once on the ground, the Fallschirmjägers quickly seized control of Drvar. Panther Group, supported by Red Group, rapidly overcame token resistance at the cemetery and Rybka established battalion headquarters behind its walls. The only forces of consequence located there were the crews manning three anti-aircraft machine guns, of which two escaped. Needless to say, neither Tito nor his headquarters were found. Greiffer and Brecher Groups came up empty handed as the British and American missions were not present in their accommodations. Elements of Sturmer Group landed in a field immediately south of the cave and came under fire from Escort Battalion members positioned in the high ground surrounding Tito’s location. The most intense fighting was with Draufganger Group in the area of the Western Cross who assaulted what they believed to be the Partisan communications center, but was in fact the office building for the Communist Party’s Central Committee. After intense close quarter combat against fanatical resistance, the building was basically leveled with satchel charges.
Also subject to very fierce fighting were Blue and Green Groups, who were attempting to establish a cordon in the eastern part of town, where most of the population was located. Although not mentioned in German reports, Yugoslav accounts proudly cite a Partisan counter-attack by four captured Italian CV-34 tanks. Not inflicting any noteworthy damage, three tanks were quickly disabled and the remaining one escaped to Bastasi. Also creating a problem for the Germans, especially in the more populated areas, was resistance from the members of the Communist Youth League of Yugoslavia who remained in Drvar and whose enthusiasm in taking up arms (whatever were available) against the attackers could explain some accounts of spontaneous uprisings.
Immediately upon realizing the nature of the attack, the candidates from the officers’ school marched to the sound of gunfire. Armed with only pistols and the odd rifle, they split into two groups. The smaller group crossed to the north side of the Unac River and advanced west along the rail line with the aim of protecting Tito’s headquarters. The larger group, bolstered by the retrieval of several misdirected drops of German ammunition and arms, attacked Green and Blue Groups in their eastern flank beginning at approximately 0800 hours. Although the officer candidates suffered severe casualties, the pressure of their attack on this flank was maintained throughout the day.
By about 0900 hours, the Germans had secured the majority of Drvar, but they still had no trace of Tito. Before the operation, every Fallschirmjäger was issued with a picture of him and they now went door to door, brutally questioning those civilians they could find. There are many Yugoslav based stories of German atrocities against the civilian population at this point in the battle, including herding people into houses to be burned alive, but it is difficult to determine where the Germans would find the time to do this based on the influence of other events.
By mid-morning it became apparent to Rybka that Partisan resistance was concentrated to the north in the area of the headquarters cave. He surmised that there must be something to protect in this area, and if Tito was in Drvar this would be his likely location. Launching a red flare as a pre-arranged signal, he rallied his soldiers for an attack on the new objective. Around 1030 hours he launched a frontal attack across the Unac River, supported by at least one MG-42 medium machine gun firing into the mouth of the cave. They made it as far as the base of the hill leading up to the cave, less than fifty metres from its mouth, before being repulsed. The Fallschirmjägers from 500 SS, already parched from a lack of water, had suffered severe casualties.
Concurrent with the mounting and execution of this attack, more Partisan forces were beginning to converge on Drvar. From the west and southwest came three of the battalions of the Third Brigade of the Sixth Lika Division. One battalion attacked directly towards the German position at the cemetery while the other two swung around to the west through Vrtoce to hit the Germans in the western flank with a view to relieve pressure on the cave area.
At approximately 1115 hours, during a lull in the fighting and after the attack had been repulsed, Tito managed to escape from the cave. This act has been inaccurately described in many accounts. After the first attack failed, Tito, escorted by several staff, climbed down a rope through a trap door in a platform at the mouth of the cave. He then followed a small creek leading to the Unac River, then diagonally climbed the heights to the east of the cave, a route which would provide cover for most of the way. From the Klekovaca ridge overlooking Drvar, he began his withdrawal east to Potoci.
1200 hours was P-Hour for the reinforcing second wave of 220 Fallschirmjägers who jumped in two groups just to the west of Objective Citadel. Their drop zone was situated within Partisan fields of fire and thus the wave suffered many casualties as they hit the ground. Newly armed with the remaining reinforcements, Rybka attempted another assault, but by now the pressure on his flanks was too great and the attack again floundered. Fighting continued throughout the afternoon with both sides taking heavy casualties. By late afternoon Rybka, realizing that the capture of Tito was improbable at this point and that the linkup with ground forces would not happen as planned, ordered a withdrawal. He initially planned to have a defensive perimeter encompassing both the cellulose factory and the cemetery, but after realizing the extent of his casualties and his consequent inability to hold the large perimeter, he reduced his defensive position to include just the cemetery. At about 1800 hours, while withdrawing under fire, he was injured by a grenade blast and was out of the battle.
The withdrawal to the cemetery was done under considerable pressure. At least one group of Fallschirmjägers was cut-off and wiped out. By about 2130 hours, the remnants of the Battalion had consolidated in the cemetery. Partisan forces had the remnants of 500 SS completely surrounded. Throughout the night attacks against the German position continued. The fourth battalion of the Third Lika Brigade, which had arrived later than the other three and been kept in reserve, was launched with the remnants of the other three battalions against the cemetery. Elements of the Ninth Dalmatian Division joined the attacks at some point during the night, increasing the pressure. The Fallschirmjägers continued to hold their ground, but casualties were mounting. At 0330 hours the final Partisan attack was launched, breaching the cemetery wall in several locations, but the German defence held.
Throughout the day, the progress of the converging elements of XV Mountain Corps was not as rapid as had been planned. Unexpected resistance from I, V, and VIII Partisan Corps along their axis of advance greatly hindered their movement. Most post-operation reports cite extremely poor radio communications amongst the different elements, causing a plague of coordination difficulties. It would also appear that Allied aircraft, based in Italy, attacked the linkup forces with several sorties throughout the day, however air support from the Luftwaffe was also present throughout. In fact, an unarmed Fiesler Stork reconnaissance plane, initially intended to whisk Tito away once taken, was able to land and extract casualties, including Rybka.
After the last attack failed to penetrate the German defences and knowing that relief in the form of XV Mountain Corps was on the way, Tito ordered the Partisan forces to withdraw, and then made good his escape. Escorted by elements of the Third Krajina Brigade, he first went to Potoci, where he met up with a battalion from the First Proletarian Brigade, and, after discovering German troops in force in the area, made his way to Kupres. In the Kupres Valley, a Soviet Dakota aircraft stationed at a Royal Air Force base in Italy and escorted by six American Aircraft picked him up on 3 June and took him to Bari, Italy. On 6 June, a Royal Navy destroyer delivered him to the Island of Vis, along the Dalmatian Coast, to re-establish his headquarters.
The remnants of 500 SS were to spend the rest of the night of 25/26 May in their hasty defensive positions. They received some support at 0500 hours as a German fighter-bomber formation attacked the withdrawing Partisans. At 0700 hours, the unit finally established radio contact with the Reconnaissance Battalion of the 373rd Division but physical linkup in Drvar with XV Mountain Corps did not occur until 1245 hours when the lead elements of the Second Battalion of the 92nd Motorized Grenadier Regiment arrived.
Despite not eliminating Tito, the Germans were unwilling to admit defeat and viewed this operation as a success with blind arrogance. According to a self-congratulatory report from Second Panzer Army:
“The operation against the partisans in Croatia [this area of Bosnia was included as part of Croatia at this time] enjoyed considerable success. It succeeded in 1) destroying the core region of the communist partisans by occupying their command and control centers and their supply installations, thereby considerably weakening their supply situation; 2) forcing the elite communist formations (1st Proletarian Division and the 3rd Lika Division [incorrect designation] to give battle and severely battering them, forcing them to withdraw due to shortages of ammunition and supplies, and avoid further combat (the 9th, 39th and 4th Tito Divisions also suffered great losses); 3) capturing landing fields used by Allied aircraft, administrative establishments, and headquarters of foreign military missions, forcing the partisans to reorganize and restructure; 4) giving the Allies a true picture of the combat capability of the partisans; 5) obtaining important communications equipment, code keys, radios, etc. for our side; 6) achieving these successes under difficult conditions that included numerous enemy air attacks.”
The future commander of 500 SS was even more sanguine: “Overall the operation with its jump and landing was a success. Unfortunately Tito and the Allied military delegations managed to escape.” With an understanding of the German mission, this becomes a rather contradictory statement.
The overarching intent of Operation RÖSSELPRUNG was the elimination of Tito, the man who personified the Partisan movement. To the German high command, Tito was the center of gravity for the Partisans and his elimination would greatly diminish the resolve of the movement to continue. “Tito is our most dangerous enemy,” Field Marshal von Weichs was to claim before the operation. Despite the words of praise, the costly operation only netted the Marshal’s uniform, in for tailoring, a Jeep, which was a gift from the American mission, and three British journalists, one of whom later escaped. Even the intelligence information gathered, contrary to the above report, was not of much use. When the operation failed to eliminate Tito, it failed to achieve its underlying intent for being launched, and thus by no stretch can be considered to have achieved its purpose.
Ironically, Tito’s dramatic escape further solidified his deity-like stature amongst the Yugoslav population, and became part of the mythology surrounding this cult of personality. Although NOVJ headquarters, along with several other Partisan organizations, had their operations temporarily disrupted and several higher level personnel killed, they were quick to recover and set up in different locations. Drvar reverted to Partisan control within weeks.
Many accounts of `Rösselsprung’ state that SS-Fallschirmjäger-Bataillon 500 was `destroyed’ in the fighting, claiming that of the 874 men that had landed at Drvar only some 200 survived fit for service at the end of the battle, but this assertion needs to be differentiated. According to official German after-action figures dating from June 10, the battalion had 61 killed, 114 seriously and 91 lightly wounded and 11 missing, making for a total of 277 casualties. An earlier report from June 7 quoted even lower figures: 50 killed, 132 wounded and six missing, i. e. a total of 188. Even if one allows for the casualties suffered by the attachments (of the 36 glider pilots five had been killed and seven wounded; of teams Zawadil and Benesch two men had been killed and 24 wounded, etc) this is far from the reputed 650 casualties.
It continued throughout the rest of the war as the sole SS parachute unit, with its designation later changed to 600 SS Fallschirmjäger Battalion, but Operation RÖSSELPRUNG was to be its only combat jump of the war.
The M80 Stiletto is a recently built naval prototype manufactured by the M Ship Company as an operational experimental platform for the US Navy. It has an unusual catamaran (pentamaran) hull design which makes extensive use of carbon-fibre construction for both strength and stealth. The M80 Stiletto is an American vessel designed primarily for littoral combat and shallow water roles taking its name from the Italian Stiletto – a short dagger. This 27 m-long vessel has an M-shaped hull providing a stable and fast platform for surveillance, weapons and special operations (Figure 7.16). Its shallow draft means the M80 Stiletto can operate in littoral and river environments that other naval vessels cannot operate in (due to their draught) and can even allow for amphibious assault if needed. The Stiletto is equipped with four 1,232 kW engines, modest by comparison with the power levels of the Type 45 Destroyer, but has a top speed over 50 knots and has a range of some 500 NM when fully loaded! It uses jet drives for shallow water operations and beaching and a small flight deck for the launch and retrieval of several UAVs. The Stiletto can set up a communications network between special inserted forces teams by launching a UAV to relay information between the team and the boat, and can send real-time images to the team on shore. The ship is 88.6 ft long, with a width of 40 ft (12 m) and a height of 18.5 ft (5.6 m), and with a surprisingly small draft of just 2.5 ft (0.8 m).
The Stiletto is the largest US naval vessel yet built using carbon-fibre composite and advanced maritime epoxy building techniques, to yield a light but strong hull with a very low RCS to avoid radar detection. The M80’s hull is unusually wide to capture the vessel’s bow wave and redirect the wave energy under the hull. The Stiletto’s double-M hull enables the craft to achieve as smooth a ride as possible in rough seas at high speed, critical for Navy SEALS and Special Operations Forces.
In some ways, this is a practical small-scale supercessor to the US Sea Shadow, which after its Lockheed Martin test days of the 1980s was for a few years used by Northrop Grumman for initial research towards the recently abandoned Zumwalt programme. As a final note perhaps to the history of the Sea Shadow (developed at a cost of a little over £110 million), this stealthy platform was recently offered to be given away along with its barge for free to any museum that would take it. The barge itself was built over 35 years ago to raise a sunken Soviet submarine, but since 2005 both have been housed in San Diego, California.
While real enemies assailed German-held Europe from east, west and south, Hitler remained obsessed with the phantom threat to the Scandinavian sector of his Thousand-Year Reich throughout the course of the Second World War. The conquest of Norway and Denmark had secured the Reich’s northern flank and, of more immediate importance, the vital Norwegian port of Narvik. Set amidst the natural splendour of Norway’s northern reaches, the isolated Arctic town was strategically unremarkable apart from the dock through which tons of iron-ore were shipped to Germany and its war machine from the Swedish Gallivore mines.
The European gateway to Norway was Denmark, the first of the Scandinavian countries to have been conquered by Germany in 1940. In August 1944 365 K-Flotilla, equipped with Negers, was transferred to the country, though their tenure was brief, relieved by the reformed 361 K-Flotilla at the month’s end and returned to Suhrendorf for Marder training. The newly equipped 361 K-Flotilla arrived at Skaw on 1 September, moving onwards to Asaa 40km south of Frederikshaven ten days later. Bibers of 263 K-Flotilla were the first midgets to arrive in Norway, thirty of them landed at Kristiansand South from Travemünde on 9 October.
Over the next few weeks several K-Verbände units arrived in Denmark and Norway as well as German possessions in the North Sea. By 2 November the disposition of K-Verbände units within Scandinavia as approved by Dönitz was as follows: in northern Norway there were approximately sixty Bibers and sixty Marders in the area between Westfjord and the Lofoten Islands; sixty Molchs and thirty Bibers were based in southern Norway, mainly around Oslo and Kristiansand South (the Bibers were planned to move toward Narvik though Dönitz blocked the move); in Denmark, sixty Bibers at Aarhus and Oesterhurup were headed to the west coast of Jutland, sixty Marders and twelve Hechts were stationed at Asaa. Within German held North Sea territory there were thirty Molchs in Heligoland, thirty more at Borkum and thirty Bibers within the Ems estuary at Norden and sixty Linsens at Fedderwardsiel.
To control the far-flung K-Verbände units within Scandinavia K.z.S. Friedrich Böhme initially assumed command of units in Denmark and Norway in an almost ‘caretaker’ position, the post soon divided between K.z.S. Düwel in Aarhus, Denmark (Kommando Stab Skagerrak) and K.z.S. Beck (Kommando Stab Nord) in Oslo, Norway, while Böhme headed south to the Mediterranean. Beck and his staff surveyed the coastline that they had been charged to defend, estimating that they would require at least forty flotillas to effectively ward off an Allied attack on the labyrinthine waterways.
The deteriorating situation in Holland during December 1944 meant that the Molchs from Heligoland, Bibers from Norden and Linsens from Fedderwardsiel were all transferred for use in the Scheldt, depleting the K-Verbände presence in the northern theatre. Further losses were made when, after the threatened shortage of volunteers to man the K-Verbände weapons during January 1945, the dozen Hechts at Asaa were withdrawn to Germany and their crews transferred to the Seehund training unit before posted to Holland as part of Brandi’s 5 K-Division.
During February 1945 Düwel and his adjutant Wenzel were detached from Kommando Stab Skagerrak for duty with the Kommando Stab zbV which would soon be responsible for operations within German waterways that had been taken by Allied forces. Specifically, Düwel was asked to study operational employment of K-Verbdnde forces in the Danube, Drau and Oder. Control of his Scandinavian region was meanwhile passed directly to Heye’s General Operations branch.
The Scandinavian elements of the K-Verbände spent the rest of the war in what transpired to be needless reshuffling of units and redeployment to different defensive areas. The men were involved in constant training and equipment maintenance in preparation for the expected final battle. The tactics that the K-Verbände evolved for Norway were relatively simple. The Biber and Molch midget submarines were largely held at central depots ashore. In the case of reported invasion, they were to be brought forward to previously-prepared launching sites and put to sea to predetermined areas of operation. The Bibers and Molchs were assigned the protection of fjord and harbour entrances. Once established in a defensive line across the waterway they would await the oncoming enemy and then launch their attacks. By that stage the enemy should have suffered casualties, and so the place of the midgets would then taken by the Linsen flotillas who would compound the attack with their explosive motorboats. Should any Allied ships break through; the last line of defence was the human torpedo, Marder flotillas operating within the shallow waters of the harbours themselves. Alongside the centrally-stored Bibers there is evidence to suggest that some craft were ‘farmed out’ to outlying areas aboard Marinefahrpramm and also using the U-boat depot-ship ss Black Watch as temporary base and repair station, until the latter’s sinking on 4 May 1945 by British carrier-borne Avenger and Wildcat aircraft.
Coupled with the K-Verbände flotillas in Norway were also several Marine Einsatz Kommando units that were attached to the K-divisions, operating as loosely organised mobile commandos along the Norwegian coastline, often in conjunction with the Security Police (Sicherheitspolizei, or SiPo) again hinting at a stronger bond with the SS organisation than otherwise noted.
By the end of hostilities in May 1945 eight flotillas, organised into four divisions and comprising approximately eighty-five officers and 2,500 men had been deployed in Norway. The command structure and stationing at the end of hostilities was thus:
1 K-Division (Kplt Woerdeman in Narvik)
K-Flot.1/265 Engeøy Island (Oblt.z.S. Ploger with 120 men and thirteen Bibers). This unit was in the process of transferring to Oslofjord when the war ended.
K-Flot.2/265 Engeøy (Oblt.z.S. Doose with eighty men and eleven Bibers, at Lødingen two Bibers were also surrendered aboard the vessel MFP233).
K-Flot.1/215 Ullvik (L.z.S. Hein with 100 men and thirty Linsens).
K-Flot.1/362 Brenvik (L.z.S. Gotthard with seventy men and twenty Marders).
MEK35 Harstad (Kaptlt. Breusch and sixty men).
2 K-Division (Oblt.z.S. Schuirmann in Trondheim)
K-Flot.1/216 Selvenes (Oblt.z.S. Krause with 100 men and thirty-six Linsens).
K-Flot.2/216 Namsos (Oblt.z.S. Thum with eighty men and twenty-four Linsens).
K-Flot.1/267 Kristiansand (Oblt.z.S. Sengbiel with ninety men and fifteen Bibers).
K-Flot.2/267 Molde (Kaptlt. Sommer with ninety men and fifteen Bibers).
(Two Bibers were also surrendered aboard MFP224 and two more aboard MFP241).
MEK30 Molde (Kaptlt. Gegner with eighty men).
3 K-Division (K.K. Silex in Bergen)
K-Flot.1/362 Herdla (Oblt.z.S. Koch with seventy men and twenty Marders).
K-Flot.2/362 Krokeidet (seventy men and twenty Marders).
K-Flot.2/215 Flatöy (Oblt.z.S. Schadlich with 100 men and thirty Linsens).
K-Flot 415 Sola (Oblt.z.S. Breckvoldt with 200 men and thirty Molchs).
K-Flot 1/263 Höllen/Tangvall (Oblt.z.S. Erdmann with ninety men and fifteen Bibers).
K-Flot 2/263 Tangen (Oblt.z.S. Thieme with ninety men and fifteen Bibers).
4 K-Division (Kplt Velguth in Oslo)
K-Flot 1/366 Stavern (Oblt.z.S. Lehmann with sixty men and fifteen Marders).
K-Flot 2/366 Maagerö (Oblt.z.S. Heinsium with forty-five men and fifteen Marders).
Ultimately the bulk of the German forces in Norway remained unused and those K-Verbände units still in Scandinavia on 8 May 1945 surrendered without seeing action. While many of the weapons were scuttled before the arrival of British or Norwegian troops, the vast majority were handed over to the victors at their holding depots for later scrapping.
There remains little evidence of the K-Verbände presence in Scandinavia, though occasionally the skeletal remains of a Molch or Biber are discovered either at sea in the frigid fjord waters or buried on land after their dismantling in 1945. In Narvik itself rests the remains of a Marder within the maritime museum. Only the nose and the Plexiglas dome remain largely intact – that portion of the scrapped human torpedo ‘commandeered’ by a Norwegian woman who wanted to use it to plant flowers in!
Elsewhere the remains of the K-Verbände were likewise being handed over to the victorious Allies. Many craft were scuttled, including the three Seehunds at Dunkirk though these were swiftly salvaged and later repaired and recommissioned into the French Navy for extensive trials. Curiously a Seehund also now rests off Key West in United States waters. Taken as a war prize by the US Navy it was tested and crewed by its two original complement being held as POWs before being sunk in gunnery trials in the balmy Floridian waters.
The Allies soon discovered several prototype vehicles in development for use by the K-Verbände. These included many varieties of improved Sturmboot and explosive motorboats, one even propelled by a VI flying-bomb’s propulsion unit, as well as several varieties of midget submarine. There were fresh designs such as the Delphin (Dolphin), Schwertwal (Killer Whale) and large tracked Seeteufel (Sea Devil) as well as improved versions of the Biber and Seehund types. The Hai (Shark) human torpedo was found at AG Weser’s shipyard in Bremen, a huge elongated version of the Marder that stretched to 12.7m in length with increased batteries allowing a projected combat radius of 90 nautical miles. None had progressed beyond the prototype testing stage and remain historical curiosities.
Heye’s men were ushered into captivity alongside their comrades from all of Germany’s defeated services, the history of the K-Verbände soon relegated to little more than historical footnotes in works that recount Germany’s naval war between 1939 and 1945. This must be due largely to the lack of success enjoyed by the K-Verbände. While British, Italian and even Japanese midget submarine operations are often deservedly recounted for their indisputably heroic achievements, the German effort provokes far less recognition. Likewise of their explosive motorboats, human torpedoes and frogmen, the latter who enjoyed comparatively greater success than their service colleagues.
So why did Germany’s K-Verbände not achieve greater triumph? It certainly was not through a lack of fighting spirit or ardour amongst its largely volunteer members. Nor, arguably, can it solely be put down to the often-primitive machinery with which they were expected to take the fight to the enemy. The weapons made available to the K-Verbdnde ranged from the stopgap measure of the Neger human torpedo to the sophisticated design of the Seehund, a full range of craft spanning the gap between the two. Perhaps the real flaw lies in their commitment to action. While the Italian and Allied Second World War pioneers in the use of midget delivery vehicles utilised them for special actions, more akin to commando operations than conventional naval war, the Kriegsmarine quickly gravitated to the use of their K-Verbände as another weapon in the arsenal of a conventional navy, pitting the human torpedo against all that the Allies could muster. The German High Command perceived them as a defensive weapon as opposed to the specialised offensive weapons employed by the other nations. Indeed the Seehunds were deployed in the same role as conventional coastal U-boats and in fact could have had similar success if given the time to iron out design and training flaws and to allow the requisite numbers to be employed. Arguably the sole weapon within the KvB arsenal that could really have caused problems for the Allies seems to have been the Seehund. Though lacking in range, it carried the same weapon load as the Type XXIII U-boat yet only took two men to man and a fraction of the construction time. They were extremely difficult to detect using sonar and also difficult to destroy with conventional depth charges, though the crew no doubt suffered more than their boat under such attacks. If German planners had begun work a year ahead of time on the designs that would eventually lead to the Seehund they could have been deployed against the massed shipping of the D-Day invasion fleet for what could conceivably been devastating results. However, such was not the case and remains in the ‘what if’ category of alternative history. There also continues to be great misunderstanding about the nature of the men that crewed the weapons of the K-Verbände. This is probably not helped by books such as Jack Higgins’ wonderful – though fictional – The Eagle Has Landed that has men sentenced to death operating the human torpedoes from the British Channel Islands. This image of criminality has continued to dog the men of the K-Verbände, though it has a grain of fact to it. While it is possible to state that most men enlisted into the K-Verbände were either volunteers or ordinary conscripts, there remain anecdotes of some under military court sentence used in the human torpedoes, such as several of Skorzeny’s SS men. Thus the subject is not crystal clear, though the use of criminals in the K-Verbände ranks does not appear to have been deliberate policy.
There also remains the label of ‘suicide squads’ so often used in relation to the K-Verbände. To take the most obvious example, between April 1944 and April 1945 the Neger and Marder human torpedoes had mounted twelve operational sorties. Of the 264 machines involved 162 were lost, taking at least 150 pilots to their graves. Clearly, through what we have learned of the K-Verbände, they were not originally intended as suicide weapons or missions as is so often claimed. However, though perhaps not envisaged as such, they nonetheless were lethal to a majority of their volunteer operators. Moreover, to additionally confuse the issue, the following extract (also quoted elsewhere in this book) from a conference between Hitler and Dönitz further muddies the waters:
18 January – 16.00: An unexpected storm interfered with the success of the first operation by Seehund midget submarines. However, valuable experience was gained and the boats continue to operate. Because of the long distances involved, other small battle weapons can be used only as suicide weapons, and then only if the weather is suitable, as they would otherwise not even reach the area of operations. Despite these limitations, all efforts will be continued to interfere with enemy supply traffic to Antwerp.
Indeed Padfield notes in his book War Beneath the Sea that during Eberhard Godt’s interrogation (Dönitz’s subordinate and Chief Of Operations for the U-boat service) he imparted the view that the midgets were seen as ‘expendable’ – militarily cheap to produce and man.
Ultimately it could be said that if German naval strategic planning had allowed for the kind of development of midget weapon ideas and techniques necessary before the stimulus of a ‘backs to the wall’ defensive fight forced there hand, then many things could have been different for the Kriegsmarine and particularly the K-Verbände. However, the rigidity of thought and conservative nature that marked the Kriegsmarine ensured that there was no fostering of such ‘out of the box’ thinking, the results of which in Britain had allowed the creation of such weapons as the ‘bouncing bomb’, the Leigh-Light and numerous ‘funnies’ employed by the Armoured Corps. Germany by no means lacked such individual thinkers that could have developed special naval weapons, but history shows that, bereft of official support from military leaders, any such advances for the German K-Verbände remain purely conjectural.
Soviet intelligence agent Nikolai Kuznetzov in Wehrmacht uniform. While undercover posing as a Wehrmacht officer, Kuznetzov learned about Operation Long Jump.
The first attempt to land German troops in Iran was unsuccessful. On 15 July 1941 in strict secrecy three Ju 52s took off from one of the islands in the Aegean, heading for the coast of Syria. On board each of them was a group of saboteur from the ‘Brandenburg’ regiment.
The aircraft safely flew over the Mediterranean, Syria and Iraq and entered Iranian airspace, but soon one of the Ju 52s suffered engine failure and the pilot had to make an emergency landing. So the group under Leutnant Meinhard was now in northern Iran close to the Turkish border. This region was deserted, so no one had seen the German aircraft land.
The saboteurs then moved north and about 150km from the Soviet border, fell in with the warlike Kurdish tribes who controlled the area. The Germans spent six months in the villages with fighters for an independent Kurdistan, teaching them how to handle modern small arms and basic military tactics. Then, in January 1942, the Kurds secretly moved the Germans across the border into the territory of the Soviet Union. Hiding in the mountains, they successfully carried out sabotage attacks on mountain roads. When the German mountain troops reached the Caucasus, the surviving saboteurs returned to the Third Reich.
The second group, led by Leutnant Mertzig, after landing managed to get to Teheran, after which in September 1941 they went to the north of the country, but there their traces were lost. The third group, which was landed around Abadan, was later captured by the British.
Why were British troops in Iran? Shortly after the German attack on the Soviet Union, the Soviet and British governments jointly decided to occupy Iran as soon as possible. This operation began on 25 August 1941. British troops rapidly occupied the southern and western parts of the country, and Soviet troops entered Persia simultaneously from Transcaucasia and Turkmenistan. Soviet aircraft took an active part in the campaign. SB bombers, accompanied by I-153 fighters, carried out massive air raids on Iranian cities and ports, causing heavy casualties among the civilian population. Soviet troops also landed on the Iranian coast from the ships of the Caspian flotilla.
In the autumn of 1941, Britain and the United States began to supply the Soviet Union with weapons, food, fuel, non-ferrous metals and other materials under the Lend-Lease programme. The goods arrived in the USSR in several ways, through the ports of Murmansk in the north and Vladivostok in the east, and also through occupied Iran. Therefore, this region acquired great strategic importance for the Allies.
The largest and at the same time most difficult route for Allied supplies passed through Iran. Cargoes arrived at the port of Bandar Shahpur (now Bandar Khomeini) on the Persian Gulf. There they were loaded on trains which took the trans-Iranian highway through the mountains and Tehran to the port of Bandar Shah (now Bandar Torkaman), on the coast of the Caspian Sea. This route was extremely vulnerable to sabotage, as it had a total of 224 tunnels and about 4,000 bridges! Some of the supplies were transported by convoys on mountain roads. Then all this was loaded onto ships again and taken to various ports on the northern shore of the Caspian sea, with any excess loads going via rail. Most took the line from Astrakhan and Urbah (Saratov). Having covered thousands of kilometres on water, steppes, mountains and deserts, tanks, cars, planes and various other equipment entered service with the Red Army. In addition, since 1942, the USSR was supplying oil produced by the Anglo-Iranian oil company to refineries in Abadan. In Khorramshahr an assembly plant was built for American trucks, which then moved north on their own wheels to the Soviet Union.
By mid-1942, the Abwehr had a complete picture of all traffic on the southern Lend-Lease route, and the Germans decided to attack along its entire length, from the Persian Gulf to the city of Saratov (on the Volga).
On 25 August, the Luftwaffe began massive raids on the Astrakhan–Saratov railway, which ran along the eastern bank of the Volga, targeting key stations, the tracks and individual trains. The attacks were carried out continuously for four months, and as a result, a significant part of the Allied cargoes was destroyed, the rest suffering considerable delays and detours. In addition, German aircraft began to lay mines and attack shipping in the Caspian Sea. Up to June 1943 the Luftwaffe managed to sink seven Soviet ships with Lend-Lease cargoes, including the Kuibyshev which was loaded with tanks.
In Iran itself, resistance to the Allied occupation began immediately, with the Iranian Kurds taking a particularly intransigent position. In the winter of 1941/42 Abwehr agents had already made contact with leaders of the local tribes, and the aircraft of Aufkl.Gr.Ob.d.L. began deliveries of weapons and explosives, as well as groups of saboteurs.
Together with the Kurdish guerrillas, they carried out numerous attacks. In the spring of 1942, the dock at Khorramshahr, 15km southwest of Ibadan, was completely destroyed by fire and fifty wagons with military cargo intended for the USSR were destroyed. At the same time a bridge on the Khorramshahr–Ahvaz was attacked. The saboteurs did not blow it up, but simply dismantled the rails and sleepers for 50m. As a result, a train carrying American trucks crashed, and almost all the vehicles fell into the river.
Due to numerous acts of sabotage on the trans-Iranian railway, freight turnover slowed significantly. In April–May 1942 on it passed on only 344 freight wagons passed on it, less than for the period from February to March. In the future, explosions, arson and train crashes, organized by saboteurs despite British punitive expeditions, occurred regularly.
Encouraged by their initial successes, the Germans and their Iranian friends began to construct a secret airfield in the desert in the south-west of the country. In a short time, a field measuring 1,500m by 1,000m was built. Serious consideration was given to the creation of a secret submarine base on the coast of the Gulf of Oman!
The delivery of groups of saboteurs and weapons was carried out by four-engined Fw 200s and Ju 290s from airfields in the Crimea, over a distance of 2,000–2,300km. For example, in March 1943, the RSHA prepared another sabotage and reconnaissance group for insertion into Iran, code-named ‘Franz’. It included six SS members: Unterscharführer Blume, Rottenführers Kendgen and Korel (a translator) and three radio operators, Oberscharführer Hollzapvel and Unterscharführers Grille and Rockstrol. On 22 March, a Ju 290A with the saboteurs aboard took off from one of the airfields near Berlin. The plane was piloted by Leutnant Nebel, and the commander of 2./Versuchsverband Ob.d.L., Hauptmann Karl-Edmund Gartenfeld, was also on board. He usually personally supervised the delivery of the most important agents and groups to their destinations.
At 21:30 Berlin time the Ju 290 landed in the Crimea, at the airport of Simferopol, where there was a branch of ‘Toska’. Unterscharführer Werner Rockstrol then wrote in his diary: ‘I began to get acquainted with Russia and appreciate the German culture and purity. Terrible streets, rickety houses, people in rags – this is my first impression of Simferopol, one of the big cities of Russia … the population is friendly to the Germans. Russians do not like Bolshevism and its destructive nature.’
The next day, Hauptmann Gartenfeld once again instructed the SS men on what to do during a parachute jump. He told them not to worry as – ‘everyone will go down, after all nobody ever stayed up in the air’. Along the way, the order of landing was also determined – Rockstrol, Grille, Korel, Hollzapvel and Kendgen, Blume being the last to jump over Iran.
On 25 March, the group made a visit by car to the city of Yalta. The beauty of the local scenery made a lasting impression on them. On the way back they stopped in Sevastopol, where they saw various sights, including the ruins of the famous Coastal Battery 30, which the Germans called ‘Maxim Gorky’. The large-calibre Soviet battery was completely destroyed by the joint efforts of the German artillery and the Luftwaffe during the siege of Sevastopol. The group spent the next three days playing football with the local police.
On 29 March, the SS men were told that their mission was to begin that day. The first half of the day was spent in training, then the saboteurs were taken to the airfield, where they waited for the familiar Ju 290. Rockstrol continued the story:
At 15.30 our ‘Flying Fortress’ left Simferopol. Last look at Russia. We’re flying over Turkey. Everyone felt tired, as sitting with full equipment with a parachute is very uncomfortable, being at an altitude of 7,000 metres. We had oxygen. The engines were making a lot of noise, there was no human voice. The Hauptmann shouted orders in our ears, but they were like whispers.
Evening was coming. It was nearing the hour of our jump. Pale face. Many have an unpleasant feeling in the stomach. I’m feeling good. I close my eyes. Remember his home, the scenes of youth, of love … ‘Attention!’— commanded the Hauptmann. The first number is preparing. I quickly put the kneepads on my knees and put on the English landing helmet. My comrades prepared themselves for the jump. In front of us there are loads that also have to be dropped.
Soon the hatch was opened, and the cold night air poured into the Ju 290. Cargo containers, one containing a radio set, were the first to fly into the Iranian sky, followed one by one by all six members of the group.
The landing went well, and the saboteurs quickly found each other. They spent the night together discussing their next steps. All the containers were soon located apart from the one with the radio set, which was only found after an extensive search. After this Korel went to Tehran to make contact with a German resident, Franz Meier. The rest had to settle down to live among the sands.
On the morning of 8 April, it was time to make contact with HQ. Werner Rockstrol wrote in his diary:
Time for experiments. 7 hours Central European time. I sent the call sign. Hans and Georg sat on the box. Georg waved to me with a happy look. They heard Berlin quite clearly. Now everything depends on it. Hans called Berlin on the radio for 10 minutes. They listened excitedly to the receiver. Berlin hears us. What pleasure. We’re thrilled. First words received. About our success in Berlin clink glasses and will be a long time to call by phones.
On the morning of 14 June, Korel returned with a small caravan of camels and five Iranians. After that, the saboteurs disguised themselves as local residents, dyed their hair black, loaded their cargo on the animals and set off in the direction of Tehran. After several days of travel, the SS camel caravan arrived safely in the ancient capital of Persia. There the agents took up residence in the house of one Mahmoud Agh, from which radio messages were sent to Berlin.
During this period, there were several SD groups operating in Iran. For example, on 17 August a group led by Obersturmführer SS Martin Kurmis landed in the south of the country, to join up with Nasir Khan’s rebels. The next day a Ju 290 dropped cargo containers with weapons, clothing, explosives and food. The group was tasked to blow up oil pipelines and pumping stations.
On 3 August, the Germans, together with the Iranian rebels, caused train No. 5107, loaded with military cargo destined for the Soviet Union, to crash. As a result, traffic on this section of the railway was paralyzed for two days. In addition, explosives were planted on oil pipelines leading to the ports of the Persian Gulf. In the future, the RSHA was going to deliver to Iran a few more groups, but this was prevented by the shortage of four-engined transport aircraft, which were in demand throughout the huge front.
The Blume group successfully operated in Tehran for four months. But in the late summer of 1943, on the eve of the famous Tehran meeting of Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin, British counterintelligence sharply intensified their hunt for German agents. As a result, most of the agents were arrested. For example, on 14 August Franz Meier and Werner Rockstrol were arrested. After some time, Kurmis’s group was defeated. One of the agents committed suicide, but the other four surrendered to the British.
Despite this, the delivery of agents to Iran continued. On 1 September 1943 the Abwehr and SD organized a joint landing of several groups in different parts of the country. The saboteurs carried out several successful attacks, including derailing three trains on the trans-Iranian highway. The next delivery was carried out on 15 November. Despite the successes of the British, sabotage attacks continued, although on a smaller scale. For example, in 1944, saboteurs managed to set fire to a vehicle assembly plant in Khorramshahr.
With Winston Churchill’s direction, a plan was put together to carry out a raid against German positions on the island of Vaagso. It would not be the first time that commandos had visited Norway. A raid had already taken place earlier in the year much further to the north, called Operation Claymore, when 3 and 4 Commandos landed on the Lofoten Islands. On that occasion the raid had targeted a number of fish-oil factories to disrupt the enemy’s glycerine production and had proved to be a resounding success. A number of enemy vessels had been destroyed and more than 200 prisoners taken, while the returning commandos had been joined by more than 300 local volunteers wishing to escape to Britain.
The raid on the Lofoten Islands had provided the newly formed commandos with a much needed boost. It had also been given great publicity back in Britain to raise the morale of a public suffering the full extent of the Blitz, but it had fallen short in terms of a great amphibious operation, which the commandos had been formed and trained to undertake. While some might have considered a bloodless encounter against an undefended position to be a good operation, others felt what was needed was a commando raid of some magnitude, and one that was a truly combined and amphibious operation.
Ideally, Churchill wanted a raid on Trondheim to take some pressure off the Russians on the Eastern Front, and to provide a welcome break for the Royal Navy convoys heading for the Arctic port of Murmansk, but the British were not capable of making such a large-scale raid at that stage of the war. Nonetheless, Mountbatten wanted to make an impact for his first operation and was keen to go as far as he could towards meeting the prime minister’s wish. And so a raid was planned against enemy positions on the small island of Vaagso – lying on the northern side of the mouth of the Nordfjorden between Bergen and Trondheim, and marking the entrance to a system of fjords in which the German Navy had established anchorages – and its tiny neighbouring island of Maaloy. The area was home to German coastal gun batteries and a garrison of over 200 troops and the raid, called Operation Archery, was to be the first truly Combined Operation of the war.
Overall responsibility for the naval contribution to Archery was given to Rear Admiral Harold Burrough, while Brigadier Charles Haydon, the commander of the Special Service Brigade, was given command of the non-naval aspects of the raid. Chosen to carry out the assault was 3 Commando, led by Lieutenant Colonel John Durnford-Slater.
Durnford-Slater was 32 years old. He had raised 3 Commando, credited as the first commando unit of the war, and had led the unit’s two earlier raids; the first being on Guernsey in July 1940, called Operation Ambassador – a raid that ended up with no military gain but had proved useful for its planning and operational experience – and the second being Operation Claymore. His raiding force for Archery was to be augmented by two troops from 2 Commando and a small detachment from each of 4 Commando (to provide medical support) and the Norwegian Independent Company 1, led by Captain Martin Linge.
Amongst the many objectives of Archery were the destruction of a coastal battery and enemy barracks, the elimination of the enemy at their strongpoint at Hollevik and in the town of South Vaagso and on Maaloy, and to engage any enemy reinforcements. The raiders would also destroy the fish-oil factories and stores to prevent the German manufacture of high explosives, and destroy any enemy shipping at anchorage in Vaagsfjord. It was also hoped the commandos would bring back some enemy prisoners and Quislings (members of the Norwegian collaborationist government under the German occupation and named after the leader Vidkun Quisling) and provide passage to Britain for any Norwegian volunteers wishing to join the Norwegian Army of Liberation. Furthermore, it was hoped that a large raid of this type would result in the enemy having to maintain, or even increase, its forces in the area; forces that might otherwise be deployed to the Eastern Front.
With a total force of some 570 commandos, Durnford-Slater divided his men into five main groups. The plan was for the first group to land to the north of the town of South Vaagso and to prevent any reinforcements from reaching the town once the attack was underway. The second group would land to the south of the town at Hollevik and deal with the battery and enemy strongpoint known to be there. The two main assault groups were Groups Three and Four. Durnford-Slater would lead Group Four, consisting of four troops of commandos, a total of 200 men, with the task of carrying out all the objectives in South Vaagso. His second-in-command, Major ‘Mad Jack’ Churchill, would lead Group Three with two troops under his command, a hundred men, tasked with attacking the enemy gun battery, barracks and ammunition store on the neighbouring island of Maaloy. A fifth group would be held back on the troop transports as a reserve.
The commandos left their base at Largs in mid-December. On arrival at Gourock on the Clyde they boarded their two troop transport ships, the converted Belgian ferries HMS Charles and HMS Leopold. They then sailed to Scapa Flow to begin planning for the raid, although the exact location of the target was kept from the men before they left for their setting-off post in the Shetlands on Christmas Eve. Then, having enjoyed Christmas Day on board, the two troop transports left the Shetlands with their naval escort the following evening.
Meanwhile, 12 Commando was carrying out a diversionary raid against the Lofoten Islands, called Operation Anklet, and just before dawn on 27 December the troop transports carrying Durnford-Slater’s men approached the western coast of Norway. Having picked up the guiding light marking the approach to the Vaagsfjord, which had been provided by the submarine HMS Tuna, the ships sailed on towards their drop-off point.
As daylight started to break, Hampden light bombers of RAF Bomber Command carried out an attack on the coastal battery and anti-aircraft gun positions, while six Blenheims attacked shipping off the Norwegian coast to draw off any enemy fighters, and a dozen more Blenheims carried out a low-level raid against a German fighter airfield nearby.
By now the commandos had boarded their landing craft and were running in towards their targets. The Hampdens now lay a smokescreen for protection while star shells fired from the naval ships illuminated the area as the commandos approached the shore, just at the point when the final shells of the naval bombardment crashed into the enemy’s defences. Then, when the landing craft were just a minute or so from landing, the red Verey lights fired by Durnford-Slater instructed the naval bombardment to cease.
The commando landings that followed went much as planned. Being winter and quite far north, the short hours of daylight meant that the attack could not start too early and so it was already past 9.00 am. Furthermore, it would get dark again around mid-afternoon, so there was not much time.
On the tiny island of Maaloy, Churchill, already a holder of the Military Cross from his days at Dunkirk, lived up to his name of ‘Mad Jack’ as he led his men ashore playing the bagpipes as he went. The naval barrage had been so effective that Churchill’s group met little resistance. Less than fifteen minutes later the fighting was over, and within an hour of landing on the island the last of the enemy had been rounded up. The raiders had taken their objectives without suffering any casualties or losses.
Unfortunately for Durnford-Slater’s group, it had not been quite so straightforward. The barrage had done its job and the landing had been unopposed, but the soft snow, sometimes deep in parts, and the extreme cold had meant that it was not easy going. As Durnford-Slater led his men down the main street into the town they came across fierce opposition. The commandos had come under heavy machine-gun fire, as well as fire from snipers who had positioned themselves amongst the houses. Unfortunately for the commandos, the timing of their raid had coincided with an experienced German mountain unit enjoying a period of leave from the Eastern Front in the town.
The fighting soon deteriorated into congested street fighting and sniping. Durnford-Slater decided to signal the ships to send in the fifth group of commandos that had remained on board as reserves. He also called for reinforcements from Churchill’s group on Maaloy, where the fighting was already over.
Churchill sent the troop led by Captain Peter Young, a veteran of Dunkirk and now taking part in his third operation with the commandos. Young’s troop arrived in the town to find Durnford-Slater’s group pinned down and having suffered serious casualties. Two of the group’s four troop leaders were dead. Captain Herbert Forrester, a giant of a man and a great rugby player and heavyweight boxer, was killed while storming a heavily defended hotel being used by the enemy as its headquarters, and 23-year-old Captain Johnny Giles fell when a burst of machine-gun fire cut him down as he was clearing houses. Furthermore, the commander of the Norwegian Independent Company attached to one of the troops, Martin Linge, was also dead; he had been killed during the same attack against the hotel as Forrester. Three more officers had been badly wounded.
There was little or no space for the commandos to try and outflank the enemy positions. Snow-covered hilly terrain to one side of the town and the fjord on the other meant the enemy were well protected on their flanks and had now got into firmly established defensive positions. It was now, more than ever, that Durnford-Slater demonstrated his strong leadership. With so many of his officers down, the attack was in great danger of stalling but he succeeded in rallying his men, superbly assisted by his very capable non-commissioned officers, many of whom had now taken over command of their men.
Showing great personal courage and complete coolness under heavy enemy fire, Durnford-Slater led his men forward. They had now been boosted by the arrival of reinforcements and were ably assisted by the local Norwegians, who carried ammunition for the raiders and helped with the wounded.
The commandos slowly made their way up the main street and through warehouses along the wharf. Peter Young and another junior officer, Lieutenant Denis O’Flaherty, led their men with great courage and determination as the commandos moved from building to building and house to house. The combination of intense enemy fire from both sides and the wooden construction of the buildings meant that many fires had broken out. Flames raged through houses and buildings where enemy snipers had been dug-in. They had held up the commandos for some considerable time but were now gradually removed one by one as buildings burnt to the ground. Finally, having destroyed four fish factories in the northern part of the town and a herring-oil factory on the far edge of the town, as well as enemy ammunition and fuel stores, and the telephone exchange, Durnford-Slater’s men linked up with the first group that had landed further to the north and had now made their way to the edge of the town.
It had taken Durnford-Slater’s group into the early hours of the afternoon to reach the northern part of the town. Then, having swept through the area, he knew that it was time to start withdrawing south again to where the landing craft would be waiting to take them back to the ships. With less than six hours ashore it was only ever meant to be a hit-and-run raid, although enemy resistance had turned out to be far heavier than anticipated. As the commandos made their way back towards the landing craft they still came across areas of resistance, which had to be dealt with before they could leave.
While the main action had been going on ashore, the naval assault force of HMS Kenya and four destroyers had sunk ten enemy vessels in the fjord. Royal Navy boarding parties had also managed to secure some important documents, including enemy codes. No Royal Navy ships were lost, but four naval men had been killed and four more wounded. The Hampdens and Blenheims of Bomber Command had remained active overhead, attacking several targets of opportunity outside of the town to support the raid, but the RAF had also suffered losses. Eight of the twenty-nine aircraft dispatched were lost.
By mid-afternoon the commandos were back on board the landing craft with nearly a hundred prisoners and four Quislings, plus more than seventy new recruits for the Norwegian Army of Liberation. The voyage back to Britain soon passed and the commandos were welcomed back as heroes; news of the successful raid had already been given huge publicity back home.
The raid was considered a great success, particularly the combined aspects where, for the first time, all three Services had planned and operated together to achieve the same aim. Many factories, stores and buildings had been destroyed, as well as the ten vessels sunk in the fjord, and an estimated 150 of the enemy had been killed. The commandos had also taken back enemy prisoners and Quislings, plus Norwegian volunteers, and the valuable enemy codes that had been captured. But it had cost the commandos dear, with seventeen men killed and more than fifty wounded. There had also been the loss of Martin Linge, the leader of the Norwegian Independent Company attached to the commandos for the raid, a loss that was particularly devastating for the Norwegians, while both the Royal Navy and RAF had suffered a number of casualties.
For his leadership of the raid, John Durnford-Slater was awarded the DSO. He had demonstrated personal courage, complete coolness and a quick grasp of the situation while inspiring his men and ensuring that all the objectives were achieved. Amongst other awards for the raid were a DSO to Denis O’Flaherty, who had been wounded during the action, a bar to his MC for ‘Mad Jack’ Churchill and an MC to Peter Young.
In the aftermath of the raid the Germans were concerned that Britain might try and mount a full-scale invasion of Norway and so diverted an estimated 30,000 troops to the region and increased their coastal defences. Archery had, indeed, been a great success.
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.
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.