By: Warren Gray
“Three men behind the enemy are worth more than fifty in front of him.”
— Frederick the Great (Frederick II of Prussia/Germany), 1712 – 1786.
“And now go and set Europe ablaze.”
— Prime Minister Winston Churchill, June 1940,upon formation of the Special Operations Executive (SOE.)
“Surprise, kill, and vanish.”
— Motto of the OSS Jedburgh teams, 1944
The shadowy Office of Strategic Services (OSS) was created on June 13, 1942, as a wartime, intelligence agency of the United States during World War Two, to coordinate espionage activities and conduct special operations behind enemy lines on behalf of all branches of the U.S. Armed Forces. Its director was Colonel (later Major General) William Joseph “Wild Bill” Donovan, age 59, a wealthy, New York lawyer, world traveler, and socialite, who had earned the Medal of Honor (and Distinguished Service Cross) during the First World War for leading an assault in France in October 1918, and was a Columbia Law School classmate and personal friend of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
Donovan coordinated directly with the British government in 1940, gaining their full cooperation to assist the Americans with establishing his vital organization, including guidance from their Secret Intelligence Service (SIS, or MI6) agency and Britain’s new, Special Operations Executive (SOE) espionage agency. With some initial, British help, he set up training camps for agents, first in Canada (Camp X, beside Lake Ontario, near Whitby), and later in the United States, where qualified volunteers were trained in espionage, sabotage, subversion, explosives, assassination, combat survival, hand-to-hand combat, parachuting, Morse code, and other necessary skills. At the same time, Donovan actively encouraged innovation, unorthodox tactics, and the invention of new, espionage-related weapons and equipment for his field agents.
The OSS established secret training camps in Prince William Forest Park (Areas A and C) near Manassas, Virginia, at Catoctin Mountain Park (Area B, comprising two-thirds of the current, Camp David presidential retreat, then known as “Shangri-La”) near Thurmont, Maryland, for Special Operations training, at Smith’s Point, Maryland (Area D), near Towson and Glencoe, Maryland (Area E), at the 400-acre Congressional Country Club (Area F, their primary facility) in Bethesda, Maryland, on Catalina Island, California, at the 100-acre Lothian Farm (Area RTU-111, “the Farm,” 12 miles southwest of Annapolis), Maryland, and later located more camps abroad, in Great Britain (England and Scotland), French Algeria, Italy, Egypt, Yugoslavia, and Greece. The main, OSS resupply point for weapons and equipment in the United Kingdom was Area H, at Holmewood Estate in Holme, England.
Eventually, the wartime service swelled to include 13,000 people by late 1944, with as many as 24,000 employed at one time or another over the three and a half years of its existence. Nearly one-quarter of them were women, but very few women were actual, field agents, and all of those agents had already lived in German-occupied countries before joining the OSS.
Although the OSS operated virtually worldwide, its greatest successes were in occupied Europe, battling German forces in France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Norway, Italy, Yugoslavia, and Greece. The work was so dangerous that only about 10 percent of all interested, potential recruits who were interviewed actually volunteered for OSS duty.
The Special Intelligence (SI) Branch was the mysterious, “cloak-and-dagger” division, training agents (they never called them “spies”) with European-language skills in espionage, intelligence collection, tradecraft, observation, concealment, cover stories, safecracking, bribery, recruiting informants, communications and ciphers, weapons, unarmed combat, and running networks of foreign agents in occupied territory. Their main training facility was RTU-111 in Lothian, Maryland.
Agents normally parachuted into France or other countries with a pistol (often foreign-made), a shovel (to bury their parachute), false ID papers, food, French or German cash, an expensive, Minox Riga 8x11mm spy camera, and an SSTR-1 suitcase radio set for communicating with Special Forces Headquarters in London. Sometimes, they also carried a single-shot, .22 Long Rifle weapon disguised as a cigar or a pen.
The Special Operations (SO) Branch was the strictly-military division, tasked with sabotage behind enemy lines, and with training, organizing, and supplying various resistance groups in German-occupied regions. These were uniformed members of the U.S. Armed Forces, mostly from the Army, and nearly a quarter of them were commissioned officers.
The SO Branch consisted of three primary elements: the agent/operative teams (usually just two men, as in the 87 “Sussex” teams in France in April 1944, and no women), the Operational Groups (OGs) of approximately 34 men (six officers and 28 enlisted men, although some OG teams were as small as 10 to 20 men total), similar to Army Rangers, and the more-famous, highly-mobile, “Jedburgh” teams (or “Jeds”) of two to four men. All told, there were an estimated 2,000 men (with 1,100 behind enemy lines at any given time) in the OGs, about 1,300 field operatives, and less than 300 Jeds.
All Special Operations troops were trained either at Area B (primary) in Catoctin Mountain Park, or at Area A (secondary) in Prince William Forest Park, and they all spoke a least one European language fluently, usually French, but sometimes Dutch, Italian, or German. In addition, all SO members were fully-qualified paratroopers, trained either at Fort Benning, Georgia (five jumps), or at the British jump school at RAF Ringway (five jumps, including two balloon jumps), near Manchester, England.
These men typically wore standard, M43-pattern, olive-drab, paratrooper uniforms, with brown, all-leather, 1941-pattern, Corcoran jump boots (great for parachuting, but without much sole traction otherwise. Corcoran still makes the 10-inch-tall, brown version for collectors and reenactors.) An optional, four-color, camouflaged, M42 “Frogskin” uniform was available, but saw only limited service. SO troops wore U.S. Army, silver-oxide, jump wings over their left, breast pockets, with a tiny, bronze star added to the wings after each combat jump. M2 paratrooper helmets were usually worn for parachuting, but most Jeds did not wear their helmets in actual combat.
Upon completion of all OSS training, they were each awarded distinctive, OSS “Special Forces” wings, a cloth badge with either white or gold, embroidered wings, worn on the right shoulder, and bearing the letters “SF” in light blue, on a red circle at the center. These were later often referred to as “Jedburgh wings,” but in actuality, all SO military men earned them.
There was also an OSS shoulder patch and lapel insignia, usually worn only in the Washington, DC, area, depicting a golden spearhead on a black background. This same patch is now the official insignia of the United States Special Operations Command (USSOCOM), and is also worn by the elite, Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC.) Those SO men who had jump-qualified at RAF Ringway were entitled to wear British, cloth jump wings on their right shoulders, as well, even into combat. It’s important to note that the current, U.S. military terms “Special Operations” and “Special Forces” specifically originated with the wartime OSS.
The SF wings were worn with all uniform combinations, but were usually removed from clothing worn on operational missions, to avoid identification as OSS operatives. Adolf Hitler’s infamous, secret, and illegal “Commando Order” of October 18, 1942, clearly stated that, “I order…All men operating against German troops in so-called Commando raids in Europe…are to be annihilated to the last man…whether they be soldiers in uniforms, or saboteurs, with or without arms…Even if…giving themselves up as prisoners.” The Commando Order definitely applied to all British Commandos, Special Air Service (SAS) or Special Boat Squadron (SBS) commando teams, SOE operatives, and OSS agents and soldiers. At least 26 captured, OSS soldiers were summarily executed by the Germans in 1944 and 1945.
Likewise, most OSS SO military officers wore rank insignia only on their right shirt collar and peaked cap in combat, and not on their shoulders or helmets, like normal, U.S. Army officers. The bright, metal insignia (there were no black or brown, subdued rank insignia at the time) made excellent targets for German snipers, so these officers wanted to reduce their visibility in action somewhat, while still displaying appropriate badges of rank on their uniforms.
Along those same lines, the British-made, Denison smock, with its very subtle, camouflage pattern, was a popular item with the OSS, and was also worn by SOE operatives, British Commando units, the Parachute Regiment, and the Glider Pilot Regiment. Some SO soldiers were seen wearing civilian berets (black, green, or tan) in the field to blend in with French Resistance groups or Yugoslav partisans.
Operation “Jedburgh” was a clandestine operation mounted by the OSS, SOE, French Central Bureau of Intelligence (BCRA), and Belgian and Dutch armies on June 5, 1944, the eve of the massive, Normandy invasion (Operation Overlord) of Occupied France, to conduct sabotage and guerilla warfare, leading local resistance forces against the Germans. It was named for the Scottish town of Jedburgh, only 10 miles from the English border, where fierce, notorious, insurgent raiders known as Border Reivers waged war with battle axes against English invaders in the 12th century.
OSS Jedburgh operatives were handpicked for their aggressive, independent, adventurous spirit, self-reliance, strength of character, intelligence, individual initiative, confidence, European-language skills, and physical and mental toughness. Only 286 men were selected, including 83 Americans, 90 British, 103 French, five Belgian, and five Dutch troops.
They received additional, paramilitary, commando training in the Scottish Highlands, and at Milton Hall, England, including unarmed combat, parachuting, explosives, sabotage techniques, small arms, radio communication, mountain climbing, land navigation, skiing, Morse code, and other vital, guerilla skills.
Their specific duties, according to OSS Jedburgh Major William E. Colby (later the CIA director from 1973 to 1976) were “to harass the Germans as much as possible…ambushes on the road, blowing up bridges, that sort of thing,” as well as to help organize and arm the French Resistance, arrange supply drops, collect intelligence, provide liaison between the Allies and the Resistance, and take part in sabotage operations against bridges, railroads, enemy supply lines, and communications networks.
The Jedburgh teams normally consisted of three men: a commander, executive officer, and enlisted, radio operator (usually an Allied sergeant.) The team commander was normally (but not always) an American officer, and his exec was often British or French, with a radio operator from Belgium, Canada, France, or the Netherlands (Holland.) They all dressed and acted like ordinary paratroopers, to avoid being shot as spies if captured. The night before the D-Day invasion, 93 daring, Jedburgh teams parachuted into northern France, and eight more went into the Netherlands.
Jedburgh Major William Colby later said in an interview that, “In the Jedburghs…there was absolutely no training in…how to get along with people. So, I read Lawrence of Arabia’s (Colonel Thomas Edward Lawrence, famed advisor to Arab forces in the Arab Revolt of 1916 to 1918) book (Seven Pillars of Wisdom)…about how you get along with a strange culture, how to relate to them and handle yourself, how to defer and suggest. You don’t take command, you don’t boss people, you just have to work your way through it. It was good training in the basic principles of how you get along.”
OSS agents, field operatives, and Jedburgh teams were infiltrated behind enemy lines by their own private air force at RAF Harrington (Station 179), near Kettering, England, under the auspices of Operation “Carpetbagger.” The 801st Bomb Group (later redesignated the 492nd Bomb Group on August 13, 1944) was officially assigned to the OSS in September 1943, to supply secret agents, weapons, and other supplies to resistance fighters in France, Belgium, Denmark, the Netherlands, Norway, and even Germany, officially beginning night operations on January 4, 1944.
Nicknamed the “Carpetbaggers,” this special unit eventually consisted of four squadrons at least 64 B-24D/H/J/L/M Liberator bombers (for agent/Jedburgh dropping and resupply) at any given time, 11 B-17F/G Flying Fortress bombers (406th Night Leaflet Squadron), 16 C-47A Skytrain transports (for larger-scale, parachute drops, each able to hold as many as 27 paratroopers), nine A-26C Invaders (for small-scale, agent flights to Germany from March to May 1945), and 11 Mosquito PR Mk. XVI reconnaissance/radio-relay aircraft, for use over Germany.
The handheld (just one pound), Top-Secret, SSTC-502 radios, codenamed “Joan,” used by OSS agents in Germany had a range of only 20 miles, so a Carpetbagger Mosquito arrived late each evening at 30,000 feet to receive and record plain, voice messages, using a heavy (40 lbs.), SSTR-6 transceiver codenamed “Eleanor.”
Their main workhorse was the B-24DLiberator bomber (with H and J models added later), heavily modified for very-low-altitude, very-low-speed (only 10 knots above stall speed), night missions deep behind enemy lines. Six of the 10 heavy machine guns were removed to lighten the load, as were three crew members (the gunners), the oxygen bottles, armor plating, all unnecessary radio gear, and the American bomb shackles. British shackles were installed, for carrying and dropping British-made, supply canisters, flash suppressors were mounted on the four remaining machine guns, special radios were installed, and the aircraft were painted overall, semi-gloss black at first, and later only on the undersurfaces.
The Carpetbagger bombers typically crossed the French coastline on moonlit nights at 4,000 to 6,000 feet altitude, alone and on radio silence, to avoid the coastal gun batteries, and then they dropped to only 400 feet (sometimes as low as just 200 feet, but no higher than 600 feet in hilly terrain) to avoid German night fighters enroute to their drop zones. The OSS agents, known as “Joes” (or sometimes “Janes”), parachuted to earth through the 44-inch, circular, “Joe-hole” created by removing the belly-gun turret, wearing padded, camouflaged, canvas jump suits and leather-and-rubber helmets (for civilian agents), or standard, M43 field uniforms and M2 steel paratrooper helmets for military personnel.
The agents were dropped first, often using British GQ X-Type Mk. 1 or Mk. 2 (mid-1944 onward) parachutes, which were standard, British Army equipment, opened faster and more gently than American T-5 or T-7 chutes, and utilized no reserve chutes, allowing more weapons and equipment to be carried. They required approximately 275 to 300 feet altitude to open successfully. The cylindrical, “C-type” containers or “H-type” containers (5.5 feet long by 1.25 feet wide), often painted matte black, were dropped on the next pass, each loaded with about 220 pounds of weapons, ammunition, medical supplies, food rations, and other critical equipment. Up to two and a half tons of containers could be carried on long-range missions.
Carpetbagger aircraft completed 1,860 operational sorties, and delivered more than 1,000 parachutists, 20,495 supply containers,
and 11,174 packages of vital supplies to resistance forces in Western Europe. According to the U.S. Air Force, 25 of their B-24s were shot down in combat, and eight more were damaged beyond repair, with 208 airmen killed or missing in action.
The three-man, multi-national, Jedburgh teams were typically armed with standard, Colt M1911A1 pistols in .45 ACP for each man, as well as OSS fighting knives, or stilettos. The knives were American-made (by Landers, Frary, and Clark housewares company in New Britain, Connecticut, for $2.03 each, at the time) copies of the British Fairbairn-Sykes Mk. 3 Commando dagger (still used today by the Royal Marine Commandos, and military forces in Belgium, Canada, France, Poland, and four Asian countries), but improper steel tempering made them inferior to the original, British knives from Sheffield, so many Jeds preferred the Fairbairn-Sykes instead.
These were sometimes carried in a “para-sheath” scabbard, on the right leg at the top of the jump boot. After mid-1944, the OSS knife was replaced by the more-rugged, M3 fighting knife, or “Trench Knife.” Superb reproductions of the OSS stiletto, of much-higher quality than the originals, are still are available from MacDonald Armouries of Edinburgh, Scotland, for £250 ($309.)
Standard rifles for the officers were semiautomatic, Inland M1A1 Carbines with side-folding, paratrooper stocks (only 140,000 of these were ever made during the war, just for American paratroopers), 15-round magazines, and 18-inch barrels, without bayonet lug, favored because they were very lightweight (only 55-percent of the weight of an M1 Garand infantry rifle) and relatively compact (eight inches shorter than a Garand with the stock extended, and nearly 18 inches shorter with the stock folded.) Inland Manufacturing of Dayton, Ohio, still produces this fine, civilian-legal, historical weapon for $1,279, and the M1911A1pistol for $949.
The enlisted, radio operator normally carried a light machine gun, such as the popular, Czech-designed, British-manufactured Bren Mk. 2 or Mk. 3 (slightly shorter version) in .303-caliber, with a 30-round magazine. This man utilized a British-made, SOE Type 3, Mk. II (B2) “Jed Set” field radio, usually secured in two watertight containers.
U.S. Army Mk. 2 hand grenades were carried, as well as smaller, OSS T13 “Beano” contact grenades. For those desiring a little extra firepower, Colt M1903 or M1908 Pocket Hammerless pistols in .32 ACP or .380 ACP were available as backup weapons in modified, shoulder holsters.
Other personal equipment likely included an OSS Escape Kit (silk map, tiny compass, small saw blade, and three photos of the operative in civilian clothing), button compass (concealed inside a uniform button), Escape Knife (similar to a Leatherman Multi-Tool), and possibly an OSS “L-pill” (“Lethal-pill”), Zyankalium (potassium cyanide, or KCN) suicide tablet, in case of capture and torture.
Of the 286 original, multi-national Jedburghs, 21 were killed in action, and only one was captured and tortured, British Captain Victor A. Gough, who was executed as a prisoner on November 25, 1944. Among the 83 American Jedburghs, five were killed, three were missing or captured, and six were wounded. The larger, OG teams (356 Americans in 21 teams) lost 10 men killed and 40 wounded, but they killed or wounded at least 928 German soldiers.
Some Jedburghs were photographed carrying the United Defense/Marlin M42 submachine gun in 9mm, with a 25-round magazine. This weapon was used primarily by resistance and partisan groups, and was never officially adopted by U.S. forces. The OSS also issued concealed, sleeve daggers and tiny, hidden, lapel daggers for operatives as last-resort weapons.
For special missions requiring nearly-silent action, such as ambushes, assassinations, or night raids, a variety of optional weapons could be provided. Suppressed firearms included the High Standard HDM pistol in .22 Long Rifle (with 90-percent noise reduction and literally no muzzle flash), the British SOE Welrod pistol in either .32 ACP (the most-silent pistol ever designed) or 9mm, the bolt-action, DeLisle Commando Carbine in .45 ACP (inaudible from more than 50 feet away), the British Sten Mk. II(S)submachine gun in 9mm (favored by German commando leader, SS Major Otto “Scarface” Skorzeny), the M3 “Grease Gun” submachine gun in .45 ACP (1,000 built for OSS, with Bell Laboratories suppressor, and still used by the Philippine Marines today.)
There was even a special, suppressed version of the venerable M1 Carbine, manufactured exclusively for the OSS and SOE by the Royal Small Arms Factory, with a 10-inch or 11-inch barrel, and a 13-inch or 17-inch suppressor. When utilizing special, subsonic, .30 Carbine ammunition for maximum sound suppression, the bolt had to be hand-cycled after each shot, which was an unpopular limitation. Standard ammunition could be used, however, but it was not as quiet as the subsonic variety.
Jedburgh/OG supply canisters contained their radios, rucksacks, large quantities of British PE-2A plastic explosives, fuses, blasting caps, primacord, “Firefly” incendiary mini-grenades (just three ounces), land mines, maps, eight-power binoculars, telescopes, food K-rations, medical supplies/first-aid kits, matches, hunting/survival knives, OSS and M3 fighting knives, field compasses, L-pills, a few Minox Riga subminiature cameras, and a great deal of French francs for bribes, local purchases, and other reasons.
When required for high mobility, the SOE Welwyn/Excelsior Welbike could be air-dropped inside a C-type container. This was a tiny, 98cc, 71-pound, 1.5-horsepower motorcycle, which could be fully assembled in only 11 seconds. It had a range of 90 miles, and could travel at speeds of up to 30 miles per hour. Neary 4,000 were produced, and later used by Airborne troops as the “Parascooter.”
Additional weapons and ammunition were suppled as requested, exclusively for use by the French Resistance or other partisan groups. These included large quantities of M1 or M1A1 Thompson submachine guns in .45 ACP, M3 “Grease Gun” submachine guns in both .45 ACP and 9mm (1,000 9mm versions were produced solely for the OSS), Marlin M42 submachine guns (2,405 were airdropped into France in 1944) in 9mm, British Sten Mk. II submachine guns in 9mm, Smith and Wesson Model 10 or Colt Comando revolvers in .38 Special, various hand grenades and plastic explosives, OSS knives, and Colt M1911A1 service pistols in .45 ACP.
Also available through supply drops were much-smaller numbers (12 or less) of miscellaneous weapons, such as the M1 Garand rifle in .30-06, Reising M50 or M55 submachine guns in .45 ACP, Bren Mk. 1 and Mk. 2 light machine guns in .303, Winchester 12-gauge, pump shotguns, Colt Woodsman target pistols in .22 Long Rifle, some small, FP-45 Liberator single-shot pistols in .45 ACP, and captured, German P.08 Luger pistols in 9mm, Walther P.38s in 9mm, and Walther PPKs in .32 ACP.
For the next three months after the Normandy invasion, Jedburgh teams supported attacks on enemy lines of communication, and reduced the destruction of key infrastructure by the retreating Germans. Jedburgh actions forced the Germans to divert significant, military assets away from major battlefields. Volume Two of the OSS War Report states that, “With well-trained, capable, radio operators, the Jedburghs represented, wherever they were, a strong, radio link between FFI (French Forces of the Interior) leaders and other Allied groups in the field, such as the SAS (Special Air Service) and headquarters in London.
“Besides the all-important task of making available…arms and supplies to the resistance and preparing landing and dropping fields, they acted as translators and interpreters, assisting in surrender arrangements, helped lead sabotage and ambush operations, provided intelligence on resistance and enemy strength…and worked to coordinate separate resistance forces under a unified command…Allied commanders were just grateful that s
o many resistance members were well-armed and organized, breaking up Nazi forces and tying up German units, and that so much infrastructure survived (German) destruction efforts.” The OSS was officially disbanded on September 20, 1945.
Of the 83 American Jedburgh operatives, 53 were awarded either the Distinguished Service Cross, the Navy Cross, Legion of Merit, French Croix de Guerre (“War Cross”), Silver Star, Bronze Star, or Purple Heart medals, the highest percentage (64%) of combat citations earned by any single group in World War Two.
Among these American heroes was First Lieutenant John K. Singlaub, age 24, who helped to shoot down a strafing, German fighter plane, and then, despite being wounded in the effort, grabbed a Bren machine gun, rushed forward, and emptied two 30-round magazines into a German machine gun crew 60 meters away, killing them all.
Then there was Marine Corps Major Pierre (Peter) Julien Ortiz, a five-year veteran of the French Foreign Legion in the 1930s, who like to steal Gestapo (German Secret Police) vehicles, and show up in French towns in his Marine uniform. In one incident, he walked into a local café full of German officers, and opened fire with Colt .45 pistols in both hands, killing or wounding the Germans before swiftly vanishing into the night. For leading a series of daring, OSS raids behind enemy lines, Ortiz was twice awarded the Navy Cross “for extraordinary heroism.”
First Lieutenant Paul A. Swank, commanding a four-man, Jedburgh-type detachment from an OSS OG team, was attempting to blow up a bridge across the Aude River when a column of 250 German soldiers arrived, and a firefight began. Swank and one OSS sergeant remained at the bridge to cover the retreat of two more OG members and 18 French Resistance fighters.
Although he was hit eight times in the arms and chest by machine gun fire, Swank kept firing for as long as he could hold up his pistol. He was still conscious when the Germans arrived, and an officer shot him in the head. Paul’s commanding officer wrote that, “The German officers later remarked to inhabitants of a neighboring village that they had never seen a man fight as bravely or as long until killed.” Swank was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Service Cross.
Researching this subject was so fascinating and informative that this author also recently wrote an entire, book manuscript, a historical novel, Operation Alpine Thunder, about an OSS Jedburgh commando officer and an OSS female, civilian agent deep behind enemy lines in the Berchtesgaden Alps of southeastern Germany, spying on Hitler’s Obersalzberg mountain complex during the final 30 days of World War Two.
Today, the legacy of the wartime OSS and its daring, Jedburgh commando teams lives on within the missions of USSOCOM, JSOC, the CIA’s paramilitary Special Operations Group (SOG), and most significantly within the U.S. Army Special Forces, or “Green Berets,” founded by former Jedburgh officer Colonel Aaron Bank in 1952. Their enduring mission is still to organize, support, supply, and assist friendly, resistance forces in conflicts around the globe, also providing direct-action capability when required, following precisely in the footsteps of the famous, OSS Jedburgh teams.
Warren Gray is a retired, U.S. Air Force intelligence officer with experience in joint special operations and counterterrorism. He served in Europe (including four years in Germany) and the Middle East, earned Air Force and Navy parachutist wings, and four college degrees, including a Master of Aeronautical Science degree, and was a distinguished graduate of the Air Force Intelligence Operations Specialist Course, and the USAF Combat Targeting School. He is currently a published author and historian. You may visit his web site at: warrengray54.webs.com.
Photo courtesy of Inland Manufacturing