Military history



The Birth of the Special Forces in World War II

GIVEN THE WELL-PUBLICIZED success enjoyed during World War I by Lawrence and, to a lesser extent, by Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck, a German officer who used hit-and-run tactics against the British in East Africa, it should be no surprise that the next world war would see an exponential increase in irregular operations. The advance of German armies across Europe was preceded by the Brandenburg commandos who spoke multiple languages and often operated in enemy uniforms. They had been set up on the initiative of Captain Theodore von Hippel, who had served under Lettow-Vorbeck and had also studied Lawrence’s campaigns.65 In May 1940 Brandenburgers disguised as Dutch troops seized a key bridge across the Meuse into the Netherlands and swooped down in gliders on Belgium’s Eben Emael fortress. Later, in 1943, the SS major Otto Skorzeny employed gliders in a famous raid to spring Mussolini from his mountaintop prison in Italy. (Gliders in the 1940s served the role now played by helicopters.) The Italians, for their part, developed a highly capable maritime commando unit, the Decima MAS—forerunner of today’s SEALs.

But it was the Allies who fielded the preponderance of the irregular forces used in World War II. They knew that it would take years to mass the giant armies needed to defeat the Axis. In the meantime, it was better to mount pinprick raids than do nothing at all. Or so figured Winston Churchill, who had seen firsthand as a junior officer in South Africa the impact of Boer commandos. When he took over as prime minister in May 1940 just as France was falling, he immediately established both the Army Commandos to “develop a reign of terror down the enemy coasts” and a civilian organization, the Special Operations Executive (SOE), to undertake “subversion and sabotage” in occupied lands—or, in his evocative phrase, to “set Europe ablaze.” As an indication of how urgent the situation was, the formation of the commandos was approved three days after being proposed, and their first raid on the French coast took place fifteen days later.66 Before long, numerous other British units were set up for operations behind enemy lines. The war in North Africa spawned the Long-Range Desert Group, the Special Air Service (SAS), and Popski’s Private Army, all of which used trucks and jeeps to transverse trackless seas of sand, hitting the Germans and Italians where they least expected it. Not to be outdone, the Royal Marines, Royal Air Force, and Royal Navy formed commando-style detachments of their own.

All of these special operators made critical use of modern inventions such as the airplane and radio. But they were also inspired by the timeless lessons of history. SOE’s first leaders, the army officers J. C. F. Holland and Colin Gubbins, had fought against the IRA. In addition, Holland had served with the Arab irregulars in World War I and had studied Boer tactics. Now they were determined to employ the same sorts of “ungentlemanly” tactics that T. E. Lawrence, Michael Collins, and Christiaan de Wet had mastered.67

The very name “commando,” which became a generic term for all special operations units, was inspired by the Boers. Yet not all commando operations constituted guerrilla warfare per se, or as it is known today, “unconventional warfare.” Many were examples of what in the modern military lexicon would be called “direct action”—short-duration raids launched against the enemy from bases on friendly soil. Guerrilla operations, by contrast, typically involve fighters who either lack fixed bases or base themselves in enemy-controlled territory. In either case they spend longer on the ground than the typical commando or Brandenburg team. The SOE was more of a guerrilla force, infiltrating its operatives into Axis-occupied lands to work with indigenous resistance movements. The differences blurred, however, when both SOE and SAS parachuted operatives into France in 1944 to disrupt German lines of communication.

WHEN THE UNITED States finally entered the war in December 1941, it followed the British lead by setting up the Office of Special Services (OSS) under General “Wild Bill” Donovan, whose mandate ran from intelligence gathering to propaganda. It particularly took to sabotage operations, carrying out advice contained in illustrated training documents with puckish titles such as “Arson: An Instruction Manual.” The OSS also developed a line of secret weapons such as “Hedy,” “a panic creator which simulates the sound of a falling bomb and subsequent explosion,” and “Aunt Jemima,” a flourlike substance with “greater explosive force than TNT.”68

The U.S. Army, for its part, created in 1942 an analogue to the commandos—the Rangers. They were named in tribute to Robert Rogers, subject of the hit 1940 film Northwest Passage. Like the commandos, the Rangers often found themselves acting as the spearhead for conventional offensives, the most famous example being their scaling of the 100-foot cliffs at Pointe du Hoc on D-Day. The U.S. Marines set up similar Raider battalions, while Allied nations, including Australia, Belgium, Canada, and France, created their own special-warfare organizations to work with the British and Americans. The Soviet Union, too, embraced irregular operations by organizing large numbers of Partisans and Spetsnaz commandos, who would strike behind German lines.

THERE HAD BEEN “special operations” before—an appellation that can apply to any particularly risky and unconventional attack mounted by a small military force—going all the way back to the days of the Trojan Horse.69 The first attempts to institutionalize the concept, to specially train and equip soldiers for hit-and-run raids, were undertaken in the eighteenth century with light infantry and rangers. But for the most part soldiers who took part in irregular operations before the 1940s had to improvise after being overrun: think of Francis Marion in the American Revolution or numerous Spanish soldiers in the Peninsular War. Their experiences were mirrored in World War II by soldiers ranging from Russians in their homeland to Americans in the Philippines who chose to fight as guerrillas rather than accept defeat. But the war also saw the most ambitious attempt yet to train and equip specialized forces for such missions.

That innovation did not sit well with the majority of regular soldiers, who saw no need for “elite” units. Those who volunteered for such assignments, and generally only volunteers were taken, tended to be, in the words of the British army captain W. E. D. Allen, either “the young and the keen” or the “stale and the restless”: “The efficient soldier, good at his job, generally ignored the notices.”70 A disproportionate number of the volunteers were upper-class adventurers. Allen himself was a graduate of Eton and a former member of Parliament. The ranks of British special operators also included the actor David Niven; Lord Lovat, a Scottish peer and future cabinet minister; the novelist Evelyn Waugh; and the prime minister’s son, Randolph Churchill. President Roosevelt’s son James also served in special operations with Carlson’s Raiders of the U.S. Marine Corps. The OSS got so many recruits from Wall Street and the Ivy League that wags joked its initials stood for “Oh So Social,” while the SAS was stocked with Oxford and Cambridge graduates.

Part of this may have been snobbery on the part of higher-ups wearing the old school tie, but it was also a recognition that normal soldiers, no matter how competent, do not necessarily make good irregulars. Devil-may-care aristocrats might be better suited. At the other end of the social spectrum, the criminal underworld came in handy when recruiting for forgers and safecrackers.71 Brigadier Dudley Clarke, who as a lieutenant colonel founded the British Commandos in 1940, wrote, “We looked for a dash of the Elizabethan pirate, the Chicago gangster, and the Frontier tribesman, allied to a professional efficiency and standard of discipline of the best Regular soldier. The Commando was to need something beyond the mass discipline which held the ranks steady when men stood side by side; his had to be a personal and an independent kind which would carry him through to the objective no matter what might happen to those upon his right and left.” This meant, he concluded, that the “men would have to learn for once to discard the ingrained ‘team-spirit’ ” of regular military formations.72

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