From the plains of Europe to the jungles of the Pacific, the U.S. Army in World War II employed a variety of commando and guerrilla operations to harass the Axis armies, gather intelligence, and support the more conventional Allied military efforts. During the Allied invasion of northern France on D-day, elite American infantry scaled the sheer cliffs of the Normandy coast, while smaller combat teams and partisans struck deep behind German lines, attacking enemy troop concentrations and disrupting their communications. On the other side of the globe, U.S. soldiers led guerrillas against Japanese patrols in the jungles of the Philippines and pushed through uncharted paths in the rugged mountains of northern Burma to strike at the enemy rear. Special operations such as these provided some of the most stirring adventure stories of the war, with innumerable legends growing from the exploits of Darby's and Rudder's Rangers, Merrill's Marauders, the Jedburghs, the guerrillas of the Philippines, and the Kachins of northern Burma.

Despite the public and historical attention paid to the exploits of American special operations forces in World War II, their significance remains a matter of dispute. Both during and after the conflict, many officers argued that such endeavors contributed little in a war won primarily by conventional combat units. They perceived little, if any, place for such units in official Army doctrine. Yet others have contended that a broader, more intelligent use of special operations would have hastened the triumph of Allied arms during World War II. In their eyes, the experience gained by the U.S. Army in the field during the war was important and foreshadowed the shape of future military operations.

The problem of evaluating such claims arises, in part, from the difficulty in measuring the value of special operations

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forces in concrete terms. Their most substantial benefits often lie in the realm of morale and other intangibles. Controversy has surrounded the definition of the term. In the U.S. Army, "special operations" have included, at one time or another, everything from commando, escape and evasion, guerrilla, and counterguerrillaactivities to civic action, psychological warfare, and civil affairs. In January 1986 the Department of Defense (DOD) defined special operations as "operations conducted by specially trained, equipped, and organized DOD forces against strategic or tactical targets in pursuit of national military, political, economic, or psychological objectives." The definition further noted that such operations might occur "during periods of peace or hostilities" and might "support conventional operations, or ... be prosecuted independently when the use of conventional forces is either inappropriate or infeasible."1

For the purposes of this study, the official definition is too general to be of much use. Thus, special operations are defined here as commando and guerrilla activities and the gathering of intelligence by partisans and special military units. Commandos, termed Rangers in the U.S. Army, are elite light infantry units, organized and trained to conduct raids and long-range reconnaissance and to seize critical points on the battlefield. Guerrillas, in contrast, are native paramilitary forces operating from bases behind enemy lines with the occasional aid or leadership of outsiders. American leaders employed both types of units extensively, if not systematically, during World War II. In view of the present trend to exclude psychological operations and civil affairs from the Army's concept of special operations, this study will not cover such activities. Airborne and commando-type operations by standard Army units, such as the raids on Hammelburg and Los Banos, are also omitted from the discussion, since they are better analyzed in the context of the conventional war effort.2 By the time of American intervention in World War II, both the Axis powers and the Allies had already used special operations with some success. In 1940 German airborne commandos seized the "impregnable" fortress of Eben Emael, the key to the Belgian defense system, while systematic sabotage and subversion by the Brandenburgers, another elite parachute unit, played a large, if often overrated, role in the German

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conquest of Poland, Scandinavia, the Low Countries, and France. After the fall of Europe, the British turned to special operations to, in Prime Minister Winston Churchill's words, "set Europe ablaze." Beginning in late 1940, the British Special Operations Executive (SOE) airdropped supplies and infiltrated agents to expand the information-gathering and operational potential of resistance movements in France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Norway, and other occupied countries. In addition, the British established a number of elite commando units to conduct raids against the French and Norwegian coast-lines, both to keep the Germans off balance and to boost the fighting morale of their own people. Farther south, in the sandy wastes of North Africa, Britain's Long Range Desert Group, Special Air Service, and Popski's Army, an ad hoc paramilitary force of British adventurers, watched enemy movements, liberated prisoners, and raided deep into Axis territory. 3

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Despite the publicity accompanying the exploits of these types of units, American military leaders at first showed little interest in special operations. In the raids and guerrilla operations of such figures as Daniel Morgan, Francis Marion, and Frederick Funston, theU.S. Army could claim a history rich in such endeavors. By 1940, however, the ideas and methods of these men had been obscured by legend, and, for the most part, the Army viewed raids and partisan operations with indifference. American military planners were much more concerned with the transformation of a small peacetime conventional force into a mass army capable of waging a global war.

The Army's passive attitude toward special operations reflected not only the demands of 1940 but also an established orientation toward big-unit warfare. As the United States had grown in size and industrial capability in the decades following the Civil War, the increasingly professionalized American officer corps looked to the large conscript armies and mass warfare of Europe as a model for future conflicts. To the extent they thought of such matters at all, they perceived specialized commando units to be wasteful and special operations to be of no more consequence than the various Indian wars waged on the Western Plains. From the point of view of the American professional officer, victory in a conventional war lay in the overwhelming power of mass armies to attack and destroy an opponent's armed forces, as Ulysses S. Grant had done to the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia.

World War I had reinforced this predilection for mass warfare. Not surprisingly, American officers in the 1920s and 1930s envisioned a future conflict along the lines of the Great War. In the interwar years planners concentrated on the organization of the Reserve and National Guard, mobilization plans, and technological innovations, especially communications equipment, armored fighting vehicles, and combat aircraft. Both field maneuvers and military schools reflected the general orientation toward big-unit warfare. Unconventional operations, with their elements of stealth, secrecy, and political complications, seemed foreign, even devious, to officers accustomed to straightfoward conventional tactics and the interwar Army's ordered, gentlemanly world of polo and bridge. Even if prewar planners had considered the use of special units, the rush to rearm in the year and a half between opening of World

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Photo: Maj. Gen. William J.Donovan, head of the OSS (U.S. Army Military History Institute)

War II and Pearl Harbor would have left little time or resources to create them.4

The Army's disinterest in special operations opened the way for the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), a new agency that lay outside the conventional services but included a number of Army officers and other military personnel. The OSS was the brainchild of William J. Donovan, hero of World War I, corporate lawyer, and friend of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Ebullient and expansive, Donovan possessed the innovative mind and immense energy needed by the new agency. After observing special operations in Europe, he persuaded the president in July 1941 to form the Office of the Coordinator of Information (COI) for the collection and analysis of data and for such other "supplemental activities" as the president might direct. From the beginning Donovan's concept of the new organization's role went far beyond the field of intelligence, for he saw the agency as a tool to soften the occupied areas for eventual invasion. Regarding propaganda as an initial "arrow of penetration," he planned to help resistance movements undertake a campaign of sabotage, subversion, and, assisted by commandos, small-unit guerrilla warfare. Drawing on British advice and experience in the field, he formed separate branches for special intelligence (SI) and spe-

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cial operations (SO). Despite military suspicion and organizational rivalries, the agency survived, officially becoming the Office of Strategic Services in June 1942. 5

As a new agency, the Office of Strategic Services was able to take a fresh look at the entire field of special operations. A rather haphazard administrator, Donovan, according to one associate, ran his agency like a country store, but he did demonstrate an eagerness to try new ideas, ranging from plans to establish air bases behind Japanese lines in China to a plot to kidnap German Air Force chief Hermann Goering. Visitors to OSS headquarters were struck by the casual atmosphere, lack of formal lines of authority, and the wide range of personalities on the staff, ranging from Communists to well-connected socialites whom Donovan recruited at cocktail parties, board-rooms, and campuses.6

Many of the military personnel in the OSS served in the agency's airborne commando teams, known as operational groups (OGs). In July 1942 Donovan obtained the approval of General George C. Marshall, the Army's chief of staff, to form units of bilingual volunteers that would organize and supply guerrilla bands, gather intelligence, and carry out commando operations behind enemy lines. Recruiting teams canvassed posts and training areas for volunteers who spoke a foreign language and expressed a willingness to perform hazardous duty. These men formed cells, each containing two sections of two officers and thirteen enlisted men, although the actual size of the teams in the field would vary greatly. Primarily infantrymen and demolitions experts, they also contained medical technicians and radio operators. As was generally the case with Donovan's agency, they had their share of romantics and eccentrics, including veterans of the Spanish Civil War, a Czarist Army officer who had fled Russia after the Revolution, and "tough little boys from New York and Chicago," whose main desire, according to an instructor, "was to get over to the old country and start throwing knives." 7

Lacking experience in special operations, the Office of Strategic Services largely based its training of the operational groups on that of the British commandos. The first stop for OG recruits was the incongruously plush surroundings of the Congressional Country Club outside Washington. In addition

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to conditioning runs on the golf course, they received instruction in guerrilla warfare techniques from senior officers who were learning the subject themselves. More rigorous training awaited them at a former Civilian Conservation Corps camp near Quantico, Virginia, where they engaged in a strenuous conditioning program and received instruction in demolitions from a grizzled regular sergeant who had trained with the commandos. Training in weapons, hand-to-hand fighting, and night operations completed the curriculum. By early 1943 the first operational groups were ready for deployment to their initial theater of operations, the Mediterranean.8


1. U.S. Department of Defense, Joint Chiefs of Staff, Department of Defense Dictionary of Military Associated Terms, JCS Pub. 1 (Washington, D.C., 1986), p. 335.

2. For information on psychological operations and civil affairs by the U.S. Army in World War II, see William F. Daugherty and Morris Janowitz, eds., A Psychological Warfare Casebook (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1958); Alfred H. Paddock, Jr., U.S. Army Special Warfare: Its Origins; Psychological and Unconventional Warfare, 1941-1952 (Washington, D.C.: National Defense University Press, 1982); and Harry L. Coles and Albert K. Weinberg, Civil Affairs: Soldiers Become Governors, U.S. Army in World War II (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Army Center of Military History, Government Printing Office, 1964).

3. Gordon Wright, The Ordeal of Total War, 1939-1945, The Rise of Modern Europe (New York: Harper and Row, 1968), pp. 26, 146; Roger A. Beaumont, Military Elites (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1974), pp. 44-49, 55-57, 82. See also John W. Gordon, The Other Desert War: British Special Forces in North Africa, 1940-1943 (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1987). "Popski" was the pseudonym of Vladimir Peniakoff, son of Russian emigres and former cotton factor in Egypt. He raised his own force of raiders for operations in the North African desert.

4. For a discussion of the Army in the interwar period, see Russell F. Weigley, The American Way of War: A History of United States Military Strategy and Policy (New York: Macmillan, 1973), pp. 207-22, and History of the United States Army, 2d ed. (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1984), pp. 395-420. Interviews in the senior officers debriefing reports at the U.S. Army Military History Institute (USAMHI), Carlisle Barracks, Pa., testify to the leisurely atmosphere in the Army of the interwar years.

5. Kermit Roosevelt, War Report of the OSS, 2 vols. (New York: Walker & Co., 1976), 1: 5-8, 16, 26; Stewart Alsop and Thomas Braden, The OSS and American Espionage, 2d ed. (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1964), p. 9. For more on Donovan, see Anthony Cave Brown, The Last Hero: Wild Bill Donovan (New York: Times Books, 1982).

6. R. Harris Smith, OSS. The Secret History of America's First Central Intelligence Agency (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1972), pp. 3-7; Michael Burke, Outrageous Good Fortune (Boston: Little, Brown, 1984), pp. 88, 92-93; Alsop and Braden, The OSS and American Espionage, pp. 10, 17, 21-25.

7. Quote from Smith, OSS, p. 105.

8. Aaron Bank, From OSS to Green Berets: The Birth of Special Forces (Novato, Calif.: Presidio Press, 1986), pp. 1-6; William B. Dreux, No Bridges Blown (Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1971), pp. 1-2, 12-18; Roosevelt, War Report of the OSS, 1: 225; Paddock, U.S. Army Special Warfare, p. 28; Smith, OSS, p. 16; Brown, The Last Hero, p. 473.