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

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

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

Resistance Movements and Their Allied Helpers

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

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

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

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

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

Results of Special Forces and Resistance Activities

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

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

Behind German Lines: Conclusions

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

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

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

Leave a Reply