Before parachuting into occupied France, an OSS Jedburgh team is briefed on numerous topics. Agent John K. Singlaub is shown second from the right.
OSS operatives interrogate a German prisoner recently captured by French partisans known as Maquis. John Singlaub is at the left with his hand on his hip.
In the European Theater, Office of Strategic Services [OSS] special operations forces began in the same manner as the rest of the OSS in Europe, as a caboose hitched onto the long train of British secret activities. Winston Churchill had created the Special Operations Executive (SOE) in the summer of 1940 with an injunction to its chief to “set Europe ablaze.” In its first years, though, the SOE had set only a few brushfires, most of which were stomped out by the black boots of fascism. Efforts to support French resistance fighters had run up against French resentment stemming from the Dunkirk evacuation in June 1940 and the Royal Navy’s annihilation of French ships at Oran the following month, as well as the effectiveness of German and Vichy authorities in hunting down subversives. German intelligence smashed the main French resistance network in 1942 after one of its members fell asleep on a train with a briefcase containing the names of the network’s 250 leading members. A German Abwehr agent swiped the briefcase and passed it on to his superiors, who tracked the 250 individuals for several months before rounding them up in one fell swoop.
Donovan wanted to parachute OSS commandos into France right away, but he was rebuffed by the British, who feared that inexperienced Americans would, in their overconfident and overeager manner, inadvertently tear through the fine webs of espionage and resistance that the Special Operations Executive had been spinning across France. Donovan’s first effort to support anti-Nazi resistance would take place in French North Africa, where anti-British sentiment made US involvement a more attractive option. During the run-up to the Operation Torch landings, the OSS did not yet have any military forces aside from Detachment 101, so Donovan assigned the task of resistance support to his intelligence chief for the region, William Eddy.
Born in Syria to American missionaries, Eddy had lost a leg in World War I as a Marine, then had joined the English Department at the American University in Cairo, where he distinguished himself by introducing the sport of basketball to the Egyptian people. To find Frenchmen willing to risk their hides in support of the Allied invasion, Eddy maneuvered among French exiles and Vichy French officers in North African bistros and bordellos. Securing promises from a variety of senior French leaders, he became convinced that French military officers in Algeria and Morocco would turn against the Germans en masse on the eve of Torch. Eddy assured Lieutenant General Dwight D. Eisenhower, commander of the invasion, that these turncoats would allow US forces to seize much of French North Africa unopposed.
When the Allied invasion forces came ashore on November 8, 1942, most of the expected antifascist resistance failed to materialize. Pro-Allied Frenchmen seized only two facilities, a military headquarters and a communications complex in Algiers, and both were quickly retaken by Vichy French officers loyal to the Germans. As news of Eddy’s failure filtered in from North Africa, Donovan attempted to stave off defeatism among the headquarters staff by pointing to times in US history when even more severe setbacks had not precluded ultimate success. At daily staff meetings, he read aloud from a history of the War of 1812, ending each recitation by shutting the book and pronouncing, “They haven’t burned the White House yet.”
After Torch, Donovan shifted his attention to southern Europe. Using 1,100 newly acquired Army personnel, he formed a small number of commando-type forces, which he named Operational Groups. Composed of four officers and thirty noncommissioned officers who were fluent in European languages, the groups received training in parachuting, sabotage, and guerrilla warfare. Donovan planned to insert an Operational Group into Sicily to organize an antifascist uprising ahead of the Allied invasion, but invasion commanders aborted his plan as the invasion date neared out of concern that it would tip off the enemy about the main invasion. The only OSS man to land in Sicily on the invasion date was Donovan himself, who managed to scrounge a ride on a landing craft that took him to Gela just a few hours after Darby’s Rangers had stormed the mine-strewn beach. Donovan convinced General Theodore Roosevelt Jr. of the 1st Army Division to order a staff officer to drive him toward the front, and then Donovan talked that officer into approaching Italian forces, upon whom he could fire the jeep’s machine guns. “Donovan got behind the machine gun and had a field day,” the officer recalled. “He was happy as a clam when we got back.”
Donovan’s efforts to put an Operational Group ashore ahead of the Salerno landings likewise fell victim to the caution of four-star generals, but he was able to land a twenty-man group at Salerno on the first day of the invasion. To the dismay of Donovan, who again found his way onto the beach on opening day, the OSS team evidenced more concern about requisitioning fancy cars and other luxury items than organizing resistance fighters. The group leader commandeered the finest hotel in the area and compelled the wait staff to serve him seven-course dinners in black tie. One OSS veteran attributed the problems to the presence of “too many prima donnas who were driven by ambition without the sterner stuff which is a prerequisite for success.” The Operational Groups redeemed themselves to a degree in subsequent raiding operations on Italian islands and the Italian coast, blowing up rail-track and machine-gun emplacements to draw German troops away from the Winter Line.
When Donovan was read in on the plans for the invasion of France, he beseeched high authorities for permission to insert OSS special operators into Normandy in support of the conventional forces. The Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force consented to the use of the Operational Groups and the Jedburghs, the latter a joint venture between the OSS and SOE, in helping the French resistance blow up bridges and railroads and otherwise discombobulate German efforts to reinforce the Normandy defenses. Resistance operations were one of three delaying instruments that the Allied high command would employ, the other two being deception and aerial bombardment. By Allied estimates, the Germans had thirty-one divisions that could reach Normandy by the twenty-fifth day of the offensive. They could throw the invasion force back into the sea if they could get just fifteen of those divisions to Normandy by the sixtieth day.
Of the hundreds of OSS operators whom destiny was to toss into occupied France, none would be more significant to the history of special operations than Aaron Bank. One day in the spring of 1943, as a young railroad training officer at Camp Polk, Louisiana, Bank was strolling by the adjutant’s tent when a recruiting notice on the bulletin board caught his attention. His pulse quickened as he read that volunteers with foreign language skills were needed for special missions. Bank had been looking for a chance to escape Camp Polk and the Louisiana swamplands, having been subjected daily to wet heat, oversized mosquitos, snakes that slithered into sleeping bags, and a boring job. He knew German from speaking with his grandfather, and French from conversing with his mother, whose wealthy Russian family had sent her to high school in France before their emigration to the United States. During the 1930s, he had spent time in France as a lifeguard and swimming instructor at one of the private beaches of Biarritz. While presiding over aquatic recreation on the Bay of Biscay, he had practiced his languages with wealthy tourists, both French and German.
Bank contacted the recruiting office at once. The captain who interviewed him began by testing his fluency in French. It became clear immediately to both men that Bank’s French was superior to the captain’s, so they quickly dispensed with that part of the interview. The captain then asked, “Would you volunteer to operate behind the lines in uniform or civilian clothes?”
So nervous was Bank that he blurted out an answer before thinking the question over. Yes, he said, he would be willing to volunteer for those operations.
That was it. The captain told Bank that he would receive reassignment orders within the week. Bank recollected that upon hearing the news, “I was in a state of euphoria, floating on a cloud, eagerly awaiting my release from an unpleasant assignment.”
Bank received orders to report to Washington, DC, in civilian attire. When he arrived in the nation’s capital, an OSS duty officer directed him to the Congressional Country Club in Bethesda, Maryland. Depleted of members by the Depression, the club had come to such dire financial straits that its board had decided to lease the club’s 406 acres and facilities to the OSS for the modest sum of $4,000 per month. The fairways of the golf course had been converted into obstacle courses and rifle ranges, the sand traps into demolition beds. In the early-Italian clubhouse, the ballroom now served as a hall for lectures on the arts and sciences of modern war. The dining room, once the place for Maryland’s well-heeled to take their families for a prime rib dinner or a Sunday brunch, was now a military mess hall where cooks dished up mass-produced meats and starches.
Bank and the other volunteers began with a battery of physical and mental tests aimed at weeding out those unfit for the highly dangerous and unusual missions that lay ahead. Instructors ran them for hours on the obstacle course and cross-country trails to measure their stamina. Under the observation of clipboard-toting psychologists, sleep-deprived candidates took part in guerrilla exercises that subjected them to high stress levels and compelled them to essay impossible tasks. As a means of assessing resourcefulness and creativity, they were required to solve difficult problems, such as moving a large object that was too heavy for a man to carry.
Those who passed these tests underwent a training regimen similar to that of the British Commandos. They learned raiding and ambushing, and they practiced the destruction of bridges, culverts, railroads, canal locks, and electric transformer stations. To hone their physiques, they climbed ropes, performed pushups with packs on their backs, and punched out five-mile runs.
From the Congressional Country Club, the recruits were taken to Area B, a secret training site in the Catoctin Mountain Park. Chestnut, hickory, and black birch trees shaded the site’s log cabins, which were only one ridge away from the airy presidential retreat that Franklin Roosevelt called Shangri-La, later renamed Camp David by Dwight Eisenhower. At Area B, the trainees learned hand-to-hand combat from William Ewart Fairbairn, a thirty-year veteran of the Shanghai police. Fairbairn demonstrated how to strike a man’s nerve centers and pressure points with fists, elbows, and knees, and how to break a man’s bones with a rapid strike from the side of the hand. During knife exercises, he trained them in the severing of arteries and the piercing of vital organs.
Bank was one of the trainees deemed worthy of participation in the Jedburgh program. He and the other selectees traveled to Britain for advanced training at a series of specialized schools, culminating in final exercises at a site that in classified correspondence was called Area D or ME-65. Located in the flatlands of Peterborough ninety miles north of London, it was an Elizabethan manor whose real name was Milton Hall. The manor’s massive gray castle, built of stone walls measuring three feet in thickness, was surrounded by a 500-acre park of gardens, terraces, and fields, and beyond lay 20,000 acres of forests and pastures.
The Jedburgh candidates were housed among the castle’s fifty rooms, whose oak-beamed ceilings overlooked collections of Cromwellian armor and swords. In the sunken gardens and rose-bordered terraces, the Jedburghs practiced wrestling and martial arts, while the snapping of small arms fire could be heard from the croquet court. A climbing wall, built onto a corner of the castle, served as the training ground for scaling operations. Instructors taught the trainees how to dress like Frenchmen, and required them to memorize the multitudinous uniforms of German and French military and police forces. Bank filed every facet of the experience into his memory, where all of this knowledge was to remain until, nearly a decade later, he would draw upon it in forming a new organization on the Jedburgh pattern, the US Army Special Forces.
Despite the rather comfortable conditions of Milton Hall, morale sagged during Bank’s first weeks. The British commanding officer was a strict disciplinarian, better suited to whipping teenaged enlisted men into shape than cultivating maverick officers in their twenties and thirties. When no other activities were scheduled, the martinet refused to let the aspiring Jedburghs leave Milton Hall, instead forcing them to participate in inane drills and roll calls, or subjecting them to long and boring monologues about his own service in India years ago.
American and French trainees groused about the British food. The Americans found the British to be snobbish and the French to be petulant, while the Europeans bemoaned the crudeness of the Americans. After an inebriated American spouted off in the presence of foreign officers, the British lodged an official complaint against the offender for “violently insulting and abusing the British people, their army, and their part in our mutual war effort.”
By February 1944, the atmosphere had become so toxic that Bank and another officer went to the London headquarters of the OSS to plead for intervention. The Americans at Milton Hall, they reported, were on the verge of mutiny. The OSS leadership took the matter up with the Special Operations Executive, which acted promptly to rectify the situation. Jedburgh trainees were given weekend passes to London, where they could drink pints of strong English ale at the pubs of Covent Garden or dance with English girls at the Palladium Ballroom. Frenchmen were ushered into Milton Hall’s kitchen to add flair to the cuisine. The trainees were assigned batmen, who tended to all of their laundry, ironing, boot shining, housekeeping, and gear cleaning. Soon, men of all nationalities were gathering together at the castle’s drawing room for evenings of song, drink, and good cheer.
The planners for Operation Overlord decided that the Jedburgh teams would consist of three men, with one French officer, one American or British officer who spoke French, and one enlisted radio operator. Because the Yanks and Brits heavily outnumbered the Frenchmen, the French officers were allowed to pick the members of their teams. Like suitors seeking the hands of the princesses with the largest family fortunes, American and British officers courted the Frenchmen who seemed the most likely to stay alive in occupied France. Bank went after a small French lieutenant, Henri Denis, paying for extravagant weekends in London’s finest hotels and restaurants to seal the deal.
Bank’s team, and most of the other Jedburgh teams, would not parachute into France until well after D-Day. As with the Italian landings, Allied leaders worried that inserting large numbers of special operators ahead of the invasion would put the enemy on alert that something large was afoot. Allied planners also anticipated, correctly as it turned out, that few French civilians would assume the risks of backing the resistance until the Allied invasion force had firmly established a foothold on the continent and begun to roll the Germans back.
Most of the OSS men to enter France, like most who had entered Italy, would arrive long after their organization’s leader. General Marshall and Navy Secretary James Forrestal had notified the invasion commanders that under no circumstances was Bill Donovan to be permitted ashore at Normandy. They had not been amused by Donovan’s appearances in Italy, which had posed a grave security risk, since Donovan had knowledge of the Allies’ most vital secrets. The wily Donovan nonetheless wormed his way aboard the flagship of one of Overlord’s top naval commanders, who happened to be an old friend. The admiral had the good sense to prevent Donovan from disembarking until the second day of the invasion, after large sections of the Norman shoreline had been secured. Donovan hitched a ride to the shore on a Duck amphibious truck, taking with him the head of the OSS London station, David Kirkpatrick Este Bruce, a former state legislator who was married to the daughter of banker Andrew W. Mellon.
Once on land, Donovan led Bruce toward the sound of the guns. They reached an American antiaircraft battery, whose commanding officer was astonished by the appearance at the front lines of an old man wearing the Congressional Medal of Honor. Before them lay a large open field in which three French peasants were digging up vegetables. Intent on getting even closer to the fighting, Donovan gave the battery commander the preposterous story that the peasants were his French agents. They were expecting him, Donovan continued, so he needed to move forward without delay to glean vital information. The artillery captain warned Donovan against stepping any farther, stating ominously that Germans lay not far ahead. Paying him no heed, Donovan proceeded toward the French peasants.
The peasants disappeared when they saw Donovan and Bruce approaching. The two American spy chiefs then headed to a hedgerow at the edge of the field. German machine guns opened fire, forcing them to dive into the nearest shrubs.
Turning to Bruce, Donovan intoned, “David, we mustn’t be captured. We know too much.”
“Yes, sir,” replied Bruce.
“Have you your pill?” Donovan inquired. He was referring to the suicide pill that OSS officers carried in case they fell into enemy hands.
Bruce admitted that he was not carrying the pill. He had not expected to be anywhere near German forces.
“Never mind,” Donovan grunted, “I have two of them.” Donovan dug into his pockets to retrieve the pills, but he could not feel them. In frustration, he began to empty the pockets. Out came several hotel keys, a passport, newspaper clippings, travel orders, photographs of grandchildren, and currencies from various countries. The pills were nowhere to be found.
“We can do without them,” Donovan said finally, with the resignation of a miner who has dug in every direction without finding quarry. “But if we get out of here,” the OSS boss continued, “you must send a message to Gibbs, the Hall Porter at Claridge’s in London, telling him on no account to allow the servants in the hotel to touch some dangerous medicines in my bathroom.”
The German machine-gun fire continued. Donovan whispered to Bruce, “I must shoot first.”
“Yes, sir,” Bruce responded, “but can we do much against machine guns with our pistols?”
“Oh, you don’t understand,” Donovan said. “I mean if we are about to be captured I’ll shoot you first. After all, I am your commanding officer.”
Fortunately for the two men, Allied forces arrived and put an end to the German gunfire. Donovan and Bruce were able to return safely to the beach later in the day, and by evening, they were back on a US warship, enjoying a hot meal.