How the Second World War Gave Us Special Forces

 In Sea, Germany, Forces & Capabilities, France, P5

Here’s What You Need To Remember: Author and editor Flint Whitlock sheds new light on the British attack on the German dry dock at St. Nazaire, France that knocked out crit­i­cal repair facil­i­ties for the rest of the war. A com­bined force of com­man­dos and Royal Navy sailors attacked the heav­i­ly defend­ed dock, and rammed an obso­lete destroy­er laden with explo­sives into the dock gates. Using delayed fuses, the destroy­er explod­ed the next day, putting the dry dock out of com­mis­sion and killing 350 German offi­cers and men.

The con­cept of elite or “spe­cial” forces matured during World War II, and the term became syn­ony­mous with extra­or­di­nary hero­ism, par­tic­u­lar­ly against long odds. The edi­tors of WWII History mag­a­zine have put togeth­er a Special Issue, World War II Special Forces, entire­ly devot­ed to these units and their actions during the war.

In the summer of 1940 when Britain stood alone against the Nazi war machine, Prime Minister Winston Churchill was deter­mined to strike a blow and bol­ster the morale of his people. The solu­tion, he believed, lay in the deploy­ment of spe­cial forces to wreak havoc on the Germans when­ev­er and wher­ev­er pos­si­ble.

“I look to the Joint Chiefs of Staff to pro­pose mea­sures for a cease­less offen­sive against the whole German-occu­pied coast­line, leav­ing a trail of German corpses behind,” Churchill ordered. “Enterprises must be pre­pared with spe­cial­ly trained troops of the hunter class who can devel­op a reign of terror down the enemy coast.” The prime min­is­ter was unaware that an auda­cious pro­gram of spe­cial forces devel­op­ment was already in the works, the brain­child of army Lieutenant Colonel Dudley Clarke. Endorsed by Field Marshal Sir John Dill, chief of the Imperial General Staff, the effort took shape quick­ly.

The exploits of the British spe­cial forces in World War II are leg­endary. Author Robert Barr Smith describes in detail one of the most suc­cess­ful of the early British Commando oper­a­tions, the attack on the Norwegian town of Vaagso. The raid caused Hitler to divert thou­sands of German troops to Norway to defend against these maraud­ing men who fought a clan­des­tine war of shadow, of hit and run.

Author and editor Flint Whitlock sheds new light on the British attack on the German dry dock at St. Nazaire, France that knocked out crit­i­cal repair facil­i­ties for the rest of the war. A com­bined force of com­man­dos and Royal Navy sailors attacked the heav­i­ly defend­ed dock, and rammed an obso­lete destroy­er laden with explo­sives into the dock gates. Using delayed fuses, the destroy­er explod­ed the next day, putting the dry dock out of com­mis­sion and killing 350 German offi­cers and men. Of the 611 men on the raid, only 228 returned to England, their amaz­ing attack is con­sid­ered the great­est raid of the war by the British mil­i­tary.

In the United States, the idea of spe­cial forces also found fer­tile ground. Following a con­fer­ence of Allied lead­ers at Quebec in the summer of 1943, per­haps the best-known American spe­cial forces for­ma­tion of World War II was born. The 5307th Composite Unit (Provisional) was better known by the moniker that paid homage to its com­man­der, Brigadier General Frank Merrill. Merrill’s Marauders were a long-range pen­e­tra­tion force that orig­i­nal­ly num­bered fewer than 1,000 highly trained and moti­vat­ed men. These intre­pid Americans fought behind enemy lines for days, endur­ing not only combat with the deter­mined enemy, but also the pri­va­tions of jungle war­fare. As Al Hemingway describes in this spe­cial issue, Merrill’s Marauders forged an endur­ing legacy of hero­ism in their jungle cru­cible, one that car­ries on in today’s U.S. Special Forces.

The U.S. Rangers were formed in the summer of 1942, and the orig­i­nal recruits trained in Scotland and Northern Ireland with the British Commandos. Their first combat was with the British and Canadian raid on Dieppe in August 1942. They went on to under­take such haz­ardous oper­a­tions as the seizure of Pointe du Hoc on D‑Day, June 6, 1944, and the swift cap­ture of Chiunzi Pass in Italy. Less well know is the 5th Ranger Battalion’s advance behind enemy lines to seize a crit­i­cal German supply and com­mu­ni­ca­tion route near Zerf, Germany. Author Nathan Prefer describes the nine days that the Rangers repelled repeat­ed German attacks, while taking heavy casu­al­ties, until relieved.

The U.S. Marine Corps formed a short-lived but heroic force of Raiders that fought with courage in the Pacific the­ater, and the Amphibious Scouts and Raiders were the fore­run­ner of today’s U.S Navy SEALs. The U.S. and Canada com­bined army per­son­nel to field the 1st Special Service Force, the famed Devil’s Brigade.

Every major power engaged in the con­flict did orga­nize some type of spe­cial forces. Germany autho­rized the units led by famed SS Major Otto Skorzeny, and the Brandenburg Regiment con­duct­ed covert oper­a­tions in Europe, Russia and North Africa.

This arti­cle by Michael E. Haskew originally appeared on the Warfare History Network, and was first pub­lished on TNI in 2019.

Image: Wikimedia Commons.

National Interest source|articles

Recommended Posts
0

Start typing and press Enter to search