Special Operations

The Special Operations Branch (SO) of OSS ran guerrilla campaigns in Europe and Asia. As with many other facets of OSS’s work, the organization and doctrine of the Branch was guided by British experiences in the growing field of “psychological warfare.” British strategists in the year between the fall of France in 1940 and Germany’s invasion of the USSR in 1941 had wondered how Britain—which then lacked the strength to force a landing on the European continent—could weaken the Reich and ultimately defeat Hitler. London chose a three-part strategy to utilize the only means at hand: naval blockade, sustained aerial bombing, and “subversion” of Nazi rule in the occupied nations. A civilian body, the Special Operations Executive (SOE), took command of the latter mission and began planning to “set Europe ablaze.” This emphasis on guerrilla warfare and sabotage fit with William Donovan’s vision of an offensive in depth, in which saboteurs, guerrillas, commandos, and agents behind enemy lines would support the army’s advance. OSS thus seemed the natural point of contact and cooperation with SOE in combined planning and operations when the Anglo-American Combined Chiefs of Staff decided in 1942 that America would join Britain in the business of "subversion."

The Special Operations Branch served as SOE’s American partner. Together, SO and SOE created the famous “Jedburgh” teams parachuted into France in the summer of 1944 to support the Normandy landings. Jedburghs joined the French Resistance against the German occupiers. There were 93 three-man teams in all, each of them with two officers and an enlisted radio operator. Typically an OSS man would serve with a British officer and a radioman from the Free French forces loyal to General Charles de Gaulle. Trained as commandos at SOE’s Milton Hall in the English countryside, they were a colorful and capable lot that included adventurers and soldiers of fortune, as well as author Stewart Alsop and future Director of Central Intelligence William Colby. Officers trained alongside enlisted men in informal comraderie because, once inside France, rank would have to be secondary to courage and ability. After landing (hopefully into the arms of the Resistance) the teams coordinated airdrops of arms and supplies, guided the partisans on hit-and-run attacks and sabotage, and did their best to assist the advancing Allied armies.

Some passports Virginia Hall used during her OSS career

<< Some of the passports issued to Virginia Hall during her OSS career.






Virginia Hall

Virginia Hall receiving the Distinguished Service Cross


<< Virginia Hall of Special Operations
Branch receiving the Distinguished
Service Cross from General Donovan,
September 1945.


The story of Special Operations’ Virginia Hall reads like a spy thriller. After spending more than a year working secretly for British intelligence in Vichy France, she joined OSS and volunteered for another mission in German-occupied territory. Hall not only survived but prospered, helping to organize French partisan groups and earning decorations from Britain and the United States.

Virginia Hall grew up in comfortable circumstances in Baltimore. She attended the best schools and colleges, but wanted to finish her studies in Europe. With help from her parents, she traveled the Continent and studied in France, Germany, and Austria, finally landing an appointment as a Consular Service clerk at the American Embassy in Warsaw in 1931. Hall hoped to join the Foreign Service, but suffered a terrible setback two years later when she lost her lower left leg in a hunting accident. The injury foreclosed whatever chance she might have had for a diplomatic career, and she resigned from the Department of State in 1939.

The coming of war that year found Hall in Paris. She joined the Ambulance Service before the fall of France and ended up in Vichy-controlled territory when the fighting stopped in the summer of 1940. Hall made her way to London and volunteered for Britain’s newly formed Special Operations Executive, which sent her back to Vichy in August 1941. She spent the next 15 months there, helping to coordinate the activities of the underground in Vichy and the occupied zone of France. When the Germans suddenly seized all of France in November 1942, Hall barely escaped to Spain. Journeying back to London (after working for SOE for a time in Madrid), she was made a Member of the Order of the British Empire by order of King George VI.

Virginia Hall joined OSS’s Special Operations Branch in March 1944 and asked to return to occupied France. She hardly needed training in clandestine work behind enemy lines, and OSS promptly granted her request and landed her from a British PT boat in Brittany (her artificial leg kept her from parachuting in). As “Diane,” she eluded the Gestapo and contacted the Resistance in central France. She mapped drop zones for supplies and commandos from England, found safe houses, and linked up with a Jedburgh team after the Allies landed at Normandy. Hall helped train three battalions of Resistance forces to wage guerrilla warfare against the Germans and kept up a stream of valuable reporting until Allied troops overtook her small band in September.

For her efforts in France, General Donovan in September 1945 personally awarded Virginia Hall a Distinguished Service Cross—the only one awarded to a civilian woman in World War II.

Posting the news at Kyaukpyu Camp, Burma
<< Posting the news at Kyaukpyu Camp, Burma.



In Burma, OSS’s Detachment 101 came perhaps the closest to realizing General Donovan’s original vision of “strategic” support to regular combat operations. Under the initial leadership of “the most dangerous colonel,” Carl Eifler, Detachment 101 took time to develop its capabilities and relationships with native guides and agents. Within a year, however, the Detachment and its thousands of cooperating Kachin tribesmen were gleaning valuable intelligence from jungle sites behind Japanese lines. With barely 120 Americans at any one time, the unit eventually recruited almost 11,000 native Kachins to fight the Japanese occupiers. When Allied troops invaded Burma in 1944, Detachment 101 teams advanced well ahead of the combat formations, gathering intelligence, sowing rumors, sabotaging key installations, rescuing downed Allied fliers, and snuffing out isolated Japanese positions. Detachment 101 received the Presidential Distinguished Unit Citation for its service in the 1945 offensive that liberated Rangoon.

Significant parts of OSS’s paramilitary and psychological capabilities worked outside of the Special Operations Branch. In late 1942, the Joint Chiefs of Staff authorized OSS to run American commando units behind enemy lines. OSS promptly formed several “Operational Groups” to conduct these missions. These were small formations of specially trained US Army soldiers—many recruited from ethnic communities in America—who fought in uniform and had no obvious connection to OSS (so they would be less likely to be shot as spies if captured). Designated the 2671st Special Reconnaissance Battalion, Separate (Provisional) in 1944, Operational Groups fought in France, Italy, Greece, Yugoslavia, Burma, Malaya, and China, usually alongside partisan formations.

The Morale Operations Branch (MO) split from SO in 1943 to perform the “black” propaganda mission left behind in OSS when COI had been split the previous year. “Black” propaganda was supposed to look like it came from Germans or Japanese who were disgruntled with the war. It was intended to lower the morale of Axis troops and increase civilian resistance to the regimes in Berlin and Tokyo. In yet another example of the ways in which OSS organized itself to mirror British agencies, MO paralleled and worked with the Foreign Office’s Political Warfare Executive. MO took more than a year to find its niche in OSS and the Washington wartime bureaucracy, but by mid-1944 it was functioning effectively. Eventually MO’s early critics came to value its services, which included rumors about Hitler’s health and sanity, vast quantities of subversive leaflets, stickers, and slogans, and fake German newspapers and radio broadcasts (featuring, for instance, Marlene Dietrich singing “Lilli Marlene”). By the end of the war, MO and its companion civilian and military agencies had convinced policymakers in Washington that modern wars need to be fought in the "psychological" as well as military and economic arenas.



Historical Document
Posted: Mar 15, 2007 04:12 PM
Last Updated: Jun 28, 2008 01:09 PM