It is a frigid 20 below zero at midnight in March 1945. Bright moonlight illuminates the Norwegian sky. Jaevsjo Lake is frozen solid. White parachutes appear in the night sky and drift slowly and silently to touchdown on the shores of the lake.
After landing, Maj. William E. Colby approaches his Norwegian reception party and asks, “Is the fishing good in this lake now?”
Colby’s seemingly casual inquiry is much more than an interest in casting a fishing line. He has just spoken the password to launch a strategically important World War II paramilitary sabotage operation for the Office of Strategic Services: Operation RYPE.
William E. Colby: The Man
William E. Colby was born on January 4, 1920, in St. Paul, Minn. The son of a career Army officer, Colby’s mobile childhood ingrained in him an interest in world affairs and a thirst for adventure. These interests would lead him to pursue higher education, study law, join the military, and eventually become the 10th Director of Central Intelligence.
After earning a bachelor’s degree at Princeton University in 1940, Colby spent a year at Columbia University Law School. With the bombing of Pearl Harbor in December 1941 and America’s entry into World War II, Colby’s world changed. He felt called to serve his nation and volunteered for active duty in the U.S. Army as a second lieutenant. His Army experience kept him busy, but it did not satisfy his greater interest for the excitement of the war, inclusion in the action, and the political aspects of the war.
To satisfy his thirst for adventure, Colby turned in 1943 to the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the forerunner of the CIA. During his time with the OSS, Colby commanded several exciting and strategically important operations overseas, including Operation RYPE.
Operation RYPE: The Mission
The primary goal of Operation RYPE was to sabotage the Nordland Railway system and effectively delay 150,000 German troops from returning to join the final battle in Germany. The Nordland, a north-south stretch of railroad lines between the towns of Narvik and Trondheim, was perhaps the only means for the Germans to move their troops; the British Navy occupied the sea routes and the plentiful snow made the roadways impassable. The Germans’ dependence on the railroad lines made the lines a strategically appealing target and a means by which OSS could significantly impact the war.
A Shaky Start
After several weather-related delays, Operation RYPE was put into action on March 24, 1945. In a joint effort, 35 men from the OSS and the OSS-trained Norwegian Special Operations Group (NORSO) collaborated in the U.S. Army’s first and only combined ski-parachute undertaking.
Eight U.S. Air Force B-24 Liberator bombers dispatched from Sweden that night, but only four planes made successful drops in the vicinity of the drop site, Jaevsjo Lake. Of the remaining four planes, two got lost and returned to Sweden, one inadvertently made its drop in Sweden, and one fatally crashed.
The combination of bad weather, inexperienced pilots, and mechanical problems left Major Colby and his crew short-handed and ill-equipped to carry out a primary objective of Operation RYPE: the demolition of the great Grana Bridge, a key bridge in aiding the homecoming of German forces.
A Change of Plans
Major Colby and his team of now 24 officers refocused their efforts to deter German forces. Colby and his men skied miles across the Norwegian terrain in the area between Jørstad and Valøy, cutting railroad lines and destroying bridges.
As the group sought targets, Colby observed that, unlike most tunnels and bridges, the Tangen Bridge was only sporadically guarded. Colby and his men took advantage of this and successfully demolished this central transportation route for the southern movement of German troops.
After the destruction of this key bridge, Colby shifted the focus of Operation RYPE to pursue smaller German military targets in an effort to preserve the Norwegian infrastructure. Allied victory was close at hand and the war was coming to an end. It was unlikely that German troops would continue home for the final battle.
A Fortuitous Ending
Unfavorable snow conditions began to make ski transport difficult for Colby and his men. In addition, the unit learned that the Germans were patrolling the nearby areas. Given the situation, Colby and his men assumed a low-profile and went into hiding. Despite their concealment, a five-man German patrol chanced upon their hiding place. After a short fight, Colby and his unit defeated the German soldiers.
Colby and his troops then received orders to proceed to Steinkjer, the first among several celebratory stops they would make en route to Trondheim. Upon their arrival in Trondheim, Colby and his troops were greeted by the surrender of several thousand more German troops, marking the end of Operation RYPE. Despite a shaky start, the operation was a huge success.
A Lasting Impact
Within just a few weeks, Major Colby and his men succeeded in sabotaging a key bridge and numerous railroad lines throughout Norway. They strategically delayed the southern movement of German troops and drastically hindered the German war effort.
While Operation RYPE had a significant military impact, the political impact of the operation was even more enduring. The Norwegians recognized the American loss of life on their soil on behalf of their freedom, and the alliance between the two countries was strengthened.
Major Colby was honored with the Silver Star and St. Olaf’s Medal to commemorate the valor he displayed in leading this strategic operation.
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