Wanted: Volunteers for immediate overseas assignment. Knowledge of French or another European language preferred; Willingness and ability to qualify as a parachutist necessary; Likelihood of a dangerous mission guaranteed.
Before Special Forces and CIA paramilitaries, there were the WWII Jedburghs.
Former CIA Director William Colby, then a 24-year-old Army brat and part of Jedburgh Team Bruce, was among the dozens of multinational teams who parachuted behind German lines after the D-Day invasion of WWII to stir up trouble in occupied France.
Colby - along with future journalist Stewart Alsop, CIA officer Lucien Conein, and Colonel Aaron Bank - organized French resistance groups and undermined the German defense against the advancing Allied armies. Many teams parachuted in blind behind enemy lines because communications were difficult. Once in, they’d meet up with local resistance groups, providing a link between the guerrillas and the Allied command.
These were life-and-death operations. Major John Bonsal, one of the first Jedburghs dropped into Brittany, was stopped at a German checkpoint, identified, and executed. Colby was feeling the pressure in August 1944. “I couldn’t help asking myself during that long, hot summer day, hiding in a ditch while German soldiers scoured the countryside looking for me, just how in the world I had gotten into this,” Colby writes in his autobiography, Honorable Men.
The model ‘Jed’ team had two to four men: usually an American OSS officer, a British officer, a Free French officer or enlisted man, and sometimes a Canadian, Belgian, or Dutch operative. One always served as a radio operator, although fellow team members underwent training in the event of the radio operator's incapacitation. They were also skilled in foreign languages, parachuting, amphibious operations, skiing, mountain climbing, radio operations, Morse code, small arms, navigation, hand-to-hand combat, explosives, and espionage tradecraft.
A crucial aspect of their equipment was the communications radio, colloquially known as a ‘Jed Set’, essential for maintaining contact with Special Forces HQ in London.
The Jedburghs were part of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the WWII precursor to the CIA, and helped organize and arm the resistance. They'd arrange for weapons and supplies to be parachuted in and coordinated with General George S. Patton’s Third Army so they could blow up bridges, ambush patrols, and destroy rail lines in a morale-busting series of hit-and-run harassing raids.
William Colby had attended Princeton and Columbia before cheating on an eye exam to become a paratrooper. He was a major in the US Army Parachute Field Artillery codenamed ‘Berkshire’ in 1944 and his mission was to contact a maquis network - a Guerrilla band of French and Belgian fighters in central France. After Normandy, Colby oversaw Operation Rype beginning in March 1945, parachuting into Norway to lead a team tasked with blowing up rail links to thwart the evacuation of the German occupiers.
The mission, the first and only combined ski-parachute operation mounted by the US Army in WWII, remained harrowing to the end: “At 500 feet, the underground's landing fires pierced the haze, and with them came the sure knowledge we were at the rendezvous. Step one had come off according to plan; but it was the last thing to go right until we blew up the Nordland railway,” Colby later wrote.
As usual for the time of year, the weather over Norway was treacherous, writes James Stejskal, author of Special Operations in WWII and Dead Hand. "By the time the planes got to the intended area, only four could drop their teams." Two teams had to return to base, another dropped five men in Sweden where they were immediately interned until a deal was reached with the Swedish security service.
According to Colby's unofficial report, their mission was to cut the Nordland rail line at two points in the North Trondelaag area and prevent the German redeployment of 150,000 troops in northern Norway. Only 20 of the 35-man team made it into Norway, however. A later attempt to land ended with a plane crash and the loss of 12 men.
Among their targets, Colby's team chose a bridge located in difficult terrain near Tangen. It was unguarded because of its location, but they'd need to descend on their backsides rather than ski in. "On 23 April, now reinforced by the returnees from Sweden, they blew the rail line with 240 separate charges of plastic explosive," Stejskal writes. The NORSO Team, notified after the fact of Germany's surrender, took part in policing 10,000 Germans at Namsos. Colby and Sather were decorated with Silver Stars, and the rest with Bronze Stars.