During the planning of the D-Day (formally known as Operation Overlord) invasion of mainland Europe, “the Jedburgh concept was born in the minds of political and military leaders at the highest levels…” (Irwin, xviii). The Jedburghs were to be small, three-man teams which were multi-national in composition. American Jedburghs served under the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), British members in the Special Operations Executive (SOE), and French members as a part of Charles De Gaulle’s Free French resistance. These men were not spies, but soldiers. “Espionage agents they were not. They were all military officers and noncommissioned officers…most often in uniform” (Irwin, xviii). The teams would be a mix match of nationalities, a few having all three nations represented within their three-man team.

Their mission was to jump into occupied France, link up with the French resistance, and then bog down Nazi forces with sabotage and harassment campaigns. They would blow rail lines to sever Nazi logistics, ambush enemy columns along roads, and generally start trouble and make life difficult in the Nazi’s rear areas where they would otherwise have felt safe. Trained in America and Britain, the Jeds were heavily influenced by early SOE efforts to set up resistance networks in France called circuits. Is it important to distinguish that, “these were not intelligence gathering networks; rather the business of the circuits would be special operations; particularly sabotage” (Irwin, 34) while the task of intelligence gathering would be left to Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service. The Jedburgh’s were a unique special operations capability that bridged the gap between the military and intelligence services, much like the role that ISA would fill nearly forty years later.

As allied forces were hitting the beaches at Normandy, the Jeds were already in France organizing the resistance and conducting spoiler attacks against the Nazis. Military planners feared that if the Nazis were permitted freedom of movement within France, then they would be able to move over 30 divisions of troops into the region in the weeks and months after D-Day, potentially pushing the allies back out into the ocean. The Jeds helped tie up the Nazis with their unconventional warfare campaign, organizing aerial re-supplies from London and Algiers, all the while being hunted down by the Gestapo.

The Jeds were not just commandos, but also skilled organizers and leaders. Within the French resistance, there were deep political divisions, particularly between the communists and essentially everyone else. French Jeds provided a critical liaison to the resistance, but were prone to getting caught up in local politics at times. While working without a home field advantage, Americans did have a leg up when it came to getting the resistance to “agree to put political differences aside and commit to the common task of ridding the area of Germans” (Irwin, 110). The French knew that the Americans did not carry any political baggage, so it was easier for American Jeds to get everyone working together.

The Jedburghs won high praise from ground-pounding American Infantrymen, who arrived in French villages to find them already swept clear of Nazis by the French resistance that the Jeds had armed and organized. As well, they received high marks from the Supreme Allied Command, General Eisenhower. However, many Jedburgh teams were infiltrated into theater far too late for them to reach their full operational potential. Jedburgh officer Sir James Hutchison summed up the problem in his post-mission After Action Review, stating, “The pity is that more [Jedburgh teams] were not sent sooner as requested. The maquis wanted them and asked for them. Their help in carrying out a common training and a coordinated tactical policy was invaluable; their example in action and their acceptance of military discipline and hierarchy would have borne unconscious fruit,” he said referring to the Jeds ability to organize the resistance and minimize internal squabbling. Hutchison continued, “The Jedburgh conception was truly founded. It was, alas, not used to the full” (Irwin, 243).

Jedburgh team Fredrick managed to secure a major route into Morlaix ahead of the Allied forces, preventing the Nazis from blowing up bridges which would be critical for Allied armor to cross as they blitzed forward, taking advantage of their momentum and preventing the Nazis from mounting a counter-attack. Team Fredrick was wildly successful but only because the team had been on the ground for weeks prior to the allied assault. They had the time needed to “develop effective relationships with resistance leaders and earn their trust. They had learned the strengths and weaknesses of various FFI leaders…[and] their dependability,” and also had enough time, which “facilitated the arming and training of a considerable number of marquis fighters” (Irwin, 120). If the team had been inserted the day of the invasion, there is no way that they could have had time to organize the resistance and effectively employ them behind enemy lines. Other Jed teams were parachuted into France far too late in the game to mount an effective resistance.

The American defense establishment moves in curious cycles, fueling a maddening repetition which misuses units and assets. This is especially true when it comes to Special Operations and intelligence capabilities. Worse is the gray area between the two, which is often para-military in nature.

The Jedburgh’s Special Operations legacy with modern SOF

Read Next: The Jedburgh’s Special Operations legacy with modern SOF

When the American embassy in Tehran was captured and its staff taken hostage, the military again found that it was already too late to insert reliable and professional intelligence operatives. Colonel Beckwith wrote in his memoirs that it can take up to seven years to train and insert an intelligence operative into a foreign country. After they have been inserted into the country, presumably with a cover that gives them access and placement, “he or she can become productive only after they’ve lived their cover for a reasonable period of time” (Beckwith, 199).

The Intelligence Support Activity has grown considerably (Smith, 231) since the early years following the Desert One disaster. It continues to exist to this day with its main base in Washington, DC and a number of satellites elsewhere in the United States. The Activity, as it is often called, has developed significant HUMINT and SIGINT capabilities and has made a strong contribution to the Global War on Terror. In addition to providing targeting information for tactical teams in Special Operations, ISA also conducts the mission it was originally created for: Operational Preparation of the Environment (OPE) to provide, “a combination of intelligence collection and operational support to a striking force” (Smith, 21).

While ISA may be a top notch intelligence gathering unit, it still does not provide the long-term, reliable, and sustainable intelligence that Charlie Beckwith needed the day that the Iranians took over the US Embassy in 1979. What ISA does provide is a professional unit which can respond to emergencies by inserting small teams or singletons to conduct OPE for follow-on hostage rescue units such as Delta Force or SEAL Team Six. Only after an event had occurred will military intelligence operatives begin their mission. OPE is only done in countries that America is not at war with on a very selective basis as there are simple man power shortages and budgeting constraints.

Special Forces and ISA may conduct OPE activities in other countries, but these are often limited to identifying drop zones for Airborne insertions, or pick up zones for helicopter extracts of embassy personnel. OPE may be done in countries like Yemen or Somalia (Smith, 232) where the United States is already engaged in counter-terrorist operations and may have to undertake larger and/or more frequent operations in the future. But what happens when a group of Americans is taken hostage in Senegal? What if a CIA asset has to be rescued and extracted from Burma? What happens when stolen American technology suddenly shows up in some obscure country and now Special Operations Forces have to conduct a search and destroy mission? In these cases, ISA can be rapidly deployed to conduct their intelligence gathering activities, but by then it is too little too late to establish reliable intelligence assets and build the long-term relationships needed to facilitate SOF logistics into and out of the target country.

Another classified program exists under what was once called the Strategic Support Branch in the Pentagon. This program is a positive development, but still represents and exercise in short-term thinking. Assets are recruited and inserted overseas to live their cover, but only for a limited number of years before returning home and only in a limited number of target countries. This still does not lend itself to building long-term relationships and maintaining reliable networks which can provide tactical intelligence.

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