You can read part I here and part II here. 

The men of Det A were highly trained professionals, ready to carry out what would most likely be a suicide mission in the opening hours of World War Three. With targeting packets completed, covers established, and extraction plans committed to memory, they were prepared to conduct their sabotage missions. Methods of sabotage included surreptitiously introducing blocks of C3 plastic explosive, disguised as lumps of coal, into the bins on the train engines on the Ringbahn rail. Those trains circled around Berlin which was a part of the S-Bahn. Once shoveled into the engine, the locomotive would be blown sky-high. Det A members also had metal shavings that could be thrown into the turbines at power plants, which would burn them out and shut off the electricity. Other targets would be brought down with careful placement of explosive charges. While their mission did not include assassination, it was understood that Soviet and East German armed guards surrounding the targeted infrastructure would have to be eliminated.

However, Det A was not always so highly motivated. The unit also faced some dark times due to conventional Army officers who did not understand the Special Forces mission of unconventional warfare. A colonel in the Berlin Brigade ordered Det A to train his men on basic infantry skills. “One day we were undercover, the next day we were in uniform,” Fontana said. This probably compromised the entire unit as the Soviets had Andrews Barracks under surveillance. The Army even put a sign in front of Andrews Barracks letting people know that it is the home of “Detachment A (Airborne).”

Now the Det A team members were walking around the base in uniform with fresh haircuts. The reindeer games continued until the Det A’s sergeant major, Jeff Raker, went and talked to his counterpart in the conventional Army. He built rapport and explained that by having Det A train infantry privates, they were undermining their own NCOs who were the ones responsible for training their soldiers.

As the Cold War progressed, Det A’s mission evolved, shifting gears to face a new threat that the Western world was unprepared for. In the early 1970s, there had been a rash of aircraft hijackings, many perpetrated by the Palestinian nationalists belonging to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PLFP). The slowly escalating threat turned into a crucible for German authorities in 1972 when Palestinian terrorists, belonging to a group calling themselves Black September, took Israeli athletes hostage during the Summer Olympics in Munich. The German police attempted to bait the terrorists into an ambush, where they could be taken out by sniper fire without hurting the hostages. But the crisis ended in a massacre, with both terrorists and hostages slain.

Two Det A members training with GSG-9. Picture courtesy of Mike Mike Mulieri.

The specter of international terrorism had reared its ugly head. The German federal police, wholly unprepared to deal with the threat, was tasked to create a counterterrorism unit called GSG-9, commanded by Colonel Ulrich Wegener. The Americans took a while longer to catch up. Yet a few years later, Detachment A was tasked with a new mission under OPLAN 0300: Counterterrorism. In addition to their stay-behind mission, the Det A members now had to be prepared to carry out counterterrorism operations. The main concern for the unit was the hijacking of American Pan Am flights into and out of Berlin, but Det A was also charged with protecting and capturing any other hijacked American aircraft in Europe. The Baader-Meinhof Gang also posed a threat in Det A’s area of operations, and one team from the unit was assigned the task of countering the communist, terrorist organization, especially after they kidnapped the mayor of Berlin.

Det A began cross-training with GSG-9 in case they had to conduct joint operations. They developed a friendly relationship that allowed them to share tactics, techniques, and procedures. Six members were sent to Quantico to attend the FBI’s air crimes course. The Special Forces soldiers also received additional weapons for their new mission, such as scoped Model 70 Winchesters to use as sniper rifles and Walther MPK submachine guns. A C-147 airplane was placed on standby to ferry the Det A members within striking distance of targets they may have been called upon to assault.

Since the main concern was a Pan Am aircraft being hijacked, the airliner allowed the Det A teams to practice taking down their aircraft. At various times they also trained to assault buses, trains, and buildings. Det A “practiced techniques on entry into the airplane from any angle you can imagine,” Charest said. “We practiced on that plane day and night.” The unit’s newfound counterterrorism capability would be put to the test years later — not in Europe, but in Iran during Operation Eagle Claw.