Prepping the Operational Environment

Allied forces were well aware that delaying the German response to the mass influx of invading soldiers was key to helping ensure the success of the D-Day invasion at Normandy. To achieve this goal, we deployed multiple small special operations teams on the ground and in the water in the days and hours leading up to the invasion to do anything and everything possible to deceive the Nazis and delay their response to the invasion force. These extremely dangerous missions were given to the British Special Air Service (SAS) commandos, Navy UDT divers, and Jedburgh teams.

You may be asking, “What’s a Jedburgh team?”. Read on to find out.

Mission Uncertain, Destination Unknown

Imagine you’re an American soldier walking across your base during the height of World War II. You’re well trained, feeling invincible, and up for a challenge.

A message comes over the loudspeaker:

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.”

“Hot damn,” you think. It sounds like the kind of thing you are looking for. So you sign up, take a few tests, and before you know it, you’re training to become one of the Jedburgh, some of the best anti-Nazi commandos of all of World War II.

A rowdy-looking Jedburgh team with local partisans. Image credit: militaryimages.net

Many Applied, Few Were Chosen

Of the thousands of soldiers who applied for “dangerous missions,” about 300 were selected. They were given two weeks of commando training at facilities in the Scottish Highlands and then moved to Milton Hall, near Peterborough, England, closer to the airfields from which they would be launched and to British SAS headquarters. At Milton Hall, they received intensive training in hand-to-hand combat and sabotage techniques.

The “Jeds” had a rather unusual setup. They worked in three-man teams: There was a commander, an executive officer, and a non-commissioned radio officer. One of the officers was British or American, and the other would be from the country into which the team was deploying. The radio operator could be of any nationality. They carried M1 carbines and Colt automatic pistols as primary weapons, and the teams dropped with the Type B Mark II radio, more commonly referred to as simply the B2 or a “Jed set.” The Jed set was used for communicating with Special Force headquarters and London.

As you might imagine, the personalities of the three men comprising the Jed teams had to be compatible. They would be working together very closely in multiple life or death scenarios. There was no time for misunderstandings or bickering. The teams self-selected their members in what was lightly referred to as “marriages.” And, like in the rest of real life, some of these marriages didn’t work out and resulted in “divorce” and re-pairing.

To keep their identity from the enemy, Jedburgh teams were known by codenames. These were usually first names (for example, “Hugh”) or sometimes the names of medications (like “novocaine”). Occasionally other random names were tossed in there to keep the Germans on their toes. To avoid confusion here, I’ll refer to them as “Jeds.”

In addition to their B2 radios and personal weapons, Jeds dropped with a considerable amount of sabotage gear and pieces of silk containing five hundred phrases that were to be used in radio traffic and four-letter codes associated with each phrase. The purpose of this was to keep their radio transmissions to the ultimate minimum amount of time. The teams were given one-time pads to encipher their messages.

The officers would wear a money belt that carried 100,000 francs. At the time, that equaled about 500 British pounds or 2,500 US dollars. Radio operators brought 50,000 francs. You might be surprised to hear that cash can come in very handy in a war. In this case, the money was used to pay the resistance fighters who would be working with them.

The initial plan called for Jedburgh teams to be dropped into France well ahead of D-Day to organize French resistance fighters. Eisenhower thought twice about this and decided against it for fear the teams might somehow compromise the invasion date.

Overlord

Halifax bombers of the RCAF Bomber Group in Britain lined up, preparing for the take-off. Image Credit: Library and Archives of Canada / Government of Canada

Date: June 5, 1944

Location: Somewhere over the Indre Department, Centre-Val de Loire, France

The Jedburgh’s Special Operations legacy with modern SOF

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It was late at night and pitch black. The Halifax ‘T-Tommy’ got a late start, going wheels up from Tempsford Airfield in England at 2307 hours.

The three commandos of the Jedburgh team codenamed “Hugh” had plenty of space to themselves as they listened to the twenty-four cylinder Rolls Royce Vulture engines of their heavy bomber drone on at a constant pitch. They checked and re-checked their gear, thinking of loved ones at home and what their future might be after jumping out into the warm night sky.

The team was unusual in that it did not comprise the usual makeup of one American, one British, and one French soldier. The trio was led by British Captain William “Crown” Crawshay. The executive officer was French Captain Louis l’Helgolauch, and the radio operator was Sub-Lieutenant René Meyer. Their mission was simple, on paper. Keep the Germans from reinforcing their front-line defenses as the allies fought their way inland. This would be completed by organizing and arming the resistance, arranging supply drops, procuring intelligence, acting as a liaison between the resistance and the larger allied forces, and taking part in sabotage operations to deny the enemy.

Two SAS officers, Tonkin and Crisp, made the flight with Hugh. The Halifax was piloted by confident and cheerful 21-year-old Pilot Officer Kenneth Tattersall.

The SOE (Special Operations Executive), a secret British irregular warfare organization specializing in reconnaissance and sabotage raids, was in charge of this particular mission and tacked on Captains Tonkin and Crisp as last-minute additions to Hugh’s mission. This did not please Captain Crawshay, but he had no alternative but to obey his higher command.

The men slept most of the way, and it was at 0120 hours when the dispatcher, Flight Sergeant Jack Corway, gently shook the parachutists awake. The commandos finished their coffee and then strapped quick release bags to their legs. These rigs were equipped with quick-release tabs below the jumper’s knees that would be activated when the men were but a few feet off the ground. Tonkin was to be the first out, so he peered out of the jump hole in the floor of the aircraft looking for landmarks that matched up with the reconnaissance photos he had been studying for days. It was an area in the Brenne marshes around 30 km southwest of Chateauroux.

As he was about to jump, the supply containers the aircraft was carrying were released by mistake. This forced the pilot to do a “go around” and make another run at the drop zone. With that error behind them, Tonkin now watched for the red jump light to flash green. Although the light had not yet changed color, the dispatched shouted “Go!” and dropped his raised arm, signaling the jumper to jump. Tonkin looked down, saw open fields, and pushed forward out of the hatch at an altitude of just 300 feet.

The time was 0137 hours on June 6, 1944. Operation Overlord, the Battle of Normandy that would eventually turn the tide of the war in favor of the allies, had begun.

If you are interested in reading declassified documents associated with Hugh and this mission, they can be accessed here.