The Jedburghs

Before World War II the modern concept of Special Forces did not exist. While irregulars had been employed in prior wars, their activities were of the "hit and run" variety and not part of a strategic and tactical concept synchornized with the plans and requirements of the regular military units.

1944 Jedburgh firearms training at Milton Hall, Peterborough, Cambridgeshire, England, on the small arms range with .45 Automatic pistols
1944 Jedburgh firearms training at Milton Hall, Peterborough, Cambridgeshire, England, on the small arms range with .45 Automatic pistols.

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The Jedburghs

Early in the Second World War, British and American planners recognized the value of the resistance in France as a force available to prepare the way for the coming invasion and as a way to hinder the ability of the Germans to reinforce their defenses. But the FFI (Force Française d'Interior, or Maquis) by themselves were disorganized, politically fractured, and poorly supplied.

The Jedburghs were created by the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) and British Special Operations Executive (SOE) to turn the FFI into a fighting arm of the Allied force, with the objective of preparing the way for the D-Day invasion of Normandy, then supporting the Allied troops once ashore. The Jedburghs were to take the raw material of the Maquis and turn them into a well disciplined, armed force whose activities were coordinated with the needs of the Operation Overlord invasion.

Within the broad, strategic sweep of the invasion plan and its execution it may seem the Jedburghs played an insignificant role. But Allied commanders from Eisenhower and Churchill down have commented in their writings that the forces organized by the Jedburghs were essential to success. This was echoed by the writings and reports of German officers as well. By tying down German units and delaying their movements, many German divisions were not available to repulse the Normandy landings. As the Germans fell back from the Allied breakout, FFI harassment and interdiction created tremendous German losses while preserving vital bridges and rail lines for Allied use.

What was true for Normandy was also true for the second invasion, Dragoon in Southern France, where the same pattern was repeated. And as the Allies broke out of their beachheads and began the assaults to capture ports and to push the German forces back into the Fatherland, the Maquis played key roles in destroying escape routes, delaying movement, capturing key points and even, as they grew stronger, engaging German military units in pitched battles.

Jedburgh Training and Organization

Jedburgh radio operators in wireless Morse telegraphy class at Milton Hall
Jedburgh radio operators in wireless Morse telegraphy class at Milton Hall.

The roughly 280 Jedburghs were organized into teams of three men, trained and disciplined to take up the special warfare challenge and carry out their missions regardless of obstacles and unforseen circumstances. Each team would consist of one officer who was either British SOE or American OSS, a second officer of French, Belgian, or Dutch nationality, plus a radio operator. This was considered ideal to cover all the requirements for military tactical experience, radio communications, and language skills. Contrary to various stories, the name "Jedburgh" was a random code name with no other significance, assigned by a security officer in 1942.

After a severe winnowing in the selection process, Jedburgh candidates were subjected to punishing mental and physical training, washing out many more. Legendary instructors, including Major Wm. Fairbairn, were employed at secret OSS facilities near Washington DC, including Area F (the Congressional Country Club) and Area B adjacent to the Camp David Presidential retreat, in the Catoctin Mountains of Maryland where military intelligence and fieldcraft skills, weapons and explosive training, and physical endurance were sharpened and hardened. British Jeds were similarly selected and trained in England.

The "survivors" were shipped to Milton Hall in England, another secret OSS/SOE facility, where they continued to train and prepare until finally assinged a mission. The team and its equipment would then be parachuted into France, behind German lines, to work with the Maquis.

At 2300 hours, 5 June 1944, at Temnpsford, England, a black Halifax rose into the night sky carrying Team HUGH, the first Jedburgh team to infiltrate into occupied Europe, dropping them on French soil early D-Day mcrning. A second team followed that night and others went to work quickly thereafter, to support Allied landings in Normandy and southern France. Many things went wrong, from missed drop zones, resupply failures, and lapsed communications to traitors among the French, but the Jeds were above all resourceful and time after time created victory out of almost nothing.

Jeds after World War II

It is not surprising that these extraordinary men generally rose to high positions and professional attainment after returning to civilian life following the war. Major Wm. Colby's Jedburgh experience in World War II led to a career in the intelligence community and to his appointment as CIA Director in 1973. Other Jeds were instrumental in the establishment of the U.S. Army Special Forces as a permanent institution in 1952. The first Special Forces group activated was commanded by Col. Aaron Bank, a former Jedburgh.

The Jedburgh program was highly classified during World War II and for decades after. It was not until records began to be de-classified by the CIA in 1985 that much was known about their heroic and successful actions.

Recommended Books about the Jedburghs

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