The Jedburghs and Unconventional Warfare

On October 28, 2016, the Center for Military and Diplomatic History hosted Ben Jones at a special session of the Special Operations Research Association Symposium in Alexandria, Virginia. Dr. Jones spoke about his recent book “Eisenhower’s Guerrillas: The Jedburghs, the Maquis, and the Liberation of France” and its relevance to contemporary unconventional warfare. Below is a summation of his remarks as provided by Dr. Jones.

Eisenhower’s Guerrillas recounts the unconventional war campaign Eisenhower and the Allies set conducted as part of Operation Overlord.  Eisenhower used every tool at his disposal to defeat Germany and it’s a marvel to see the level of planning, staff work, forethought on a wide variety of complicated and difficult issues.  One of their issues was how best to link up with French resistance groups willing to fight against the Germans.  The British Special Operations Executive, the American Office of Strategic Services and the Free French, developed the Jedburgh team concept in order to link up with the French Maquis, or guerrilla bands throughout France.  The Jedburghs were three man teams comprised of a French officer, either a British or American officer and a radio non-commissioned officer from any of the three countries.  93 of these teams parachuted into France in the summer of 1944 to link up with the Maquis, in order to bring them into operations coordinated by the Allied command. 

When we think of D-Day we think conventional warfare.  Certainly in WWII, we seem overwhelmed by the conventional nature of the war.  But Eisenhower had conventional land, sea, and air forces, a Psychological Operations plan, a deception plan, and as a part of what my book explains, he had an Unconventional Warfare plan.  Indeed, unconventional war was in many ways a vastly more important aspect of WWII, especially in nations like France, Yugoslavia, Greece, Philippines, French Indo-China, Poland, and Ukraine than we usually consider.  Americans often forget this aspect of the Second World War and the research journey in my book, in many ways an exercise in shedding many of my prejudices and conventional thinking about this kind of warfare in WWII.  Looking back from a vantage point of 70 years, we can see that the French resistance was among the best of the Second World War.

When I first started, I set out to research operational or tactical aspects of Jedburgh operations, but kept asking why certain aspects of the campaign played out as they did only to finally realize it was because the diplomacy at the highest levels was broken.  The political relationship between President Franklin Roosevelt, Prime Minister Winston Churchill and Free French leader Charles de Gaulle created insurmountable difficulties for Eisenhower, the Jedburghs, and the Maquis.  I also questioned what made the French resistance tick and so a good part of the book is taken up describing the Free French as a resistance movement.  I also describe what the Germans thought of what was happening to them and how they attempted to combat the Maquis.

While I point out failings of Eisenhower, de Gaulle, Churchill, and especially FDR, I will say that Eisenhower got the one big thing right:  He understood that he would have to take the French resistance as they were, and not pretend to make them into his own image, or use them for purposes they could not, or would not perform.  In other words, he recognized they had a character, a nature, or a sovereignty that they defined for themselves.  Roosevelt never really understood that.

So, what does this tell us about the nature of guerrilla warfare today?  Or more appropriately, what questions should we be asking regarding ISIL, the Taliban, the FARC, or any other resistance group?

Here Eisenhower’s experience firmly points us toward understanding the answer that there is little a foreign power can do to create a resistance where there isn’t one.  Resistance just is, or is not.  Another nation’s government is not going to create an indigenous resistance from nothing.  But if there is a resistance, how can a foreign power get them to join in common efforts?

The answer to that question points to the big issue FDR and Churchill did remarkably well.  They defined what the world would look like when the war was over and then earnestly went about making it that way. Sketched out in the Atlantic Charter and in constant speeches, the two leaders explained what defeating the Axis would mean.  The Allies got on the strategic offensive by constantly communicating their intent, and doing the hard things that provided credibility to that narrative.  For us, to say now, that we simply wish to destroy ISIL, leaves everyone guessing as to what end?

The fact that the United States seems to have no clear aim or post-war vision for the middle east today, is in my view, why we have confused our friends and can’t attract guerrilla allies.  A clearly understood aim is vital in order to bring guerrillas to our side.  After all, people have to know what they are fighting for, before they will be willing to fight.

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