In World War II, months before D-Day, a loudspeaker on military bases played a short recruitment message. The few men who answered it would become heroes after tackling one of the deadliest and most complicated missions of D-Day.
Jedburghs train on an obstacle course in World War II.
(Office of Strategic Services)
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.
Men who volunteered had a chance to be selected for a Jedburgh Team. The teams typically featured a mix of Canadian, British, French, and American troops, but they were tiny, typically with two to four members. So, obviously, there was just one man of each nationality in each team.
So, that was one reason that knowledge of European languages was preferred, the other was that these tiny teams would fight directly alongside resistance forces in Nazi-occupied Europe, mostly in France but also in the Netherlands and Belgium. Their motto summed up the mission well: “Surprise, kill, and vanish.”
Jedburgh team members in World War II.
Very few people were selected. A post-war accounting put the number at 276 of which 83 were Americans. There were also 90 British and 103 French troops. The most typical team size was three, but all teams were required to have at least a commander and a radio operator.
The most common third member was an officer from the country in which the team was deployed. So, French members rounded out teams in France, Dutch in the Netherlands, and Belgian in Belgium.
The Jedburghs trained hard and wanted to go into Europe two to six weeks before the D-Day invasion, but Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower restricted the Jedburgh insertions until June 5, 1944—the night before D-Day—so the sudden presence of international troops wouldn’t clue in the Nazis to the coming invasion.
So, on June 5, the teams began their insertions, and these few hundred men brought lots of extra weapons with them and rallied the resistance fighters of Europe. The Jedburghs and their allies fought far ahead of the invasion forces, in some cases taking and holding key infrastructure that the rest of the Allied forces wouldn’t reach for weeks.
The Jedburghs severed Nazi supply and reinforcement lines, and they protected key infrastructure like bridges that would be needed by the tanks and trucks of the invasion force. As volume two of the OSS War Report says:
Will well-trained, capable radio operators, the Jedburghs represented, wherever they were, a strong radio link between FFI (French Forces of the Interior) leaders and other Allied groups in the field, such as the SAS (Special Air Services) and headquarters in London … Besides the all-important task of making available … arms and supplies to the resistance and preparing landing and dropping fields, they acted as translators and interpreters, assisting in surrender arrangements, helped lead sabotage and ambush operations, provided intelligence on resistance and enemy strength and other information as well, and worked to coordinate separate resistance forces under a unified command.
Members of the Jedburgh teams prepare to insert via parachute in World War II.
(US Army Signal Corps via CIA.gov)
And yes, the rest of the Allied forces saw and appreciated these efforts. While the Jedburghs complained after the invasion that they wished they were allowed to insert earlier and do more, Allied commanders were just grateful that so many resistance members were well-armed and organized, breaking up Nazi forces and tying up German units, and that so much infrastructure survived the Wehrmacht’s destruction efforts.
The Jedburghs were broken up, but some special operation units are spiritual successors to the Jedburghs. For instance, the Army’s first operation Special Forces group, the 10th Special Forces Group, was commanded by Col. Aaron Bank, a former Jedburgh. And one of the Special Forces’ primary missions is to deploy overseas, train up and help arm indigenous forces, and then fight alongside them.
But at least ODAs typically have 12 members. Jedburghs were running around in a Three’s Company configuration, slaughtering Nazis with just their closest friends to rely on.
Fun side note: The name Jedburgh was selected because it was the name of a town near where the men trained and where Scots had conducted guerilla operations against England in the 1100s.