The CIA and the US Army Special Forces’ heritage is linked directly from the World War II OSS (Office of Strategic Services). Many of the operators who pulled classified missions for the OSS later became intelligence professionals or the original Special Forces troops. One such operator was William Colby who commanded Jedburgh teams in France and later would join the CIA, rising through the ranks to become the DCI (Director of Central Intelligence).
Colby later during World War II would be tasked to head an Operational Team to go into Norway to blow a key bridge, the Grana, on the Nordland railway during “Operation Rype.” The Norwegian Special Operations Group which was part of the OSS was tasked with the mission with Colby as the commander. In Colby’s narrative released after the war, he said it was the only mission that the US Army ran in WWII that the men used both parachutes and skis.
Near the end of 1944, the Soviets had overrun Finland and the German survivors from that campaign, some 150,000 ski and mountain troops were streaming into Norway. Colby and the Norwegian SOG’s mission was to blow the bridge between Narvik and Trondheim carrying thousands of troops back into Germany each day. The roads were frozen and impassable and Royal Navy was blocking the sea routes. Stopping the Germans from getting down from Finland was left to the OSS.
Colby’s men were bundled into eight B-24 Liberator bombers, specially configured to drop parachutists behind enemy lines. The team numbered 35 men. They were an eclectic lot, their expertise each ranged into different life paths that all led them this mission.
Things began to go wrong immediately. Of the eight aircraft taking off from Scotland, only four made their air drops. One group of a SSG and four CPLs was dropped in Sweden and were picked up by Swedish authorities and interned.
The transports that succeeded in dropping material at the frozen Jaevsjo Lake also succeeded in spreading the party and material over a 36-square-mile area, with some of the bundles landing kilometers into the surrounding woods. Colby reported that “many packages had no static cords attached and plummeted to Earth without chutes, burying themselves in the snow.”
Colby needed at least 35 men to do take out the bridge at Grana, but he only had 20 OSS men plus four more from the Norwegian underground who met them on the drop zones. They gathered the equipment that was dropped and waited for more men to be dropped.
Six days later, three planes appeared. The lake was shrouded in mist and the planes were unable to drop. Two of the aircraft got back and a third, with six more OSS commandos crashed in the Orkney Islands killing all 13 on board.
Another six days passed and the Air Corps tried again with four more planes, again in heavy bad weather. A plane with a Lt. and three noncoms crashed and exploded, again killing all onboard.
Colby had lost valuable time as more and more Germans were streaming down the railway each day. He decided to scrap the original plan and improvise. His plan from his notebook was the stuff of legend.
“Our plan was lifted bodily from the history of the West. We would seize a train, board it, throw her into reverse and blow up every tunnel and bridge we could until ammunition had run out; then drive the train into a ditch. We hoped to succeed by sheer bravado. Farnsworth, the demolition expert, was in seventh heaven. The others smiled again–this was the kind of direct American action they’d heard about, read about, knew went on all the time.”
Colby’s group set out on cross-country skis and in two days despite bad weather had made 40 miles. They finally arrived at the peaks overlooking the Tangen bridge, somewhere north of Tangen, where the railroad skirts Oiingen Lake. The terrain was extremely hazardous.
The men had to reach the bottom and were loaded down with Tommy guns (Thompson Submachine guns), M-1 Garand rifles, Bren MGs, 180 pounds of TNT plus other equipment on a big sled. They made it, none the worse for wear and were waiting for the train while another group of five men went north snipping wires and smashing telephones.
Changing their plans again after learning that they missed the train, the OSS men decided to blow the bridge immediately. The men set the charges under the long, I-girder bridge. The 180 pounds of explosives were enough to blow four bridges of the same size.
The bridge vanished in a deafening explosion that was so large, the ice-covered lake leaped briefly and cracked. The railway for the Germans was cut. Now Colby and his men had to reach their base, another 30-mile ski trip away. The Germans were looking for the raiders both with ground troops and in the air with spotter aircraft.
But immediately upon arriving, one of the men reported that a 50-man German patrol was hot on their heels. The OSS men had to keep going. Colby aimed for Sweden which was 40 miles ahead. Fresh of a 30-mile hike, they hiked and skied the next 40 in 56 hours, with Germans behind them, overhead in spotter aircraft and patrolling the terrain in front.
The men took Benzedrine, the little white tablets that kept them going, the pharmaceutical speed issued for just such an emergency. But they made it, and collapsed exhausted in the huts on top of a huge steep hill, that Colby nicknamed “Sugar Top” because of the tablets. The men finally rested after being on the move for over 72 hours.
Four days later, a Liberator appeared low over Jaevsjo Lake and dropped the supplies needed for the team: food, K-rations, cigarettes, soap, one-pound rail bombs, noncom’s outfits for five, lieutenant’s bars–and a case of canned Hawaiian pineapple which one of the group had specifically requested.
The team’s morale was sky-high after the successful operation. They rested, refitted, and planned follow-on operations. Their plan, after consulting with high-level members of the Norse underground was to seize the county of Lierne and form guerrilla units from the men inside the area.
All of Colby’s men had the OSS operational experience of doing the same thing in France, either with the Jedburgh teams or the Operational Groups. Normally a unit such as OSS or Special Forces would have to prove their worth militarily before the resistance groups would trust them enough to place their lives in OSS hands.
But the word in Norway was spreading like wildfire and the Norwegians, anxious to rid themselves of the oppressive Nazi yoke after five years were eager to join the fight. But with few spare arms and not enough equipment, those plans would have to wait. They skied back to the railway on the Swedish border and despite heavy German patrols in the area, blew the railway in four different spots.
They had a 50-mile trip back to their hut where all of the Norwegians were ordered elsewhere. With their food running out and the German noose tightening, one five-man enemy patrol stumbled on the camp. They were armed with MP-40s. Colby tried to talk them into surrendering, but all hell broke loose. The Germans were eliminated but one Norwegian courier was wounded. The OSS men improvised a litter and skied and dragged him 50 miles into Sweden.
Colby’s men then began recruiting a guerrilla force to conduct the Lierne operation and to protect the OSS men. The Germans were hot after them, especially as a result of the rail line blowing mission. But before Colby and the OSS men were able to put their plan into operation, the war ended. Everywhere the men went, they were treated like heroes and in each town, bands would play the Star Spangled Banner, which deeply touched the Americans. Colby’s after-action report reflected how quickly things changed.
“But the rest of this story is routine. We supervised the surrender and policed 10,000 Germans at Namsos, and we acted as honor guard for Crown Prince Olaf on his return to Trondheim and accompanied him in the parade in his honor on 10 June.”
Colby’s men were decorated for their valor on the mission and went on about their lives. He would leave the service briefly working as a lawyer for William Donovan’s (Commander and founder of the OSS), firm before getting bored with it and joining the CIA. He quickly rose through the ranks and was the Station Chief in Saigon during the Vietnam conflict and ran the controversial Phoenix Program. He eventually became the DCI as head of the agency under President Nixon.
Photo courtesy of US Army