Academic journal article Air Power History

Special Operations by Air Power: Strategic Lessons from World War II

Academic journal article Air Power History

Special Operations by Air Power: Strategic Lessons from World War II

Article excerpt

Special operations conducted by the United States's (US) Office for Strategic Services (OSS) and the British Special Operations Executive (SOE), and other military special forces units such as the U.S. Army Rangers, U.S. Marines Raiders, British Special Air Service (SAS) and the Commandos in WWII had captured the romanticism and imagination of special operations with the public. Since then, various accounts of special operations had been published crediting special operations forces with various spectacular raids in sabotaging and destroying key targets, hostage rescue operations, and covert operations during World War II (WWII). (1) Navies too had also its share of WWII special operations fame. For example the Royal Navy's X-Craft midget submarine naval special operations with its most famous operation in the disabling of the German battleship Tirpitz. (2) Nonetheless, air forces had also conducted special operations during WWII--all with rudimentary navigation and flying aids. Three aerial special operations will be examined in this article which demonstrate the usage of airpower in conducting sabotage, rescuing prisoners, and targeted killing of enemy leadership. These special operations are the Royal Air Force's (RAF) Operation Chastise or the 'Dambusters' raid in the Ruhr valley intended to sabotage Germany's wartime industrial effort; the RAF Mosquito light bombers conducting precise hits on Nazi Germany's Gestapo Headquarters in Amiens and Copenhagen - Operations Jericho and Carthage respectively - which were intended to free prisoners held in these prisons; and the aerial killing of Japanese Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto by the U.S. Army Air Force in the Pacific War.


These operations will show that air power in WWII had successfully conducted special operations without the infiltration of ground commandos or special operations agents to conduct sabotage operations, prisoner-rescue, and targeted killing, deep behind enemy lines which would had entailed high risks of death or capture by enemy forces. Nonetheless, as all tactical actions must be measured against the calculus of its strategic value, the strategic effects of these operations will also be assessed. This article strives to fill the gap in special operations literature neglecting the contribution of air power and give credit to the valiant airmen who had conducted these daring aerial special operations during WWII.

Special operations and strategic effects

Special operations as a conceptual form of warfare have existed since ancient military history was first recorded. (3) Examples of the practice of special operations-like concepts can be traced from ancient Greek military history, (4) through the middle ages, (5) from the Seven Years War to the Napoleonic Wars, (6) in the American Revolution (War of Independence, 1775-1782), (7) and the American Civil War (1861-1866). (8) Nonetheless, modern special operations and the establishment of contemporary military special operations units, can be traced back more recently to WWII, where special operations were responsible in conducting commando raids, sabotage of enemy infrastructure targets, rescuing hostages and one's own prisoners, enemy military leadership killing, working with indigenous forces conducting guerrilla warfare, and gathering intelligence. Although there is a plethora of definitions explaining what special operations are, the late M.R.D. Foot, a prominent Special Operations Executive (SOE) historian and ex-SAS intelligence officer during World War II, provides a useful definition of special operations, (9)

They are unorthodox coups, that is, unexpected strokes of violence, usually mounted and executed outside the military establishment of the day, which exercise a startling effect on the enemy; preferably at the highest level.

Foot's definition concisely sums up special operations' most important ingredients for its operational success and unit's survival, which are using the element of surprise and unexpected acts of warfare. …

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