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Training Overseas – OSS Part 3

Training Overseas

As the number of OSS personnel overseas increased dramatically and as they sought to train indigenous agents, the overseas detachments established their own training schools. In addition to training local agents, the overseas OSS schools also provided advanced training and field exercises for graduates of the training camps in the United States and for Americans who enlisted in the OSS in the war zones. The most famous of the latter was Virginia Hall in France.

As the war progressed, the direct action branches came to view the stateside schools as mainly providing only testing and preliminary, introductory training. The overseas training facilities offered advanced and more directly relevant training. Overseas, combat veterans provided practical and up-to date instruction, and training, including intensive simulations in the field that usually continued until the operatives were deployed for their missions. The main OSS training camps abroad were located initially in Great Britain, French Algeria, and Egypt; later as the Allies advanced, a school was established in southern Italy. In the Far East, OSS training facilities were established in India, Ceylon, and then China.

“It was the strangest job of wartime educational administration ever assigned to a former college president,” remarked James L. McConaughy, a former president of Wesleyan University in Connecticut, whom Donovan selected to oversee OSS training from 1943 to 1945. The campus was scattered all over the world…. The students were of almost every type and race…. The teachers were nearly as diverse…. And we taught nearly everything, too: navigation, parachute jumping, how to kill wild animals and use them as food, lock picking, hiding microscopic sized confidential data, protecting oneself from dagger attacks and using one offensively, operating a wireless set, reading code and cipher, elementary foreign languages (French, Greek, Chinese, Japanese, Korean). Name me a weird subject of instruction and I will gamble that it was taught by O.S.S., somewhere, sometime!

Trying to Coordinate

Training When the United States entered the war, Donovan’s fledgling organization had not been prepared for the dramatic wartime expansion that would transform the COI, with somewhat more than 2,000 people, to an OSS which had a peak strength that would number at least 13,000 and perhaps several thousand more.53 As missions expanded, the organization confronted the need to send operatives into the field at the same time that it was developing its recruiting and training systems. Each of the operational branches established its own training program, although many male recruits took their basic paramilitary course in one of the national parks, at least in the first two years.

By August 1942, OSS headquarters began actively encouraging greater coordination, including some standardization, in the diverse training programs that were emerging. After several attempts at coordination, including a cooperative training directorate, Donovan in January 1943, established a Schools and Training Branch (S&T) independent of the operational branches to oversee and eventually operate the schools.

Internal difficulties within OSS as well as problems in dealing with the military caused the loss of some of the initial figures in the training programs, including Garland Williams and his successor, Kenneth H. Baker, SI, an Ohio State University psychologist and reserve army officer who had been the first head of the S&T Branch.54 The branch was in disarray throughout the
summer of 1943.

Not until September 1943, with McConaughy’s selection he was then president of United China Relief— would Schools and Training have a leadership team that would run the branch until the end of the war.55 To do the actual work of running dayto- day operations, Donovan selected as deputy director Col. Henson Langdon Robinson, a Dartmouth graduate, reserve army officer from World War I, and successful businessman from Springfield, Illinois. Donovan had first recruited Robinson to supervise OSS headquarters. Now he gave him the task of efficiently operating the faltering Schools and Training Branch

Schools and Training Branch spent two years trying to coordinate the OSS training system and the numerous facilities and diverse curricula that had evolved since 1942 among the operational branches, particularly the two largest, SO and SI. Although Donovan’s headquarters gave it increasing authority over all OSS schools, first in the United States and then in August 1944 over those overseas, S&T never did control them completely. Despite increasing S&T efforts at coordination and at least some standardization, the operational branches proved resistant to its control, and they continued to exert the dominant influence over their trainees through the end of the war

Schools and Training Branch created a common introductory course in early 1944. A basic two-week program for all OSS operational personnel—SI, SO, MO and X-2— it was first taught at Area E, and called the “E” or “E-type” course. The operational branches, particularly SO, thought it emphasized the wrong subjects and some of them called it a waste of time. Along with SI, X-2 and MO, SO was also angered by what all considered S&T’s overall inadequate curriculum and teaching methods, its seeming inability to incorporate up-to date information from overseas, and what they believed were its inappropriate attempts to play the branches off against each other in order to consolidate S&T’s control

With S&T under such intense criticism and plagued with problems, McConaughy apologized to the assistant director of the OSS: Many of our difficulties stem from the haste with which OSS was organized, the fact that the concept of training followed a program of operations (ideally, it should have preceded it). Schools and Training was the “tail” of the OSS “dog.” For a long time, it
was not given strong leadership, it did not achieve Branch status until recently, etc. Not very long ago, the “chief indoor
sport” of some persons in some Branches was to pick on Schools and Training—and our record probably justified their doing so

Area E was closed in July 1944, but OSS headquarters still wanted a standardized Etype basic course for all new operational personnel. It was not until S&T made changes to bring training into line with field experience and the demands of the operational branches and adopted a modified version of the basic SI training course, that a new OSS basic unified course was accepted. It was approved first by SI, X-2, and MO, and—only after it had been substantially modified to meet the needs of special operations recruits—by SO.

The new basic unified course, still called the E Course, was taught beginning in July 1944 at Area A, and subsequently at RTU-11, Area F, and the new West Coast training facility on Santa Catalina Island off Los Angeles.60 The aim of this introductory course was to provide a quick but intensive survey to all operational recruits of the various kinds of work done by OSS. Having been created by SI, it was heavier on the intelligence than paramilitary side. Subjects such as agent undercover techniques, intelligence objectives and reporting, sabotage, small arms, demolitions, unarmed defense, as well as the basic elements of counterespionage and black propaganda were crammed into only two or, at most, three weeks.61 At the same time, the basic SO paramilitary course (the A-4 Course) was also taught at various times not only in Area A but at Areas B, D, F, and on Catalina Island

During the big buildup between the summer of 1943 and the fall of 1944, the training camps had operated at a breakneck pace as OSS activities in the field expanded along with the US military effort, first in Europe and then in the Far East. Increased demands were imposed on Schools and Training Branch, which numbered some 50 men and women at headquarters and nearly 500 male instructors at stateside training facilities.

The number of OSS training camps in the United States increased to 16 in the last 12 months of the war as the original training areas and assessment stations in Maryland and Virginia were augmented by a communications school, designated
Area M, at Camp McDowell, near Naperville, Illinois, and eight relatively new training facilities in southern California. The most prominent of these “W” areas was on Santa Catalina Island, as the focus of war effort shifted to the defeat of Japan

When Phillip Allen, head of West Coast schools, arrived from S&T headquarters, he was able to institute a well-coordinated program there. His success was due in part because, except for the Maritime Unit, which already had its own school there, the other operational branches did not have training facilities there, and this enabled Allen largely to start afresh. His training program began with the new basic, unified, two-week E Course. This was followed by an advanced course in SI, SO, or MO, or a combination of them

In the summer of 1944, Allen was able to obtain as instructors seasoned veterans who had real experience and information on current conditions in the war zones and who could provide practical advice to their students. Training concluded with extremely demanding field problems, as some of the students—Korean Americans, Japanese Americans, and some Korean prisoners of war—were preparing for infiltration into Japanese occupied Korea or Japan itself

Advanced SI students, accompanied by radio operators, had to infiltrate northern Mexico and obtain and relay important information. Advanced SO menwere sent on survival problems, dispatched into desolate areas with only a minimum of food, forced to live on fish they could catch or game they could shoot. Subsequently they were tested on preparing effective plans to sabotage military facilities in San Pedro harbor and the Orange County coast. Lt. Hugh Tovar, SI, a Harvard ROTC graduate, was one of those OSS trainees in the interior of rugged, windswept Santa Catalina Island in 1945. “They gave me a carbine with one bullet and told me to survive on my own out there for several days,” he recalled. He did and went on afterward to China and Indochina. In its praise of the West Coast training program, S&T concluded at the end of the war, that it was “probably the most efficient that was given by Schools and Training, since it combined the best features of the training that had been given in the East and eliminated some of the weaknesses that experience had brought to light.”

Schools and Training headquarters team, at its peak size, in early 1945.

Schools and Training headquarters team, at its peak size, in early 1945.

Evaluations of OSS

OSS direct action training had its strengths and weaknesses; the latter, as even the Schools and Training Branch acknowl- edged, had been particularly evident in the early stages of its
evolution. Until combat veterans began to return in the fall of 1944, few of the stateside
instructors had any operational experience. There were numerous criticisms. Some students later complained that there had not been enough instruction in how to organize and work with indigenous populations, especially non-European, native populations. Nor was there enough training on how to handle resistance groups, particularly those with diverse factions and conflicting political agendas. Some veterans grumbled about undue emphasis on “cloak and dagger creepiness” instead of practical training that “should be more matter-of-fact.”

Others carped that too much of the stateside instruction had been “a little bit of this and a little bit of that in case it might come in handy some day.”

One of the most frustrating experiences was being held stateside after graduation as a result of the scarcity of transportation or other difficulties.  Another significant criticism was that in the early training program, it had often been unclear to instructors or recruits the particular assignment for which the individual student was being prepared.  Subsequently, S&T attempted to link instructors with the rel-
evant branch desk officer so that an individual’s training might be made more relevant.

Schools and Training Branch had its own complaints, mainly that the operational branches would seldom cooperate. They declined to keep the training branch informed of their plans, and they refused to share their secret after-action reports from overseas. At the same time, they expected S&T’s training camps to handle truckloads of trainees even if these new students suddenly arrived without warning. “Someone recently likened Schools and Training to an island of ignorance with darkness on both sides of it,” Colonel Robinson bemoaned in
late 1943.  We are trying to run a group of schools without knowing anything about the number of students we must train, the type of
missions our students will have, or what happens to them after they get to their eventual destinations.

Despite the gripes, many members of OSS direct action units attributed much of their success to their training. Most commonly, combat veterans cited physical conditioning, specific skills, the building of confidence in themselves and the organization, as well as their sense of the importance of their mission. “The experience at Area B-2 was a great morale builder and when we departed in mid-December [1943], we
were in top physical condition,” wrote Sgt. Robert R. Kehoe, SO, a decorated Jedburgh team radio operator in France.

Maj. Jerry Sage, also SO, credited the training with helping him organize and lead escapes from German prisoner-of-war camps.

Lt. Joseph Lazarsky, SO, who left Area B to become a successful guerrilla leader in Burma, recalled that “the training in weaponry and demolitions was effective. So was building self-confidence and the ability to get things done.” He used the same training methods to prepare indigenous agents in the Far East. “It was very effective,” he said.

Sgt. Caesar J. Civitella, an Italian OG who fought in France and Italy, also believed the training was very effective;in addition, he was impressed by the use of “peer review.” He and the other enlisted men were questioned anonymously during training at Area F about their respect for others in their OG section, as a result of which one of the officers was reassigned.

When OSS Greek OGs left the United States in December 1943, following training at Areas F, A, and B, they were in high spirits, dressed
smartly in their trim, new Eisenhower jackets and paratrooper jump boots, and singing in both English and Greek. Their communications officer said later, “We looked good, acted good, and the biggest thing, we felt good. Officers from other outfits would ask me, ‘Who are you guys?’ Security told us to say that we [were] truck drivers; they knew that wasn’t the case.”

John Singlaub reflected on that training after retiring as a major general in command of US troops in Korea. These were individual skills that are perhaps useful but are most important for training the state of mind or attitude, developing an aggressiveness and confidence in one’s ability to use weapons. One of the most important aspects of the training was that it gave you complete confidence….an ability to
concentrate on your mission, and not worry about your personal safety. That’s really a great psychological advantage. I used that later in training my units when I was a battalion commander and later, a Battle Group commander.

By the end of the war, the OSS’s program of selection, evaluation, and training, and equally if not more important its successes overseas showed the importance of obtaining the right individuals and giving them the skills, spy equipment, and confidence to do the job.

“Training is not spectacular work,” S&T Branch admitted in a report at the end of the war. “It means doing a sound teaching job, adjusting sights to fit circumstances, and keeping right on doing it.”

Operating like the OSS itself which was created in haste and without American precedent and which was propelled by a drive for speed, production, and results, OSS training sometimes appeared confused and indecisive. Yet, training areas and programs were developed almost overnight to fit the wartime exigencies. To meet suddenly increased quotas, the capacity of training areas was sometimes doubled in size, by opening new subcamps or by erecting “tent cities.” Entirely new camps were established and instructors acquired. S&T finally obtained veterans as instructors.  S&T also set up a system of interviewing returning veterans to include their insights into the curriculum. OSS concluded that while some subjects, such as the use of small arms, demolitions, code and ciphers, could be taught by concrete example, the precise situations that agents would face in the field could not be foreseen.  Therefore, as a postwar report put it, “the major goal was psychological—to develop in the student-agent an attitude of mind which would respond to an emergency in accordance with the exigencies of the particular situation.”

Instead of learning by rote, OSS students were encouraged to use principles and examples provided in training as springboards for their own ingenuity and creativity in overcoming problems. The best training, it was believed, gave already talented, independent individuals the skills, concepts and confidence to be adaptable leaders in an unpredictable environment. The Schools and Training Branch had come a long way
since 1942, but in its postwar assessment, it admitted that “only toward the end of World War II was OSS beginning to approach the kind of training that was really adequate for the complex and hazardous operations carried out by OSS personnel.”


OSS’s direct action operations behind enemy lines in World War II were impressive, as acknowledged by a number of Allied and Axis commanders, among them Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, the Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force, who declared in
May 1945 after the defeat of Hitler’s regime, that the value of the OSS “has been so great that there should be no thought of its elimination.”

It was eliminated, of course, in October 1945 by President Harry S Truman. But recognition of its value contributed to the establishment of the Central Intelligence Agency two years later.

The effectiveness of OSS training was confirmed by the adoption of much of its curriculum by its successors, the Central Intelligence Agency and the Army Special Forces.

“The CIA picked it up almost 100 percent,” explained Joseph Lazarsky, an OSS veteran whose subsequent 25-year career with the
Agency included being chief of station in several Far Eastern countries. “They took the manuals, instructional materials, and
put that right into the Agency.  You know, the COI and the OSS started it from scratch. The Agency would have been foolish not to have adopted their training. The training in weaponry and demolitions was effective. So was building self-confidence and the ability to get
things done.”

The CIA relied in part upon the OSS model to evaluate recruits and to train them with skills, self-confidence, and adaptability. In 1951, the
Agency even tried to obtain Prince William Forest Park, site of OSS’s first training camps, from the National Park Service as a training facility.

It was only after that effort failed that the CIA established its own secret, paramilitary training facility on 10,000 acres of pine forests and swamps in southern Virginia.  The demanding OSS-style training continues there to the present day

Training Real Spies for War and Espionage Part 2 – Other Spy Branches/Other Spy Schools

The other operational arms of OSS established their training programs more slowly and with fewer students than Special Operations did with its vision of the mass production of commando-like saboteurs, bold, brash gung-ho men with submachine guns and plastic explosives, whom other branches sometimes belittled as the “bang-bang boys.”28 Secret Intelligence, which had taught a handful of agents in a room at OSS headquarters in the first four months of 1942, opened its school in May 1942 on a 100- acre country estate 20 miles south of Washington. Designated RTU-11, but known informally as “the Farm,” it began with a class of eight. It had a capacity of nine staffers and 15 SI students for its four-week course in espionage, ciphers, communications, concealment, and handling agents, as well as weapons and martial arts. In the fall of 1942, the Communications Branch established its school in the NPS cabin camps in the eastern sector of Prince William Forest Park. Labeled Area C, it trained the radiomen who would operate the regional base stations and many of the portable field radios in Commo’s global clandestine shortwave radio network. Communications training at Area C took three months.

OSS established Area D in what may have been an old Civilian Conservation Corps camp in 1,400 isolated wooded acres on the rural eastern shore of the Potomac River some 40 miles south of Washington. Its mission was instruction and practice in waterborne raids and infiltration. After the Maritime Unit was formed in 1943, it moved its training sites for underwater demolition teams and others first to Florida, then the Bahamas, and finally to California.29

Area E, two country estates and a former private school about 30 miles north of Baltimore, was created in November 1942 to provide basic Secret Intelligence and later X-2 training— as a result, RTU-11 became the advanced SI school. Area E could handle about 150 trainees. When the Morale Operations Branch was established to deal in disinformation or psychological warfare, “black” propaganda, men and women of the MO Branch also trained at Area E, although men from MO, SI, and X-2 often received their paramilitary training in the national parks.

Picture Communications school class in coded telegraphy at Training Area C.

Communications school class in coded telegraphy at Training Area C.








The Congressional Country Club and OG Training

In stark contrast to the rustic cabins of the national parks, OSS’s grandest training facility was the magnificent Congressional Country Club, with its palatial clubhouse, its fancy tennis courts and Olympic swimming pool, its 400 acres of manicured lawns, well-maintained fairways and greens of its acclaimed golf course, and the surrounding woods. Established in the 1920s, with Herbert Hoover as founding president, the club had been hard hit by the Great Depression
and in 1943 was bankrupt and in foreclosure proceedings. Consequently, the board of directors was delighted when Donovan offered to lease the facility for the duration at a monthly rent that would more than meet the mortgage payments. In addition, the War Department agreed to restore the property to its prior condition at the end of the war.

Designated Area F, its location in Bethesda, Maryland, made it easily accessible for dignitaries from the capital less than 20 miles away, and it provided a dramatic locale for Donovan to showcase one of his most original concepts, ethnic, commando-like Operational Groups (OGs). For their training the club was transformed— its entrance way lined with tents, fairways torn up into obstacle courses and firing ranges, and the elegant clubhouse converted into classrooms and a mess hall.

It was one of Donovan’s great insights that he could obtain from America’s multiethnic population combat guerrilla teams that could successfully infiltrate enemy-occupied countries because its members spoke the language, knew the culture, and, in fact, were often the descendants of immigrants from that country. By 1943, the Joint Chiefs of Staff accepted not only increased numbers of Special Operations teams but also Donovan’s proposal for these larger ethnic, or at least foreign-speaking, OGs

The Congressional Country Club, Training Area F, as shown in an OSS briefing board.

Special Operations teams and Operational Group units had many similarities. Recruits for both had to meet the high physical standards required for parachute infiltration and wilderness survival as well as superior mental and psychological standards of uncommon stability, judgment, and independent thinking. Both SOs and OGs were supposed to be fluent in a foreign language and both would be engaged in sabotage and irregular warfare, but SO generally worked in teams of two or three and often focused on particular acts of sabotage or subversion. The most famous SOs were the “Jedburghs”—nearly 100 multinational, three-man teams, two officers and a radio operator— most of which were composed of a Frenchman and either a Briton or an American, who received substantial extra training at SOE schools in Britain and were parachuted behind German lines in conjunction with the invasion of France.

In contrast, OGs were organized into sections of 34 men as well as half sections of two officers and 13 NCOs, including weapons and demolitions specialists, a shortwave radio operator, and a medic. These uniformed units were seen as military forces capable of longer and more sustained independent action. In practice however, SOs and OGs often spent similar periods and engaged in the same kinds of missions with resistance groups. For Europe, Donovan created OSS Operational Groups for France, Italy, Greece, Yugoslavia, and Norway. The OGs (and some other branches) received their basic OSS training at Area F

OGs trained as units under their own officers together with OSS instructors. To create the OG training program, a team of bright and bold young officers from the army’s new airborne units was assembled under the leadership of Lt. Col. Serge Obolensky, a former Russian prince and New York socialite who had fought the Germans in World War I, the Bolsheviks in the Russian civil war, and who had gone through SO training and studied guerrilla fighting after joining the OSS at age 51.

The training curriculum for the new Operational Groups included a six-week basic training course. It emphasized the need for trainees to achieve proficiency,
self-confidence, and determination and to recognize that unconventional warfare behind enemy lines was a hazardous undertaking and required not only skill but a certain degree of ruthlessness.

In the OG curriculum, the Preliminary Course taught at Area F began with an hour introducing and going through the training’s objectives. Over the next few weeks, it would include 22 hours of map reading, sketching, and compass work, both theoretical and field problems; 20 hours of scouting and patrolling; 14 hours of physical training; seven hours of camouflage and fieldcraft; four hours of close combat and knife fighting; six hours training on the obstacle course; four hours instruction on the .45 caliber pistol; and four hours on the submachine gun. There would be seven hours of training films. The longest amount of time, 57 hours, was devoted to tactics. That included compass runs, target approach, and day- and night-time field problems. Finally two hours were
devoted to hygiene and camp sanitation; and four hours went for special subjects: enemy organization, communications, security, and current events. Total OG preliminary instruction and training was 152 hours.

Then the OG section moved on to either Area B or Area A, where the final OG course involved eight hours of physical training, 22 hours of demolitions, and 40 hours of weapons training, which included two to three hours each on the mechanics and firing of the M1 rifle, carbine, light machine gun, Browning Automatic Rifle, Colt .45 automatic pistol, British Sten gun, Thompson submachine gun, Marlin submachine gun, M1 and AT rocket launcher, 60-mm mortar, 81-mm mortar, and the .50 caliber machine gun. There was also a bit of hand grenade and antitank training. One French OG, Ellsworth (“Al”) Johnson, remembered firing a bazooka at Area B, “just to get the feel of how it worked.”

Thereafter, students went through four hours on the care of clothing and equipment, four hours on hygiene and camp sanitation, and eight hours of training films. Finally, there was ground training for the parachute jumps that would be made at Fort Benning, Georgia, or more often at OSS or SOE jump schools overseas. Total advanced training was 106 hours. A grand total of 250 hours of stateside training was prescribed for an OSS Operational Group.

The size of the Operational Groups ranged from about a hundred men in the Norwegian group to some four hundred in the French OG.40 In all, there may have been up to 2,000 members of OSS Operational Groups.41 Another 1,600 Special Operations personnel were sent behind enemy lines. The extensive destruction caused by what Donovan liked to call his “glorious amateurs” and their local partisans was accomplished by only a few thousand SOs and OGs, a number not much larger than a single army brigade.

Obtaining Recruits and Instructors

Most of the Americans who volunteered for hazardous duty in Special Operations or the Operational Groups were recruited from high-aptitude, citizen-soldiers of the wartime armed forces. They had already undergone basic military training and often advanced training as well, but OSS demanded even higher proficiency. To weed out recruits unqualified physically or emotionally for dangerous and unpredictable situations behind enemy lines, OSS ultimately developed a highly effective psychological assessment program. Beginning in 1944 at a country estate (Assessment Station S) in Fairfax County, Virginia, candidates underwent three days of tests to determine not only their mental and physical aptitude but their judgment, independence, emotional stability
and their ability to act effectively under pressure. Ranging from their capacity to withstand harsh interrogations to dealing with frustration when, for example, alleged assistants surreptitiously impeded the assembly of a complicated wooden platform, the tests were designed to provide an assessment of a person’s entire personality. Not surprisingly, the evaluation teams learned that, beyond the specific skills and training, what made an effective saboteur in France, an able spy in Germany, a successful commando in Burma, or a reliable clandestine radio operator in China was a secure, capable, intelligent and creative person who could deal effectively with uncertainty and considerable stress

In 1942, when Garland Williams had first sought instructors to train men for clandestine operations, he had drawn on two main sources. One was former law enforcement officers, who, like him, were experienced in undercover work and in the use of firearms and the martial arts. He recruited instructors from officers in the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, the Customs Service, and the Border Patrol, as well as state and local police

For other skills, Williams, who was also a reserve army officer, drew upon activated reservists: army engineers for instruction in explosives and demolition work; military police for pistol shooting and close combat techniques; and infantry officers for the use of small arms, hand grenades, machine guns, and mortars, plus map-reading, field craft, and tactical maneuvers. Signal corpsmen often taught wireless telegraphy, coding and decoding. Paratroopers became instructors in parachute infiltration; and navy and the coast guard instructors taught small craft handling and waterborne landing

There were some problems in initial instruction, particularly with the use of law enforcement officers. Despite their qualifications in weaponry and undercover work, law enforcement officers were deeply imbued with a respect for the law and a belief that lawbreakers and fugitives should and would be apprehended. But the aim of the operatives behind enemy lines was to break the law and not get caught.

Some of the regular army officers who joined the OSS also proved too set in their ways for the path-breaking organization.
Donovan himself recognized this by recruiting bold, risk-taking, rule-breaking individuals. In time many of the law enforcement and regular army instructors left or were reassigned, and OSS came to rely primarily upon citizen-soldiers for SO and OG instructors, rather than already established, fulltime, career professionals in the officer corps.

Similarly for trainees, OSS also sought intelligent, independent- minded individuals. One OSS recruiter remembered looking for activists, from free-lance journalists to trade union organizers. “What seemed liked faults to rigid disciplinarians of the regular services often appealed to us as evidence of strong willpower and an independent cast of mind.”47 Recruiting for Special Operations drew almost entirely from the military—not so much career military as former civilians now in the wartime armed forces.

OSS’s Personnel Procurement Branch scoured training camps and advanced schools of all the services looking for intelligent candidates knowledgeable in a foreign language who were willing to volunteer for unspecified challenging and hazardous duty behind enemy lines.48 As a subsequent Special Operations field manual explained, “SO agents and operatives are selected for their intelligence, courage, and natural resourcefulness in dealing with resistance groups. In addition, they must have stamina to be able to live and move about undetected in their area of operation.

Continued in Next Months Article: Training Overseas

Training Real Spies for War and Espionage – Office of Strategic Services During WWII

Training for War and Espionage

Office of Strategic Services Training During World War II

Dr. John Whiteclay Chambers II

“ Largely neglected [in
histories of OSS] is the
challenge OSS leaders
faced in developing a
program to train the
“glorious amateurs” of
America’s first central
intelligence and covert
operations agency ”

In the histories of the Office of Strategic Services, the heralded predecessor of the Central Intelligence Agency in World War II, what has been largely neglected is the challenge OSS leaders faced in developing a program to train the “glorious amateurs” of America’s first central intelligence and covert operations agency.  OSS’s response to the challenge of preparing operatives for missions deep inside enemy-controlled territory began in 1942 with a paramilitary training program in two national parks. One of its legacies is the CIA training program today.

In In examining OSS training, this article draws on the author’s recent 600-page report to the US National Park Service on OSS training in the national parks as well as his subsequent research for a forthcoming book on OSS training and service in World War II.2 The article deals primarily with the two main direct action branches, Special Operations (SO) and Operational Groups (OG). In the process, it also refers to training in other operational branches: Secret Intelligence (SI), X-2 (Counterintelligence), Morale Operations (MO), and the Maritime Unit (MU), plus the Communications (Commo) Branch.3 Most of the organization’s other components, such as the Research and Analysis Branch, employed people who were already skilled in their fields and who did not generally require OSS training.

This essay addresses several questions. Why were the national parks chosen as training sites? How was the training program created? What were its aims and methods? What Type of Spy Equipment was used? How did it evolve? Most importantly, how effective was the training and
what was its legacy?

Origins of OSS

The OSS engaged in new forms of warfare for the United States: centralized intelligence, “fifth column” activities, psychological or “political warfare,” and the kind of sabotage, commando raids and directed guerrilla activity now known as irregular warfare. The British had begun such operations in 1940 through the Special Operations Executive (SOE) and the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS), the former established as a result of Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s order to rouse resistance against the German army in occupied countries and “set Europe ablaze.”

In the United States, William J. Donovan, a World War I hero and a Wall Street lawyer with extensive contacts on both sides of the Atlantic and a keen interest in modern warfare, sought to create a comparable organization. President Franklin D. Roosevelt named him director of the new, civilian Office of the Coordinator of Information (COI) in July 1941. Existing agencies, especially the Military Intelligence Division, the Pffice of Naval Intelligence, nd the FBI, vigorously opposed the new and centralized Intelligence agency, but the US entry into World War II in December 1941 led to a dramatic expansion for Donovan’s

In June 1942, Roosevelt reorganized COI as the OSS, in which military and civilian personnel had responsibilities in the fields of intelligence and counterintelligence, psychological warfare, and guerrilla operations, including sabotage and the coordination of resistance movements. Donovan now reported to the newly formed Joint Chiefs of Staff, but he also retained direct access to the president. Among the units established in the new OSS were the Special Operations and the Secret Intelligence Branches. SO took the lead in obtaining instructors and recruits and setting up a substantial paramilitary
training program. Its driving force was Lt. Col. Garland H. Williams, a no-nonsense character with a highly successful career in federal law enforcement and the Army Reserves. The native Louisianan had been head of the New York office of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics and a reserve major when the army called him to active duty in January 1941. That year, he created a training program for the army’s new Counter-Intelligence Corps and then went on to assist at the army’s infantry and chemical
warfare schools. Transferring to Donovan’s organization in early January 1942, Williams began recruiting and training the first
SO force.

First Thoughts on Training

In establishing the SO training program, Williams drew in part on Britain’s experience in unconventional warfare since 1940. Donovan had visited the training schools SOE and SIS had set up in secluded country estates in Britain. Now he, Williams, and other senior officers inspected a new, secret SOE training camp in Canada located on 275 acres of rolling farmland on the edge of Lake Ontario, 25 miles east of Toronto. SOE’s Camp-X was designed to provide secret agent and saboteur training for Canadians and for some Americans. In early 1942, at least a dozen American instructors for SO, and a few for SI, attended all or part of SOE’s basic four-week course; beginning in April, they were followed by the first of several dozen American recruits who trained there. A typical day for trainees at Camp-X began with a five-mile run and two hours of gymnastics followed by lectures on various topics, such as personal disguise, observation, communications, and field craft. The afternoon might include training with explosives in an open field, practice with small arms at a basement firing range, parachute jumping from a 90-foot jump tower, or crawling under barbed wire while machine guns fired live rounds overhead. In the evening, students might study assignments, go out on night maneuvers, or undergo simulated interrogations by instructors or by one of the German officers from an enemy officer internment camp nearby. The course ended with the field testing of students: finding their way back to the camp after parachuting into a forest 30 miles away or infiltrating a local defense plant.8 Garland Williams also drew on his own experience with the Federal Bureau of Narcotics and the US Army as well as Donovan’s vision for the organization. Williams rejected British- style country estates as inappropriate for training saboteurs and guerrilla leaders who were known to operate from forest and mountain hideouts. The ideal special operations training camp, he wrote, would be “situated in the country and thoroughly isolated from the possible attention of unauthorized persons” with plenty of land, at least several hundred acres, located “well away from any highway or through-roads and preferably far distant from other human habitations.” But it should be within about 50 miles from OSS headquarters in Washington.9 Williams found what he was looking for in two nearby national parks.

The First Sites

Operated by the National Park Service, the two woodland properties, then called Recreational Demonstration Areas, were located in the Catoctin Mountains near Thurmont, Maryland (where the presidential retreat called Shangri-La, now Camp David, would later
be built), and in rolling woodlands in the watershed of Chopawamsic and Quantico Creeks near Quantico, Virginia. Each park comprised more than 9,000 forested acres and contained several, recently built cabin camps. The appeal of Catoctin Mountain Park and what was later called Prince William Forest Park was their secluded yet convenient location; expansive wilderness terrain; existing, rustic accommodations; and the fact that they were already owned by the federal government.

Neither the National Park Service nor the Department of the Interior wanted to turn the parks over to the OSS for paramilitary training camps. The Park Service’s mandate was to conserve the nation’s parks for the public, and its cabin camps there were used for summer recreation by charitable organizations serving needy, urban youths from Baltimore and Washington. But the declaration of war enabled the War Department to declare their use a military necessity, and a reluctant acting secretary of the interior signed an agreement, leasing the properties for the duration, albeit with provisions that the military abide by certain conservation restrictions and restore the parks as much as possible to their prewar condition.

OSS map of training for spies

Between 1942 and 1945, the OSS pretty much did what it wanted in the two national parks. The public was excluded, the park rangers gone, and the park superintendents moved out to the nearest towns. OSS erected obstacle courses, firing ranges, and demolition areas, winterized the facilities, expanded the dinning halls, constructed some classrooms and a few barracks and built armories and munitions magazines. Every SO training camp had a commanding officer and a chief instructor, each with a
separate staff. Groups of trainees began to arrive in closed army trucks to these undisclosed locations. At their peak, Catoctin’s two subcamps could accommodate up to 400 men, including trainees and staff members, and Prince William’s six subcamps could hold 900 men (there were nowomen at the training camps in the parks)

The Stomach-Churning Rough House

Throughout the war, park superintendents made regular visits and informal inspections of the properties, and they did not always like what they saw. Some abandoned farm houses were destroyed during mortar practice and field exercises. Park rules against hunting wildlife and cutting down trees were violated. The Catoctin superintendent complained to the camp commander when trainee/hunters killed a rabbit; he lodged a formal protest when a dozen large trees were cut down; and he expressed dissatisfaction when trainees shot several wild turkeys. Midway through the war, the Prince William superintendent was commissioned an officer at the adjacent Marine Base in Quantico and assigned to supervise control of brush fires there, as
he did in his park. Accompanied by his dog and in his park ranger hat and uniform, the superintendent continued to inspect the park property on weekends. Appalled at the ruthlessness involved in the training of the OSS saboteurs and guerrilla leaders, he later complained of what he called “the stomach-turning roughhouse of the OSS!” Although SOE had considerable influence in the beginning, not only through Camp-X, but by temporarily lending instructors and providing copies of its manuals, lectures, and training materials, as well as the latest explosives and Allied and Axis weapons, OSS eventually went its own way. It never adopted the British model of two entirely separate government agencies for secret intelligence and special operations (SIS and SOE). It rejected the class formality between officers and enlisted men and the rigid military discipline of SOE training camps. By mid-1943 only one British instructor remained with the Americans. The OSS was a most un-military military. With little attention paid to regular army protocol and procedure, OSS training camps fostered a highly informal atmosphere. There were few distinctions between officers and enlisted men and little or no saluting or drill in the manual-of arms or marching in ranks. Emphasis was on individual responsibility and initiative. “I’d rather have a young lieutenant with guts enough to disobey an order than a colonel too regimented to think and act for himself,” Donovan declared.

Special Operations Curriculum

The training program that Garland Williams envisioned in early 1942 consisted of a general curriculum that provided preliminary, basic, and advanced training courses to SO and SI recruits before they prepared for their different types of missions. His training plans provided elasticity and allowed for varying the instruction according to a person’s previous experience, special qualifications, or assignment. Williams believed that the preliminary two-week, “toughing up” course of demanding physical exercise, obstacles, night marches, and tryouts in close combat and weapons skills would weed out the unqualified and help to classify accepted individuals for future instruction and assignment.

Toughening up was to be followed by two weeks of basic SO training drawing on more intellectually demanding skills derived from SOE’s curriculum: identification of targets of opportunity, observation, intelligence gathering, sabotage, and so on. In addition to learning new skills, the students, Williams explained, “will also be physically and mentally conditioned during these two courses for the aggressive and ruthless action which they willbe called upon to perform at later dates.”

After completing the preliminary and basic courses, the student would go on, under Williams’s plan, to either parachute or seaborne infiltration training and then to one of the advanced schools that would be set up for intelligence work, propaganda, sabotage, or guerrilla leadership. Throughout all of the training, the focus was to be on imparting skills, building up the candidate’s physical condition and self-confidence, and developing the student’s individual initiative, personal courage, and resourcefulness. All instruction, Williams emphasized, should be practical, not theoretical. Instructors should keep lectures short, rely more on the “discussion or conference method of instruction” and make good use of “interest-provoking equipment and materials.” Indeed, OSS produced hundreds of training films, several of them by Hollywood director John Ford.16 Classroom instruction, Williams added, should alternate with outdoor demonstrations and practice. As he summarized his pedagogical philosophy: “Whenever possible, the system of instruction will follow the principles of explanation, demonstration, application, and examination.”

Later, the advanced courses would include “schemes”—mock attacks on real targets. Students would be assigned, for example, to place imitation explosives under a nearby railroad bridge or radio tower, or directed to infiltrate a defense plant in Baltimore or Pittsburgh and obtain classified information or leave a dummy explosive charge. Williams continued to stress that the focus was on the individual:

“Constant thought will be given to the building of a high state of morale and a high esprit de corps. However, the military indoctrination will be so handled as to develop to the maximum extent his individual initiative, personal courage and resourcefulness. Emphasis will be constantly placed on the development of this agent as an individual and not as a fighter who is only effective when under close leadership. The guerrilla concept of warfare will be the guiding principle.”

The first classes in basic special operations training began in early April 1942 at Catoctin National Park, which was designated Training Area B for basic OSS training. The first advanced course began a few weeks later in Prince William Forest Park’s western sector, some 5,000 acres, designated Area A for advanced training. At Area B, a dozen instructors taught about two dozen students per course in those early days. The number of instructors and students would grow into the hundreds at the peak use of the camps in the two parks during 1943–44. Because of the drive to produce substantial numbers of SO agents, this basic course lasted two to three weeks.

During the war, the topic titles in the basic special operations curriculum remained roughly the same, but the content would change as a result of new information from overseas. Basic SO training, although initially held at Area B, came to be known as A-4 training because, for most of the war, it was centered at Area A’s subcamp A-4 in Prince William Forest Park. It included such topics as physical conditioning, close combat, weaponry, demolitions, map reading, field craft, Morse code, first aid, as well as intelligence gathering and reporting, and enemy organization and identification. Field problems included night map and compass exercises, reconnaissance and patrol, and simulated sabotage.

Physical conditioning in Special Operations’ courses for members of SO, or SI, MO, or whoever took its paramilitary training, meant not just morning calisthenics but challenging exercises testing limits of stamina and nerve. On a giant, timbered jungle-gym more than 40 feet in the air, at Area B, Catoctin Mountain Park, for example, trainees climbed poles, walked narrow planks and swung from perilous platforms, testing themselves and simulating clambering around bridge or tower beams or repelling down cliffs. They learned how to cross surging streams and rivers on a single rope while gripping two overhead lines for balance. On obstacle courses, they crawled under live machine gun fire and dodged along booby-trapped trails studded with explosive trip wires.

In 1942, William Casey, a future director of central intelligence, but then a young naval officer and trainee in Secret Intelligence, did not crouch down enough on the trail at subcamp B-2. When he accidentally snagged a trip wire, it triggered a block of TNT attached to a nearby tree. The blast sent a chunk of branch hurtling through the air, striking him on the side of the face and breaking his jaw.

Instructors William Fairbairn (left) and Hans Tofte.Because of the OSS emphasis on prowess, self-confidence, and self-reliance on hazardous missions, instruction in close-combat techniques, armed and unarmed, was a major component of the training. Its chief instructor was a William (“Dangerous Dan”) Fairbairn, legendary former head of the British Shanghai riot squad, who had taught for SOE in Britain and Canada and then for OSS from 1942 to 1945. He had fought Chinese street gangs, mastered Asian forms of martial arts, and invented a slim, razor-sharp stiletto for use on sentries. Fairbairn knew a hundred ways to disable or kill an enemy with his hands, his feet, a knife, or any instrument at hand. “Forget about fighting fair,” was Fairbairn’s mantra. “In war, it’s kill or be killed.

Under the direction of Fairbairn and Rex Applegate, a reservist and military police instructor from Oregon, OSS jettisoned standard marksmanship in favor of practical combat shooting. With their pistols, students learned “instinctive fire.” Instead of carefully aiming at fixed “bull’s-eye” targets, OSS trainees jerked into a crouched position and quickly squeezed off two rounds at a time. The idea was to kill or startle an armed enemy before he killed you.

For realistic training and testing, Fairbairn created special, dimly lit structures that he called “pistol houses” or “indoor mystery ranges.” “Under varying degrees of light, darkness and shadows plus the introduction of sound effects, moving objects and various alarming surprises,” he explained, “an opportunity is afforded to test the moral fiber of the student and to develop his courage and capacity for self control.” Students called it a “house of horrors,” and one remembered it this way:

” Each of us over a period of a couple of days would be awakened in the middle of the night and hauled off to carry out a special mission. When it came my time, I was told that there was a Nazi soldier holed up in a building and that it was my job to go in and kill him. I was given a .45 a two clips. The house I was sent into was a log house with long corridors and stairways. I wasn’t sure whether there really was a Nazi soldier there or not. I kicked a door open with my gun at the ready. Paper targets with photographs of uniformed German soldiers jumped out at me from every corner and every window and doorway. We had been taught to always fire two shots at the target. There must have been six targets because I got two bullets in each one. The last one was a dummy sitting in a chair with a lighted cigarette in his hand. If you didn’t shoot him you failed the test.”

For sabotage training, OSS instructors taught students about various forms of explosives, including the new moldable, gelatin-like “plastic” compounds, which were more stable and contained more explosive power than TNT. Trainees learned how to use various kinds of explosives, fuses, and timing devices to destroy railroad tracks, trains, ridges, tunnels, dams, radio towers, supply depots, and ndustrial facilities to impede enemy operations.

In practical field exercises, students practiced escape, evasion and survival techniques, as well as tactical operations. As training progressed, the intensity increased. Lt. John K. Singlaub, SO, then a young UCLA graduate fresh from paratroop school who would soon serve in France, later wrote: By the end of November [1943], our training at Area B…had become a grueling marathon. We fired American, British, and German weapons almost every day. We crawled through rainsoaked oak forests at night to plant live demolition charges on floodlit sheds. We were introduced to clandestine radio procedure and practiced typing out code and encrypting messages in our few spare moments. Many mornings began with a run, followed by a passage on an increasingly sophisticated and dangerous obstacle course. The explosive charges under the rope bridges and wire catwalks no longer exploded to one side as exciting stage effects. Now they blasted directly below, a moment before or after we had passed. “

Training in the “House of Horrors,” with Fairbairn (right) observing the student’s reactions

OSS field training exercises often culminated in mock espionage and sabotage missions. Local bridges and dams were
handy simulated targets for nighttime raiding parties, and nearby industrial facilities offered similar opportunities for practicing reconnaissance and sabotage. Most students succeeded in penetrating the plants, using cover stories and forged documents, but some were nabbed by the police or the FBI. A most embarrassing incident was the capture, “red handed,” of the professional baseball catcher and spy Moe Berg trying to infiltrate a defense plant in Baltimore.


See Part Two of this Article on The Real Spies of the OSS: Training Real Spies for War and Espionage – Other Spy Branches/Other Spy Schools