Military operations in the 1990s and into the new century have highlighted the increased importance of the seizure or neutralization of High Value Targets (HVTs), that is to say, current military jargon for politically significant personalities. Portrayed in the book and movie Blackhawk Down, the ill-fated Task Force Ranger operations in Mogadishu are the most symbolic of the problems associated with HVT seizure missions. Less well known are the numerous unsuccessful attempts by NATO-led Special Forces to apprehend Bosnian Serb leaders. Since 2001, the hunt for Al Qaeda senior leadership, particularly Osama bin Laden, continues to occupy significant intelligence and Special Operations resources. Units from the American Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) remain on call in and around Afghanistan, prepared to conduct direct action missions in the event of an intelligence ‘hit.’ In Iraq, the successful elimination of Uday and Qusay Hussein, as well as the seizure of Saddam Hussein and most of the Iraqi personnel involved in weapons of mass destruction programmes, continues to focus the ongoing interest in HVT seizure.
The stakes are high on these politically sensitive operations. When the target is not apprehended, the media will decree the mission to be a failure, which, in turn, adds to the arsenal of influence wielded by the target, not only within his organization, but also in the international arena. The frequently resultant, simplistic ‘Monday morning quarterbacking,’ however, completely overlooks the complex tactical and political decision making problems associated with HVT neutralization. This, of course, will not surprise military commentators and operators. Nor should it surprise students of military history. Two new books dealing with HVT neutralization during the Second World War should provide us some food for thought. Both Denis Rigden’s Kill the Führer: Section X and Operation Foxley, and Michael Asher’s Get Rommel: The Secret British Mission to Kill Hitler’s Greatest General, examine the operational and political problems associated with these types of operations.
Fundamentally, former diplomat Denis Rigden’s Kill the Führer is a compendium of new information on Section X, the German section of the Special Operations Executive (SOE), as opposed to a coherent discussion or argument on HVT neutralization missions. Two-thirds of the book deals with Section X’s involvement in Operation Foxley, the planning process for the assassination of Adolph Hitler, and Foxley II, the assassination of lesser devils in Hitler’s own Axis of Evil. The balance of the book explores Section X’s role in SOE’s other sabotage and black propaganda activities inside the Third Reich. This information is of particular interest to those examining information operations today. It is clear that the author has accessed new primary material on SOE, which enhances the stature of what would otherwise be, or could have been, a sensationalist account.
In the operational realm, Kill the Fuhrer shows us the level of detail that SOE was able to accrue on Hitler’s retreat at Berchtesgaden, its environs and its inhabitants. Foxley planning centred around two specific locations where Hitler could have been shot, while he was conducting his daily constitutional walks. A back-up plan involved a bazooka attack on his vehicle while it was situated within the confines of the Berchestgarten estate. Other plans included the use of an infiltrator-delivered poison to the water tanks of the Führerzug (Hitler’s special train), or a sabotage attack against the train while it was passing through a tunnel.
Operationally, there were numerous complications involved in mounting Foxley. The main issue was the lack of predictability of the target being in location at Berchtesgaden, or at any other specific site. The second issue involved finding appropriate personnel who would accept the suicidal nature of the assignment. The extensive and robust air raid shelter and air defence systems, both active and passive, significantly reduced the possibility of success when it came to plans for saturation bombing by the RAF. Indeed, to guarantee success, SOE crafted a plan to drop an airborne battalion onto the Berchtesgarten estate, with a dedicated Special Air Service (SAS) ‘kill team’ embedded to eliminate the human targets.
Kill the Fuhrer moves beyond the extreme yet interesting operational details to examine the potential fallout from such an assassination. The aftermath of SOE’s Heydrich assassination in Prague in 1942, in which over 3000 people were murdered in retaliation, was a significant potentially deterring factor in these discussions. Surprisingly, however, the author reveals that the main reasons for not carrying out Foxley involved the belief by higher authorities in Great Britain, most probably influenced by the Combined Chiefs of Staff, that Hitler’s constant interference in the conduct of the war effort was, in turn, advantageous to the Allied war effort, and that his removal might, in fact, make German prosecution of the war more efficient. The historical implications of this argument, however, would require a separate book.
Former SAS member Michael Asher’s Get Rommel is a revisionist (in the best sense) account of early British special operations in the Middle East during the Second World War. Asher, the man who debunked the ‘Bravo Two Zero’ story in his work The Real Bravo Two Zero, applies similar tools to analyze the ill-fated raid to assassinate German General Erwin Rommel in Libya in 1941. Asher looks at the personalities and class backgrounds of those inexperienced and ambitious British officers, who stumbled through Crete, Lebanon and the Western Desert. And he exposes several cases of careerism, which compromised operational efficiency and also resulted in needless deaths. These leaders developed plans to eliminate Rommel in a daring deep raid.
There are many pearls embedded in this book. We learn, for example, that the raid on Rommel’s supposed headquarters was one of several special operations planned to distract and harass German and Italian forces prior to the Operation Crusader offensive. However, the raid on Rommel has generally been portrayed as a singular event with no strategic context. Operation Flipper, as it was called, was, in fact, a joint operation involving the Royal Navy: the force was landed from two British submarines. The problems associated with joint special operations coordination provide classic examples of lessons learned which will apply today. Asher delves into what he calls the “creation myths” of the Special Air Service, and he compares the cultures and capabilities of the various, and, at times, competing, British special operations forces stationed in the Middle East. I tend to agree with his assessment that the most professional of the bunch was the New Zealand-dominated Long Range Desert Group.
Asher practically dismembers every aspect of the raid on Rommel. Despite the fact that high value target neutralization was a new concept, Asher exposes how personal ambition, poor planning, class arrogance and sheer ‘bloodymindedness’ was a perscription for disaster. Tactical aspects of the raid, such as movement to the target, close target reconnaissance and the like were practically non- existent, or, at the very least, not systematic. There was no established doctrine for such a mission in 1941. Clearly, the raid did not achieve its objectives. Raid planners did not understand that Rommel led from the front, usually in his armoured halftrack, and he was not bound to a static, rear headquarters. Indeed, Asher correctly points out that strategic signals intelligence, in this case, ULTRA decrypts provided by interception of the German Enigma cipher system, indicated that Rommel was in Italy when the raid was mounted. The results suggest that this was either a case study in poor intelligence fusion, or, more ominously, that the Operation Flipper force was deliberately sacrificed, perhaps even to get its ambitious field leader ‘off the backs’ of the staff in Cairo, and/or to sow confusion in the Axis rear area.
Taken together, both Kill the Fuhrer and Get Rommel provide fascinating case studies in the complexity of special operations forces’ high value target neutralization missions. The authors have done well to remind us that there is no ‘silver bullet,’ and that these missions will always be in high-risk territory, both operationally and politically. Guile and prudence should be close friends, and not antagonists, with respect to these forms of operations.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Military Journal
-Sean M. Maloney, PhD