Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Took A Long Time: "Special Forces Berlin" by James Stejskal

Took A Long Time: Special Forces Berlin: clandestine Cold War operations of the US Army's elite, 1956-1990, 2017, 9781612004440.

I bought this for the library and it has circ'ed 12 times. That is is decent number for a nonfiction book and I am a little surprised. I went ahead and took the book home after clearing it off the new books shelf. I was expecting stories of derring-do and adventure with details on missions and adventures. Instead we have a straight forward history book. A real history book, too, with thorough endnotes, bib., index, interview details, appendices, and acronym guide.

Stejskal is a fomer member of the super-duper-secret Detachment A in Berlin. The unit was created in the mid-fifties in case of Soviet invasion. They were tasked with preparing unconventional warfare plans so that when the commies invaded the West the unit would help stall the invasion by defending Berlin and sabotaging the enemy advance. If the Soviets were not pushed back the commandos would stay behind enemy lines and work with resisting Germans to attack and harry the enemy.

Detachment A was succeeded in 1984 by PSSE-B. PSSE-B was essentially the same group but the old unit was overhauled because of concerns that the old unit was too well know to the Stasi or KGB. The Army played it safe and shipped out all the Detachment A guys who may have been identified by the enemy and then started all over with new dudes.

The 40 years of work that the soldiers performed was mostly training. Lots of training. Lots and lots of training. Training that required excellent fitness, big brains, toughness, endurance, so on, so forth. They worked with all the super fancy super commandos like the German GSG-9, The US Army's various Special Forces and Airborne people, the British SAS. Exercises and war games in the field could last as long as a month. Intensive boozing would commence after the exercises.

The very demanding job also required a high level of independence and discipline. Since most of the unit's work started as unconventional warfare they lived as spies. They learned how to tail people and throw off tails, communicate with both dead drops and radios, how to case a building, how to plan attacks not as an infantryman with 500 other soldiers but as a group of four people. Unit members lived as local Germans with apartments, only spoke German, grew long hair, and dressed as civilians. Soldiers that screwed up fundamental work could be immediately shipped out.

The German language and cultural requirements were difficult for native U.S. soldiers to carry off. At first the unit was mostly composed of European immigrants to the U.S. even including former Wehrmacht soldiers from WWII. Over time the the unit changed with Vietnam vets and others joining the ranks.

Special Forces operations have never received a lot of support and respect from the regular Army and the Berlin group was no exception. As time went on the unit's mission would change. The unit was assigned unrelated duties that took up a lot of time. They were tasked with training local U.S. Army infantry and German army and police. Assessing security at different installations around the world.

1970s terrorism had the unit constantly training for counter-terrorism work. That kind of work takes a lot of training and time to be proficient. Once a team is proficient they need to repeatedly drill to stay sharp on their skills. The unit ended up with a split focus on terrorism and unconventional warfare without enough people to do both as well as they wanted.

I presume the unit also carried out missions during this time that are still classified. One important mission that came to light was the advance reconnaissance for the Iranian rescue operation in 1980, Operation Eagle Claw.  A recap for those (like me) who could not remember the story: the military planned a rescue operation for the 53 staff and diplomats captured after the Iranian takeover of the US Embassy in Tehran. The plan was to fly in planes and helicopters to the Iranian desert, refuel the aircraft, fly to another location to land, attack two separate locations in Tehran, and evacuate the hostages and soldiers from a local airfield.

Well, the whole thing did not work out when a helicopter ran into a airplane after refueling in the desert. The collision led to a massive fire, the death of eight people, and abandoning the mission. There was a lot of work to get the whole operation planned, managed, and organized with multiple aircraft over long distances and having multiple military units work together. The advance reconnaissance by Detachment A was a thorough success.  Detachment A soldiers were already skilled in fitting in as civilians and acting as spies. The two men (maybe it was three, I don't recall exactly) sent to Tehran took on German identities and spent several weeks in Iran checking out the hostage locations, roads in and out, procuring vehicles and safe houses, scouting landing sites, so on, so forth. They were never spotted by the Iranians and after the mission's collapse and even stayed in the country so a while to avoid suspicion of leaving immediately after the failed attack.

1. Gun nerd love with the Walther MPK and other weapons.
2. I had forgotten that soldiers were allowed into East Berlin and Germany as part of the treaty from WWII. The US had a facility in East Germany and the Soviets and East Germans would play dirty tricks to keep the soldiers from freely driving around.

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