Special Forces Berlin
Clandestine Cold War Operations of the U.S. Army’s Elite, 1956-1990
Casemate, Philadelphia, 2020, 336 pages
Book Review published on: August 7, 2020
The Cold War work of Special Forces (minus the Vietnam era) is a forgotten chapter in the history of the U.S. Army. This is a pity, since the origins of Special Forces has its roots on the premise that the people living under communist oppression yearned to be liberated but lacked the means and the opportunity. In the event of war between the Free World and communism, and, presumably, the relaxation of the police state, the oppressed peoples had at last have the opportunity to rebel. U.S. Army Special Forces provided the means, giving the freedom fighters weapons and expertise to liberate themselves. It was a profoundly Cold War solution to a Cold War problem.
In Special Forces Berlin: Clandestine Cold War Operations of the U.S. Army’s Elite, 1956-1990, author James Stejskal starts out with a short discussion of what was termed unconventional warfare and its role in Cold War planning. Because of West Berlin’s location, in the heart of East Germany and the Soviet army group stationed there, the Special Forces detachment stationed in the city sought to commit sabotage and then make contact with dissident groups in the east.
In order to keep its presence in Berlin secret, the detachment was ostensibly a training unit dealing with security. In fact, much of the training the detachment did revolved around infiltrating the communist zone, something that became more and more difficult as time went by for obvious reasons. Later, the detachment became involved in counterterrorism, learning the skills and tactics necessary to rescue hostages, especially those in hijacked aircraft. In turn, it imparted some of its specialized training to West Germany’s units that were responsible for combating the terrorist scourge of the Baader-Meinhof Gang and its successor, the Rote Armee Fraktion. On top of this, the detachment often went out as part of the United States Military Liaison Mission, a World War II holdover in which major Allied powers were permitted to have soldiers operating behind the lines of their “fraternal nations.” In Cold War terms, the agreement allowing the military missions resulted in U.S., French, and British observers to drive around East Germany with few restrictions, while the Soviets did the same in the Federal Republic.
As an insider, Stejskal knew of the ups and downs of the Special Forces detachment (much of it because of the Special Forces commanders but also due to the Berlin Brigade leadership). He makes it clear how important leadership was to this type of unit, operating as it did “undercover” and unable to accept the accolades it deserved. Indeed, the foundational mission of Special Forces requires it to provide not just weapons and the training to use them but, when necessary, leadership of guerrilla forces.
The Berlin Brigade commander was often like many conventionally minded officers and saw little utility in the idea of unconventional warfare. In his mind, victory laid not with the Special Forces types and their long hair and “native” clothes but in maneuver forces with superior firepower. Yet the Special Forces detachment had the theoretical ability to raise bands of partisans that would harass and bedevil the communist steamroller, causing logistics problems and requiring units to be pulled from the frontlines to combat the threat posed by freedom fighters. The Free World’s conventional capability was indeed formidable but outnumbered, and as Joseph Stalin is known to have said, “Quantity has a quality all its own.” The dismissive attitude in Berlin for the detachment was all the more remarkable considering that the enclave of West Berlin had zero chance of surviving the massive numbers of Soviets earmarked for its capture.
This very readable book on this unit and its role in the Cold War is, in my mind, an important addition to the history of American guerrilla warfare, a topic not particularly embraced by the U.S. Army. The American Revolution saw the Swamp Fox bedevil the British in South Carolina; the Civil War saw bushwhackers force the Union army to evict the civilian residents of two Missouri counties; and World War II saw Army survivors of the surrender to Japan lead Philippine scouts until the return of Gen. Douglas MacArthur.
Guerrilla warfare does not fit into a “cookie-cutter” approach like the one used by most of the U.S. Army. An infantryman, produced by the Army’s training system, is usually interchangeable with any other infantryman in any other infantry platoon as part of an infantry company. To produce guerilla leaders, it does not take just weapons training and other military skills but the personality to lead men, many of whom initially do not want to be led. You get this from reading Special Forces Berlin.
Book Review written by: James D. Crabtree, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas