No Moon as Witness
Missions of the SOE and OSS in World War II
Casemate, Philadelphia, 2021, 208 pages
Book Review published on: December 9, 2022
Author James Stejskal’s book No Moon as Witness: Missions of the SOE and OSS in World War II explores the effectiveness of the irregular forces of both the United States and the United Kingdom around the period of the Second World War. The author discusses the tactical, operational, and strategic impacts of the Special Operations Executive (SOE) and the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) throughout World War II. This examination requires a description of the methods used to select and train recruits, an account of the successes and failures of the operations, and the long-term effects of supporting and training guerillas after the war concluded.
The use of irregular forces was initially used to do “something” when the Allied conventional forces could not invade Europe. These forces were supposed to set Europe “ablaze”; the reality was that this goal was unrealistic. Conventional leaders of Allied forces had mixed levels of enthusiasm for the special operators and their methods. Many were concerned that irregular forces efforts could work against conventional military goals. The SOE was designed to conduct operations behind enemy lines such as sabotage, subversion, and guerilla warfare. The OSS did all these tasks and added an intelligence-gathering component to these missions, paving the way for the OSS to later morph into the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).
The author explores the process in which people were recruited and screened for the program. The challenge when building an organization from the ground up is that one has to create processes to identify candidates, and then train them to be spies and saboteurs. The book explores the divergent methods that these two organizations used to recruit and train the operatives who were tasked with these missions. These processes changed over time based on what worked, which was often defined on the longevity of the operative and ability to successfully accomplish these missions.
The outcome of the operations was often hit and miss. The author colorfully relates some of the more notorious examples of the most impactful operations. The ability to “set Europe ablaze” on a shoestring budget of trained people and material was overly ambitious. The author identifies a number of excellent examples of successes and failures. These special operators had an outsized effect on the overall war effort. It required a huge number of Axis soldiers to protect critical installations and even more to hunt down and eliminate the operators. The listed Special Operations groups were acknowledged as pivotal in several instances such as the destruction of the heavy water facility in Finland, assisting the French resistance during the invasion of Normandy, partisan activity in the Balkans which tied down hundreds of thousands of German troops, and the successful Burma campaign. The use of these small teams to help organize and supply the partisans with weapons and explosives in both the European and the Indo-Pacific theaters was critical to eventual Allied success.
The second and third order effects of arming and training the resistance forces upon the completion of the war was complicated to visualize. The pressing need at the time was to defeat the Axis. However, many people in the British government were concerned about what would happen after the current war was over. Many of these resistance organizations held a socialist or communist ideology. Arming and training a future enemy were seen as counterproductive by the British Foreign Service. However, the Americans were less concerned about the future. The concern about strategic implications of helping organizations that are not politically aligned with governments the Western leaders preferred was not an idle thought. Postwar Europe and Asia saw the rise of a number of antigovernment guerrilla leaders that had been trained by the SOE and OSS. The most egregious example was Ho Chi Minh, who waged a war in Vietnam that eventually consumed the United States. Another example was the communist guerillas trained by the OSS during World War II who fought against the legitimate Greek government for years.
The book is an engaging, short, and easy read. The work focuses on the genesis of the modern-day Special Forces and CIA. The book illustrates the challenges of recruiting and training a clandestine force to conduct military operations or intelligence gathering missions in support of operational goals. The examples of daring raids and tragic failures help to immerse the reader in the action and danger that people endured in service to the cause. It also discusses the unintended consequences of supporting the “enemy of my enemy,” which the author points out, may not be a friend at war’s end.
Book Review written by: Eric McGraw, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas