World War Two was a truly horrific event. After it was all said and done, between 50 and 70 million people were killed, with more than half being women and children. Although it was one of the deadliest wars in human history, It did reveal some of the bravest and most daring among us.
Many belonged to famed units such as the 101st Airborne Division and 3rd Infantry Division, or underground movements like the French Resistance. There were some outfits that enjoyed much less acclaim though, yet were instrumental in the fight against the Axis. The amount of headlines they received or how many books and movies were written about them do not accurately reflect the amount of influence they had on the allied victory.
The Kachin Rangers were among the unheralded indigenous guerrillas that played a decisive role in defeating the Japanese in the China-Burma-India theatre of operation. This theatre received a relatively miniscule amount of attention in comparison to the Pacific and European theatres, but was critical in the fight against the Japanese due to the Burma Road being the only land bridge into China. Due to the dense jungle and mountainous terrain that British and American units had to negotiate in that theatre, they recruited indigenous Kachin guerrillas (that were already vigorously resisting Japanese occupation) to act as scouts, spies, guides, and direct action troops.
The Kachins were first brought into service by the British V-Force in August of 1943, but went on to serve in OSS Detachment 101 (predecessors to the modern day CIA and Army Special Forces), the 5307th Composite Unit (known as Merrill’s Marauders, the predecessors to the modern day 75th Ranger Regiment), and the MARS Task Force.
They were so ruthlessly effective in killing Japanese and gathering intelligence that two of the senior Kachin Rangers had to be flown to the rear to meet with senior commanders. The commanders thought that the Kachins were exaggerating body counts; in response the two Kachin leaders unhooked bamboo tubes from their belts and dumped the contents out. When asked what they had just dumped out, they replied that they were “Japanese ears. Divide by two and that is how many we have killed.”
According to the Kachins, taking the ears of your enemy was the only way to prove your courage in combat.
One OSS officer described them as the “most trigger happy group of armed men I have ever seen.” There efforts were pivotal in defeating the Japanese though, and their grit and determination impressed everyone that worked with them. In one of the final stretches of battle in the theatre, one report credits the Kachins with killing over 1,200 Japanese soldiers.
Their efforts did not go unrecognized by their American counterparts. At the conclusion of combat in the theatre, the Kachin Rangers were awarded captured Japanese sniper rifles and samurai swords. The OSS Detachment 101 was awarded the Presidential Unit Citation, which attributed great credit to the Kachins: “Throughout the offensive, Kachin Rangers were equipped with nothing heavier than mortars. They relied only on air-dropped supplies and by alternating frontal attacks with guerrilla tactics, the Kachin Rangers maintained constant contact with the enemy and persistently cut him down and demoralized him.”
The Goumiers — or Les Goumiers Marocains as they were know by the French — were controversial irregulars recruited from Berber tribes high in the Atlas Mountains of Morocco. They were in use by the French long before the onset of World War Two, and established a reputation for being brutally effective during the French occupation of Morocco.
During the second great war, the Goumiers saw heavy combat in North Africa, Tunisia, Italy, Corsica, Elba, Mainland France, and finally in Germany — most notably, they were the first allied force to step foot on German soil. Their reputation as fierce fighters, excellent night raiders, and expert mountaineers preceded them, striking fear into the hearts of Axis troops. They were right to be afraid too; the Goumier had a penchant for not taking prisoners — often because they took the would-be prisoner’s head clean off with a traditional koumia knife.
According to an article in a 1944 issue of Yank Magazine, “The Germans definitely don’t like the Goums. As for the Italians, they’re scared to death of them. In the Mateur and Bizerte sectors, where the Goums were attached to the Ninth Division, three Italian companies surrendered en masse as soon as they heard that the guys in front of them were Goums.” It didn’t help matters that they looked as intimidating as they actually were. They were known for wearing thick beards, because, according to one of their officers, a man “who hasn’t seen action and has no beard, is no man at all.”
They were incredibly adept at stealth too. One junior officer from the 26th Infantry Regiment, which often fought alongside the Goums, recalled that “one warrior had so successfully camouflaged himself all day in full sight of the Germans that a German officer had wandered over to what he thought was a bush, and had urinated on the motionless head of the Moroccan soldier who bore the trial well, but who marked that particular officer down for special attention that night.”
By the end of the war, the Moroccan Goumier had earned the French Croix de Guerre with bronze palm seventeen times, and the Croix de Guerre with silver gilt star nine times. They would faithfully continue their service after the conclusion of World War Two and into France’s war against the Viet Minh in Indochina. In 1956, after Moroccan independence was achieved, they were assimilated into the regular Moroccan military.
Some units were highly effective in the second world war without ever firing a shot. That was the case for the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops, otherwise known as the Ghost Army. The very existence of the unit remained classified for more than fifty years after the end of the war, and aspects of their work still remain classified to this day.
What exactly did they do? A broad set of missions that are best summed up as tactical deception. This meant employing inflatable tanks, or dressing up as general officers and getting drunk while openly talking about “classified information” (fake, of course) in bars known to be frequented by enemy spies. They also used sonic deception — aka blasting out the pre-recorded sounds of an entire division on the move via loudspeakers.
To execute this mission, they had to attract unconventional critical thinkers that weren’t your typical rank and file. They recruited artists, actors, architects, ad men, set designers, and even radio personalities from the era. In total, there were more than 1,100 soldiers assigned to the 23rd. They deployed to the United Kingdom in May of 1944, where they prepared for one of their first missions: a fake D-Day landing to draw the Nazi’s off guard.
They would go on to land in France two weeks after D-Day, where they dispersed and carried out their charter to cause chaos for the enemy. They obviously weren’t front line troops, but still found themselves within a football’s throw of the front line for some of their missions. Records show that they would execute twenty major “deceptions,” resulting in what some estimate to be tens of thousands of allied lives saved. As of March 2016, legislation has been introduced to award the Ghost Army a Congressional Gold Medal for their pivotal and important work in World War Two. There are only seventeen surviving members of the unit left to receive the recognition.
Thanks to the movie Monuments Men, many people have heard of the special task force that was activated with the mission to secure valuable pieces of artwork that would have otherwise been lost to the war. There was actually another task force that was highly classified at the time, and much more brutal than their art-seeking contemporaries. It was a joint American-British venture called Target Force, or more simply the T-Force.
The unit was established in 1944 with a mission to “identify, secure, guard and exploit valuable and special information, including documents, equipment and persons of value to the Allied armies.” More specifically, they were ordered to secure documents, people, and hardware related to military technology developed by the third reich before they could be used on the Allies, or fall into Soviet hands. This was often accomplished via burglary, kidnapping, and in one case straight up stealing an entire town from the Soviets after the German’s surrendered. As the saying goes, possession is ninety percent of ownership.
The task force was comprised of a few thousand members at its height, many of which were selected for the very unique tasks at hand. They were considered to be lightly armed yet highly mobile, and, according to Ian Cobain of The Guardian, “Their methods had echoes of the Gestapo: kidnapping at night by state officials who offered no evidence of identity.” One document recovered by The Guardian, dated August 1946, said “Usually an NCO arrives without notice at the house or office of the German and warns that he will be required. He does not give him any details of the reasons, nor does he present his credentials. Some time later the German is seized (often in the middle of the night) and removed under guard.”
However morally dubious their methods were, the T-Force was highly effective.
Among their most prized achievements was capturing the Admiral Hipper heavy cruiser (making them the only Allied force to capture a Nazi war ship), and the Walterwerke factory which produced and held the Nazi’s advanced high-speed submarines, V1 rocket launch systems and the engines for the V2 missiles. They also captured Dr. Hellmuth Walter, a pioneer in the areas of rocket engines, jet propulsion, and air-independent propulsion; and Wernher Von Braun, the man who would go on to be responsible for putting America’s first satellite into space, and the first man on the moon.
Even after the war ended, they continued their top secret work going deep behind Soviet lines to abduct the world’s foremost experts on chemical and nuclear warfare (among others). It’s estimated that over 1,500 persons of interest were abducted by T-Force after the end of World War Two. The T-Force was so closely guarded (considered the most secret organization of the time) that their existence wasn’t discovered by the public until 2006. Even Bear Grylls, the former SAS operator-turned-television personality, didn’t know that his grandfather was one of the commanders of the task force. As Julia Draper, the only female attached to T-Force, once said, “T-Force was a very, very strange organisation to be in.”
We may never know everything that transpired during the war that brought about some of the world’s darkest days, but we can be thankful that the unheralded few were willing and able to do what was necessary to achieve victory. Wars — even the second world war — are often not pretty or romantic like so many would like to believe. Hard men and women repeatedly went out into the dismal abyss of worldwide combat, under threat of capture and torture at the hands of the Nazi’s or Japanese, and tipped the scale in favor of the Allies.
As Winston Churchill once famously said, “We shall not flag or fail. We shall go on to the end. We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and the oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.”