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1917: Special Operations Begin

The nature of war changed a century ago. At the height of World War I, as massive battles of annihilation brought the armies of Europe to the brink of exhaustion, mobility was returned to the battlefield. The Germans demonstrated the use of infiltration tactics in conjunction with intensive artillery bombardment at the taking of Riga in 1917. The British and French made extensive use of tanks first introduced the year before. At Cambrai, in November 1917, massed British tanks broke through the German trenches, showing their potential to revolutionize the battlefield even though the terrain gained was lost to a German counterattack using infiltration tactics.

The special operations of 1917 were concentrated in the Middle East theaters of the war.

These massive battles and momentous changes overshadowed another significant event: the emergence of modern special operations and the personnel that carry them out. The “special operators,” appeared in 1917, building on the costly “learning curve” of three years adapting to the harsh realities of twentieth century warfare. The special operations of 1917 were concentrated in the Middle East theaters of the war. The nature of the war there was more open to special operations than was the western front, with its continuous line of trenches from Switzerland to the North Sea. World War I in the Middle East was a war of envelopment and open flanks, while the western front was the materialschlacht, a war of massed divisions and mass casualties.

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Col. Thomas Edward Lawrence in his iconic Arab robes. Library of Congress photo

The war in the Middle East could not be fought the same way as the western front. There were never enough Allied troops available to overwhelm the Ottoman Empire through weight of numbers. There was no way the huge armies and massive artillery concentrations of the western front could be supplied in the Middle East, across deserts and maritime supply routes threatened by unrestricted submarine warfare. The Allies, then, had to do things differently if they were going to prevail against the Ottoman Empire, an opponent that had proven tough and resilient, capable of repulsing Allied offensives in the Caucasus, Mesopotamia and, most dramatically, the Gallipoli peninsula.

LAWRENCE AND THE ARABS

British Army Capt. Thomas Edward Lawrence has gone down in history as Lawrence of Arabia, a larger-than-life figure that has endured in the popular imagination through movies and his own mystique, fed by apress hungry for photogenic heroes to feed the new technology of the newsreels. He was not a regular soldier, but had been an archaeologist. He spoke Arabic and was familiar with Arab life and culture through his studies and prewar travels in the region.

In 1917, however, Lawrence was neither primarily a scout, a spy, political operator nor agitator – these had all been familiar in the history of war for centuries – but something new, a special warfare operator. He used his capabilities to grow and sustain the Arab Revolt in ways that resonated with that culture while retaining the confidence of the British high command. His success in special operations in 1917 and his writings about them have provided a model that still remains valuable today.

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Arab cavalry were the main offensive force of the Arab Revolt. Library of Congress photo

In 1917, the Middle East was in a state of political turmoil. While many Arabs were pro-Ottoman, others chafed under their centuries-old colonial rule. The British realized that the Arabs could be potentially decisive if they were rallied to the Allied cause. Hussein bin Ali, Sharif of Mecca was promised independence. British officers had been working with the Arabs since 1915. A veteran political officer and experienced Arabist, Capt. William Shakespear, had been killed in inter-Arab fighting in 1915. France also sent officers, including Arabic-speaking Algerians.

Lawrence was sent to Sharif when he mustered some 1,000 irregulars. He was not to take command or train them as British auxiliary forces, as a military mission under Lt. Col Pierce Joyce had already been dispatched. Their objectives included organizing and training an Arab Army on the British model. Rather, Lawrence was to serve as an accelerant for what the Arabs increasingly perceived as a war of national liberation. His great success was to direct Arab military operations, leading to the taking of the Ottoman port of Aqaba (in present-day Jordan) in an attack from the desert on July 6, 1917.

At the height of the Arab offensive against Ottoman lines of communication, in August-December 1917, they launched 50 attacks and inflicted considerable damage, including destroying 15 bridges.

The fall of Aqaba, an Arab military victory against the Ottomans, raised support for the war among Arab populations. It also put the British in position to outflank the Turkish defensive lines, running inland from the Mediterranean at Gaza, and the Arabs in position to strike at the rail line supplying Ottoman forces along the Arabian Red Sea coast.

Lawrence directed and planned (following orders from the British chain of command) but the Arabs executed their 1917 campaign. At the height of the Arab offensive against Ottoman lines of communication, in August-December 1917, they launched 50 attacks and inflicted considerable damage, including destroying 15 bridges. Hundreds of telegraph poles were destroyed, forcing the Ottomans to use couriers (ambushed by the Arabs) or wireless (intercepted and decrypted by the British). The Ottomans, their forces stretched thin, did not try to wage a counter-insurgency campaign, and instead just garrisoned the lines of communication and repaired the damage of the Arab attacks.

turkish infantry column

Turks of the Ottoman infantry, 1917. While the ethnic Turkish soldiers remained tough fighters despite a tenuous supply line, many Arab conscripts were wavering in their loyalty. Library of Congress photo

After Aqaba, Lawrence’s high-level access to both British and Arab leadership – along with his undoubted charisma that was to turn him into a legendary figure led to him overshadowing the other British special operators enabling the Arab offensive. Capt. Henry Hornsby of the Royal Engineers was one of several demolition specialists. Lt. Col.Stewart Francis Newcombe was a Royal Engineers officer. He had been on archeological expeditions with Lawrence pre-war and was his commanding officer in 1915 as an intelligence officer in Cairo. Newcombe was one of a number of British officers who took part in attacks against Ottoman lines of communications. He was captured in November 1917 but subsequently escaped.

Lawrence himself envisioned follow-on operations, including deep penetration raids into southern Syria, where the authoritarian Ottoman governor had imposed a repressive regime. Lawrence aimed to both strike the railroads and mobilize the Arab population and use them to flank the Ottoman position in Palestine. He had made a perilous long-range reconnaissance over the route in the weeks before the taking of Aqaba. But execution of his plan would have to wait for 1918. In 1917 Lawrence and a small group of other British officers had, by working with the Arabs, won a major battlefield success and enabled an insurgency. This has been a model for special operations forces of many nations ever since.

LEACHMAN IN MESOPOTAMIA

British Army Lt. Col. Gerard Leachman, unlike Lawrence, was a professional soldier. Trained as an intelligence officer, he was a combat veteran of the Boer War. But he had spent the years before 1914 trekking across the Middle East and, even more than Lawrence, possessed excellent language and cultural skills.

Leachman had played a vital part in the British campaign in Mesopotamia (present-day Iraq) as an intelligence officer and a political officer. He transitioned to a special operator in 1916-17 as he took on long-range reconnaissance missions, using tribal loyalties to mobilize Arabs he led against the Ottomans and their Arab allies. Rather than attack Ottoman communications, he tapped telegraph lines to collect intelligence. He spent much of 1917 based at Najaf, cooperating with the local sheikh, Farhad Bey, who provided fighting men. Leachman worked to keep the loyalty of the Shia population, which was concerned that a British victory would mean Sunni rule from Baghdad.

rolls-royce armored car

Although born out of the fighting on the Western Front, the Rolls-Royce Armoured Car (1914 Pattern) would distinguish itself in Africa and the Middle East. SDASM archive

Capt. George M. Goldsmith deployed to the Caucasus front in November 1917, ordered to organize local forces for a campaign similar to Lawrence. However, the collapse of the Russian Army after the 1917 revolution resulted in an Ottoman advance, forcing him to use his supply of explosives on demolitions before evacuating.

SPEARHEAD UNITS

1917 saw the increased use of specially trained and equipped units for the direct attack mission. This remains an important special operations capability, especially in forced entry situations. But rather than targeting airfields, ports, or weapons stockpiles, in 1917 it meant creating a breach in enemy trench lines that follow-on forces could expand.

By 1917, there were specialized German Stosstruppen (thrust troops) and French battalions de choc (shock battalions) spearheading attacks and demonstrating tactical innovation and equipment – the Germans were the first to use flamethrowers and submachine guns – that could be adapted to line units.

These units had their origins in 1915, when Europe’s armies first started to look for a way to penetrate entrenched enemy defenses. Made up of motivated and trained volunteers, they were able use tactics beyond those of line infantry units – infiltration, going around enemy strongpoints, especially those with machine guns. They were not expected to hold sectors of trenches, but between attacks were pulled out of the line for training. By 1917, there were specialized German Stosstruppen (thrust troops) and French battalions de choc (shock battalions) spearheading attacks and demonstrating tactical innovation and equipment – the Germans were the first to use flamethrowers and submachine guns – that could be adapted to line units.

Ottoman assault battalions, formed in 1917, are the direct predecessors of current Turkish special operations forces units. These were specialists for the direct attack mission. Italy emphasized their Arditi battalions. Close combat in trenches, with grenades and knives, was the Arditi specialty, compensating for Italy’s lack of heavy artillery and tanks. The Arditi were reinforced after Italy’s 1917 defeat at Caparetto (where small units of Stosstruppen were used effectively against larger Italian formations) as a way to revive their army’s offensive capabilities.

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Lt. Italo Balbo, commander, Arditi Company of the Battalion “Pieve di Cadore,” 7th Alpini Regiment, returning from a patrol. Balbo later gained fame as an air power advocate.

Erwin Rommel was only a company commander in 1917, but at Caparetto he did not have the massed firepower of the western front to destabilize Italian defenses, as he had earlier done against the Romanian army. Rather, he led a small force using tactics that emphasized what he later identified as relentless pursuit, surprise, protection through movement, speed of attack and the demoralizing and destabilizing effects inflicted upon a numerically superior enemy. Demonstrating that a well-trained and led force with effective tactics could take the offensive and succeed despite the defensive power of the machine gun and artillery shaped the tactics employed by future infantry and mechanized combined arms (especially by Rommel) as well as special operations.

RAIDS AND RECONNAISSANCE

Raiding was widespread in 1917, especially on the western front. Trench raids could be held in daylight and by multi-battalion forces, but were more commonly carried out at night by a small force from line battalions, usually with the objectives of taking prisoners for intelligence purposes, disrupting the enemy unit opposite them in the trenches, and keeping up an offensive spirit even in quiet sectors. The first three U.S. Army infantrymen to be killed in action in the war, on the night of Nov. 2,1917, were casualties of just such a trench raid, organized to welcome the Americans to their “quiet” sector of the western front.

Reconnaissance missions by infantry and cavalry units were carried out much as they had been for centuries, even as other sources of intelligence were developed such as air reconnaissance and signals intelligence. Scout platoons in infantry battalions were specialists in night patrolling in no man’s land between the trench lines. While cavalry patrols were non-survivable on the western front, covert observation posts were potentially valuable in static warfare. In 1916, the British had formed the Lovat Scout Sharpshooters from Highland gamekeepers and hunters. Originally intended as snipers, in 1917 they deployed nine specialist corps-level scout platoons.

In the Middle East, in 1917, armies still relied on skilled scouts on horseback (or camel) to report back information on trafficability and the capacity of water holes to sustain large units, intelligence that could not be found out any other way. British cavalry and mounted brigades had 30-man scout troops. In November 1917, the Desert Mounted Corps formed a 300-strong scout force from its best riders. British and Australian scout cars had been in-theater since 1915 and were increasingly used in late 1917.

SPECIAL OPERATIONS AVIATION

Special operations aviation became operationally significant in 1917. The rapid improvement in airplane technology meant that they could now carry out missions that only a few years ago had been in the realm of science fiction.

Air communications allowed Lawrence to coordinate the Arab offensive with British headquarters in Egypt. Establishing and employing close cooperation using aircraft was one of many innovations that made Lawrence a modern special operator.

Aviation support of Lawrence and the Arab Revolt linked the British to the Arab offensive against Ottoman communications. Sharif’s forces had received their first air capability in 1916 – C Flight of 14 Squadron, Royal Flying Corps (RFC) based in the Hejaz (current Saudi Arabia). Air reconnaissance information had made it possible for the Arabs to bypass Turkish strongpoints and take Aqaba.

Soon after, X Flight of 14 Squadron deployed from Egypt and started operations from there (and other desert landing grounds) with their two-seater BE 2Cs (later replaced by the more effective RE 8). Air communications allowed Lawrence to coordinate the Arab offensive with British headquarters in Egypt. Establishing and employing close cooperation using aircraft was one of many innovations that made Lawrence a modern special operator.

T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) often traveled in the back seat of British F.2B ghters in 1917-18 to coordinate with the British command. He continued the practice after the armistice, when this picture was taken.

T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) often traveled in the back seat of British F.2B ghters in 1917-18 to coordinate with the British command. He continued the practice after the armistice, when this picture was taken.

On the western front, the primary mission of special operations aviation was the insertion of intelligence operatives. Starting in 1915, this was originally accomplished by landing behind enemy lines, but this mission soon shifted to the use of parachutes (which Allied pilots themselves would not get until after the war).

In 1916, Britain’s Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) had sent on operations the SS.40, a special operations stealth blimp. With a black hydrogen-filled envelope, it would climb to altitude and cut its muffled engine, silently floating over enemy lines on moonless nights, insert its agents, then restart its engine to return by an evasive route. The blimp did not work out.

In 1915, Royal Navy Lt. Guy D’Oyly Hughes swam ashore from a surfaced British submarine to successfully plant demolition charges on a railroad bridge in Turkey. In the Middle East, intelligence agents were inserted and extracted by ship. But by 1917, submarines, mines and aircraft made a traditional raid launched from surface warships hazardous.

In its place, in 1917, Lt. Jack Woodhouse, RFC, a pre-war motorcycle-racing champion, commanded a specialist flight carrying out insertion missions. By the end of the year, modified Bristol F.2B two-seat fighters were being used for the parachute drops. The arrival of the F.2B in the Middle East in 1917 allowed them to support special operations there. Larger aircraft provided more range and capability, and the Italians used their Caproni heavy bombers for these missions.

NAVAL SPECIAL OPERATIONS

Seaborne raids and direct action attacks on coastal targets have taken place for centuries. In 1915, Royal Navy Lt. Guy D’Oyly Hughes swam ashore from a surfaced British submarine to successfully plant demolition charges on a railroad bridge in Turkey. In the Middle East, intelligence agents were inserted and extracted by ship. But by 1917, submarines, mines and aircraft made a traditional raid launched from surface warships hazardous. The need to attack German naval bases on the North Sea coast and Austro-Hungarian naval bases on the Adriatic led to planning for special operations.

The sinking of the Austro- Hungarian battleship SMS Szent István on June 10, 1918, after being torpedoed by Italian navy Lt. Luigi Rizzo.

The sinking of the Austro- Hungarian battleship SMS Szent István on June 10, 1918, after being torpedoed by Italian navy Lt. Luigi Rizzo.

The Italians launched research and development programs to develop a way to attack warships in defended bases. Lt. Angelo Belloni enabled submarines to penetrate the boom defenses at Pola with the aid of swimmers using wetsuits and respirators that he developed. The Grillo(Cricket) was a slow, quiet, electric-powered flat-bottomed boat armed with two torpedoes. Two hook-studded, engine-driven chains mounted on either side of the hull allowed the Grillo to approach boom defenses quietly and clamber over them.

On the night of Dec. 9-10, 1917, Rizzo led two MAS boats into Trieste and torpedoed and sank the Austro-Hungarian coastal defense ship Wien before escaping.

But neither approach was ready by the end of 1917. Instead, Italian Navy Lt. Luigi Rizzo, on the night of October 13-14, penetrated the defenses of Trieste in his MAS (motor torpedo boat). Two nights later, after Rizzo reported back he had found the base’s vulnerability, his commanding officer, Rear Adm. Paolo Thaon di Revel, made a personal command reconnaissance of Trieste’s boom defenses in a boat powered by a silent electric motor. On the night of Dec. 9-10, 1917, Rizzo led two MAS boats into Trieste and torpedoed and sank the Austro-Hungarian coastal defense ship Wien before escaping.

100 YEARS AGO

The emergence of special operations 100 years ago largely represented a bottom-up process of learning adaptation and innovation by fighting men – usually a mix of professionals and combat-experienced wartime amateurs – looking to accomplish their missions while avoiding more of the indecisive but bloody battles that had dominated the previous years of the war. These innovators were the forerunners not only of today’s special operators but modern infantry, intelligence and civil affairs soldiers.

No staff college had taught about the proper use of special operations and how it might be integrated into operational and strategic level planning. Tension between the objectives of the men at the sharp end – to win on the battlefield – and those of higher levels were always present.Lawrence rallied the Arabs to fight for self-determination at the same time high-level representatives of the British and French government were deciding how best to divide the Arabs up between their respective empires.

Widespread use of tactics pioneered by the Stosstruppen enabled the Germans to launch powerful offensives that brought them close to battlefield victory. Lawrence’s expanded forces included wheeled armored vehicles and self-propelled artillery as well as Arab cavalry.

Building on the results of 1917, 1918 saw an even more extensive use of special operations. Widespread use of tactics pioneered by the Stosstruppen enabled the Germans to launch powerful offensives that brought them close to battlefield victory. Lawrence’s expanded forces included wheeled armored vehicles and self-propelled artillery as well as Arab cavalry.

Like Lawrence – whom he considered a publicity-hungry amateur too eager to lobby on behalf of Sunni Arabs – in 1918 Leachman traveled by air and also used wheeled armored fighting vehicles for reconnaissance and direct attack. “Leachman’s LAMBs” (light armor motor brigade) was a multinational force. Its intelligence officers included U.S. Army Capt. Kermit Roosevelt, a big-game hunter and son of the former president. At the war’s end, Leachman was responsible for restoring order in the bitterly divided city of Mosul.

At sea, the British executed the largest and most dramatic special operation of the war, the raid on Zeebrugge, in April 1918. Lt. Rizzo and his MAS boats sank a second Austro-Hungarian capital ship, the battleship Szent István, in June 1918.

When the war ended, the capabilities of special operations forces were forgotten. So too were many of the special operators. Lawrence, incensed at Britain’s betrayal of his Arab comrades, resigned his commission, rejoined as an enlisted man and died in a motorcycle accident in 1935.Lawrence’s book, Seven Pillars of Wisdom, is today recognized as a classic work. Leachman stayed on in Iraq. He was killed in an insurgent ambush in Fallujah in 1920. Rommel also wrote a book, translated into English as Infantry Attacks. The German commander in North Africa and Normandy in World War II, he committed suicide when accused ofcomplicity in the plot to assassinate Hitler. Rizzo, though hailed as a national hero and nicknamed “The Sinker, did not rise far under Italy’s Fascist leadership (neither did his admiral). Many of the hard-won lessons of 1917 had to be learned again in World War II.

This article first appeared in The Year in Special Operations: 2017 Edition.