Detachment A: the Cold War Sabotage Experts of Special Forces

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Article by Jack Murphy from NEWSREP

27 April 2016

Imagine American Special Forces soldiers traveling around Baghdad in civilian vehicles, speaking the local language, carrying false passports, and operating under a cover as they case targets and dodge foreign intelligence agents. Today, such a thing is an impossibility, a much sought after capability that Special Forces has been unable to attain in recent years. Yet, this is exactly what Green Berets did in Germany during the Cold War as a part of small unit known as Detachment A.

Nearly lost the history books, Det A members lived off of the local economy and worked out of Andrews Barracks, as well as safe houses in and around Berlin. Coming into existence in the 1950’s, their primary responsibility was to be a stay-behind force in the event that the Soviet Union invaded Western Europe. Once the Soviet Army had invaded, these Green Berets would then activate, launching an unconventional war behind enemy lines before escaping and evading their way back to friendly lines.

A big part of what made this mission possible was the Alien Enlistee Act of 1950, sponsored by Henry Cabot Lodge. The idea behind the so-called Lodge Act was to create a sort of American foreign legion, the ultimate Unconventional Warfare unit made up of men who defected from the USSR and its satellite states.

With their in-depth knowledge of enemy nations and foreign language capabilities, they could be trained in Infantry and Ranger tactics before having their skills polished with instruction in sabotage and other forms of Unconventional Warfare. “I felt like I was in a foreign Army,” Bob Charest, a former member of Det A said upon realizing that there were almost more German names in the unit than American ones.

Traveling on Berlin’s bus system, Det A members avoided East German and Soviet intelligence officers as they cased targets that they would strike in the event of a Soviet invasion. One of their main targets was the ring of rail road tracks that circled Berlin. One technique they developed was to use explosives camouflaged as blocks of coal. Once shoveled into the engine of a locomotive by an unsuspecting train engineer, both would be blown sky high.

The mission of Det A changed with the times, its members adapting to the shifting geo-politics of the Cold War. By the mid-1970’s, Det A began working closely with Germany’s GSG-9 counter-terrorism police unit. For the Green Berets, their main concern was terrorists hijacking an American registered aircraft in Berlin. Transitioning from the unconventional warfare mission to direct action, they trained extensively to conduct aircraft take downs. “We developed plans that the pilots never even knew how to get into that aircraft,” Charest added.

From maintaining CIA caches filled with arms and supplies, to developing plans to target Soviet infrastructure, execute aircraft take downs, recover downed pilots, and more, the men of Detachment A conducted the quintessential Special Forces mission which encompassed direct action, unconventional warfare, intelligence gathering, and reconnaissance behind enemy lines.

Modern Special Forces soldiers would be well served by studying the past successes of a unit like Det A. Their mission was so effective that at the end of the Cold War it was discovered that the Soviets believed there to be 600-700 Det A members in Berlin ready to engage in guerrilla warfare. The joke was on them of course, Det A never numbered above 90 men at any given time.

Jack Murphy is an eight year Army Special Operations veteran who served as a Sniper and Team Leader in 3rd Ranger Battalion and as a Senior Weapons Sergeant on a Military Free Fall team in 5th Special Forces Group. Having left the military in 2010, he graduated from Columbia with a BA in political science. Murphy is the author of Reflexive Fire, Target Deck, Direct Action, and numerous non-fiction articles about Weapons, Tactics, Special Operations, Terrorism, and Counter-Terrorism. He has appeared in documentaries, national television, and syndicated radio.