Special Forces

Photograph of Alamo Scouts

U.S. Army

Special forces are elite military forces that are trained for high-risk, high-payoff missions. They are almost always composed of handpicked volunteers and their elite status is an important part of their esprit de corps. Allied special forces included the Marine Raider battalions; the U.S. Army Ranger battalions and their British counterparts, the Commandos; the Special Service Force; the Alamo Scouts; the Alaska Scouts; the U.S. Navy Underwater Demolition Teams; and the British-Indian Chindits and their American counterpart, Merrill's Marauders. Some authorities include paratroops with special forces.

The raising and employment of special forces was military high-stakes gambling. Most of the men selected for these units would have made excellent commissioned or noncommissioned officers in conventional formations, and such men are always in short supply. Special forces were usually also lavishly equipped and the cost of their training was much greater than that of ordinary soldiers. However, their parent service hoped that judicious employment of special forces against vital targets would bring a return proportional to the investment. Not all senior officers thought the gamble worthwhile; Slim has probably stated the case against special forces as well as any of them (Slim 1956):

The level of initiative, individual training, and weapon skill required in, say, a commando, is admirable; what is not admirable is that it should be confined to a few small units.... Armies do not win wars by means of a few bodies of super-soldiers but by the average quality of their standard units. Anything, whatever short cuts to victory it may promise, which thus weakens the Army spirit, is dangerous.

However, special forces could play an important psychological role for their own side. Even Slim acknowledged that the first Chindit raid had been very good for morale in the Indian Army, stating that "for this reason alone, Wingate's raid was worth all the hardship and sacrifice his men endured" (Lewin 1976). It is perhaps fitting that the Chindits were among the few special forces that were not composed of handpicked volunteers, but were ordinary units ordered to undertake extraordinary training and combat missions.

It is perhaps revealing of the psychology of the men of the special forces that, when the war in Europe ended, many who had served in that theater volunteered for duty against the Japanese. This was in marked contrast to ordinary troops, of whom the overwhelming majority felt that they had done their share and wanted nothing more than to go home. Some special forces had actually seen little combat and were eager to be blooded, but even a considerable number of veteran special forces units sought a Pacific assignment. It is hard to escape the conclusion that these were men who actually liked war.

The record of special forces in the Pacific War is mixed. There is little question that the Alamo Scouts and the Underwater Demolition Teams gave an adequate return on investment. However, the first Chindit campaign must be judged a failure and the later Chindit operations remain controversial. Merrill's Marauders ended up being used as elite infantry to spearhead Stilwell's campaign against Myitkyina. The Marine paratroops were modestly successful with their raid on Choiseul as a diversion from the Bougainville landings, but the raid by the Marine Raiders on Makin must be judged a failure, and both Marine paratroops and Raiders were otherwise mostly employed as elite infantry. Such little employment as the Army paratroops and the Special Service Force saw in the Pacific was as elite infantry, save for the assault on Corregidor. The Rangers gave useful service clearing the entrances to Leyte Gulf, and their raid on Cabanatuan was spectacularly successful and saved the lives of hundreds of prisoners of war but did not significantly hasten the end of the bloody Luzon campaign.

Britain's Special Operations Executive was active in those parts of southeast Asia that the Japanese seized from the British. Like the American OSS, the SOE worked closely with local guerrilla organizations and its Force 136 straddled the line between guerrillas and special forces. One SOE unit, the Lyon group, was active in the islands near Singapore from September 1944 until its survivors were captured in early 1945. They were beheaded on 7 July 1945. British Commandos were also active in Burma, particularly during the final drive on Rangoon.

In the Japanese military, special forces (other than paratroops) appeared only towards the end of the war, and the designation was almost always a euphemism for kamikazes. The Special Naval Landing Forces were sailors trained as light infantry and, while formidable, were not special forces in the Western sense. However, a small number of airborne troops trained for airfield raids (giretsu) were special forces in both senses. These forces carried out a raid on Yontan airfield on the night of 24 May 1945. A group of five Ki-21 "Sallys" loaded with fifty suicide raiders achieved surprise, and the first Sally was able to crash-land on the airfield and disembark its ten passengers, who emerged throwing hand grenades and phosphorus bombs. The raiders managed to kill two Americans and wound another 18, destroy seven aircraft and damage 26 others, and blow up 70,000 gallons of gasoline. The four Sallys that followed were all shot down with their passengers. 

Judging from their Pacific War record, it seems that special forces are most cost effective when used for special reconnaissance missions. They may also be used for deep raids so long as the mission can be achieved with a minimum of combat. The temptation to use them for difficult but otherwise conventional combat operations should be avoided.


Allen (1984)

Gilbert (1989)

Hastings (2007)

Lewin (1976)

Morison (1959)

Slim (1956)

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