Book Review: Behind the Lines: A Critical Survey of Special Operations in World War II

Behind the Lines: A Critical Survey of Special Operations in World War II by Michael F. Dilley is a study and critique of the beginnings of special forces operations in World War II. Dilley grew up in a navy family spend his youth in various US and Far East bases. He joined the army in 1964 and served as a counterintelligence agent, interrogator and intelligence analyst. Dilley served two tours in Vietnam and is a master parachutist and graduate of jumpmaster school. He is also the author of two other books on the military.

Dilley starts with an introduction to what make a unit a special purpose or special mission unit:

Units that conduct missions not typical of their branch of service
Units that are formed to conduct a particular mission
Units that receive special training
Units that use specialized equipment of standard equipment in a non-standard role
Units that preform scouting, ranging, raiding, or reconnaissance missions
Units that conduct or train indigenous people in guerrilla warfare or unconventional warfare

This definition is helpful in setting a modern definition of special operations. For example, the US Marine Corps fit this definition in the 18th Century. They were created to to perform roles for the navy not usually assigned sailors. Marines filled the role of infantry for the navy. They were sharpshooters on naval vessels (think of snipers firing ship to ship). Marines conducted amphibious raids and reconnaissance for the navy. Lastly, and most famously, they trained and organized local tribes against the Barbary Pirates of Tripoli. Today, however, the Marines are not considers special forces because they are a branch of the military assigned to these tasks as part of their regular duties.

Once Dilley establishes what a special operations unit is, he gives example of historical missions. The examples used cover a wide variety missions and mission types. Airborne, jeep, and amphibious missions are included with various objectives. Not all missions are successful and those that are successful are successful in varying degrees. Dilley evaluates each mission with his own set of parameters:

Adequate intelligence
Poor Coordination
Provision of faulty information to the national leadership
Wishful thinking
Inappropriate intervention in mission execution

There are many excellent stories in Behind the Lines. From the German rescue of Mussolini to jeep attacks against the Germans in North Africa, the stories hold the reader’s interest. Not every story has something to do with attacking the enemy. The Triple Nickle, 555th Parachute Infantry Battalion, America’s first black paratrooper unit was trained as smoke jumpers to combat Japanese incendiary balloons in the Pacific Northwest.

Behind the Lines provides the reader with more than history. The stories of the operations are well written and cover a wide variety of mission types. That alone makes this book well worth reading. Dilley goes a step farther and critiques each mission: what went well, what went wrong. There are failures in the best planned actions and sometimes success by accident. The missions are not restricted to American operations but include British, Russian, Japanese and German. Behind the Lines is a very worthwhile read. It is an excellent history and also a very study into planning and results. It should have a wide appeal beyond historians and World War II students.


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5 responses to “Book Review: Behind the Lines: A Critical Survey of Special Operations in World War II

  1. Does it happen to mention the Ghost Soldiers, Alamo Scouts or the 11th A/B ?

  2. Thank you for your review of my book. It is good to hear the opinion of another veteran. Please note that the criteria you highlight in your review come from only one of the three sources that I cite, namely those of Lucien Vandenbroucke in his book Perilous Options – Special Operations as an Instrument in U.S. Foreign Policy. Readers will also appreciate that criteria of my own (is the mission necessary, does it fit in with the overall theater plan, and is it necessary that special operations forces execute it) and those of William McRaven (from his book Spec Ops – Case Studies in Special Operations) are used to examine the operations I discuss in the book.

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