In the darkest days of World War II, Prime Minister Winston Churchill ordered the creation of a Special Operations Executive whose task was ‘to set Europe ablaze’. It was one of the very few options he had at the time, since the retreat from Dunkirk and the defeat of our allies on the Continent.
Last week, trains and rail infrastructure were reportedly blown up on the trans-Siberian line in a strike by the Ukrainian SBU security service aimed at Putin’s lifeline from his allies in China and North Korea. It was a strategic strike, literally setting Putin’s ammunition and fuel supplies ablaze. The purpose of the attack was likely twofold; disrupting the supply of badly needed resources to the Russian Army and a morale booster to the war weary population of Ukraine, downcast by the disappointment of this year’s counter-offensive. The timing of these attacks, coupled with the sheer reach of the SBU – Severomorsk is 3,000 miles east of Ukraine – is crucial to refocus world opinion on the Ukrainian struggle in the face of the headline grabbing events in Gaza.
The disproportionate effect special forces can deliver with such operations are the reason that nations need to invest in such daring and capable units. In World War II, my old regiment, the SAS, carried out many such missions. One in particular, Operation Bulbasket, comes to mind. The mission of B Squadron on Bulbasket was to target and disrupt the 2nd SS panzer Division – “Das Reich” – during the early stages of D Day. With great daring and a bit of luck, Lieutenant Twm Stephens found Das Reich’s fuel reserves on a train parked in a siding in Limoges. This allowed the Royal New Zealand Airforce to find the well-hidden train and destroy it completely. However, a vengeful SS battalion discovered B Squadron in their hiding place, and they were massacred. These disastrous losses were offset by the fact that whilst Das Reich did reach the Normandy battlefield, they took very little part in the action as they had no fuel for their tanks. Thousands of lives were saved and the D-Day landings succeeded.
The attacks by special forces units also have the effect of letting occupied peoples know that they are not forgotten as well as sending a message to the enemy – ‘you are safe nowhere’. Numerous strikes by the SBU in occupied Crimea have been an important fillip to the Ukrainian loyalists trapped there as well as providing food for thought for those in Crimea who side with the Russian occupiers. The SBU have now repeatedly hit the Kerch Bridges linking occupied Crimea to Russia with major attacks in November 2022 and as recently as last August. With attacks at two of Moscow’s major airports last month as well a strikes at important armament factories, there must be a sense of huge fear and frustration in the Kremlin as well as a feeling of satisfaction in Kyiv. General Winter may have arrived on the battlefield, forcing both sides to stand largely on the defensive, but the war goes on. The SBU can strike anywhere, even against Russia’s most seemingly out of reach assets. Most of all, they are striking at the dwindling morale of a war-weary Russian population.
Colonel Tim Collins is a former British Army officer who served with the SAS and as commander of the Royal Irish during the invasion of Iraq in 2003, when his before-battle speech to his soldiers made headlines around the world