Disciples: The World War II Missions of the CIA Directors Who Fought for Wild Bill Donovan

The author of the critically acclaimed bestseller Wild Bill Donovan, tells the story of four OSS warriors of World War II. All four later led the CIA.

They are the most famous and controversial directors the CIA has ever had—Allen Dulles, Richard Helms, William Colby, and William Casey. Disciples is the story of these dynamic agents and their daring espionage and sabotage in wartime Europe under OSS Director Bill Donovan.

Allen Dulles ran the OSS’s most successful spy operation against the Axis. Bill Casey organized dangerous missions to penetrate Nazi Germany. Bill Colby led OSS commando raids behind the lines in occupied France and Norway. Richard Helms mounted risky intelligence programs against the Russians in the ruin of Berlin after the German surrender.

Four very different men, they later led (or misled) the successor CIA. Dulles launched the calamitous operation to land CIA-trained, anti-Castro guerrillas at Cuba’s Bay of Pigs. Helms was convicted of lying to Congress about the CIA’s effort to oust Chile’s president. Colby would become a pariah for releasing to Congress what became known as the “Family Jewels” report on CIA misdeeds during the 1950s, sixties and early seventies. Casey would nearly bring down the CIA—and Ronald Reagan’s presidency—from a scheme to secretly supply Nicaragua’s contras with money raked off from the sale of arms to Iran for American hostages in Beirut.

Mining thousands of once-secret World War II documents and interviewing scores of family members and CIA colleagues, Waller has written a brilliant successor to Wild Bill Donovan.

Read an exclusive extract – the Jedburgh Teams arrive in Britain:

The U.S. volunteers for the Jedburgh guerrilla mission arrived in Britain right at the end of 1943. For their first month in Britain they trained, in small groups, at different SOE and Parachute training establishments around Britain. Then they were re-united, together with British and French Commandos, at a special training establishment devoted to training for their mission:

Everything to manufacture a guerrilla warrior had been installed at Milton Hall. A staff of 236 had been brought in to train the students, drive them, cook for them, and care for the estate.

Nissen huts lined the lawn off the north front as student quarters. Farther out, obstacle courses, race car and motorcycle tracks, a soccer field, and tracts for combat maneuvers in the pastures and forests had been laid out. A large climbing wall was built off one corner of the mansion. The kitchen garden off the south front had been converted into a pistol range (bullet holes soon pockmarked the nearby stable clock tower).

The mansions basement housed the armory, equipment stores, and an indoor range. Chin-up bars were planted in the lawn stretching from the clock tower on the south front. Staff offices were set up in the carriage stables and a boxing ring was erected in its courtyard. The large halls on the first floor, with fine art and Fitzwilliam family portraits hanging from their walls, were used for group lectures and to show training films, while rooms on the second level became classrooms with radios and weapons on tables, and sabotage devices and spy gadgets hanging from their walls for demonstration.

Two Jeds scale brick wall in training exercises. Milton Hall, England, circa 1944.

Two Jeds scale brick wall in training exercises. Milton Hall, England, circa 1944.

Milton Hall boasted other amenities, though bathwater was not one of them (the men had to share it as part of a British conservation measure). A bar was set up in the main foyer during evenings for students to mix with instructors. Pretty women, many from titled British families and serving in FANY (the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry), taught Morse code. Even batmen (the British version of an orderly) were assigned to officers to shine their boots, polish their brass buckles, and wake them gently each morning with a cup of tea in hand.

But in little more than a week after they moved into Milton Hall, the American Jedburghs began inching toward mutiny. They had accumulated a long list of grievances, starting with their previous month of itinerant purgatory (the British instructors had been brutal and many of them unqualified to teach special operations, they thought). Promised promotions and extra pay for being parachutists had not come through. The lowliest private from Milton Hall’s support staff was allowed into Peterborough for a pint at the pub, but the Jedburgh oificers were confined to quarters as a security measure.

The Americans were fed up with being kept in the dark about their mission – they had heard outlandish rumors that three-man teams would be assigned to attack an entire Panzer division – and they wanted a war room placed near the bar in the foyer with maps tacked up tracking what was happening in the European conflict, which seemed to them a world away.

They became irritated by the steady stream of London visitors, clueless about guerrilla operations, who interrupted training for dog-and-pony shows from the students. And their stomachs found British cooking indigestible – plates practically every day of gray mutton or greasy lamb stew, bland boiled potatoes, mushy turnips, cabbage overdone, or brussels sprouts that one officer said swam “in a pale and scummy juice.”

The Americans also developed a deep dislike for the British commandant of Milton Hall. Lieutenant Colonel Frank Spooner was a stiff, unimaginative martinet with little understanding of covert warfare who liked snappy salutes, morning parades, and strutting about with a snarling chow dog named Mister Wu. The U.S. officers, who came to despise Wu as much as Spooner, kicked the animal when it strayed from its master.

Cultural tensions also simmered. The British instructors routinely denigrated loudmouth Americans as latecomers to a war they had been fighting for four years. Colby thought the Brits at Milton Hall “crusty,” as he later told a son, quick to appear exasperated with him and the other Yanks. Anti-British sentiment percolated among the Americans as well. Konrad Dillow, a U.S. lieutenant, got drunk at the foyer bar one night and in front of the English officers lambasted the British people and their army.

Audience in demolition class. Milton Hall, England, circa 1944.

Audience in demolition class. Milton Hall, England, circa 1944.

Alarm bells began ringing in London and Washington. The American Jedburghs were all volunteers. They could un-volunteer and the program would be crippled. The radio operators had become lazy and inattentive in class. Instructors feared they would not be ready by D-Day. The U.S. officers were muttering among themselves that with so many administrative foul-ups thus far perhaps this entire Jedburgh plan – whatever it was – might be a failure; if so, they wanted out.

High morale was critical to the success of this hazardous mission, Canfield realized. If properly handled, an internal OSS memo predicted, the Jedburghs “may be the backbone of the Resistance movement after D-Day” – a critically important part of the shadow war Donovan and the SOE’s leaders envisioned for France. But that strategic asset was now in danger of evaporating before their eyes.

Canfield rushed an investigator to Milton Hall to assess the damage. He returned with a grim report. “Morale is bad,” the investigator wrote. Senior American and British officers moved quickly into damage control. Spooner was fired and replaced by Lieutenant Colonel George Richard Musgrave, a handsome British officer with a jet-black mustache who had been a big-game hunter before the war.

Musgrave did away with spit and polish and became far more popular among the men. Food rations improved and better cooks came. The Jedburgh officers were allowed into town. The red tape was untangled for promotions and parachute pay. The higher ranks would also have a practical benefit in the field, commanding more respect among French Resistance leaders. Colby soon became a major.

On February 24, the three hundred Jedburgh officers and their radio operators crowded into the main first-floor hall. Brigadier Eric E. Mockler-Ferryman, an upper-crust British SOE officer, had arrived from London to finally explain to the men their mission.

“I want to tell you about the future,” Mockler-Ferryman began, clearing his throat, as the commandos settled in their chairs and quieted. “I know you have had a difficult start and that things have not been going too well.” But the brigadier was quick to add, “I don’t want anyone to feel that he is going into this show half heartedly. After my talk, when you have,heard what it is all about, anyone is at liberty to say that he does not wish to go. We shall think none the worse of him.”

Mockler-Ferryman outlined their mission. Most of the men will parachute into occupied France shortly after D-Day. A handful of Dutch and Belgian officers who had joined the training will be sent to the Low Countries. All the men will link up with resistance groups on the ground, call in airdrops to supply them with arms, organize them into an effective military force that can help Ike’s conventional army, pass on to them orders from London, and help lead them in guerrilla attacks.

It will be a difficult mission, Mockler-Ferryman warned. Some of the resistance bands “are well organized and led, others not so well” and most are short of arms.

Mockler-Ferryman next dropped a minor bombshell. To impress the partisans, the Jedburghs will be dropped in uniform. Perhaps it will afford them some protection under the Geneva Convention’s rules for captured soldiers, but it will definitely make them stand out. Later, if they need to blend in, they can change to civilian clothes. “But no one will be ordered to wear plain clothes unless he is willing,” the brigadier added. A capture in civilian clothes guar- anteed a Iedburgh he would be executed as a spy.

“I hope you realize what a vital part you will have to play in the battle,” Mockler-Ferryman said in closing. He apologized for all the disappointments and waiting they had endured, but he added, like a parent gently scolding spoiled children, “if you think of the even longer wait and the more bitter disappointment of those in Occupied Europe, I think you will always agree that you have no real grouse.”

One of the American officers raised his hand for a question; “How. many Germans are there in France?”

“Not many,” the brigadier said nonchalantly, “over a half million.”

“Oh, thats all,” the American muttered. Colby and the others laughed nervously.