What is a Stay-Behind Operation?


In a stay-behind operation, a country places secret operatives or organisations in its own territory, for use in case an enemy occupies that territory. If this occurs, the operatives would then form the basis of a resistance movement or act as spies from behind enemy lines. Small-scale operations may cover discrete areas, but larger stay-behind operations envisage reacting to the conquest of whole countries.

Stay-behind also refers to a military tactic whereby specially trained soldiers let themselves be overrun by enemy forces in order to conduct intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition, and reconnaissance tasks often from pre-prepared hides.

Refer to Volunteer Fighting Corps (Kokumin Giyu Sentotai).

Brief History

Stay-behind operations of significant size existed during World War II. The United Kingdom (UK) put in place the Auxiliary Units. Partisans in Axis-occupied Soviet territory in the early 1940s operated with a stay-behind element.

During the Cold War, the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) coordinated and the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the British Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) helped create clandestine stay-behind networks in many European countries, intending to activate them in the event of that country being taken over by the Warsaw Pact. According to Martin Packard they were “financed, armed, and trained in covert resistance activities, including assassination, political provocation and disinformation.” These clandestine stay-behind organisations were created and run under the auspices of intelligence services and recruited their agents from amongst the civilian population. These specially selected civilian stay-behind networks or SBOs, were created in many Western countries including Italy, the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, France, Germany, Switzerland, Norway, Austria and others, including Iran. They prepared to organise resistance, sabotage and intelligence gathering in occupied (NATO) territory. The most famous of these clandestine stay-behind networks was the Italian Operation Gladio, acknowledged by Italian Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti on 24 October 1990.

Many hidden weapons caches were found in Italy, Austria, Germany, the Netherlands and other countries that had been at the disposition of these “secret armies”. As late as 1996, the United Kingdom revealed to the German government the existence of stay-behind weapons and equipment caches in West Berlin. The content of these caches offer an insight into the equipment supplied to (German) stay-behind networks. In two of the secret caches, buried in the Grunewald forest, police found boxes with 9 mm pistols and ammunition, knives, navigation equipment, an RS-6 ‘spy radio’, various manuals, tank and aircraft recognition books, a flask of brandy, and chocolate as well as a copy of ‘Total Resistance’, the guerrilla warfare manual written in 1957 by Swiss Major Hans von Dach.

During the Cold War, military stay-behind units were usually long-range reconnaissance, surveillance and target acquisition units that were specifically earmarked for operations in the early phase of a potential war (D-day to D+1-5). These units would quickly deploy forward, link up with the rear guard or ‘aggressive delaying force’ and ‘stay-behind’ as these forces withdrew, letting themselves be bypassed by advancing Warsaw Pact troops. Exploiting pre-reconnoitred hide sites and caches of arms, ammunition, and radios, they would then start to conduct intelligence gathering operations in what is called static covert surveillance as well as target acquisition for high value targets such as enemy headquarters, troop concentrations, and atomic weapons systems. They would also perform demolition tasks, in what was referred to as the ‘demolition belt’, at places where bottlenecks were likely to occur for enemy formations. Another task would have been escape and evasion (E&E) assistance to downed pilots and others needing repatriation.

Previously, The UKs Territorial Army (now Army Reserve) regiments of SAS and Honourable Artillery Company provided such stay-behind parties in the UK’s then sector of West Germany.

Examples of Stay-Behind Units

  • NATO:
    • Special Boat Service (UK)
    • 21 Special Air Service Regiment (Artists) (Reserve) (UK
    • 23 Special Air Service Regiment (Reserve) (UK)
    • Honourable Artillery Company (UK)
    • Special Reconnaissance Squadron RAC (UK)
    • 4/73 (Sphinx) Special Observation Post Battery RA (UK)
    • 10th Special Forces Group (US)
    • Escadron Spécial de Recherche (SOE/ESR) (Belgium)
    • Fernspäher Companies (Germany)
    • Korps Commandotroepen (Netherlands)
    • 7e Compagnie de Commandos (France)
    • 1st Paratroopers Brigade, Lochoi Oreinon Katadromon or LOK (Greece)
    • Özel Harp Dairesi (Turkey)
    • Training was conducted at the International Long Range Reconnaissance Patrol School in Weingarten Germany.
  • Warsaw Pact:
    • MfS-Abteilung IV Spezialkampfführung (East Germany)
    • Patriotic Guards (Romania)
  • World:
    • Fedayeen Saddam (Ba’athist Iraq)
    • Regional Force Surveillance Units (Australia), non-secret units of the Australian Army Reserve that would operate in a stay-behind capacity in the event of an invasion of northern Australia
    • Territorial Defence (Yugoslavia), non-secret branch of the Yugoslav People’s Army with an official doctrine to wage guerrilla warfare against a potential occupier.

Examples of Known Stay-Behind Plans

  • World War II:
    • Auxiliary Units (UK)
    • Werwolf (Nazi Germany)
    • Operation Tracer (Gibraltar)
    • Palestine Post-Occupational Scheme (Mandatory Palestine): joint plan between the British SOE and the Palmach to resist a potential Axis occupation before and during the 200 days of dread.
    • SOE Palestine, with assistance from the Jewish Agency, created a secret stay-behind network of cells to resist a potential occupation of Palestine by the Axis. Moshe Dayan set up this clandestine structure. Training for Palmach operatives was conducted at the Special Training Centre (STC102) at Mount Carmel near Haifa.
  • Cold War:
    • Operatiën en Inlichtingen (O&I) Operatiën en Inlichtingen (Operations and Intelligence) was unique among its counterparts in other NATO countries in that it operated autonomously from NATO control.
    • GLADIO (Italy)
    • Aginter Press (Portugal)
    • Operation (Red) Sheepskin (Greece)
    • Austrian Association of Hiking, Sports and Society (OeWSGV, also: ÖWSGV) (Austria)
    • Plan Bleu, La Rose des Vents, and Arc-en-ciel (France)
    • ROC (Norway)
    • SDRA8 and STC/Mob (Belgium)
    • Bund Deutscher Jugend – Technischer Dienst, or TD BJD (Germany-West)
    • Kampfgruppe gegen Unmenschlichkeit (A secret stay-behind organisation of West Berlin against the GDR 1948-1959 with strong support of CIA)
    • Counter-Guerrilla, Turkish branch of Operation Gladio (Turkey)
    • Nihtilä-Haahti plan (Finland)
    • Projekt-26 (P-26, Switzerland)
    • Arla gryning [sv] and Informationsbyrån (‘IB’) in Sweden.
    • Operation Washtub (US – Alaska Territory)
    • Study and Training Group for Military Reconnaissance (West Germany).
    • Qashqai 1948-1953 (Iran)

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