Operative Assassin Turned CIA Director: William Colby

Operative Assassin Turned CIA Director: William Colby

CIA Director William Colby is best remembered for his time as America’s top spy from 1973 to 1976. It was an iffy stretch for the Central Intelligence Agency, during which congressional investigations in a post-Watergate reformist mood unmasked many abuses by the country’s spies. Colby, as the man on the spot, became associated with the rot emanating from Langley. Decades earlier, however, Colby had been a bona fide American hero, parachuting into Nazi-occupied Europe to carry out dangerous operations that stuck it to Hitler and the Third Reich.

In one of them, Operation RYPE, in 1945, Colby parachuted into Norway as the head of an Office of Strategic Services (OSS) team. Their task was to blow up rail links to impede the evacuation of the Nazi occupiers and keep the enemy from reinforcing Germany’s crumbling eastern and western fronts. It turned into a hair-raising mission that started off horrific and remained harrowing until the end. Despite the obstacles, Colby snatched success from the jaws of catastrophe and brought the mission to a successful conclusion.

Ivy Leaguer Parachutes his Way into the Office of Strategic Services

In 1920, William Egan Colby was born in St. Paul, Minnesota, the son of a United States Army officer and a mother whose family was active in local business and the Democratic Party. Although Colby’s father was a career soldier, his pursuits focused more on the intellectual and scholarly contributions to the US Army and not just on the purely military. While serving in the Army, Colby’s father was also an author and scholar who did stints as an English professor in Vermont, Georgia, Washington, DC, and overseas in far-off Tientsin, China.

Colby’s mobile childhood left a mark, broadened his horizons, and ingrained in him an interest in world affairs and a thirst for adventure. In 1936, when he was 16, he seriously considered fighting in the Spanish Civil War with the American volunteers of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade against General Francisco Franco’s fascists. Instead, he ended up accepting a scholarship to study at Princeton University, graduated with a degree in political science, then went to Columbia Law School in 1940. He dropped out of law school after his first year to join the US Army and was commissioned a second lieutenant in August 1941.


He trained to become an artillery officer at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, then signed up for an experimental airborne artillery unit. The concept of airborne artillery seemed ridiculous to Colby, but he figured the training would get him qualified as a parachutist, which was all the rage for the adventurous back then. He got the parachute training, as well as training in demolitions and small arms. While Colby was learning how to jump out of airplanes and blow stuff up, a new organization – one with a keen interest in people with interests and qualifications like Colby’s – came into being.

In June 1942, the OSS, the CIA’s predecessor, was created to collect and analyze strategic intelligence and  carry out “special activities.” Operating under the overall command of America’s Joint Chiefs of Staff, the OSS was headed by William “Wild Bill” Donovan, a WWI Medal of Honor winner and a personal friend of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Like FDR (and William Colby), the OSS chief was an Ivy Leaguer, and he saw to it that his organization recruited heavily from Ivy League circles. Colby, with Princeton and Columbia on his resume, an international background, a thirst for adventure, and a qualified parachutist with demolition training, was just the type the OSS was looking for.

In 1943, Colby was accepted into the OSS and  trained in guerrilla tactics to operate as a “Jedburgh” – OSS agents who worked with resistance forces in occupied Europe. Their program motto was “Surprise, Kill, and Vanish.” In his first mission, Colby was deployed into France as a Jedburgh team commander and worked with rural French Resistance guerrillas. It entailed harrowing adventures, starting with a pilot who mistakenly dropped him 20 miles off target in the middle of a German-occupied village. Along the way, he had a narrow escape from a collaborationist traitor who almost delivered him to the Gestapo.

Colby in Command Thrives Under Pressure

William Colby was undaunted by the unpromising start to his mission in France and managed to overcome the challenges. He eventually ended up commanding about 6000 French irregulars and led them in harassing the Nazi occupiers until his command linked up with General George S. Patton’s Third Army in the fall of 1944. Colby’s stellar performance was praised by his superiors and earned him a Bronze Star medal plus a French Croix de Guerre. His bosses gave him some time off to rest and recuperate, and when he returned on November 1st, 1944, they put him in charge of an ethnically Norwegian OSS unit based in Scotland.

After the United States was thrust into WWII, the War Department tried to figure out the best way to use first generation, bilingual immigrants from enemy-occupied areas to help the war effort. Eventually, a decision was made to establish special units of bilingual Americans from certain ethnic groups for operations in enemy-occupied countries. Accordingly, ethnic battalions of Filipinos, Japanese, Austrians, Greeks, and Norwegians were created in 1942. The Norwegian one was the 99th Infantry Battalion, Separate (because it was unattached to any regiment).

The 99th Infantry Battalion was created in Camp Riley, Minnesota, in July 1942 and originally consisted of 1001 men. It trained for winter and alpine warfare in Colorado and was then shipped off overseas to Scotland in September of 1943. It was there that the OSS came a-calling in search of Norwegian speakers to volunteer for special missions. Eventually, 12 officers and 80 men from the 99th Battalion were selected for what would become the OSS’ Norwegian Special Operations Group (NORSOG).

In the meantime, things were going from bad to worse for the Third Reich. With the Soviets rolling up the Nazi empire from the east and America and her allies doing so from the west, the Nazis found themselves in desperate need of military manpower. One potential source was the German occupation garrison in Norway, which numbered in the hundreds of thousands. As the Third Reich’s day of reckoning drew ever closer, the Germans began to evacuate men from Norway to reinforce their crumbling fronts on the European mainland. The Allies decided to impede that evacuation and handed that task to the OSS.

OSS planners came up with a mission, Operation RYPE (Norwegian for grouse), to parachute a NORSOG team into Norway. Once on the ground, they were to slow the German evacuation by blowing up bridges and links along the vital Nordland Railway, the main land link to the country’s north. William Colby was put in charge of the operation, whose primary target was to be the Grana Bridge near the village of Snåsa. On March 24th, 1945 converted Consolidated B-24 “Liberator” heavy bombers, laden with NORSOGs instead of bombs, took off from Scotland and winged their way to Norway.

Colby's Commandos Ski for Their Lives

On March 24th, 1945, William Colby and three companions parachuted into Norway, making contact with the local resistance movement. 31 OSS operatives of the NORSOG were supposed to rendezvous with him, but out of that number, only 12 showed up. Three B-24s laden with the rest had been unable to locate the drop point and returned to Scotland with their OSS passengers and supplies. Another bomber made an even greater hash of things, missing Norway altogether, and mistakenly dropped its load of five men into neighboring Sweden.

Another attempt was made a few days later when four Liberators with reinforcements flew to Norway, but they failed to locate the drop zone because of heavy mist. Three made it back to base, but one crashed en route, killing 13 men. A final attempt to reinforce Colby was made in April, but poor weather conditions again prevented the B-24s from finding the drop zone. To make matters worse, yet another Liberator crashed--this time a few miles from the drop zone-- killing another 12 men. Colby’s superiors informed him that there would be no more attempts to reinforce him.

Without a full team, Colby realized that to attack his target, the well-protected Grana Bridge, would be foolhardy. So he decided to attack and destroy another bridge: the smaller but unguarded one at Tangen. On April 9th, 1945, Colby led his men on a 100-mile journey on skis to their target. The men, laden with a 60-pound load of ammunition and rations, took turns dragging a sled with 180 pounds of explosives. They made their way through rugged terrain and skied through a sleet storm until they reached the Tangen Bridge on April 14th. They snipped nearby telegraph wires then blew up their target and sped towards the safety of Sweden.

The Germans sent a spotter plane to find them, and before long, 50 German mountain troops were hot on their tail. Bluntly warned that “if you can’t out ski the Germans, you will not return,” Colby and his men skied for their lives. After 56 grueling hours, they managed to lose their pursuers by making their way up a steep hill, which they nicknamed “Benzedrine Hill” after the tablets they took to keep them awake and going. On April 18th, the NORSOGs crossed the border into Sweden, where they were reunited with their five teammates who had been mistakenly parachuted there. Reinforced and resupplied, Colby’s men returned to Norway and blew up a half-mile stretch of the Nordland Railway on April 23rd.

They then had to make another harrowing escape with the Nazis hot on their heels before they once again shook off their pursuers by climbing Benzedrine Hill. While waiting for new orders, Colby’s men found and buried the remains of their comrades who had crashed near their initial drop zone. A few days later, they stumbled across a squad of Germans and wiped them out in a shootout, just a few days before Germany surrendered. As commander of the nearest Allied unit on the ground, Colby accepted the surrender of the local German garrison. After a triumphant tour during which they were lionized by the locals, the NORSOGs made it to the Norwegian capital of Oslo and were repatriated from there to the US in June 1945.


Some Sources and Further Reading

99th Infantry Battalion – Operation RYPE/ NORSO

Central Intelligence Agency – A Look Back… The Office of Strategic Services: Operation RYPE

Colby, Car – Colby: A Secret Life of a CIA Spymaster (2011)

Colby, William – Honorable Men: My Life in the CIA (1978)

Heimark, Bruce, University of Nebraska – OSS Operation RYPE: Cutting the Nordland Rail Line in Norway at Two Points in the North Tondelag Area, April, 1945 (1990)

History Net – “Surprise, Kill, Vanish: Operatives Take on Nazi Forces in Norway

Special Operations – OSS Dons Chutes and Skis For a Dangerous Norway Mission

Waller, Douglas – Disciples: The World War II Spy Story of the Four OSS Men Who Later Led the CIA (2015)

Wikipedia – “William Colby”