Research & Development Branch of OSS, and America’s Q

During World War II, the OSS (Office of Strategic Services) was the United States first foray into the intelligence business. Prior to the war, the intelligence services for the US didn’t exist, much to the chagrin of their British allies just as the war began. It had no overall direction, planning or control and was done on an ad hoc basis.

But William Donovan changed all of that, he built an organization from scratch and before the war’s end which had over 13,000 agents and support personnel under his command all over the globe.

OSS intelligence operations and Guerrilla Warfare experts in the Operational Groups and Jedburgh Teams were the most well known of the OSS operatives. OSS was the forerunner of today’s CIA and the US Army Special Forces. And both share their lineage with OSS.

But one of the more intriguing and interesting branches of OSS was the Research and Development Branch. The mission of the Research and Development (R&D) branch was to develop devices to help undercover OSS agents, enhance intelligence gathering, or to facilitate sabotage operations.

For anyone who has ever liked and watched the James Bond films, (raises hand) the R&D Branch was the American version of “Q-Branch” where Bond would get his wonderful gadgets that seem so far-fetched at times but were rooted in fact.

The OSS R&D Branch in actuality worked very closely with the British and together they developed, refined and/or contracted to provide intelligence and Special Operations operatives the tools they’d need.

The OSS under Donovan didn’t work like the typical Army bureaucracy and Donovan would open his door to anyone he felt could help his fledgling operation. But he found the right man to lead R&D. Donovan hired  Boston chemist Stanley P. Lovell to head up the R&D Branch, and Donovan humorously called him his “Professor Moriarty.” Moriarty was a devious criminal character from the Sherlock Holmes books. He was described by Arthur Conan Doyle as this:

“The man had hereditary tendencies of the most diabolical kind. A criminal strain ran in his blood, which, instead of being modified, was increased and rendered infinitely more dangerous by his extraordinary mental powers. Dark rumours gathered round him in the University town, and eventually he was compelled to resign his chair and come down to London. He is the Napoleon of crime, Watson. He is the organiser of half that is evil and of nearly all that is undetected in this great city…

— Holmes, “The Final Problem”

Lovell lived up to his Moriarty and “Q” reputation. He developed some very intriguing pieces of equipment, including silenced pistols and submachine guns. The latter of which the M-3 Grease gun was used by Special Forces during the Vietnam war.

OSS developed explosives disguised as lumps of coal (“Black Joe”) or mule turds and even Chinese flour, which the troops called “Aunt Jemima.” The flour could even be baked and eaten in an emergency. R&D also developed chemical and pressure activated firing devices and clock timers that enabled an operative to set an explosive charge, and leave the area and be clear when the explosives detonated.

One of the more ingenious ideas was the “Beano” hand grenade. The Beano grenade was made by the Eastman Kodak company. And Lovell’s men designed the grenade around the American pastime of baseball. It was the size and weight of a traditional American baseball, with the thinking that any red-blooded American boy knows how to throw a baseball.

It was held with two fingers on a weighted and knurled “butterfly cap” and the arming pin was removed. Once thrown, the cap detached from the body of the grenade and a length of nylon string would unwind until a secondary arming pin attached to the far end of the cord was pulled, arming the grenade to detonate upon impact with a hard surface.

The original grenades were 5.5 ounces which were eventually deemed too light. So the later models were upped to 12 ounces. The problem was the arming switch deployed too quickly and ended up injuring more Americans than Germans.

Other ingenious gadgets included buttons with compasses inside to aid in escape and evasion, playing cards that concealed maps, a 16mm Kodak camera in the shape of a matchbox as well as German and Japanese identity cards, rations cards, passes and counterfeit currency.

In the official OSS history that has been published by CIA, they describe the mission of R&D and how it pertained to the agents:

…each agent had to be equipped with clothing sewn exactly as it would have been sewn if it were made in the local area for which he was destined; his eyeglasses, dental work, toothbrush, razor, brief case, travelling bag, shoes, and every item of wearing apparel had to be microscopically accurate.

One of OSS’ better projects was headed up by a Washington DC physician named Christian J. Lambertsen who developed an oxygen rebreather set (the Lambertsen Amphibious Respiratory Unit). This Scuba-type system was used by OSS and headed up by Lambertsen in the OSS Maritime Unit.

They also came up with different explosive devices such as Limpet mines and others such as communication devices, beacons, and wiretap gadgets. Of course, as every spy novel has ever shown, OSS had their tasteless poison “L” pills to allow an agent to kill himself rather than be captured.

One of the sillier projects was the exploding candle. A French or European operative was supposed to lure a German officer to a bedroom for a roll in the hay. Then to set the mood, they were to light this candle and make their escape while the German lay in a state of relaxation. When the candle burned down to a bit, they would explode.

So, the next time you watch James Bond have his normal interaction with “Q-Branch” you can know that although the tongue-in-cheek humor is designed for just that but that many of the gadgets you see aren’t so far-fetched after all. And they’re all based on true facts and operations. Except maybe for the Aston-Martin which….doesn’t really lend itself to the big city background. But I’d still love to take one for a spin.

Photos: CIA, OSS archives, AP