The British Commandos
…were raised in 1940 as a highly mobile, elite fighting force able to undertake raids on occupied Europe and provide specialist support to the field Army campaigns and served in all theatres of the Second World War. The Centre has a fine collection of recorded interviews and memoirs of men who served as Commandos and the research papers of Commando veteran and historian Peter Young and extracts from some of these recollections are recounted in this overview ( the introduction to Issue 34 of the Journal of the Centre, by Cath Pugh, Editor Spring 2017 Everyone’s War)
In 1940 an appeal for volunteers for dangerous duties resulted in the formation of ten Independent Companies, the fore-runners to the Commandos.
With very little training or preparation they were raised to harass the enemy with surprise raids and acts of sabotage during the campaign to help defend Norway from German invasion. Only five of these companies saw action; experienced skier Hugh Hoppe joined 8 Independent Company and trained for arctic warfare with the Chausseurs Alpins at Chamonix but returned to Britain as soon as Norway fell, whereas ill-equipped non-skier George Parsons of 5 Commando, landed at Mojöen to defend the road to Narvik and made several patrols trying to make contact with Norwegian troops in the area. He remembers a “pretty sharp engagement” with some German machine-gunners before being evacuated from Bodø.
The ten Independent companies were disbanded on their return to Britain, many volunteers returned to their regiments but some joined a new company, 11 Independent Company, which took part in the first Commando raid on occupied France. Operation Collar
Disaster for Britain
Hitler’s swift advance through France and the Low Countries resulted, for the British Expeditionary Force, in Operation Dynamo; evacuation from the continent and a disaster for Britain. More than 66,000 servicemen were killed, missing or taken prisoner and tens of thousands of tons of weaponry, military vehicles and ammunition was left behind along with fuel, uniforms and other equipment.
The War Office managed to concentrate public opinion on the ‘miracle of Dunkirk’, the incredible seaborne rescue rather than the Army’s defeat and crippling losses, very aware of the importance of developing schemes to retain this ‘Dunkirk spirit’, while the home front suffered air raids, hardships and shortages as the country prepared to defend its shores against invasion.
The possibility of developing a raiding force was raised by Lieutenant-Colonel Dudley Clarke on 4th June 1940 and on 18th June, Churchill wrote to the Commander-in-Chief of the Home Forces suggesting the same, “What about storm troops?… specially trained troops of the hunter class who can develop a reign of terror down the enemy coast.”
Very quickly the Commandos were formed with specific aims to unsettle German occupation forces, conduct acts of sabotage and provide valuable reconnaissance. Any successes would help retain public morale while the main forces prepared for large scale warfare.
The first Commando raid took place five days later.
Director of Military Operations, Major General R H Dewing was responsible for planning the methods of Commando recruitment, subsistence and accommodation and 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 (Guards), 9, 10 (Inter-Allied), 11 (Scottish), 12, 14 (Arctic) 30 and 62 units were launched. A further four Commandos were formed in the Middle East, 50, 51, 52 and the Middle East Commando. Some units were formed with specific roles from their inception; 2 Commando was always intended as a parachute regiment and before long was re-designated 11th Special Air Service (SAS).
14 (Arctic) Commando undertook intensive training in the Arctic and attacked enemy shipping in small boats. 30 Commando volunteers were trained in intelligence gathering, 62 Commando, the Small Scale Raiding Force was a smaller 55-man unit under the command of SOE (Special Operations Executive).
10 (Inter-Allied) Commando was founded for volunteers from occupied Europe. It became the largest Commando unit, with volunteers from France, Belgium, Norway, Poland, the Netherlands and 3 (X) Troop of German volunteers many of whom were political or religious refugees. Josef Folger, a young German brought to Britain with the Kindertransport in the summer of 1939, aged seventeen, spent the entire war attempting to join the Allied forces. At the end of 1944 he enlisted in the West Kents and volunteered for the Commandos soon after and was still training at Wrexham when the war ended. He spent the subsequent months gathering intelligence from German prisoners in British camps.
Early Commando units were divided into ten troops of three officers and 47 other ranks. After some reorganisation, the troops were expanded to six troops of Commando units; made up of a headquarters, six troops of three officers and 62 other ranks, so each troop could be transported by two Landing Craft Assault (LCA) and two complete units could be carried in the Commando ‘Glen’ landing ships.
Each Commando unit was allocated transport for training and administration rather than for use during raids.
The Royal Marine Commandos 40, 41, 42, 43, 44, 45, 46 and 47 were formed in February 1942. The RM Commandos were not volunteers like the Army Commandos, but allocated to these units after basic training. The Royal Naval Commandos (tasked with establishing, maintaining and controlling beachheads during combined operations) and the RAF Commandos (skilled ground crew trained to accompany an invasion force and build airstrips or make captured enemy airstrips serviceable) were founded in the same year. A further unit, 48 Royal Marine Commando, was formed in 1944.
Tactics of a cat burglar
The first Commando units were largely responsible for their own training. Sir Carol Mather who volunteered for 8 Commando in 1940 recalled, “We invented our own training. There were no training manuals as no one had worked out what the training was to be… but it was to be irregular warfare and so we learnt never to march in a formed body, never to march in step. We were to adopt the tactics of the cat burglar and so all this we invented ourselves and it was in our imagination.”
Training was restricted by the lack of available arms and equipment so new recruits were subject to arduous physical exercise, unarmed combat (including a team version of boxing known as ‘milling’) and field craft.
Guardsman Tom Jones’ (of 8 Commando and later the SAS) recollections are typical,
“We were told we were going to be trained as Commandos and we would kill people…. The next morning when we got up we were in working order, denims, and taken down to where we were going to be taught unarmed combat. We were introduced to two captains, one called Fairburn and the other one Sykes. They said they had been policemen in Shanghai and what they didn’t know about unarmed combat nobody had ever written!
Fairburn and Sykes taught us how to throw people over our shoulders and over brick walls, taught us the rabbit punch, the wrist crack, soft karate and how to use our fists in the soft part of the body to cripple. Then Sykes taught us a new stance for the revolver, to bow down and use two hands. We had to sign a notice saying we wouldn’t talk about what we were being taught. It was called the ‘D Notice’, and we all signed it with a sort of deep reverence and respect. We were also taught how to write secret messages with lemon juice, urine and things like that…”
Dozens of Commando depots and training establishments were brought into being throughout Britain. Unlike regular soldiers, Commandos were usually accommodated in private billets or, in the case of officers, hotels. Brian Unwin, a child living in Southampton in 1944 wrote,
“We had Commandos stopping with us. I remember they used to practice rifle shooting near the beach at Hamble and we used to go down there afterwards and find the shell cases, frequently live ones. We became quite expert in taking them to pieces and using them to make our own fireworks. When they suddenly disappeared we knew that something was on…”
The first raids on Boulogne and the Channel Islands were not very effective but clarified a need for more organisation and planning, and to develop and refine the existing Commando training with an emphasis on operating in total darkness to create the element of surprise.
In February 1941, Lieutenant Colonel R E Laycock sailed for the Middle East with 7, 8 and 11 (Scottish) Commando and this amalgamation became known as Layforce. They made a disappointing raid on Bardia then in May, 7 and 8 Commando covered the withdrawal from Crete but suffered heavy losses from German airborne troops. 11 (Scottish) Commando had success capturing the position at the Litani River in Syria and 8 Commando went into action raiding Italian lines at the first Siege of Tobruk.
Lord Jellicoe, in 8 Commando told Peter Liddle,
“Carol Mather and I had been rather aghast at one of the raids which we did carry out as a whole Commando from Tobruk. That was in a German airfield at Gazala to the west of Tobruk. The means of getting there was in an old Yangtze river sloop called the Amethyst. She only went about eight or nine knots I think, and the whole Commando was embarked on that for the raid on Tobruk but we never got there because we were spotted by both German and Italian aircraft and subjected to pretty heavy attack, we were really rather lucky not to be bombed in this.”
Operation Flipper, the famous but unsuccessful attempt to raid Rommel’s headquarters at Beda Littoria was executed by a party from 11 (Scottish) Commando led by Lieutenant Colonel Geoffrey Keyes who was posthumously awarded the VC for his bravery during this action.
Quite a shocker
William Dunbar of 11 (Scottish) Commando also served with Layforce,
“We went over to the Lebanon and landed against the Vichy French, which was quite a shocker. I always remember three of us lying underneath this bush and we were being fired on and the whole bush was chopped down. I could not control my bowels. After that initial shock I was alright, but there were a couple of our bods on the shore, dead. We were Commandos, we didn’t stop to fetch people up; it was all forward movement. We initiated a movement and that was it, we didn’t deviate at all. Didn’t matter how many we had knocked out”.
Eight months later, in March 1941, men from 3 and 4 Commandos accomplished a largely unopposed raid on the Norwegian island of Lofoten. They destroyed fish oil and glycerine factories as planned and during the operation the Navy captured code books and a rotor wheel for an Enigma cypher machine from an armed German trawler. The lack of German forces and the ease in which their objectives were achieved buoyed up the Commandos; Major John Smale relayed that during the raid one of his men sent a telegram to ‘A Hitler, Berlin’ saying, “In your last speech you said German troops would meet the British wherever they landed. Well we are here, where are you?”.
On 27th December 1941 3 Commando supported by detachments from 2, 4 and 6 Commando, made an attack on Vaagso to destroy oil factories and sink enemy shipping. The raid was deemed another success with objectives achieved for few losses. It resulted in Hitler diverting thousands of troops and weaponry to defend the Norwegian coast and away from other fronts to the great benefit of the Allied forces later in the war.
Corporal F Why of 1 Commando wrote an account of his ‘highlights’ of the Vaagso operation,
“We were in our LCAs (Landing Craft Assault) going in to the assault when HMS Kenya opened up. Amid the roaring thunder of guns and shells came the strains of Mad Jack Churchill playing some jig on his bagpipes. What a feeling those pipes gave me! Shivers ran down my spine, I was proud to be British – we couldn’t lose.”
“Tracer was going up at the Hampdens which we hoped would lay a smoke screen at the correct moment. I saw one swoop down in flames, poor blighter. Down came those planes in an orgy of hell let loose, everywhere was smoke and noise. I started retching and I couldn’t see a thing. My neck, hands and legs were burning as one of the bombs splashed me. 4 Troop had stopped one right in their boat, poor show! As we got ashore I rubbed snow onto my burns and that helped. I realised we had had a wet landing and felt cold and we were deficient of a Bren gunner (the falling canister had hit his head).
“Our task was to climb up the cliff and when we reached the top we had a short breather among some Christmas trees and had a smoke but with everything I had inhaled I felt like I was choking.
Out of the blue, three German planes came over; it was useless taking cover – then they were gone. We started back. Our anti-tank gunner was doing well against the snipers and we returned to find Vaagso ablaze with destroyers letting all hell into the northern portion of the town and it was snowing sardine labels due to a well-placed demolition charge. On the way back, after undressing in a bath of water, I was on anti-aircraft duty. That night we buried our dead at sea.”
Operation Chariot, often referred to as ‘the greatest raid of all’, was the audacious operation undertaken by 2 Commando and demolition parties from 1, 3, 4, 5, 9 and 12 Commando to destroy the huge Forme Ecluse at St Nazaire.
John Roderick, in command of 3 Troop of 2 Commando sailed there on board the Campbeltown, the explosive-laden warship that rammed the dock gates.
“The task of my assault party was to engage and destroy the guns and crews on the south area of the Normandie Dock, to form a defensive perimeter to prevent infiltration of enemy forces towards the direction of the Campbeltown and pumping stations etc, and to do damage (if possible) to old storage units.
Following the crash of the bows over the caisson which came with surprisingly little jolting, I quickly went forward to reconnoitre the way off. It was a bit of a shambles with many wounded chaps lying about the dock and I met with flames as I opened the forward companion door. Bill Copeland gave us his usual morale boosting order as we quickly made our way off Campbeltown. Our bamboo ladders had been damaged by gunshot, however I managed to find a length of cable down which we clambered onto the dock gate covering our actions as best we could… there had been a hell of a lot of firing and it was difficult to pinpoint where it was coming from. I cannot remember seeing gunfire coming from the first gun emplacement. I went forward with Cpl Howarth and an explosive of some sort passed over my head and wounded him in the leg. We finished off the crew there then moved on with John Stutchbury and his section, firing in turn.”
“We next had to clear the ground leading to, and over, the oil storage tanks. There were a number of Nissen huts into which we threw grenades with the most terrific bangs and it was on another concrete building that we killed a further batch of the enemy. There is no doubt we killed two more… we advanced round the seaward side of the oil tanks giving John Stutchbury cover as he went forward to engage a third group of the enemy.
“We had quite a large area to cover and with our reduced numbers it was a full-time job keeping our eyes all around. The withdrawal involved us retracing our steps back across the bows of Campbeltown which was uncannily silent in contrast to the bangs going on around and while running for cover I was shot through my left thigh. It came as a complete surprise, I was only aware of being knocked head over heels and my Bren gun leaving my hands. I moved quickly behind a stanchion and eventually made my way towards Colonel Newman’s assembly point.”
John was wounded again before he was captured and put on a small river vessel with several other prisoners from where he saw the Campbeltown explode, “With an almighty bang!”
The success of the raid left the dock inoperative for the rest of the war and the German warship Tirpitz was forced to remain in Norwegian waters until it was sunk in an RAF attack in 1944.
In May 1942, 5 Commando took part in Operation Ironclad, the campaign to capture Madagascar from Vichy French control.
Rear Admiral E F Geuritz, DSC and Bar was Beachmaster during the landings, “It was a complete success from a point of view of surprise. The Commando was able to take over the battery which commanded Courier Bay with the garrison asleep, because the orders of the French for the defence had said attack at night is impossible”.
Two Army Commandos took part in the ill-fated Operation Jubilee, the raid on Dieppe on 19th August 1942. The intention was for the Commandos to take the coastal batteries when 3 Commando ran into a German convoy and only two parties landed but managed to engage the Berneval Battery for some hours.
Vincent Osborne was in the second wave of the attack,
“We had just come up from below deck to get in to the position to take off. 7 Section, that is half of the troop, was forward and 8 section was to the rear of the twin four-inch guns. A man came and told us there were loose mortar bombs rolling about at the far end so my Number One went out to sort it out. Star shells lit up and a hell of a lot of firing took place and the same man came back and said, ‘Your mate has been killed.’ That was it! …We didn’t get ashore because the opposition was so strong, we would only be reinforcing disaster.”
4 Commando, under Lord Lovat MC were more successful and overwhelmed the Varengeville Battery and its garrison in a controlled and daring assault. Professor M R D Foot, later a Commando Intelligence Officer in the Adriatic, was posted to GSO3 intelligence at Command Operations headquarters and arrived the day after the raid on Dieppe. He recalled,
“The place was like an over turned beehive. Corridors full of staff officers crying out the first names of friends who had gone to Dieppe and not come back and saying we have made a colossal balls of it.”
Vincent Osborne of 3 Commando made the wry observation, “We had a hell of a lot of coppers as replacements after Dieppe and these taller ones helped the short arses” in later raids.
On the night of 3-4th October 1942, a party from the Small Scale Raiding Force and 12 Commando carried out a reconnoitre operation on the occupied island of Sark.
Five German prisoners were taken and with a shortage of men to guard them their hands were secured behind their backs. It is not clear what happened but after the raid the bodies of three of these prisoners were found on the beach by the occupying forces. Berlin alleged bodies of German soldiers tied up in the same way (the rope knotted round the thumbs, the method thought to be favoured by the Commandos) had been recovered after the Dieppe raid. Later that month a succession of Kommandobefehl (Commando Orders) were made directing the killing of all men found operating against German troops in so-called Commando raids in Europe and Africa.
John Randall (of the SAS) recalled,
“This was not something that we, ourselves, were notified about. Perhaps that was just as well but I don’t think it would have made a great deal of difference. But we did lose some very fine people who had the misfortune to be captured and tortured and murdered, and it has made a big scar on my life and gave me a particular attitude towards post-war Germany and the Germans in general”.
After taking part in the Torch Landings, 1 and 6 Commandos served with the Field Army throughout the campaign in Tunisia, mainly in an infantry role.
3 Commando was the first British Unit to get a foothold in occupied Europe when it landed at Sicily in Operation Husky ahead of the field Army and destroyed the coastal battery that had covered the beach at Cassibile on the night of 10th July 1943. Vincent Osborne, of 4 Troop, remembered the landing very clearly,
“We landed in Sicily quite close to Cassibile and the job was lightly opposed. We got in and were on the march when a single shot rang out. I understand it was a farmer who was a bit upset. Anyway, we formed up and did the assault on the guns.”
Three days later they captured the vital Ponte de Malati, the Primosole Bridge, enabling the 50th Division to make their advance.
On 3rd September 1943, 2 Commando landed at Vietri sul Mer on the Salerno Plain, scaled the cliffs and easily took their objective, an undefended gun battery.
With 41 (RM) Commando they captured a German observation post at La Molina which controlled a pass leading to the Salerno beachhead. On 13th September they defended the village of Dragone against stiff opposition then moved to Mercatello and cleared the area from German forces. Both Commandos then occupied the area known as the ‘pimple’ before they were withdrawn to Sicily. This campaign had heavy costs for the two commandos; almost half that made the Salerno landing were killed, wounded or missing.
Forced to withdraw
J E Leech MM of 3 Commando recounts this exceptional accomplishment in his memoir,
“We were to land at Termoli and block the roads and lines of communication of the retreating Germans. We secured the beachhead without a single shot being fired and followed the railway lines towards the town. Very soon we heard firing from the outskirts where 40 (RM) Commando were held up. We soon reached the scene where the only opposition came from three houses covering a forked road. We put our two-inch mortars and grenade discharger to very good purpose with one bomb setting fire to an ammunition dump. This put us in great spirits and we advanced to the station and on to a block of flats where we took up positions and covered a detachment of 2 Troop who knocked out an 80mm gun.
From there we proceeded to a building that turned out to be the local HQ of the German commander. We surprised him and ourselves when we entered the yard and found him still shaving, we put him under escort and rounded up a few parachutists to keep him company. I was still covering a section of the railway line and on occasion put several bursts of fire over the heads of Italian civilians trying to rob from the bodies of German casualties.
We settled down for the night to rest and wait for the Eighth Army to come up and the next morning the Germans broke through to the south, almost cutting our lines of communication and we had to turn out to reinforce the troops on the high ground. We were very surprised to see our forward troops withdrawing followed closely by the enemy. Through my glasses I saw a Tiger tank covering the advance of approximately 70 men and estimated the range to be 1400 yards so I fired a couple of rounds from my Bren gun and dispersed them and they made no more attempts to advance until several hours later. Instead they began a barrage that lasted several hours and caused us some casualties; at one time the shells were landing at two minute intervals.
By 1500 our position was beginning to look serious, we saw several enemy troop-carriers advancing and, as we had no supporting weapons, we just lay and watched them moving towards our right flank, clearly threatening our flank. We prepared a line of small arms and waited for them. Unfortunately for the Germans, they thought we had evacuated and advanced in their greatcoats with their weapons over their shoulders. We waited until the leading man was 50 yards from us then we let go, forcing many casualties on them and forcing them to withdraw.”
In 1943 the Commando units were reorganised into five fighting troops (divided into two sections of 30 other ranks further sub-divided into three 10-man platoons), a heavy weapons troop with a three-inch mortar and a Vickers machine-gun team, a signals platoon and headquarters. They were also allocated sufficient armoured transport to accommodate the entire unit during operations.
The role of the Commando changed as the Allies planned and executed large scale amphibious landings of invasion forces on occupied Europe and as a result, they were formed into four Special Service brigades to land at the forefront of these operations.
1 and 4 Brigades operated in North West Europe, 2 Brigade operated in Italy and Yugoslavia and 3 Brigade operated in Burma
First Commando Brigade (3, 4, 6 and 45 RM Commando with French troops of 10 Commando) was under the command of Lord Lovat.
On 6th June 1944, 4 Commando captured Ouistreham while the rest of the brigade relieved airborne troops that had captured the ‘Pegasus’ Bridge at Benouville the
night before. Lovat was gravely wounded during the Battle of Normandy the following week but the Brigade continued to support the Field Army until it returned to Britain in September to be brought back to full strength. Despite plans for service in the Far East, it was posted back to Europe for service in the Ardennes Offensive, the Crossing of the Rhine and the Weser.
4 Commando were selected for Operation Infatuate, an assault landing to open the port of Antwerp. Professor John Forfar recalls,
“At one point I was behind the leading troop. While they were waiting the Germans, at the top of a dune that we ultimately could see, mortared them. They killed eleven right off the reel and another twenty were seriously wounded. This was the kind of disastrous thing that happened in Walcheren.”
The Second Commando Brigade, under the command of Brigadier RJF Tod, served in Italy, Yugoslavia and Greece.
After a raid on the lower reaches of the Garigliano in December 1943, 9 Commando landed at Anzio with little opposition but the Brigade suffered heavy losses in their attempts to take Monte Ornito. The following spring they landed at Anzio again, this time in an infantry role.
From December 1943 to October 1944, Lieutenant Colonel Jack Churchill commanded a force operating on the Dalmatian coast from the Island of Vis, its most celebrated raid was in March 1944 when it destroyed the German garrison on the Island of Solta. After capturing Corfu, the brigade returned to Italy early in 1945. On the 1st April, a difficult crossing of the Comacchio lagoon, (after weeks of dry weather the lake had become a muddy mire and the Commandos had to wade through dragging their landing craft), it took and cleared a narrow strip of land known as ‘the Spit’ to secure the eastern flank of the Eighth Army. It then took the bridge at Menate in the Battle of the Argenta Gap.
3 Brigade, under the command of Brigadier C R Hardy DSO, saw little action until the last Arakan campaign. The brigade occupied Akyab then fought for three days to take Myebon and destroyed a Japanese cavalry regiment. After crossing the Daingbong Chaung to Kangaw, there was a bitter fight to retain Hill 170, considered to be the decisive battle of the entire campaign.
‘What’s in a Hat?’
Dr John Paterson was a junior officer in 1 Commando engaged in combined operations in the Arakan, and in his account ‘What’s in a Hat?’ describes the nature of the danger as well as the regimental pride enduringly associated with the Commandos,
”I well remember one patrol I went on when we were led into a carefully prepared ambush which entailed our party withdrawing pretty smartly, and with some loss of dignity, in order to regroup. It was just outside a village, and there was an unusual feature in a sort of straggly hedge running down a band between two dried-out paddy fields; there was no question about it, we had to run for it.
All my chaps got over this obstacle in safety, gaining cover 50 yards further on, and then never much of a sprinter it was my turn to do my fastest ever hundred yards. Dashing at the beastly thing, I got stuck halfway over, kicking and swearing in mid- air like mad. After what seemed an age I fell down – happily on the ‘home’ side – picked myself up and started on my second lap. Halfway across the second paddy field I realised my precious green beret was not on my head. Stopping in mid-flight to look back, there it was, hanging in the hedge and ready for the Japanese to pick up as treasure trove. This just would not do! I ran back to retrieve my precious beret, putting it on carefully before running for cover once more. Happily the Japanese were notoriously bad rifle shots and of course my chaps were laughing their heads off with a ringside view of this ridiculous caper. What idiot would go back under fire for a bloody hat? I would. It meant a great deal to me.”
3 Brigade was then withdrawn to India to prepare for Operation Zipper the invasion of Malaya. Fenton Rutter, in command of a flotilla of landing craft, recalled,“We loaded up with the units of the 3rd Commando Brigade and we had our pontoons but fortunately the Japanese bomb dropped and so that was that”.
At the end of the war most Commando units were disbanded, only three Royal Marine Commandos and one brigade remained. The legacy of this remarkable force is the Special Forces that were formed from the Commandos and have since proved vital in recent warfare, the Parachute Regiment, the SAS and the SBS.
The Centre holds a magnificent collection of interviews and memoirs from men who served as and with Commandos and it is fitting to end this introduction with an extract from St Nazaire veteran Arthur ‘Buster’ Woodiwiss’ memoir;
“What made a Commando? Commitment! We were not elite, not chosen but out of our own free will were ready to fight for freedom. We came from all walks of life, all trades and professions, rich and poor. The overwhelming majority of volunteers were not regular soldiers, they were civilians in uniform for the duration of the war. Men who decided the Army needed men of intelligence eager to attack the enemy as specially trained, highly mobile, independent individuals, ready to fight in small groups or alone. The Commando was not a superman, but with stealth and endurance he was trained to be one.”