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The British Commandos were first formed by the British Army during World War II in June 1940, as a well-armed but non-regimental raider force employing unconventional and irregular tactics to assault, disrupt and reconnoitre the enemy in mainland Europe and Scandinavia.

Four current units of the UK Armed Forces, the Royal Marines Commandos, the Parachute Regiment, the Special Air Service and the Special Boat Service all share this same origin.[1][2]

Initially raids were typically made by comparatively small numbers, of short duration and at night, later growing in complexity and size. The Commandos were formed and operated in secrecy and produced a demoralising effect on German coastal forces while achieving celebrity status among the British public, comparable with that attached to fighter pilots and shrouded in myth. As the war progressed commandos operated increasingly in the role of shock troops, sometimes up to brigade strength and sometimes in conjunction with infantry.

Contents

Formation

Following Sir Winston Churchill's instruction to form a "butcher and bolt" raiding force as a means of continuing the war against Nazi Germany after the evacuation of most of the British Expeditionary Force at Dunkirk, a format for the new force was put forward by Lieutenant-Colonel Dudley Clarke (Royal Artillery) during his time as Military Assistant to General Sir John Dill, the Chief of the Imperial General Staff. He penned his proposals on 5 June 1940, just two days after the evacuation, which was approved at a meeting between Dill and Churchill on 8 June, and department M.O.9 of the War Office was created the following day to pursue the idea. M.O.9 continued to foster the Commando idea until disbanded with the creation of the Tri-service organisation known as Combined Operations, encompassing all three services. On Churchill's orders the units were to be armed with the latest equipment and were to launch an attack at the earliest opportunity,

The Commando Memorial located near Spean Bridge in the Scottish Highlands.

In 1940, volunteers were called for from serving Army soldiers within certain formations still in Britain and men of the disbanding Divisional Independent Companies originally raised from Territorial Army Divisions and who had seen service in Norway. Some later recruiting was conducted in the various theatres and among foreign nationals joining the Allies. In 1942 the Admiralty agreed to volunteers being sought from the Royal Marines Division and the first Royal Marines Commando, No.40, was formed in mid February. The same year, recruits were also called for from the British police forces. Some 400 men passed Commando training and were then assigned to various battalions.

Dudley Clarke proposed the name "Commando" after the raiding and assault style of Boer Commando units of the Second Boer War. Despite Churchill's liking for the name, some senior officers preferred the term "Special Service" and both terms coexisted until the latter part of the war. Persistence of the term "Special Service" derived the terms "Special Air Service", for the original No. 2 Commando parachutists, and longer term the "Special Boat Service" whose origin lays in Lt. Roger Courtney's Folbot Troop, later "Special Boat Section" of No. 8 Commando and "101 Troop" of No.6 Commando.

Each Commando was to consist of a headquarters unit plus ten troops of 50 men including three officers (changed in 1941 to six troops of 65 men per Commando including a Heavy Weapons Troop). Some thirty Commando units were formed during the war within the Army, Royal Marines, Royal Navy and Royal Air Force, together with a number of other Special Forces units. Army Commandos and Royal Marines Commandos were eventually formed into four brigades.

Each Commando was initially responsible for the selection and training of its own officers and men. Commando troops received extra pay from which they had to find their own accommodation whenever in Britain. They trained in physical fitness, survival, orienteering, close quarter combat, silent killing, signalling, amphibious and cliff assault, vehicle operation, weapons (including the use of captured enemy small arms) and demolition. Live ammunition was used at all times during training,[3] which resulted in some casualties. Many officers, NCOs and trainee instructors initially attended various courses at the all forces Special Training Centre at Lochailort, Scotland. Also in the Scottish Highlands, Combined Operations established a substantial all forces amphibious training centre at Inveraray, and in 1942 a specific Commando Training Centre at Achnacarry near Spean Bridge. All field training was conducted with live ammunition.

Notable World War II operations

Northwest Europe

The first attack - though not very effective except in respect of its propaganda value - was made by 120 men of the 375-strong No.11 Commando/Independent Company commanded by Major Ronnie Tod on the night of 23 June 1940. The attack - code-named Operation Collar - was an offensive reconnaissance on the French coast south of Boulogne-sur-Mer and Le Touquet. The only British injury was a bullet graze to Dudley Clarke's ear (Clarke was there as an observer), while at least two German soldiers were killed.

A second and similarly inconsequential attack, Operation Ambassador, was launched on the German occupied island of Guernsey on the night of 14 July 1940, by men drawn from H Troop of No. 3 Commando under John Durnford-Slater and No. 11 Independent Company. The raiders failed to make contact with the German garrison.

Norway

After intensive training and a number of cancelled operations over the following months, a major raid, Operation Claymore, was launched on the morning of 3 March 1941, by No. 3 and No. 4 Commando on the practically undefended Norwegian Lofoten Islands, successfully destroying fish-oil factories, petrol dumps, and 11 ships, capturing 216 Germans, and recruiting 315 Norwegian volunteers. Encryption equipment and codebooks were also seized during this operation.

Middle East

In an attempt to help stem the early successes of Rommel's Afrika Korps, a force derived from Troops of Nos. 3, 4, 7, 8, and 11 Commando, organised as three 'Special Service' Battalions, with the addition of another 'Special Service' Battalion drawn from the locally raised '50' series Middle East Commando (together known as Layforce after their commander Colonel Robert Laycock) were attached to General Sir Archibald Wavell's army in February 1941. Their first raid was made on 20 April on the port of Bardia; although little damage was caused, Rommel temporarily recalled a brigade sized battle group from the front to defend against subsequent raids. The Commandos were then used to help defend the island of Crete, and covered the eventual evacuation, with the exception of No. 11 Commando, which was reinforcing Cyprus.

Following the British invasion of Syria (Operation Exporter) on 8 June 1941, No. 11 Commando participated in the Battle of the Litani River. The unit successfully led the crossing of the Litani River in Lebanon, fighting against troops of the French Vichy Régime.

On November 18, 1941 No. 11 Commando raided Libya in an attempt to kill Erwin Rommel

Return to Norway

The minor Norwegian port of Vågsøy (Vaagso in English) was to be the main target of one of the first raids under Louis Mountbatten's Combined Operations organisation. Operation Archery involved Nos. 2, 3, 4 and 6 Commando, a flotilla from the Royal Navy, and limited air support. The raid took place on the morning of 27 December 1941, causing significant damage to factories, warehouses, the German garrison, and sinking 8 ships.

The raid prompted Hitler to divert 30,000 troops to Norway, upgrade coastal and inland defences, and send the battleship Tirpitz, the battlecruiser (or light battleship) Scharnhorst, the "pocket battleship" Lutzow and the heavy cruisers Hipper and Prinz Eugen to Norway—a major reorientation of effort away from the North Atlantic convoy routes for the protection of Norway. Hitler was led to believe that the British might invade northern Norway to put pressure on Sweden and Finland. As a diversion Operation Anklet was launched on the Lofoten Islands at the same time.

In 1942 the Commandos supported the Norwegian heavy water sabotage operations led by Special Operations Executive (SOE) trained Norwegian commandos.

France

St Nazaire

HMS Campbeltown with her bow firmly lodged in the outer lock of the Normandie dock. Shortly after this photograph was taken, the charges in the bow of the Campbeltown exploded, destroying the lock.

The French port of St. Nazaire contained the Louis Joubert Lock, then the largest dry dock in the world, built for the passenger liner SS Normandie. It was the only dry dock on the French Atlantic coast capable of berthing the German battleship Tirpitz for repairs, and thus enable it to operate against convoys from there.

No. 2 Commando plus demolition experts from Numbers 1, 3, 4, 5, 6, 9 and 12 Commandos launched a Combined Operations raid, Operation Chariot, with the Royal Navy on 28 March 1942, which became known in Britain thereafter as 'The Greatest Raid of All'.

The destroyer HMS Campbeltown (formerly the 1919 decommissioned USS Buchanan) had 24 Mark VII depth-charges (4 1/4 tons) cemented below decks behind the forward gun support.

Accompanied by 18 smaller ships, the Campbeltown sailed into port where she was rammed directly into the Normandie dock gates. The Commandos engaged the German forces and destroyed the dock facilities. Eight hours later, delayed-action fuses set off the explosives in the Campbeltown which wrecked the dock gates and killed some 360 Germans and French.

The dock remained out of action for the duration of the war and the Tirpitz was never sent south to France, eventually being destroyed by British bombers while at anchor off Tromsø, Norway. A total of 611 soldiers and sailors took part in Chariot; 169 were killed and 200 (most wounded) taken prisoner. Only 242 returned immediately. Of the 241 Commandos who took part 64 were posted as killed or missing and 109 captured. Among participants in the raid two commandos and three members of the Royal Navy were awarded the Victoria Cross, while 80 others received decorations for gallantry.

Dieppe

On 19 August 1942, Dieppe was the site of a bloody landing by 4,965 Canadian troops and 1,075 men of No. 3 and No. 4 Commando, and the newly formed No. 40 Commando Royal Marines, designated A Commando (RM) at that time. Among them were distributed 50 U.S. Rangers and members of 3 Troop, No. 10 (Inter Allied) Commando (German-speaking, many Jewish) and some of the embryonic No. 30 (Assault Unit) Commando.

Nos.3 and 4 (with those of No. 10 (IA) and most of the Rangers) were to destroy batteries to the north and south respectively which overlooked the harbour. No. 40 Commando (RM) and some Rangers were to land with the Canadian infantry and armour. No. 30 (AU) was to race through to the Dieppe Town Hall/Headquarters and capture whatever intelligence documents could be found. An RAF radar expert had a mission to search for and take German radar documents believed to be at Dieppe. Unknown to him, his bodyguards had orders to kill him in the event his capture seemed imminent.

The boats carrying No. 3 Commando ran into a German convoy and the ensuing sea battle scattered their formation and prevented the landing and attack going to plan. Though only 18 men succeeded in reaching their objective and were unable to destroy the guns, determined sniping prevented the German gun crews from firing on the invasion force. No. 4 landed successfully and destroyed their target battery.

The raid lasted only nine hours but claimed 907 Canadian dead and 1,946 taken prisoner. The Royal Air Force lost 106 aircraft and 153 men in the air battle above Dieppe (the largest air battle of the European war in terms of sorties flown), while the Royal Navy lost a destroyer, several landing craft and 550 men. While Germany suffered several hundred casualties, the overall operation was widely criticised as poorly conceived, although it did lead to the decision not to attempt to capture a port by way of head-on assault during the invasion of Normandy in 1944 — Operation Overlord.

D-Day and Normandy

Men of No. 4 Commando engaged in house to house fighting with the Germans at Riva Bella, near Ouistreham. Sherman DD tanks of 'B' Squadron, 13/18th Royal Hussars are providing fire support and cover. 6 June 1944.

1st Special Service Brigade comprising No. 3, No. 4, No. 6 and No. 45 (RM) Commandos landed at Ouistreham in Queen Red sector of Sword Beach. No. 4 Commando were augmented by 1 and 8 Troop (both French) of No. 10 (Inter Allied) Commando and were committed for two months to hold the left flank of the D-Day landings. No. 41(RM) Commando (part of 4th Special Service Brigade) landed on the far right of Sword Beach, where 29,000 men would land.[4] No. 48 (RM) Commando landed on Juno Beach, from Saint-Aubin-sur-Mer to Courseulles-sur-Mer, where 21,400 troops would land. No. 46(RM) Commando (part of 4th Special Service Brigade) at Juno to scale the cliffs on the left side of the Orne River estuary and destroy a battery. No. 47(RM) Commando (part of 4th Special Service Brigade) landed on the West flank of Gold Beach.

Netherlands

In November 1944 British Commandos of the 4th Commando Brigade and 41(RM) Commando were involved in the Battle of Walcheren Causeway, attacking from seaward at Flushing and Westkapelle.

Italy

On 1 April 1945 the whole of 2nd Commando Brigade, Nos. 2, 9, 40 (RM) and 43 (RM), under Brigadier Ronnie Tod were engaged in Operation Roast at Comacchio lagoon, north east Italy. This was the first major action in the big spring offensive to push the Germans back across the River Po and out of Italy. After a fierce three-day battle, the Commandos succeeded in clearing the spit separating the lagoon from the Adriatic, so securing the flank of the 8th Army and fostering the idea the main offensive would be along the coast and not though the Argenta Gap.

A total of 946 prisoners were taken, while three battalions, two troops of artillery and a company of machine gunners were wiped out. In the course of the operation 20 field guns and a number of mortars and rocket launchers were also captured. During the operation, Cpl Tom Hunter of No.43 Commando (RM) earned a posthumous Victoria Cross for conspicuous gallantry in single handedly clearing a farmstead housing three Spandau machine guns, then engaging further Spandaus entrenched on the far side of the canal from open ground.

Burma

In Burma 142 Commando Company formed part of the Chindits (the 77th Indian Infantry Brigade), and fought in the first long-range Chindit operation behind Japanese lines, codenamed Operation Longcloth. The raid began on 8 February 1943 and lasted for about three months. It inflicted little damage on Japanese supply lines but it did show that British and Indian Army and Indian forces could fight in the jungle as well as or better than the Japanese; this gave a boost to the morale of the Allied forces fighting in the South-East Asian Theatre.

In the India / Burma theatre 142 Commando Company also operated in conjunction with the U.S. unit Merrill's Marauders.

Later in the Burma Campaign 3 Commando Brigade comprising No. 5 Army Commando, No 44 RM Commando, No. 42 RM Commando, and No.1 Army Commando took part in the coastal landings during the Allied Southern Front offensive of 1944/1945. Culminating in the battle of Hill 170 at Kangaw. Here Lt G Knowland of 4 Troop No 1 Army Commando was awarded the Victoria Cross.

The battle of Kangaw was the critical battle of the second Arakan campaign.

Hitler's Commando Order

On 18 October 1942 Hitler issued his Kommandobefehl, or Commando Order. In this order, Hitler required that British or Allied soldiers participating in Commando operations should be "annihilated to the last man", even if in uniform, escaping, or surrendering — contrary to the stipulations of the Geneva Conventions. This was prompted by his rage at the success of the Commandos and their effect on the morale of his men, and an incident on the Isle of Sark, Channel Islands, involving men of the Small Scale Raiding Force and No. 12 Commando. In this action 3 German prisoners were killed, allegedly with their hands tied and while attempting escape.

Commando battle honours

In September 1957, 38 battle honours were approved by Queen Elizabeth II to be bestowed upon the Commando Association on behalf of the commando units.[5] The honours that were awarded were:

Adriatic - Alethangyaw - Aller - Anzio - Argenta Gap - Burma 1943/1945 - Crete - Dieppe - Dives Crossing - Djebel Choucha - Flushing - Greece 1944/45 - Italy 1943/45 - Kangaw - Landing at Porto San Venere - Landing in Sicily - Leese - Litani - Madagascar - Middle East 1941, 1942, 1944 - Monte Ornito - Myebon - N. Africa 1941/1943 - N.W. Europe 1942, 1944, 1945 - Normandy Landing - Norway 1941 - Pursuit to Messina - Rhine - Salerno - Sedjenane 1 - Sicily 1943 - St.Nazaire - Steamroller Farm - Syria 1941 - Termoli - Vaagso - Valli di Comacchio - Westkapelle.

In 1985, the Commando Association applied to the Ministry of Defence for three more honours—Keren, Amba Alagi and Abyssinia 1940–41—on behalf of Nos. 51 and 52 Commandos.[6] The request was, however, not approved.[7]

Post-World War II reorganisation

During the war the British Army Commandos spawned several other famous British units such as the Special Air Service, the Special Boat Service and the Parachute Regiment. The British Army Commandos themselves were never regimented and were disbanded at the end of the war while the Royal Marines Commandos continued, though in smaller numbers and with much reorganisation, for example the Commando 21 reorganisation.

In 2005 the operational British Commando force consisted of 3 Commando Brigade Royal Marines which included 40, 42 Commando and 45 Commando Royal Marines, 29 Commando Regiment Royal Artillery, and 59 Independent Commando Squadron Royal Engineers, the Commando Logistic Regiment, a naval squadron of medium helicopters, and a landing craft squadron. 3 Commando Brigade also included either the First or the Second Battalion Korps Mariniers.

Commando training today

Royal Marines recruits undergo a 32-week course at the Commando Training Centre Royal Marines, Lympstone. Included within this (and Royal Marines Officer Training) is the Commando Course.

Those volunteers for Commando Training from other services undertake the All Arms Commando Course, also run at CTCRM. Such volunteers will be aiming to serve in a number of units that are part of 3 Commando Brigade, examples include:

They will already have completed basic training and indeed may be very experienced personnel. 'Beat-up' courses are run by both the Commando Gunners and the Commando Engineers to prepare volunteers for the Commando Course itself.

There is also a Reserve Commando Course run for members of the Royal Marines Reserve and Commando units of the Territorial Army.

Other notable Commando operations

See also

Notes

  1. ^ Dunning 2003, p. 109.
  2. ^ 4 Commando
  3. ^ http://www2.army.mod.uk/29cdoregtra/about/history.htm
  4. ^ "Britannica guide to D-Day 1944". http://www.britannica.com/dday/article-236192. Retrieved 2007-10-30.  
  5. ^ Parker 2006, p. 182.
  6. ^ Messenger 1988 p. 131.
  7. ^ Messenger 1988, p. 132.

References

  • Dunning, James (2003). The Fighting Fourth: No. 4 Commando at War 1940–45. Sutton. ISBN 9780750930956.  
  • Messenger, Charles; Young, George & Rose, Stephen (1988). The Middle East Commandos. Towbridge, Wiltshire: William Kimber. ISBN 0718306457.  
  • Parker, John (2006) [2000]. Commandos: The Inside Story of Britain's Most Elite Fighting Force. London: Bounty Books. ISBN 9780753712924.  

External links








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