British Army Commandos, WWII, No 1 Commando training in Scotland 1941

80th Anniversary of Army Commandos

Churchil Orders “Reign of Terror”, 6 June 1940

The Fall of France and the desperate evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force from the beaches of Dunkirk sent shockwaves across the world. Determined to restore British morale, Churchill ordered the creation of formations which would “set Europe ablaze”. That order, and the valuable lessons learned from the defeat in France, would help create the Army Commandos, and later the Parachute Regiment and Intelligence Corps.

The idea of Commando units came from the use of agile, determined, and skilled fighters by the Dutch Republics in the Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902). During that War, the Boer Commandos had successfully tied the British Army in knots with rapid, precision attacks which forced the more conventional forces to be continuously on their guard and thinly spread. It was this which Churchill wished to emulate.

specially-trained troops of the hunter class

Churchill told the joint chiefs of staff to propose measures for an offensive against German-occupied Europe, and stated in a minute to General Ismay on 6 June 1940: “Enterprises must be prepared, with specially-trained troops of the hunter class, who can develop a reign of terror down these coasts, first of all on the ‘butcher and bolt’ policy…” The Chief of the Imperial General Staff at that time was General Sir John Dill and his Military Assistant was Lieutenant Colonel Dudley Clarke. Clarke discussed the matter with Dill at the War Office and prepared a paper for him that proposed the formation of a new force based on the tactics of Boer commandos, “hit sharp and quick – then run to fight another day”; they became ‘The Commandos’ from then onwards. Dill, aware of Churchill’s intentions, approved Clarke’s proposal.

Initially drawn from within the British Army from soldiers who volunteered for the Special Service Brigade, the Commandos’ ranks would eventually be filled by members of all branches of the British Armed Forces and a number of foreign volunteers from German-occupied countries. By the end of the war 25,000 men had passed through the Commando course at Achnacarry. This total includes not only the British volunteers, but volunteers from Greece, France, Belgium, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, and the United States Army Rangers, which were modelled on the Commandos.

The first commando raid, Operation Collar, was conducted on the night of 24/25 June 1940. From then onwards, the Army Commando units would launch attacks across the Channel, successfully diverting German resources to protect their forces from attacks which would strike out of the dark, bringing destruction in their wake. Later in the war, larger forces of British Army Commandos would take part in the attack on Dieppe and on D-Day.

Reaching a wartime strength of over 30 units and four assault brigades, the Commandos served in all theatres of war from the Arctic Circle to Europe and from the Mediterranean and Middle East to South-East Asia. Their operations ranged from small groups of men landing from the sea or by parachute, to a brigade of assault troops spearheading the Allied invasions of Europe and Asia.

Initially, the Commandos were indistinguishable from the rest of the British Army and volunteers retained their own regimental head-dress and insignia. It became necessary to change this and in 1942 the green Commando beret and the Combined Operations tactical recognition flash were adopted.

Commandos were typically armed with the standard British Army small arms of the time. Most riflemen carried the Lee–Enfield rifle and section fire support was provided by the Bren light machine gun. The Thompson was the submachine gun of choice, but later in the war the Commandos also used the cheaper and lighter Sten gun. Commando sections were equipped with a higher number of Bren and Thompson guns than a normal British infantry section. The Webley Revolver was initially used as the standard sidearm, but it was replaced by the Colt 45 pistol, which used the same ammunition as the Thompson submachine gun. One weapon specifically designed for the Commandos was the De Lisle carbine. Fitted with a silencer and using the same .45 cartridge as the Thompson, it was designed to eliminate sentries during raids, but due to the changing role of the Commandos was never put into full production. The Fairbairn-Sykes Fighting Knife was designed especially for hand-to-hand combat, replacing the BC-41 knuckleduster dagger, although a whole range of clubs and knives were used.

The success of the raids varied. Operation Chariot, the raid against dock installations at St Nazaire, has been hailed as the greatest raid of all time, but others, like Operation Aquatint and Operation Musketoon, resulted in the capture or death of all involved. In north west Europe, there were 57 raids made between 1940 and 1944, most of them in France.

After the war most Commando units were disbanded, leaving only the Royal Marines 3 Commando Brigade. The modern Royal Marine Commandos, Parachute Regiment, Special Air Service and Special Boat Service trace their origins to the Commandos. The Army continued to provide specialist roles, however, in areas such as artillery, engineer support, and logistics providing invaluable support to the Marines. Today there are Army Commando personnel attached to the Royal Navy’s 3 Commando Brigade delivering agility and adaptability at high readiness.

The legacy of Britain’s Second World War Commandos extends beyond Her Majesty’s Armed Forces and can be seen in the establishment of the French Naval commandos, Dutch Korps Commandotroepen, Belgian Paracommando Brigade, the Greek 1st Raider/Paratrooper Brigade and the United States Army Rangers.

Source: British Army and others

Image: British Army Commandos, No 1 Commando training in Glencoe, Scotland, Sseptember 1941.