British Commandos

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

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, shrouded in myth, comparable with fighter pilots. As the war progressed Commandos operated increasingly in the role of shock troops, sometimes up to brigade strength and sometimes in conjunction with infantry.



Following 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 June 5 1940, just 2 days after the evacuation, which was approved at a meeting between Dill and Churchill on June 8, and department M.O.9 of the War Office was created the following day to pursue the idea. M.O.9 was rapidly modified and expanded to become Combined Operations, encompassing all three services. On Churchill's orders the units were armed with the latest equipment and to launch an attack at the earliest opportunity.

Missing image
The Commando Memorial located in the Scottish Highlands

In 1940, volunteers were called for from serving Army soldiers still in Britain and men of the Independent Companies which were being disbanded. 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 Force. 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 "Special Boat Section" of No.8 Commando and "101 Troop" of No.6 Commando.

Each Commando was to consist of a headquarters unit plus 10 Troops of 50 men including 3 officers (changed in 1941 to 6 Troops of 65 men per Commando including a Heavy Weapons Troop). Some thirty Commando units were formed during the war between 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 officers and men. Commandos 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 enemy) and demolition. 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 establish a substantial all forces amphibious training centre at Inveraray, and in 1942 a specific Commando Training Centre at Achnacarry Castle near Spean Bridge. All training was conducted with live ammunition.

Some World War II Operations

Northwest Europe

The first attack - though not very effective except for the 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 June 23, 1940, Operation Collar was an offensive reconnaissance on the French coast south of Bologne and Le Toquet. The only British injury was a bullet graze to Dudley Clarke's ear, (Clarke there as an observer), while at least two German soldiers were killed.

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


After intensive training and a number of cancelled operations over the following months, a major raid was launched on the morning of March 3, 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, Nos. 7, 8, and 11 Commando, along with the locally raised Combined Middle East Commando (together known as Layforce after their commander Lieutenant-Colonel Robert Laycock) were attached to General Sir Archibald Wavell's army in February 1941. Their first raid was made on April 20 on the port of Barida; although little damage was caused, Rommel recalled a brigade from the front. The Commandos were then used to help defend the island of Crete, and covered the eventual evacuation, with the exception of No.11 Commando, who were reinforcing Cyprus.

Following the British invasion of Syria on June 8, 1941, No.11 Commando were sent to successfully lead the crossing of the Litani River in Palestine, fighting against Troops of the French Vichy Régime.

Return to Norway

The minor Norwegian port of Vaagso was to be the 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 December 27, 1941, causing significant damage to factories, warehouses, the German garrison, and sinking 8 ships.

The raid was enough to persuade Hitler to divert 30,000 troops to Norway, upgrade coastal and inland defences, and send the battleship Tirpitz; Battlecruisers (or light battleships) Gneisenau and Scharnhorst; Pocket battleship Lutzow and Heavy Cruisers Hipper and Prinz Eugen; to Norway - a major diversion of effort and forces that could have had significant impact elsewhere. Hitler mistakenly thought that the British might invade northern Norway to put pressure on Sweden and Finland.


St Nazaire

The French port of St. Nazaire contained 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, 9 and 12 Commandos launched a Combined Operations raid, Operation Chariot, with the Royal Navy on 18th 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.

The Campbeltown with 18 smaller ships sailed into port where she was rammed directly into the Normandie dry 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 Tromso, Norway. 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. 2 Commandos and 3 members of the Royal Navy were awarded the Victoria Cross plus 80 others decorations for gallantry.


On August 19, 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 of capture.

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), and the Royal Navy 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.

See Dieppe Raid for more detail.


On 1st April 1945 the whole of 2 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 3 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.

946 Prisoners were taken, while 3 Battalions, 2 troops of artillery and a company of machine gunners were wiped out. 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 Spandaus, then engaging further Spandaus entrenched on the far side of the canal from open ground.

Hitler's Commando Order

Enraged by the success of the Commandos and their effect on the morale of his men, and, following an incident on the Isle of Sark, Channel Islands, involving men of the Small Scale Raiding Force and No.12 Commando, where German prisoners had their hands tied, Hitler issued what is known as his Kommandobefehl, or Commando Order. This was dated October 18 1942, and ordered 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 requirement of the Geneva Conventions.

Commando Battle Honours

Adriatic - Alethangyaw - Aller - Anzio - Argenta Gap - Burma 1943/45 - 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 1941,42,44 - Monte Ornito - Myebon - N. Africa 1941/43 - N.W. Europe 1942,44,45 - 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.

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.

In 2005 the operational British Commando force consists of 3 Commando Brigade Royal Marines which includes 40, 42 and 45 Commando Royal Marines, 29 Commando Royal Artillery ( and 59 Independent Commando Squadron Royal Engineers ( (the latter two both Army Commandos), a logistic regiment, a naval squadron of medium helicopters, and a landing craft squadron. 3 Commando Brigade also includes either the First or the Second Battalion Korps Mariniers.

Applications for the Commandos are made to the respective regiment. Royal Marines ( recruits undergo a 32 week course at the Commando Training Centre Royal Marines, Lympstone, while 29 Commando ( and 59 Commando ( recruits train at or from their regimental bases in Plymouth and Barnstable respectively. These three bases are in Devon. To qualify for entitlement to wear the green beret, all recruits must pass the 8 week All Arms Commando Course at Lympstone. This latter course is also open to, and taken by, serving members of other branches of the Armed Forces.

See also

Some other Commando Operations

  • Abercrombie April 1942 raid on Hardelot, France.
  • Ambassador July 1940 raid on Guernsey
  • Anklet December 1941 raid on the Lofoten Islands.
  • Archery December 1941 raid on Vaagso, Norway.
  • Basalt October 1942 raid on Sark (SSRF).
  • Biting February 1942 raid on the German radar near Bruneval, France.
  • Chariot March 1942 raid on St. Nazaire, France.
  • Clawhammer October 1942 planned raid on radar sites near Cherbourg.
  • Claymore March 1941 on the Lofoten Islands.
  • Colossus February 1941 first airborne raid, raid on Italian aqueduct, origin of term 'SAS', (but not the organisation).
  • Frankton December 1942 raid on shipping near Bordeaux, (RN Boom Patrol Detachment - Cockleshell Heroes).
  • Gauntlet August 1941 raid on Spitsbergen.
  • Gunnerside February 1943 raid on the heavy water plant at Rjuken (SOE Norwegians).

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