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British Commandos

The British Commandos were first formed 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. While small in number, the mere threat of commando attacks forced the enemy to move strength from the front line to rear-area security.

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.

Table of contents
1 Formation
2 Some World War II Operations
3 Hitler's Commando Order
4 Commando Battle Honours
5 Post World War II Reorganisation
6 See Also


Following Winston Churchill's instruction to form a 'butcher and bolt' raiding force as a means of continuing the war against Nazi Germany following the evacuation of most of the British Expeditionary Force at Dunkerque, 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 Winston Churchill on June 8, and department M.O.9 of the War Office was created the following day to pursue the idea. MO9 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.

Initially 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. 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. Persistance 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 "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, NCO,s 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, involving 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 battleships Gneisenau, Hipper, Lutzow, Prinz Eugen, Tirpitz and Scharnhorst to Norway - a major diversion of effort and forces that could have had significant impact elsewhere. Hitler mistakenly thought that the British may 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 Pocket 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 Campbelltown - 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 Campbelltown 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 Campbelltown 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 Germany 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 sucessfully 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 Brigadire 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 Germany back to and across the River Po and out of Italy. The breakthrough was to be made through the Argenta Gap, crossing the Rivers Senio and Santerno, taking Imola, Bologna and onwards.

The Comacchio lagoon was a vast area of shallow brackish water stretching from the River Reno in the south to above Comacchio Town in the north and past Argenta in the west. This lagoon (much smaller today due to land reclamation in the 1980’s) is separated from the Adriatic Sea in the east by a narrow strip of land, or spit, no more than 2 ½ kilometres wide with three canals linking the two bodies of water. Germany had approx. 1200 men entrenched there and the Commandos were to clear the Spit and thus secure the flank of the 8th Army and foster the idea the main offensive would be along the coast and not though the Argenta Gap.

No.40 Commando (RM) conducted a faint attack to the south, crossing the River Reno and clearing and holding its north bank. No.40 was supported by the 28th Garibaldi Brigade (Partisans), Royal Artillery and the armour of the North Irish Horse. No.43 Commando (RM) was to attack up a tongue of land to the extreme east which forms the south bank of the Reno estuary, and when cleared, cross the mouth of the Reno and turn back south west and clear the Reno’s north bank, back towards one end of No.40’s line. No.2 and No.9 were to cross the lagoon from the south west to points around the middle of the Spit. No.2 was to land above the Bellocchio Canal and thereafter head south and capture the two bridges across it and prevent German reinforcements crossing. No.9 were to land south of the canal then head south along the lagoon’s shore and down the centre of the Spit to clear all positions towards the new line held by No.40.

The operation started on the evening of 1st April with engagement to start shortly after midnight. The lagoon crossing (marked in advance though not too successfully by Combined Operations Pilotage Party 2 and M Squadron SBS), took far longer than planned due to the exceptionally low water lever and exceptionally muddy lagoon bottom – as deep as chest high. The Commandos struggled through the muddy waste all night, manhandling their boats, and eventually reached the Spit at first light, over 4 hours behind schedule. Exhausted and covered in glutinous slime they pressed home their attacks. Nos.2, 40 and 43 Commandos all made their objectives relatively as expected though Germans succeeded in blowing one bridge before it was captured by No.2. No.9 initially progressed likewise until 5 and 6 Troops (especially 5 Troop), became seriously pinned down across a killing ground while attempting to capture enemy position 'Leviticus', (all physical references were given biblical names in this operation). 1 and 2 Troops made good progress down the centre of the Spit and when advised of the situation of 5 and 6 Troops, bypassed Leviticus in order to turn about, lay smoke, and put in a bayonet charge from south east of it. The position was overrun despite the smoke clearing too quickly exposing the last 150 metres. Routed defenders who fled north fell into the waiting Bren guns of 6 Troop. The bayonet charge was accompanied by 1 Troop’s piper playing ‘’The Road to the Isles’’, No.9 Commando, (known as the Black Hackles from the black feathers they wore in their berets), being a Scottish Commando along with No.11 Commando.

No.2 Commando captured 115 POWs that day and No.9 232. No.9 Commando had 9 killed and 39 wounded of which 8 dead and 27 wounded were of 5 Troop, over half their number. Ground gained, 7 miles.

That evening No.9 and No.43 moved up to the bridges on the Bellocchio Canal held by No.2. The following day, 3rd April, the Royal Engineers made serviceable the blown bridge and the Commandos moved over the canal, supported by tanks of the North Irish Horse. No.2 advance north on the lagoon side (west) and No.43 along the Adriatic side (east), No.9 being placed in reserve with a plan to execute an attack on Port Garibaldi after the next canal (the Valetta canal) was taken. The north bank of the Valetta was found to be very heavily defended, requiring a full dress attack which was later conducted by the 24th Brigade of Guards. The respective Commandos cleared all positions up to the Valetta Canal where, on the eastern flank, 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 after charging across 200 metres of open ground firing his Bren gun from the hip, then moving to an exposed position to draw fire away from his comrades by engaging further Spandaus entrench on the far side of the canal.

2 Commando Brigade had succeeded in taking and clearing the entire spit and securing the east flank for the 8th Army. 946 Prisoners were taken and it was afterwards discovered that German losses were so heavy as to have wiped out 3 Battalions, 2 troops of artillery and a company of machine gunners. 20 Field guns and a number of mortars and rocket launchers were also captured, and in the words of Gen. McCreery’s message to Brigadire Ronnie Tod, "you have captured or destroyed the whole enemy garrison south of Port Garibaldi".

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 2004 the British Forces maintain only 3 Commando Brigade which includes 40, 42 and 45 Commando Royal Marines, 29 Commando Royal Artillery and 59 Commando Royal Engineers, the latter two both Army Commandos.

See Also

Various British Special Operations