Early in 1940, some months before the end of the ‘phoney war’ in France, the efforts of Major J.F.C. Holland, a Sapper working on Intelligence research, were rewarded by the authorization of the formation of ten Independent Companies whose task was to be the raiding of the Germans’ Lines of Communication.
The invasion of Norway by the Germans in April and the despatch of a small Allied force to the Narvik area saw five of these companies, commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Colin Gubbins, being dispatched with that force. When they got there, the shortage of infantry was such that the Companies were pitchforked into battle as infantrymen and were unable to exercise their special skills. Despite this unsatisfactory misuse of Britain’s first Special Forces, their very creation had set a vital precedent and, within weeks, Colonel Dudley Clarke, the Military Assistant to General Sir John Dill, the Chief of the Imperial General Staff, had produced a plan, which had long been hatching in his mind, to establish a number of raiding units, which he christened Commandos after the Boer raiding forces in the South African War.
Colonel Dudley Clarke put his paper to his chief, General Sir John Dill, and received immediate permission to go ahead. After the Norwegian fiasco, the Independent Companies were earmarked for disbandment, thereby giving an excellent pool of high class, trained men upon which to found his first Commandos.
One severe restraint was imposed upon Clarke – nothing could be issued to the Commandos which might inhibit the redevelopment of the Home Army or was needed for General Wavell’s Middle East Command. Despite this handicap, Clarke’s units began to train with what Seymour calls ‘an assortment of shared weapons’ and to plan two small raids – one against a German airfield near Le Touquet and the other against the island of Guernsey. Seymour comments that;
‘Both these raids were poor harbingers of what was to come but they taught valuable lessons and the publicity they achieved was good for recruiting.’
In August, 1940, Admiral of the Fleet Sir Roger Keyes, the hero of the Dover Patrol in the First World War and a great fighter, who had returned to the Admiralty ‘to do his bit’ in 1939 and now held the post of Director of Combined Operations, gripped the Commando training problem by concentrating all the newly formed units at the Combined Training Centre at Inveraray. The men accepted for training were all trained infantry soldiers, volunteers and, with some exceptions, of high quality. The twelve week course at Inveraray was extremely tough and exacting. Those who fell by the wayside were immediately returned whence they had come. The right to wear Commando insignia was very hard earned and a source of immense pride to the wearers, as it is in the Royal Marines today – and rightly.
Commandos on training exercise rehearse storming a beach in full battledress.
Understandably, there were many Commanding Officers in the Army who were deeply suspicious of what they saw as a piratical exercise that was creaming off all their best soldiers and officers. Some also saw the call for volunteers as a means of offloading some of their ‘hard cases’ and trouble makers. However, as William Seymour observes:
‘There is no place in Special Forces for scally-wags in search of adventure... but there is plenty of opportunity for men with courage, intelligence, initiative and self-discipline.’
These were the qualities the Commandos demanded and the ‘pirates’ were mostly weeded out in short order. Later, Seymour goes on:
‘Throughout the story of Special Forces... the quality of courage runs as a golden thread through the rich tapestry of a colourful type of warfare.’
The first major Commando raid, against the Lofoten Islands, off the north-west coast of Norway and within the Arctic Circle, was launched in March, 1941. The concept was brilliant, for the islands, which were of immense importance to the Germans as a source of vast quantities of fish oil, needed for the manufacture of nitro-glycerine for ammunition, were not heavily garrisoned or fortified. Provided the raid had been properly planned and rehearsed and surprise was achieved, there was every chance of an important success at a low cost.
The force consisted of some 500 men of Nos 3 and 4 Commandos, supported by 50 Royal Engineers and a similar number of Free Norwegian soldiers. Surprise was complete and the attack on the four islands created havoc. All the oil stocks were burned, the factories and other installations were destroyed and 20,000 tons of shipping were sunk. It was a bloodless affair, the only casualty being an officer who shot himself in the thigh with an accidental discharge! In addition to a substantial haul of prisoners, the Commandos came away with some 60 Norwegian Quislings and 315 Norwegian volunteers.
The Commandos had arrived. They had closed with the enemy and had shown what could be achieved by a small force of well-trained, well-led, determined men and the use of surprise. The world took note. By no means the least important aspect of the raid was the sterling support given by the Royal Navy, marking the beginning of an unbreakable bond with Commando Forces.
South Vaagso on the south-western coast of Norway was successfully raided by the Commandos in December 1941.
By the end of 1941, Keyes was beginning to show his age and was replaced by Lord Louis Mountbatten who at once set about creating a much larger and more elaborate Combined Operations Headquarters (COHQ) and getting his own position and status elevated so that he now became a Vice-Admiral, with comparable ranking in the other two Services, and a seat on the Chiefs of Staff Committee – the Lofoten Islands raid must have done much to make all that possible.
Hardly had Mountbatten assumed office then he launched the first of three large scale raids. This was against the small but heavily defended port of South Vaagso and the neighbouring island of Maaloy on the south-western coast of Norway. The Commando element of the force, some 600 men, included No 3 Commando and detachments from Nos 2, 4 and 6. Once again, there was also a contingent of Free Norwegians. The operation was to be heavily supported by both the Navy and the RAF.
German prisoners 'encouraged' to pose for the camera.
Commandos returning from a raid.
Although surprise was again achieved, the German garrison of South Vaagso fought with great determination and there was bitter street fighting. However, the Commando offensive spirit and excellent training proved too much for the enemy. 120 Germans were killed and nearly 100 more taken prisoner. The Commandos lost 17 dead and 53 wounded. The damage done to the port and installations and to shipping in the harbour was extensive and the raid a great success. This marked a very important step forward for Special Forces for the Commandos had now proved that they could not only carry out a well planned operation but could outfight a determined enemy. The boost to public and Service morale was considerable. Furthermore, as had been hoped, the raid induced the Germans to increase their outlying garrisons.