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  • Writer's pictureMatthew Camilleri

A History of the Royal Marines - Part Two

During World War II, the Royal Marines would once again distinguish themselves, being involved in practically every theatre of war that the British fought in, both on board warships as well as on land. On 14th April 1940, a small party of Royal Marines landed at Namsos, seizing the approaches to the Norwegian town in preparation for a larger landing by the British Army two days later. In the meantime, whilst the Norwegian Campaign (April-June 1940) was ongoing, the Royal Marines also participated in the British occupation of the Faeroe Islands (April 1940) and Iceland (May 1940) in order to deny them to the Germans.

In May 1940, the Royal Marines participated in the British invasion of Iceland, which was intended to deny it to the Germans

August 1940 saw the formation of the Royal Marine Division, which took part in Operation Menace (September 1940), an unsuccessful Allied attempt to capture the strategic port of Dakar in French West Africa. Later, it would also participate in Operation Ironclad (May 1942), an amphibious assault on the Vichy French-controlled island of Madagascar. In addition, the Royal Marines formed Mobile Naval Base Defence Organisations (MNBDOs) to occupy and defend naval bases overseas. Parts of MNBDO 1 were deployed on Crete and took part in the unsuccessful defence of the island in May 1941.

During the early years of the war, when Britain stood alone against Nazi Germany, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill recognised the need to boost public morale, and thus ordered the formation of special units, known as Commandos, to carry out sabotage raids against enemy territory. Despite their suitability for the role, the Royal Marines were initially excluded from the Commando venture, but upon seeing the early successes of the Army Commandos, the Royal Marines eventually set up their own units. By the end of the war, there would be a total of nine RM Commando units, numbered from 40 to 48. They took part in several commando raids, as well as the Allied invasions of Sicily and Italy, including the landings at Salerno (September 1943), Termoli (October 1943), and Anzio (January 1944).

By the end of WW2, there would be a total of nine Royal Marine Commando units, numbered from 40 to 48

Yet one of the most daring raids of the war was carried out by yet another unit of the Royal Marines, known as the Royal Marines Boom Patrol Detachment. In December 1942, it took part in Operation Frankton, a raid on Axis shipping in the German-occupied French port of Bordeaux. A small party of men, led by Major Herbert Hasler, attempted to paddle a distance of 97 kilometres up the Gironde estuary in kayaks, to place limpet mines on enemy vessels moored in Bordeaux harbour. Although the results of the raid were somewhat limited, Operation Frankton proved to be a significant morale booster for the British people.

On 6th June 1944, Allied forces successfully assaulted the Normandy coast. Over 16,000 Royal Marines participated in the landings, serving in numerous roles. All capital ships had RM detachments on board, manning their traditional stations in gun turrets, whose heavy bombardments served as a prelude to the landings, while at least two-thirds of the landing craft which carried the infantry to the beaches were crewed by Royal Marines. Five RM Commando units (41, 45, 46, 47, and 48) took part in the assault, storming the beaches, while the Royal Marine Armoured Support Group, primarily equipped with Centaur IV tanks fitted with a 95 mm howitzer, provided invaluable support to the assaulting forces for the first two weeks of the invasion.

Five RM Commando units (41, 45, 46, 47, and 48) took part in the assault on the Normandy beaches on 6th June 1944

Royal Marines Commandos also saw action at the Battle of the Scheldt (October-November 1944) on the island of Walcheren, and the subsequent fighting through the Netherlands and Germany itself, right up to the Fall of Berlin in May 1945. With the war in Europe finally over, the focus now turned towards the War against Japan. Royal Marines had served in the Malayan campaign (December 1941-February 1942) and the Battle of Singapore (February 1942). Later on, the 3rd Commando Brigade, which included 42 and 44 Commandos RM, participated in the Burma Campaign, particularly distinguishing itself in the Battle of Hill 170 (January 1945) at Kangaw, where it held a key position against repeated Japanese attacks.

A number of Royal Marines also served as pilots with the Fleet Air Arm (FAA). On 10th April 1940, a formation of Blackburn Skua dive-bombers from 800 Naval Air Squadron, led by Captain Richard Partridge RM, was involved in the sinking of the German cruiser Königsberg in Bergen Fjord, Norway. Partridge received a Distinguished Service Order for his role in the attack. Perhaps the most famous attack carried out by the FAA took place on the night of 11th November 1940, when the Royal Navy launched the first all-aircraft, ship-to-ship naval attack in history, against the Italian fleet at Taranto. Captain Oliver Patch RM, was awarded a Distinguished Service Cross for his role in leading the bomber section of the first wave.

Only one Marine, Corporal Thomas Hunter, of 43 Commando RM, was awarded the Victoria Cross during WWII. On 3rd April 1945, during the course of Operation Roast - an attempt to dislodge the Germans from the area of Comacchio, in north-east Italy - 21-year-old Hunter single-handedly charged a series of enemy machine gun positions, drawing fire and enabling his troop to reach cover. Sadly, Hunter sacrificed himself in the process. His award would later be presented to his parents by King George VI.

21-year-old Corporal Thomas Peck Hunter, of 43 Commando, was awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross for gallantry at Comacchio, northern Italy, in April 1945

Following the end of WWII, the decision was taken to disband the Army commandos, with this particular fighting role being made a specialisation of the Royal Marines. In line with this, during 1946, British Army personnel and units within the 3rd Commando Brigade were demobilised or transferred elsewhere, and the unit, now redesignated 3 Commando Brigade RM, became a Royal Marine formation, and now consisted of 40, 42, and 45 Commandos RM. Since then, the brigade has served in numerous conflicts around the globe.

During the civil war in Palestine (1947-48) between Jews and Arabs, which broke out after the United Nations General Assembly voted for the Partition Plan for Palestine, 3 Commando Brigade was dispatched to assist in the final British withdrawal, with 40 Commando being the last unit to leave.

June 1948 saw the start of the Malayan Emergency, a communist revolt which sought to obtain independence from Britain. As the situation deteriorated, 3 Commando Brigade, now based in Hong Kong, was deployed to Malaya in 1950, tasked with covering 8,000 square miles of jungle. Through skilful use of jungle patrols, which laid ambushes and carried out search and destroy operations against terrorist food and weapons caches, the Commandos were able to inflict a series of defeats on the enemy. By the spring of 1952, the British and local security forces were in control, and the Brigade was withdrawn.

3 Commando Brigade RM was deployed to Malaya in 1950, during the Malayan Emergency

When North Korea invaded South Korea in June 1950, no Royal Marines units were available to deploy, since 3 Commando Brigade had only just arrived in Malaya. As a result, 41 Commando was reconstituted as 41 (Independent) Commando, following a request from the United Nations Command for more amphibious raiding forces. Made up of volunteers from within the Royal Marines, 41 (Independent) Commando took part in hard fighting alongside the United States Marine Corps, carrying out sabotage raids along the Korean coast, destroying enemy transport routes and communications links. The unit was later awarded the American Presidential Unit Citation.

In May 1953, 3 Commando Brigade was ordered to the Suez Canal Zone, where it spent over a year protecting vital installations in the wake of the Egyptian revolution of 1952. From 1955 to 1959, 40 and 45 Commando alternated peace-keeping duties in Cyprus and undertaking anti-terrorist operations against the EOKA guerrilla movement, which was actively seeking the island’s independence from British rule and unification with Greece.

In July 1956, Egypt announced the nationalisation of the Suez Canal, which was seen as a threat to both British and French interests in the region, and after a lack of progress in negotiations, the two countries agreed to occupy the canal by force. On 6th November, 40 and 42 Commandos carried out an amphibious landing near Port Said, while 45 Commando mounted the first-ever helicopter assault in history. After a day of heavy street fighting, all of the Commandos' objectives were seized before a ceasefire was ordered.

On 6th November 1956, 45 Commando mounted the first-ever helicopter assault in history, during the Suez Crisis

In April 1960, 45 Commando arrived in Aden, relieving the 1st Battalion, Royal Warwickshire Regiment. Duties included internal security and peacekeeping patrols near the Yemen border, 130 kilometres to the north. The unit would remain in the country until November 1967, when British forces withdrew, and the independent People's Republic of South Yemen was proclaimed.

In July 1961, elements of 42 and 45 Commandos were deployed to Kuwait as part of Operation Vantage, a British military operation to support the newly independent state of Kuwait against territorial claims by its neighbour, Iraq. In the end, no attack materialised, and the Arab League took over the protection of Kuwait, with British forces being withdrawn in October.

In December 1962, an Indonesian-backed revolt broke out in the British protectorate of Brunei. The rebels seized the small town of Limbang, taking the British resident, his wife, and twelve others, hostage. When they threatened to execute them, L Company, 42 Commando, was sent in to carry out a rescue. On 12th December, the Commandos sailed upriver in two launches and managed to free all the hostages after a firefight, although five Commandos were killed. The revolt in Brunei led to the Indonesia-Malaysia Confrontation (1963-66) and for the next four years, Royal Marines Commandos were intermittently deployed to the region to counter raids by the rebels.

On 12th December 1962, L Company, 42 Commando, carried out an operation to rescue hostages being held by Indonesian-backed rebels at Limbang, Malaysia

In January 1964, part of the Tanzanian Army mutinied. Within 24 hours, elements of 41 and 45 Commandos had been deployed to the region, with the mutiny being quickly suppressed. The next six months were spent touring Tanzanian military outposts, disarming military personnel.

Royal Marines Commandos were among the first troops to be sent to Northern Ireland in 1969, following the start of 'The Troubles'. Operation Banner would be the longest military conflict fought by the British, lasting for 38 years, up till 2007, and throughout this time, the Royal Marines carried out several tours in the province, losing thirteen men killed. In addition, British forces were increasingly targeted by the Irish Republican Army (IRA): In October 1981, the Commandant General Royal Marines, Lieutenant General Sir Steuart Pringle, lost a leg in a car bomb outside his home, while in September 1989, the Royal Marine Depot at Deal, in Kent, was bombed, killing eleven Royal Marines musicians.

The Royal Marines were once again speedily deployed to Cyprus after the Turkish invasion of July 1974. Over the next ten years, they would undertake three United Nations tours of duty on the island.

On 2nd April 1982, Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands. A small party of Royal Marines permanently stationed there, known as Naval Party 8901, put up a fierce but brief defence, until Governor Sir Rex Hunt ordered a surrender. The British government decided to immediately dispatch a task force to recapture the islands. 3 Commando Brigade, augmented by two battalions from the Parachute Regiment, sailed for the South Atlantic within five days of being warned for operations. The Brigade completed successful amphibious landings at San Carlos Water, and then fought throughout the six-week campaign, which resulted in the surrender of all Argentinian forces on the islands on 14th June.

3 Commando Brigade, augmented by two battalions from the Parachute Regiment, successfully recaptured the Falkland Islands in June 1982, following an Argentine invasion earlier that year

The main element of 3 Commando Brigade was not deployed in the 1991 Gulf War, although 24 men from K Company, 42 Commando, were sent as six-man teams aboard two Royal Navy warships to operate as ship boarding parties. In addition, the Special Boat Service (SBS) - the Royal Navy’s special forces unit, which mainly recruits from the Royal Marines - did carry out various operations deep behind enemy lines. 3 Commando Brigade was then deployed on Operation Haven, in the mountains of Northern Iraq, as part of a multi-national force tasked with defending Kurdish refugees fleeing their homes in the aftermath of the war and delivering humanitarian aid to them.

Royal Marine units were regularly deployed to the Balkans in the years following the breakup of Yugoslavia, which began in 1991. During the Bosnian War (1992-95), when it was thought that arms and ammunition were being brought into the country by ship, the UN called on the Royal Marines to supply small six-man teams to board and search vessels in the Adriatic. Royal Marines also acted as a Rapid Reaction Force in Bosnia in 1995, while more recently, they were involved in operations in Kosovo (1998-99).

In May 2000, the British High Commissioner in Freetown, Sierra Leone, reported that the situation was rapidly deteriorating as a result of a civil war which had been raging since 1991. With rebel forces advancing towards the capital, the decision was taken to rapidly evacuate all British nationals. 42 Commando formed part of a British force that was sent in to assist in the evacuation, and later moved into Freetown, helping to secure the city. The British intervention helped to finally bring the conflict to an end by January 2002.

In May 2000, 42 Commando was rapidly deployed to Sierra Leone to help evacuate British nationals and assist government forces in their fight against the rebels during the ongoing civil war

October 2001 saw the start of Operation Enduring Freedom (2001-14), a U.S.-led combat mission in Afghanistan against the local Taliban regime and Al-Qaeda, which had been identified as being behind the 11th September terrorist attacks. In November, following the seizure of Bagram Air Base by the SBS, Charlie Company of 40 Commando became the first British regular forces into Afghanistan, using the air base to support British and U.S. special forces operations.

In the twelve years that followed, the Royal Marines carried out a series of operations in the country, losing 61 men killed and 256 seriously wounded. Members of the Corps received 206 awards for individual acts of bravery and distinguished service, including a George Cross awarded to Lance Corporal Matthew Croucher, of 40 Commando, who threw himself onto a grenade to save the lives of his colleagues whilst on patrol, and remarkably survived after his rucksack and body armour took the brunt of the explosion.

Between 2001 and 2013, the Royal Marines carried out a series of operations in Afghanistan

In the meantime, the Iraq War (2003-11) had also got underway in March 2003, and once again the Royal Marines were heavily involved. They conducted the first conventional ground operation of the war - an opposed amphibious and helicopter assault to secure Iraqi oil infrastructure on the Al-Faw peninsula on the night of 20th March, before it could be sabotaged or destroyed by the Iraqi military. Subsequently, the Royal Marines assisted in the break-in to Basra, Iraq’s second city, while 40 Commando carried out a further tour of duty in the country in 2004.

In the 21st century, the Royal Marines remain a specialised and highly adaptable force that is ready to deploy anywhere in the world at short notice. Most recently, they were sent to Kyiv in January 2022 to evacuate the British Embassy following the Russian invasion, before returning in April to help re-establish the diplomatic mission, providing protection to critical personnel. With a proud history going back almost 360 years, there is no doubt that plenty more chapters are yet to be written in the story of the Royal Marines.

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