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  • Writer's pictureMatthew Camilleri

The Commandos - Part One

Following the evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force from Dunkirk and the Fall of France in June 1940, Britain stood alone against Nazi Germany. Something had to be done to bolster public morale, but any large-scale military action was out of the question for the time being. Instead, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill ordered the formation of special units to carry out sabotage raids against German-occupied Europe. In addition to their operational effectiveness, these hit-and-run attacks would also play an important propaganda role, reminding the occupied peoples of Europe that they were not alone. At the same time, since these were only intended to be small units, they would not divert the precious resources needed to rebuild Britain’s conventional forces.


Lieutenant Colonel Dudley Clarke, who was then military assistant to the Chief of the Imperial General Staff, General Sir John Dill, sketched out an idea for small amphibious raiding parties, called Commandos. The name was inspired by the Boer commandos, who had adopted guerrilla warfare tactics against the British Army during the Second Boer War, relying on local support and personal knowledge of the terrain to strike fast and hard, causing as much damage as possible, and then vanishing before enemy reinforcements could arrive. Clarke’s plan was presented to Churchill, who readily approved it.

The new units were inspired by the Boer commandos, who had adopted guerrilla warfare tactics against the British Army during the Second Boer War

Recruitment began immediately, with a call for volunteers from British Army formations based in Britain, as well as from the Independent Companies that had originally been raised from Territorial Army divisions for service in the Norwegian Campaign, and which were now in the process of being disbanded. Subsequently, the Commandos also accepted recruits from all branches of the British armed forces serving in the various theatres of war, as well as numerous foreign volunteers from German-occupied countries. Technically, these men were only on secondment to the Commandos from their parent units and remained on their regimental roll for pay.

By the autumn of 1940, more than 2,000 men had volunteered and, in October, these new units were organised into the Special Service Brigade, under the command of Brigadier Joseph Charles Haydon. The brigade was made up of five Special Service Battalions, all of which consisted of two of the new Commando units, each of around 500 men and commanded by a lieutenant colonel, although the battalion system was scrapped in February 1941. The Commandos came under the operational control of Combined Operations Headquarters, which was responsible for their training and for planning raids against enemy territory, using all three branches of the armed forces.


When the Commandos were originally formed, the selection and training of personnel was the responsibility of the unit commanding officers, which inevitably led to a marked variation in standards. Furthermore, training was hampered by the general shortage of equipment throughout the British Army at this time, as most arms and equipment had been left behind at Dunkirk. From July 1940, officers and selected NCOs from the newly formed Commandos attended courses at the Special Training Centre Lochailort, in Scotland, where a specialised team of instructors, well-versed in a variety of subjects, had been assembled. Once trained, these men would then return to their own units to blend the new techniques and skills they had acquired within their unit’s own training regime.

Achnacarry Castle, in the Lochaber region of the Highlands, Scotland, housed the Commando Basic Training Centre during WWII.

Eventually, it was felt that a centralised training establishment was needed, which led to the setting up of the Commando Depot on the grounds of Achnacarry Castle, in the Scottish Highlands, in December 1941. In early 1942, this was re-designated as the Commando Basic Training Centre (CBTC) and was responsible for training complete units and individual replacements. The location was chosen because of its remoteness, whilst at the same time, the more severe Scottish climate was perfect for what the Commandos had to train for. Living conditions in the camp were primitive, with trainees housed in Nissen huts, whilst being responsible for cooking their own meals, and with correct military protocols being enforced. The first courses began in February 1942.

The training was for the time innovative and physically demanding. Assessment started immediately on arrival, with the volunteers having to complete a 13-kilometre march with all their equipment from the Spean Bridge railway station to the CBTC. There followed an intensive regime of physical fitness and instruction in survival, amphibious assault, close-quarter combat, demolition skills, motor vehicle operation, and using different weapons systems. Speed and endurance marches were conducted up and down the nearby mountain ranges and over assault courses, all while carrying arms and full equipment. At the end of each course, the final exercise was a simulated night beach landing using live ammunition and explosives to simulate battle as realistically as possible. Any prospective Commando who failed to meet the standard was returned to his parent unit.

The training at Achnacarry was carried out using live ammunition and explosives to simulate battle as realistically as possible.

By the end of the war, some 25,000 men had passed through the Commando course at Achnacarry, including British Commandos, as well as foreign nationals from occupied countries, and contingents from the newly formed United States Army Rangers, which were modelled on the Commandos. In addition, the No.1 Combined Training Centre, located on the banks of Loch Fyne near Inveraray, Scotland, provided training in amphibious landings, while the Commando Snow and Mountain Warfare Training Centre at Braemar, in Aberdeenshire, Scotland, trained Commandos to fight in snow-covered mountain territory, and in carrying out cliff assaults. Additional training areas were set up for Commandos based overseas, such as the Middle East Depot Commando Training and Holding Unit, established at Geneifa, beside the Great Bitter Lake in Egypt.


Initially, those who joined the Commandos retained the regimental headdress and insignia of their parent units. In 1941, No. 1 Commando had no fewer than 79 different cap badges and many different forms of headdress. As a solution to this lack of uniformity, most Commando units adopted their own practical headgear. No. 2, No. 9, and No. 11 (Scottish) Commandos wore the tam o' shanter, while the official head-dress of the Middle East Commandos was a bush hat. Other units, including No. 4 Commando, adopted the cap comforter because it had no prior affiliation with any other regiment.

Eventually, No. 1 Commando decided to adopt a green beret as its official headdress. The colour was inspired by the unit’s shoulder insignia, which featured a green salamander going through fire. In late 1942, the War Office approved the green beret as the official headgear for all Commando formations. To this day, it remains a distinctive hallmark of British Commandos, indicating that those who wear it have passed a gruelling and physically demanding test of endurance. At around the same time, the Combined Operations tactical recognition flash was also adopted by the Commandos. This depicted an eagle, a submachine gun and an anchor, reflecting the three service arms - the Royal Air Force (RAF), the British Army, and the Royal Navy.

The Combined Operations tactical recognition flash adopted by the Commandos.


Since the Commandos were initially intended for small-scale raids, they were not issued with the heavy weapons of a normal infantry battalion. Instead, they were equipped with the standard British Army small arms of the time, albeit with a higher concentration of fully automatic weapons. Most riflemen carried the Lee-Enfield rifle, while section fire support was provided by the Bren light machine gun. The submachine gun of choice was the American Thompson, or "Tommy Gun", although, later in the war, the Commandos also used the cheaper and lighter Sten gun. The Webley Revolver was initially used as the standard sidearm, but it was eventually replaced by the .45 Colt pistol, which used the same ammunition as the Tommy Gun, and later the 9 mm Browning Hi-Power.

The submachine gun of choice was the American Thompson, or "Tommy Gun".

One weapon specifically designed for the Commandos was the De Lisle carbine. Modelled on the Lee-Enfield, it was fitted with an integrated suppressor which, combined with its use of subsonic ammunition, made it extremely quiet in action. Indeed, working the bolt to chamber the next round produced a louder noise than firing the weapon. Tests showed that it had acceptable accuracy, produced no visible muzzle flash and was inaudible at a distance of 46 metres, making it ideal for the kind of missions normally undertaken by the Commandos. Some were used and proved successful on operations, but the nature of the Commando role had changed before they were put into full production, and the order for their purchase was cancelled.

Undoubtedly the most easily recognisable weapon used by the Commandos was the Fairbairn-Sykes Fighting Knife, designed especially for their use. Developed by William Fairbairn and Eric Sykes, both of whom had previously served in the Shanghai Municipal Police in China, it had a vase handle, which granted a precise grip, and a slender, sharp-pointed blade that made it ideal for thrusting, although it could also be used to inflict slash cuts upon an opponent when its cutting edges were sharpened. The Fairbairn-Sykes Fighting Knife was particularly effective for silent killing actions, such as taking out sentries, with the length of its blade enabling it to easily penetrate a ribcage after passing through up to three inches of clothing that might be worn by an enemy guard. The knife remains in production to this day and is still a hallmark of the British Commandos.

The Fairbairn-Sykes Fighting Knife was particularly effective for silent killing actions, such as taking out sentries.


Some Commando units were designated for different tasks from the start. No. 2 Commando was formed on 22nd June 1940 for a parachuting role at Cambrai Barracks, Perham Down, near Tidworth, Hampshire. Originally consisting of four troops, seven more were eventually raised. Training commenced straightaway and by 21st September, 21 officers and 321 other ranks had been accepted for parachute duties. On 21st November, the unit was re-designated as the 11th Special Air Service Battalion and eventually became the 1st Parachute Battalion, after which a second No. 2 Commando was formed.

No. 10 (Inter-Allied) Commando was raised in July 1942 as a multinational force. With the exception of its headquarters personnel, all the men of this particular unit were foreigners, recruited from German-occupied countries, including volunteers from France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland and Yugoslavia, organised into independent troops. Undoubtedly the most unusual was No. 3 (X) Troop, which was exclusively made up of personnel who were technically enemy aliens - mainly German and Austrian Jews, as well as political or religious refugees escaping from Nazi persecution. Like all British Commandos, the men of No. 10 Commando went through the six-week intensive commando course at Achnacarry, before mostly being attached to other units as interpreters and interrogators. By the end of the war, No. 10 Commando had become the largest Commando formation in the British Army.

Men from No. 6 Polish Troop of No. 10 (Inter-Allied) Commando.

No. 14 (Arctic) Commando was formed in late 1942 for action in the Arctic, especially against Kriegsmarine and Luftwaffe bases in Norway which were used to attack the Arctic Convoys. The unit, which was made up of British, Canadian and Norwegian personnel, comprised two troops: No. 1 (Boating) Troop, which specialised in small boat operations, and No. 2 Troop, which specialised in cross-country skiing. They would carry out a number of attacks on enemy shipping using limpet mines before being disbanded in late 1943 to supply reinforcements to other Commando formations.

No. 30 Commando was a joint service unit formed for intelligence gathering. Known initially as the Special Intelligence Unit, it comprised 33 (Royal Marines) Troop, 34 (Army) Troop, 35 (RAF) Troop, and 36 (Royal Navy) Troop. One of the key figures involved in its organisation was Lieutenant Commander Ian Fleming, who later wrote the James Bond novels. The men of No. 30 Commando were trained in the recognition of enemy documents, search techniques, safe cracking, prisoner handling, and photography and were often tasked with undertaking covert infiltrations into enemy territory by land, sea or air, to capture much-needed intelligence, in the form of codes, documents, equipment or personnel.

Lt. Cdr. Ian Fleming had a hand in the setting up of No. 30 Commando, a joint service unit responsible for intelligence gathering.

No. 62 Commando, also known as the Small Scale Raiding Force, was a small 55-man unit set up to undertake "pinprick" raids on the coast of northern France and the Channel Islands. The objective was to gather information and to take prisoners for interrogation, whilst demoralising German troops. These raids were also intended to tie up enemy resources that could otherwise be used on other fronts. No. 62 Commando would carry out a number of operations with mixed fortunes before being disbanded in early 1943, with its members being dispersed among other formations.

First Raids

The very first Commando raid, codenamed Operation Collar, took place in June 1940. Yet, in truth, it was not actually carried out by a Commando unit. Combined Operation Headquarters was under pressure from Winston Churchill to start raiding operations, yet the newly formed Commandos were not yet adequately trained, and most units were still short of troops. Instead, the job was given to No. 11 Independent Company, which had been formed from volunteers from the other Independent Companies that were in the process of being disbanded.

The objective of Operation Collar was to be a reconnaissance of the French coast around Le Touquet, and the capture of prisoners. During the night of 24th/25th June, 115 officers and other ranks were landed on four different beaches, but all four groups failed to gather any intelligence or damage any German equipment. Their only success was in killing two German sentries, while the only British injury was a flesh wound suffered by Lt. Col. Dudley Clarke, who had accompanied the raiders as an observer.

A second and similarly inconsequential raid - Operation Ambassador - was made on the German-occupied island of Guernsey on the night of 14th/15th July. This time, the operation was carried out by 100 men from No. 11 Independent Company and another 40 men from 'H' Troop of the newly-formed No. 3 Commando. The plan was for the troops from No. 11 Independent Company to attack the airfield with the purpose of destroying aircraft and buildings, as well as capturing or killing members of the garrison, while the Commandos were to create a diversion.

Operation Ambassador was the first Commando raid to take place in the Channel Islands, just two weeks after the German occupation.

In the end, one party was landed on the wrong island as a result of a faulty compass, one motor launch crashed into a rock, and two more broke down, meaning that only the 40 men from No. 3 Commando made it ashore. Even then, they failed to locate any German troops, and upon returning to the beach, they found that due to the receding tide, they had to swim out towards their boats. Three men who could not swim had to be left behind and were later taken captive, together with a fourth who fell overboard and was forced to swim towards the shore. With none of the objectives having been achieved, and with only a cut telephone line to show for their efforts, the raid had been a complete failure, yet the experience gained would prove invaluable for the success of subsequent Commando operations.

Throughout the course of the war, there would be a total of 57 Commando raids in North West Europe. Of these, 36 were against targets in France, twelve against Norway, seven in the Channel Islands, and single raids in Belgium and the Netherlands. The Commandos would also serve in all theatres of the war, including in the Mediterranean, the Middle East, and South East Asia. While initially, the raids involved relatively small groups of men, they would eventually grow in complexity and size.

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