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  • Writer's pictureMatthew Camilleri

The Commandos - Part Three

Operation Torch


On 8th November 1942, No. 1 and No. 6 Commandos formed part of the spearhead for the Allied landings in Algeria as part of Operation Torch. At the time, relations between the British and the Vichy French were still tense following the attack by the Royal Navy on the French naval base at Mers-el-Kébir in July 1940. As a result, Operation Torch was, for propaganda purposes, portrayed as a landing by U.S. forces supported by British warships and aircraft, under the belief that this would be more palatable to French public opinion than an Anglo-American invasion. For the same reason, it was decided to equip the Commandos with American weapons and uniforms.


Commandos wearing British battledress but equipped with American helmets and rifles during Operation Torch.

Once ashore, the Commandos helped secure their beaches, where only minimal resistance was encountered. Two days after the landings, all French forces in North Africa were ordered to cease resistance, and the Allies soon started their advance eastwards towards Tunisia. Once again, the Commandos were heavily involved, forming the spearhead of the advance towards Tunis. Yet, following the start of the Tunisia Campaign, the Commandos would be mainly used as highly trained infantry units, and, over the course of the next five months, they were involved in a number of costly attacks and periods of static defence, in between which they carried out aggressive fighting patrols.


Both Commando units remained in theatre until April when the decision was made to withdraw them from the fighting in North Africa. Lacking the administrative support and reinforcements of regular infantry units, their strength had fallen, and they were no longer considered effective. Although some felt that the role they had been given was a misuse of their special skills, the experience of No. 1 and No. 6 Commandos in Tunisia helped influence future decisions on the organisation, deployment and use of the Commandos.


Sicily & Italy


In May 1943, No. 3, No. 40 (RM), and No. 41 (RM) Commandos were sent to the Mediterranean to take part in Operation Husky - the Allied invasion of Sicily. In the early hours of 10th July, they landed on their respective beaches, with the Royal Marine Commandos securing the left flank of the British landings, and No. 3 Commando the right flank. With the beachheads secured, the Allies started moving inland.


On the night of 13th/14th July, No. 3 Commando was tasked with capturing the Malati Bridge, to the north of Lentini, as part of the British Eight Army’s plan to advance towards Catania. The Commandos were to carry out a seaborne assault to seize the bridge before it could be blown up by the enemy, and then defend it until infantry and armour from XIII Corps passed through the following morning. The Commandos landed at Agnone as scheduled, and after advancing several kilometres inland, managed to take the Malati Bridge intact. By the early hours of the morning, however, XIII Corps had still not appeared, having been delayed by strong resistance south of Lentini. To make matters worse, German troops now launched a major counterattack.


The Malati Bridge.

After several hours of repeated shelling and heavy mortar and machine gun fire, and with still no sign of XIII Corps, the Commandos were forced to withdraw, having lost 28 men killed, 66 wounded and 59 captured or missing. Shortly afterwards, however, XIII Corps finally arrived, forcing the Germans to abandon the bridge before they had the chance to fix explosive charges and blow it up, while the British column pressed on. Later, General Sir Bernard Montgomery, the commander of the Eight Army, ordered that the Malati Bridge be renamed “3 Commando Bridge”.


General Sir Bernard Montgomery, the commander of the British Eight Army, ordered that the Malati Bridge be renamed “3 Commando Bridge”.

In September, the Allies launched the invasion of Italy. Although the main invasion was planned for 9th September, with the U.S. Fifth Army landing at Salerno, the British Eight Army was tasked with landing in Calabria on 3rd September, as a preliminary, to draw enemy forces away from the main landings. On 8th September, No. 3 and No. 40 (RM) Commandos carried out landings at Porto San Venere, with the intention of cutting off as many of the retreating German units as possible, and were faced with stiff resistance before the enemy disengaged. No. 2 and No. 41 (RM) Commandos took part in the Salerno Landings and were heavily involved in the fighting until they were withdrawn on 18th September, having lost 367 men killed, wounded or missing between them, out of the 738 who had made the landing.


In the early hours of 3rd October, No. 3 and No. 40 (RM) Commandos landed behind the German lines at Termoli, on Italy’s Adriatic coast. Achieving the element of surprise, they managed to capture the town by 8 am, after a brief battle with German paratroopers. Yet, the 16th Panzer Division soon launched a fierce counterattack, and the Commandos, together with reinforcements from the British 78th Infantry Division, were forced to hold off repeated attacks by enemy infantry and armour until 6th October, when they were able to hand over the town to elements of the Eight Army that had been advancing overland. The operation had been a costly one for the Commandos, with 32 men killed, 85 wounded, and 23 missing. Soon after, they received orders to return to the United Kingdom.


1943 Reorganisation


In late 1943, the Commandos started to move away from smaller raiding operations. Instead, all the army and Royal Marine Commandos were fairly evenly grouped together into four new Special Service Brigades (SSBs), which were intended to spearhead future Allied landing operations. These four brigades, each with their own command headquarters, came under the auspices of a new Headquarters Special Services Group, under the command of Major General Robert Sturges, which replaced the previous Special Service Brigade Headquarters.


Each Commando now consisted of a small headquarters group, five fighting troops, a heavy weapons troop, and a signals platoon. Their evolving role also saw changes to the Commando course at Achnacarry, where training now focused more on the assault infantry role and less on raiding operations. This included how to work with larger battlefield formations and how to call for fire support from artillery and naval gunfire, as well as how to obtain tactical air support from the Allied air forces.


The four brigades would serve in different theatres of the war. The 1st and 4th SSBs were based in the United Kingdom for service in North Western Europe. The 2nd SSB was based in the Mediterranean for service in Italy and the Balkans, while the 3rd SSB was based in India for service in Burma and the Pacific. In December 1944, the term "Special Service" was dropped, and the brigades were re-designated as Commando Brigades.


Normandy Landings


The 1st and 4th SSBs took part in the Normandy Landings on 6th June 1944. The 1st SSB, consisting of No. 3, No. 4, No. 6, and No. 45 (RM) Commandos landed at Sword Beach in support of the British 3rd Infantry Division. They were tasked with fighting their way off the beach and advancing towards the Orne River and Caen Canal bridges, where they were to link up with parachute and glider troops of the British 6th Airborne Division. No. 4 Commando, with two French troops from No. 10 (Inter-Allied) Commando leading the way, helped capture the town of Ouistreham, before they joined the rest of the brigade as it linked up with the airborne forces. The 1st SSB would remain in theatre until 7th September, when it was withdrawn and returned to the United Kingdom, having been in continuous action for 83 days and suffering around 1,000 casualties.


Men of No. 4 Commando, 1st Special Service Brigade, disembarking from their landing craft whilst under fire on 6th June 1944.

The all-Royal Marines 4th SSB also took part in the D-Day Landings. No. 47 (RM) Commando, attached to the British 50th Infantry Division, landed at Gold Beach and was tasked with capturing the fortified harbour at Port-en-Bessin and affecting a union with the Americans at Omaha Beach. Several of their landing craft were sunk by mines and beach obstacles, which resulted in the loss of 76 of their 420 men. These losses delayed their advance to their primary objective, but on 8th June, after two days of intense combat, the Commandos captured Port-en-Bessin and succeeded in unifying the American and Anglo-Canadian landing areas into a single beachhead.


Troops from No. 47 (RM) Commando, 4th Special Service Brigade, during the Normandy Landings.

No. 48 (RM) Commando went ashore with the 3rd Canadian Infantry Division at Juno Beach. Their mission was to push east and establish a joint beachhead with the British forces at Sword. The Commandos had the misfortune of landing in front of an unsuppressed strongpoint and suffered heavy casualties as they struggled to breach the beach defences. Later on in the day, a counterattack by the 21st Panzer Division threatened to drive a wedge between Juno and Sword, but this eventually faltered and the beachheads held, thanks in large part to the timely arrival of reserve units. On the following day, the Commandos were able to link up with No. 41 (RM) Commando, which had landed at Sword, thus linking the two beaches together. The last remaining unit - No. 46 (RM) Commando - landed at Juno on 7th June and would see action in Normandy alongside the rest of the brigade, suffering heavy losses in the process.


Battle of the Scheldt


By October 1944, the Allied advance had ground to a halt, due to the fact that supplies could not keep up with the rapid advance of the ground forces. A major port was needed by the Allies to ease this problem. In early September, the British had captured the Belgian city of Antwerp, which possessed the second-largest port on the European mainland. Yet the Germans controlled the island of Walcheren, located at the mouth of the Scheldt estuary. A number of fortified artillery batteries, equipped with large-calibre guns, made it impossible for Allied merchant shipping to reach the port.


The 4th SSB was assigned to take part in Operation Infatuate, an Anglo-Canadian operation to capture Walcheren, as part of the wider Battle of the Scheldt. A three-pronged assault was planned, with the Commandos effecting a seaborne landing at Westkapelle in the west, and at Flushing in the south, while the 2nd Canadian Infantry Division would attack across the narrow causeway connecting Walcheren to South Beveland.


On 1st November, No. 4 Commando, which had joined the 4th SSB in place of the depleted No. 46 (RM) Commando, landed at Flushing. At the same time, the Royal Marine Commandos landed at Westkapelle. No. 41 (RM) Commando captured the town before moving northwards in the direction of Domburg, while No. 48 (RM) Commando moved southwards. On the following day, Flushing was captured by No. 4 Commando, while No. 47 (RM) Commando, advancing through No. 48, attacked a gun battery at Zouteland. The attack failed, with the unit suffering heavy casualties, but the battery was successfully captured the next day and a link-up with No. 4 Commando took place.


British Commandos marching through Flushing, on the island of Walcheren, shortly after the town had been secured.

On 5th November, No. 41 (RM) Commando captured the gun battery northeast of Domburg, which left only one battery still under German control. The brigade regrouped and concentrated its assault on the last position, but just before the attack began on 9th November, the 4,000 men in the battery surrendered. This was quickly followed by the surrender of the rest of the island's garrison. The 4th SSB had lost 103 men killed, 325 wounded and 68 missing during eight days of fighting. However, Walcheren had been successfully captured, allowing supply convoys direct access to the port of Antwerp, as a result of which, the Allied armies gained momentum in their advance towards Berlin.


Germany


In January 1945, the 1st SSB, now renamed 1st Commando Brigade, took part in Operation Blackcock, an attempt to clear German troops from the Roer Triangle, formed by the towns of Roermond and Sittard in the Netherlands, and Heinsberg in Germany. Lance Corporal Henry Eric Harden of the Royal Army Medical Corps, a 32-year-old medical orderly attached to No. 45 (RM) Commando, was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross for his heroic actions during the bitter fighting at the Dutch village of Brachterbeek on 23rd January. Harden was killed whilst trying to rescue wounded colleagues under intense mortar and machine-gun fire, despite having been wounded himself.


L/Cpl. Henry Harden of the RAMC, attached to No. 45 (RM) Commando, was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross for his heroic actions during Operation Blackcock.

The 1st Commando Brigade next took part in Operation Plunder, the crossing of the Rhine River on 23rd March 1945. The Commandos crossed the Rhine at a point some three kilometres west of Wesel, following a heavy artillery bombardment. Their crossing was unopposed, and the brigade headed to the outskirts of Wesel, where they waited while 200 RAF bombers dropped over 1,000 tons of bombs. Moving into the city just after midnight, the Commandos met stiff resistance. It was not until 25th March that the city was finally captured. The 1st Commando Brigade also subsequently took a leading part in the crossing of the Weser, Aller, and Elbe rivers.


Operation Roast


On 1st April 1945, the 2nd Commando Brigade launched Operation Roast at Lake Comacchio, in northeast Italy. This was the first major action in the Allied 15th Army Group's big spring offensive to push the Germans out of Italy, and was intended as a diversionary attack to draw German reserves away from the main assault, which was to come through the Argenta Gap. After a fierce battle, the Commandos succeeded in taking and clearing the narrow strip of land between Lake Comacchio and the Adriatic Sea, thus fostering the idea that the Eight Army’s main attack would come along the coast. They also inflicted heavy losses on the enemy, including 946 men who were taken prisoner.


Major Anders Lassen (left) and Corporal Thomas Hunter (right) both received posthumous Victoria Crosses for their actions during Operation Roast.

Two men serving with the 2nd Commando Brigade were awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross for their actions during Operation Roast. On 3rd April, 21-year-old Corporal Thomas Hunter, of No. 43 (RM) Commando, single-handedly took out three German machine gun posts, before he was killed as he attempted to draw fire away from his comrades. On the night of 8th/9th April, Major Anders Lassen, a 24-year-old Dane who had previously served with No. 62 Commando, but was now in the Special Boat Section, was ordered to lead a raid on the north shore of Lake Comacchio, to give the impression that a major landing was being undertaken. Lassen fulfilled his mission in the face of overwhelming enemy numbers by single-handedly taking out three enemy positions before being mortally wounded. He then ordered his men to leave him behind so as not to endanger their withdrawal.


Far East


When the war in Europe finally ended in May 1945, the focus turned towards the Far East, where the 3rd Commando Brigade was involved in the fight against the Japanese. The brigade had been dispatched to India in late 1943, and had since then participated in several coastal landings during the Burma Campaign. These landings culminated in the Battle of Hill 170, at Kangaw, in January 1945. The Commandos landed south of Kangaw, in Arakan, on 22nd January. All their objectives, including Hill 170, were taken with relative ease. Although the Japanese soon launched a fierce counterattack, the brigade doggedly held its position, helping to inflict heavy losses on the Japanese 54th Division, while the Japanese Twenty-Eighth Army was forced into a general withdrawal to avoid its complete destruction.


An amphibious landing by the 3rd Commando Brigade during the Burma Campaign.

The men of the 3rd Commando Brigade were awarded a number of decorations for gallantry, which included a posthumous Victoria Cross for 22-year-old Lieutenant George Knowland, of No. 1 Commando. On 31st January, he was in command of a 24-man platoon which came under attack from some 300 Japanese soldiers. Although more than half of his men became casualties early on, he displayed great leadership and courage, engaging the enemy with rifle fire, grenades, automatic weapons, and even a 2-inch mortar, until he was mortally wounded. By the time his men were relieved, they had held the ground for twelve hours, preventing the enemy from advancing.


The 3rd Commando Brigade was subsequently withdrawn to India to prepare for Operation Zipper, a proposed amphibious operation to recapture the Malayan peninsula. However, the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki precipitated the surrender of Japan before the operation could be launched. Instead, the brigade was sent to secure the British crown colony of Hong Kong, which had been under Japanese occupation since December 1941.


Post-WWII


The Commandos had distinguished themselves in every theatre of the war, earning 479 gallantry awards, including eight Victoria Crosses, 37 Distinguished Service Orders with nine bars, 162 Military Crosses with 13 bars, 32 Distinguished Conduct Medals, and 218 Military Medals. Yet, for all their successes, the Army Commandos would not survive the Second World War.


Following Churchill’s election defeat in July 1945, the Commandos lost their most vocal supporter in government. A study by the War Office concluded that large Commando forces were not required in the post-war world, and the Army Commandos were disbanded in 1946. Only the 3rd Commando Brigade was retained, though now specifically a Royal Marines formation redesignated as 3 Commando Brigade, Royal Marines. To this day, it represents the UK’s commando force.


The Commando Memorial, in Lochaber, Scotland, is dedicated to the memory of the officers and men of the Commandos who gave their lives during the Second World War.

On 27th September 1952, Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother unveiled the Commando Memorial in Lochaber, Scotland. Located a short distance from Spean Bridge, it overlooks the training areas of the former Commando Basic Training Centre, established at Achnacarry Castle in 1942, and is dedicated to the memory of the officers and men of the Commandos who gave their lives during the Second World War.

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