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  • Writer's pictureMatthew Camilleri

The Commandos - Part Two


In February 1941, a force of Commandos under Lieutenant Colonel Robert Laycock was sent to the Middle East to carry out raids in the eastern Mediterranean. This force became known as 'Layforce' after its commander and was made up of No. 7, No. 8 (Guards), and No. 11 (Scottish) Commandos, as well as No. 50 and No. 52 Commandos, both of which had been formed at Geneifa back in August 1940. Consisting of approximately 2,000 men, Layforce was organised into four battalions: No. 7 Commando became 'A' Battalion, No. 8 (Guards) became 'B' Battalion, No. 11 (Scottish) became 'C' Battalion, and No. 50 and No. 52 were amalgamated to form 'D' Battalion.

'Layforce', which consisted of No. 7, No. 8 (Guards), No. 11 (Scottish), No. 50, and No. 52 Commandos, was named after its commander, Lt. Col. Robert Laycock.

When Layforce first arrived in theatre, the British were largely in the ascendency, having defeated the Italians. Yet, the arrival of the Afrika Korps in Cyrenaica and the invasions of Yugoslavia and Greece soon changed the strategic outlook. The deployment of a large part of the British forces in North Africa to Greece to slow down the Axis advance there meant that the Commandos became the only troops in general reserve, and as the strategic situation worsened, they were largely diverted from their original role and were used primarily to reinforce regular troops throughout the Mediterranean theatre.

On the night of 19th/20th April, 'A' Battalion sailed towards Bardia, on the Libyan coast, hoping to inflict as much damage as possible to military installations and equipment. Yet, problems with the landing craft meant that the main force, running late, was landed on the wrong beaches. Encountering no opposition, the Commandos moved inland to destroy their objectives, but little damage was done as a number of the targets proved not to exist or were not where they were thought to be. On the way back, an officer was killed by friendly fire, while 67 men ended up on the wrong evacuation beach after getting lost, and were later captured. Despite the lack of tangible success, the raid was not a complete failure, as it forced the Germans to divert some of their forces in order to defend against further raids.

When the Germans invaded Crete on 20th May, Layforce was sent to carry out raids on enemy lines of communications with a view to either turning back the invasion or facilitating an evacuation. On the night of 26th/27th May, 'A', 'B', and 'D' Battalions landed at Suda Bay. Almost immediately, it was decided that they could not be employed in an offensive role and would instead be used to cover the withdrawal towards Sfakiá to the south. Over the following days, they carried out a number of rear-guard actions that enabled the main body of troops to be evacuated. By 31st May, with the evacuation drawing to a close, and with the Commandos running low on ammunition, they too fell back towards Sfakiá, although most of them were left behind. Around 600 of the 800 Commandos sent to Crete were listed as killed, missing, or wounded. Only 23 officers and 156 other ranks got away, including Lt. Col. Laycock.

On 8th June, the Allies launched Operation Exporter, the invasion of Vichy French-controlled Syria and Lebanon. 'C' Battalion, which had been sent to reinforce the garrison on Cyprus in case of a German invasion there, was tasked with seizing a crossing over the Litani River. Having carried out an amphibious landing, they attempted to seize the bridge near the mouth of the river, but the French defenders blew it up. In the heavy fighting that followed, the Commandos captured a French barracks, though at a heavy cost, with their commanding officer among those killed. In the meantime, another detachment succeeded in getting across the river in a boat and was able to secure the crossing. Of the 406 men that took part, 130 were killed or wounded. Yet, despite being outnumbered and short on ammunition, they had held their position long enough for Allied forces to cross the river and continue with their advance to Beirut. Soon afterwards, 'C' Battalion returned to garrison duty on Cyprus.

Men from No. 11 (Scottish) Commando - redesignated 'C' Battalion - in Cyprus.

In the meantime, back in North Africa, the British Eight Army was attempting to relieve the siege of Tobruk. In July, a detachment from 'B' Battalion was tasked with capturing a position known as the Twin Pimples - a defensive strong point consisting of two hills which dominated the Allied lines and were held by units of the Italian Army. On the night of 17th/18th July, the Commandos silently approached the Italian positions whilst Indian troops from the 18th King Edward's Own Cavalry created a diversion. The Commandos advanced to within 27 metres before they were challenged, at which point they rushed the position and quickly overwhelmed the defenders. After planting explosives on several mortars and an ammunition dump, they withdrew just as Italian artillery started hitting the position. The cost of the raid was five wounded, one of whom later died of his injuries.

By late July, with Layforce having been severely depleted, the decision was taken for it to be disbanded. Upon hearing about this, Winston Churchill ordered the formation of the Middle East Commando, which was to be made up of Commandos that were still in theatre. The new unit was organised into six troops. In November, as part of Operation Crusader - yet another offensive aimed at relieving the besieged garrison at Tobruk - No. 3 Troop was involved in Operation Flipper, an attack on the presumed headquarters of Generalleutnant Erwin Rommel, the commander of Panzergruppe Afrika, at Beda Littoria, Libya. The goal of the raid was to kill or capture Rommel, yet the operation failed because unbeknownst to the planners, he was not even in North Africa when the raid took place on the night of 17th/18th November. The Commandos lost two men killed and 28 captured, with only three men escaping. One of those killed was 24-year-old Lieutenant Colonel Geoffrey Keyes, who was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross for his leadership and bravery during the raid.

Lt. Col. Geoffrey Keyes was awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross for his role in Operation Flipper.

Operation Claymore

In the meantime, Commando raids in Western Europe continued. On 4th March 1941, 500 men from No. 3 and No. 4 Commandos, supported by engineers and personnel from Norwegian Independent Company 1, took part in Operation Claymore - an attack on the Norwegian Lofoten Islands, and the first large-scale Commando raid. The Lofoten Islands produced large quantities of fish oil, which was then shipped to Germany to produce glycerine, a vital ingredient in the manufacture of explosives.

Commandos watching fish oil tanks burning during Operation Claymore in the Lofoten Islands.

Landing unopposed, the Commandos destroyed eleven factories and 800,000 gallons of fish oil, as well as sinking 18,000 tons of shipping before re-embarking. Another significant success was the capture of a set of rotor wheels for an Enigma machine and its code books, which enabled German naval codes to be read by Allied intelligence. The Commandos also brought back 228 German prisoners, 314 loyal Norwegian volunteers and 60 Quisling regime collaborators. Casualties for the British were just one officer injured.

Operation Archery

On 27th December 1941, the Commandos returned to Norway, this time targeting the island of Vaagso in what was to be the first true combined operation carried out by British forces, involving the British Army, Royal Navy and RAF. The aim of the raid was to draw large numbers of German troops from other fronts, whilst also providing an opportunity to destroy German military infrastructure. According to intelligence, the island was garrisoned by 150 German soldiers, 50 sailors, and around 100 labourers. Yet, unbeknownst to the Commandos, a unit of experienced German mountain troops happened to be there on leave from the Eastern Front.

British Commandos in action during Operation Archery, in Vaagso, Norway.

As a result, the raiding force, consisting of No. 3 Commando, together with additional personnel from No. 2, No. 4, and No. 6 Commandos, and from Norwegian Independent Company 1, encountered stiffer resistance than they had anticipated. Nonetheless, they accomplished all their objectives, including the destruction of the power station, coastal guns, a wireless station, factories, and a lighthouse before withdrawing. The Commandos lost 18 men killed and 55 wounded. In return, they had killed around 120 German troops and captured 98 others. The Vaagso raid persuaded Adolf Hitler to divert 30,000 troops to Norway from other fronts.

Operation Biting

In 1942, Commando operations shifted from the coast of Norway to the Atlantic shores of occupied France. As always, the objectives of such raids were to target military infrastructure, collect intelligence, and demoralise the enemy. One such raid was Operation Biting, which took place in February. RAF aerial reconnaissance had identified a number of installations that were believed to be radar stations being used to direct German night fighters in their attacks against British bombers. One such station was located near the coast at Saint-Jouin-Bruneval, in northern France, and the decision was taken to launch a raid with the intention of capturing the technology and taking it back to Britain so that it could be examined by Allied scientists.

An aerial reconnaissance photo showing the German "Würzburg" radar set near Bruneval, France.

Due to the extensive coastal defences which protected the installation from a seaborne raid, it was decided that an airborne assault followed by seaborne evacuation provided the best chance of success. After a period of intense training, 'C' Company of the 2nd Parachute Battalion, 1st Airborne Division, was parachuted into France on the night of 27th/28th February. After a brief firefight, during which several members of the German garrison were killed, a Würzburg radar system was dismantled and transported to a nearby beach, where a detachment of 32 officers and men from No. 12 Commando was waiting offshore. The Commandos made an amphibious landing and held off a German counterattack whilst the paratroopers boarded transports with their cargo. The cost of the raid was two paratroopers killed and six captured. Yet, the equipment they brought back, along with a captured German radar technician, allowed British scientists to understand enemy advances in radar and to create countermeasures to defeat them.

Royal Marine Commandos

Up to this point in time, all the Commandos were British Army units. In spite of the amphibious tradition of the Royal Marines, and their obvious suitability for the role, the Admiralty had thus far been reluctant to divert Royal Marine manpower into the Commando venture. In the immediate aftermath of the Dunkirk evacuation, the Royal Marines provided Britain's only fully-equipped and fully-manned fighting units and were thus held in reserve for a possible imminent German invasion. However, once the threat had diminished, and upon seeing the early successes of the Army Commandos, the Royal Marines started to form their own Commando units.

The first of these was formed in February 1942 and designated 'The Royal Marine Commando', and soon after as 'A' (RM) Commando. In October, 'B' (RM) Commando was raised from volunteers from the 8th Royal Marine Battalion, which was being disbanded. Soon afterwards, these two units were renamed No. 40 (RM) and No. 41 (RM) Commandos. These would be the only two Royal Marine Commando units raised solely from volunteers. In August 1943, a further six Royal Marine Commandos, Nos. 42 through to 47, were raised by disbanding existing Royal Marine battalions and reforming them as Commando units. No. 48 (RM) Commando was formed in March 1944 and was the last Commando unit formed during the war. All went through the same rigorous training at Achnacarry as their army counterparts.

Men from 'The Royal Marine Commando' shortly after the unit was formed in February 1942.

The Royal Navy and the RAF also eventually formed their own Commando units. The Royal Naval Commandos were tasked with establishing, maintaining and controlling beachheads and would take part in all Allied amphibious landings from early 1942 up to the end of the war. The RAF Commandos were to accompany an invasion force either to make enemy airfields serviceable or to make new airstrips operational and contribute to their defence.

Operation Chariot

In March 1942, the Commandos staged Operation Chariot, quite possibly their most audacious raid of the entire war. The target was the heavily fortified port of Saint-Nazaire, in German-occupied France. This was the location of the Normandie Dock, which was the only dock on the Atlantic coast that was able to accommodate Tirpitz, Germany’s last remaining Bismarck-class battleship. The British concluded that should this dock become unavailable, the Germans would not risk deploying Tirpitz into the Atlantic.

Located in the Loire estuary, nine kilometres from the Bay of Biscay, Saint-Nazaire was heavily guarded by the Germans. Air raids or naval bombardments had been ruled out to avoid civilian casualties, so instead, a daring Commando raid was planned. The obsolete destroyer HMS Campbeltown, accompanied by motor launches, would sail up the estuary and ram the dock gate. Commandos would then disembark and destroy harbour facilities, before re-embarking on the launches. Hours later, delayed-action explosives, hidden inside Campbeltown, would detonate, destroying the gate and flooding the dry dock.

In the early hours of 28th March, Campbeltown and sixteen launches, disguised as German vessels, and carrying 346 Royal Navy personnel and 265 Commandos, made their way into the Loire estuary. As they approached Saint-Nazaire, they were illuminated by searchlights, and the alert German defenders soon opened fire. Speeding up, Campbeltown continued on her course, ramming the dock gate as planned. The Commandos went ashore and succeeded in destroying all their targets, but with most of the launches having been destroyed, they were left with no option but to fight their way out in small groups and try to escape overland. Most were captured, although five did make it to neutral Spain.

HMS Campbeltown wedged in the dock gates in the aftermath of the attack.

Later that day, Campbeltown blew up in a massive explosion that killed a large number of Germans and damaged the dock to such an extent that it remained unusable until 1947. Tirpitz, with no safe Atlantic harbour, would remain bottled up in Norwegian waters until her sinking by RAF bombers in 1944. While the outcome was unquestionably a success, the cost of the operation was staggering. Of the 612 men who had taken part, 169 were killed and 215 were captured. The bravery displayed during Operation Chariot would result in 89 gallantry awards, including five Victoria Crosses. Two of these went to Lieutenant Augustus Newman and Sergeant Thomas Durrant of the Commandos, the latter posthumously.

Operation Jubilee

In 1942, the Allies were not yet ready to launch a full-scale assault on mainland Europe. Yet, a desire to test their ability to do so when the time came led to the launching of Operation Jubilee in August. The plan was to temporarily seize control of the German-held French port of Dieppe, destroy a number of military targets, and then withdraw, using a combination of land, sea and air forces. The bulk of the assault force was to be provided by the 2nd Canadian Division, while around 1,000 British Commandos would accompany them. They would be delivered to their target by a fleet of 237 ships and landing craft, with the RAF providing air support. The Commandos’ task was to silence shore batteries flanking the landing beaches while the Canadians pushed into Dieppe and secured the town.

The Dieppe raid miscarried before it had even begun. In the predawn hours of 19th August, the landing craft carrying No. 3 Commando ran into a German coastal convoy, more than an hour before the landings were scheduled to begin. Only a handful of Commandos were delivered ashore. Yet, despite their failure to destroy the gun battery at Berneval, they did succeed in preventing the Germans from firing effectively on the main assault by harassing them with small arms fire. At the same time, the men of No. 4 Commando, who had been landed at Varengeville, succeeded in destroying their target.

In the meantime, however, Canadian troops tasked with attacking Puys were landed on the wrong side of the Scie River, leaving them unable to carry out their mission, while those meant to assault Pourville were landed much later than intended, leading to them being pinned down on the beach by a now fully alerted garrison. The main assault force landed in the centre and immediately came under unexpected heavy fire. Although some tanks that were meant to support them did belatedly come ashore, most became bogged down in the sand, turning them into sitting ducks.

British Commandos after their return from the disaster at Dieppe.

The battle for Dieppe raged for nine hours, but, by early afternoon, it was clear that the cause was lost. An attempt was made to evacuate the Canadians, but most were eventually left behind. They lost 907 men killed, 2,460 wounded, and 1,946 captured. The Commandos suffered nearly 300 casualties, while 34 vessels and 106 aircraft were also lost. Virtually none of the objectives had been met. The only positive from Operation Jubilee was that the Allies learned exactly what not to do in an invasion, and the costly lessons that were learned would be put to good use in later operations. Despite the poor planning, there was no questioning the courage of the men involved. Captain Patrick Porteous of No. 4 Commando was awarded the Victoria Cross for his actions during the raid.

Capt. Patrick Porteous of No. 4 Cdo was awarded the Victoria Cross for his actions during Operation Jubilee.

Commando Order

On the night of 3rd/4th October 1942, a small party of Commandos carried out a raid on the German-occupied Channel Island of Sark with the intention of capturing prisoners for interrogation. Five German soldiers were seized and had their hands tied behind their backs, but, as they were being led away, they attempted to escape, and three of them were killed. This incident infuriated Adolf Hitler, who claimed that the Commandos had orders to execute their prisoners. In retaliation, on 18th October, exactly two weeks later, he issued the infamous Kommandobefehl, or Commando Order.

Hitler’s new directive stated that henceforth, all Allied Commandos should be killed immediately without trial, even if in proper uniforms or if they attempted to surrender. Any Commandos, enemy agents, and saboteurs not in proper uniforms who fell into the hands of the German forces by some means other than direct combat were to be handed over immediately to the Sicherheitsdienst (Security Service) for execution. This order made it clear that failure to carry out its directives by any commander or officer would be considered an act of negligence punishable under German military law. There were additional instructions that the murders were to be kept secret, the bodies buried in unmarked graves, and the fate of the captured Commandos was not to be revealed to the Red Cross or to anyone else.

While some German officers ignored the order, others carried it out with great enthusiasm. The first victims were two officers and five other ranks of No. 2 Commando who had been captured during Operation Musketoon - a successful raid against the Glomfjord hydroelectric power plant in Norway the previous month. On 23rd October, they were shot in the back of the neck and their bodies were cremated at Sachsenhausen concentration camp. Shortly after the war ended, at the Nuremberg Trials, the Commando Order was found to be a direct breach of the laws of war and a number of German officers who had carried it out were found guilty of war crimes and sentenced to death or extended incarceration.

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