A Brief History
After the mass evacuation of Dunkirk, where British and French units were isolated in retreat, we were suffering, loss of life and equipment meant we were on a negative path. Coupled with the persistent bombing of the UK mainland, overall morale was very low. The necessity for a different way forward in order to take the initiative on the ground and the sea was sought. This would initially come in the form of small raiding attacks on the coastlines.
This fresh approach was certainly needed and centred around raiding forces, small specially equipped units initially formed on a volunteer basis (later being joined by the Royal Marines), the idea being initiated in 1940, and so the story of the Commandos begins.
Let’s first take a step back to 1899 when the British faced formidable opposition by the Afrikaners in the Second Boer war. In fact, Winston Churchill himself had experience of those times being taken prisoner and managing to escape from the clutches of the enemy. He was therefore only to familiar with this fighting force who were grouped into sections called Commando’s.
Arguable it was his previous experiences that may have been the inspiration in devising a new attacking force which would eventually take on the same name. It would be December 1944 when the term Commando would finally be officially adopted replacing the previous title of Special Service.
Volunteers were called upon to take on special and hazardous operational duties of which the finest recruits were selected. Did these men know what they were letting themselves in for, the most dangerous missions lay ahead?
Pressure was mounting to unleash these men into the active field as soon as possible, and initially for many this may have been too soon, as early missions saw men poorly and inappropriately equipped, only experience and time would tell if they were to become a success.
Over time training would improve to form an elite and unique fighting force with a vast number of skills. As such they would be the forefront and leaders in forming elite specialist teams and many members would join groups such as the SAS who carry on such special, much unknown and unstated work today, the hidden and secret heroes of our armed forces.
1941 would see the first missions and they were later joined by the Royal Marines who were to take forward and continue the elite work following the end of the war.
The now famous green beret of the Commando's was not officially adopted until October 1942. Various headgear was worn before then depending on the unit but the green knitted woollen cap comforter was often a popular choice sometimes known as the Commando cap even after the green beret was adopted.
A Commando needed to have many skills above and beyond what you would normally expect. Bravery, commitment, both strong physically and possess mental capability, and equally as important be able to show their own initiative. Beyond this core foundation they had to have skills in a variety of weapons, map reading, first aid, boat craft, unarmed combat and explosives to name just a few.
Eventually whatever the terrain whether it be land, sea, desert, the artic to the jungle Commandos were equipped both physically and mentally to tackle it all, exactly as they do to this very day.
Commandos and the Channel Islands
You may be surprised to discover that the Commando’s actually have a link with the Channel Islands. It was in those earlier years when the Commandos where initially establishing that these small and picturesque islands where on their radar for some of their first raiding missions. They came with mixed success as we will now begin to discover as we unravel and establish some of the abbreviated key points.
Date: 14 - 15th July 1942
Unit: No.3 Commando \ No.11 Independent Company
There was actually two parts to this operation. The first codenamed ‘Anger’ would be an intelligence gathering operation ahead of the main operation. This was to be the start of Churchill's retaliation, but initially would not yield the intended results.
Lieutenant Hubert Nicolle landed on the island tasked with gathering intel. Originally from Guernsey he could interact with the locals quite successfully. He had actually landed on the Island previously, in fact just after the occupation tasked with gathering vital information. Today there is a stone commemorating the point at which he landed all those years ago which was laid as part of the 70th Anniversary of that initial raid. After returning again as part of Operation Ambassador he left the island after three days whilst two other offices arrived to continue duties.
The second part of the plan ‘Ambassador’ would come as a direct result of the intelligence gathered. It was intended that 140 men were to land, attack the airfield plus the garrison and take prisoners. In the end only 40 landed and the mission was unsuccessful as a result of poor planning and a series of unexpected factors, including mechanical and navigational problems. It also transpired that some members of the raiding party could not swim making it more awkward for their retreat and in the end, they had to surrender after failure to rescue them.
Nicolle and a colleague were again to return secretly to Guernsey in early September landing at Petit Port, finding haven with family his colleague James Symes with other close contacts.
Again, their objective was to gather intelligence along with a third visitor Captain John Parker in preparation for operation Tomato another larger scale attack which eventually would not come to fruition.
In the end this mission resulted in Nicolle and Symes having to surrender as part of an amnesty to stop natives being executed, and was to result in great personal loss. The Commando’s missions on the Channel Islands although well intentioned would unfortunately result in suffering to the locals.
In terms of planning and execution, this was early on in the Commando’s establishment being only their second raid and there was still much more to learn. The important lessons learned from failed missions were to go on to form an instrumental and key part in their many successful missions in the future across the entire globe.
Key areas of improvement homed in on training, equipment and overall better planning in respect of the environment and areas they were intended to land upon, ensuring they were much more prepared for the tasks ahead.
Date: 2nd - 3rd September 1942
Location: Les Casquets Lighthouse, Channel Islands
Unit: No.62 Commando
Les Casquets was quite an ambitious endeavour due to the location of the lighthouse itself surrounded by a group of rocks northwest of Alderney.
It turned out to be a very successful mission, achieving an element of surprise, so much so that prisoners were taken still in their pyjamas. It was even a surprise for the commanding force when awakening the soldiers some of who had taken to their beds in hairnets.
The ultimate result was both prisoners taken and valuable code books which could later be analysed.
Date: 7 - 8th September 1942
Unit: No.62 Commando
Following the success at Les Casquets Lighthouse the next task was the reconnaissance of Burhou to see if it was a viable site to locate artillery should a landing on Alderney take place.
It was completed successfully without incurring enemy opposition.
Date: 3rd - 4th October 1942
Unit: No.12 and No.62 Commando
This mission would result in severe consequences to many others, way beyond what could have ever been envisaged.
The raiding party found themselves gathering intelligence from a local lady which led them to part of a local hotel called the annexe where German soldiers were believed to be staying. They proceeded to apprehend the soldiers, as such tying the prisoner’s hands, but in the Germans quest to escape and the chaos that ensured a number were shot.
When the incident filtered back to Germany Hitler was out for revenge believing that prisoners had been mistreated completely against the guidelines set out by the Geneva convention. This resulted in prisoners of war on all sides of the globe being shackled until both parties came to an agreement, it also had other far reaching consequences. Captured Commandos would now face execution otherwise known as the ‘Commando Order’ and those islanders deemed to have assisted the Commandos would be deported. This sadly was the case for the lady who had pointed the Commandos in the direction of the hotel. An innocent victim caught up in all the proceedings.
In fact, there was also a fatal twist of fate as the ‘Commando Order’ issued by Hitler resulted in two officers who were directly involved in Operation Basalt suffering as a direct result of this order being executed when they were captured in Italy 1943.
On a positive note the one captured prisoner proved an asset in terms of information when questioned at the London Cage interrogation centre.
The Commandos who carried out this raid were based at Anderson Manor Dorset. A Distinguished Service order and two Military Cross medals were awarded as a result of the mission.
However understandably to the captive Islanders these raids were starting to cause great concern.
The Commando raids undoubtedly made life uneasy and even dangerous for the islanders being the main ones in line for retaliation. It was therefore harder for them to see, realise and appreciate the plans afoot to grab vital intel, learn about German defence systems in place, capture prisoners in order to have a grasp on their current mindset and overall morale all in order to assist the many battles that lay ahead.
Date: 27 - 28th January 1943
Unit: No.62 Commando
Another reconnaissance raid which reported back as discovering no sign of the occupying enemy forces.
Date: 3rd - 4th April 1943
Unit: No.62 Commando
The intention being to capture German occupying forces, operating alongside this was due to be a second mission, ‘Catswhiskers’ on the Island of Brechou. However, fog was to be the demise of this operation causing it to be cancelled.
Operation Hardtack 7
Date: 26 - 27th December 1943
Unit: No.10 (Inter-Allied) and No.12 Commando
The raid was to originally coincide with the Jersey attack (Hardtack 28 – covered below) and would unfortunately end with disastrous results. The first attempt at the raid happened on the night of the 25th Dec 1943.
This time the raiding party would use a different landing approach as to that used as part of operation Basalt, opting to use a Dorey. It ended up being essentially a reconnaissance mission as obstacles thrown up by the general landscape, and its rough and harsh terrain meant they had to withdraw and return again. During this initial assessment of the lay of the land no mines were detected which may have given a false interpretation of the tragedy that would await them on their return trip.
Two days later the same Commandos would arrive on the Island this time fatally they choose to take the same approach as those on operation Basalt. Since that raid the Germans had however bolstered their devices laying many mines which would have a devasting effect on the Commandos that night.
Although vigilant and very cautious of their existence their efforts to avoid them would become futile.
Two men were fatally wounded and the difficult decision had to made to leave them behind and many of the Commandos were wounded resulting in all having to retreat.
Operation Hardtack 28
Date: 25 - 26th December 1943
Unit: No.10 (Inter-Allied) Commando
After reading the plight of the Commandos in Operation Hardtack 7 on Sark, my partner and I felt compelled in some way to retrace the Commando’s footsteps and therefore endeavoured to take a journey back in time on the Island of Jersey. In the honour of those that gave their lives and, in this case, specifically in relation to Operation Hardtack 28, it was both an important and enlightening journey to take.
With upmost respect we choose the date of the 75th anniversary of the D-Day landings in Normandy and headed to the North of the Island of Jersey. This trip was also in the hope that we would see some of the planes that would be heading over to France taking part in the commemorative events that would happening to honour this most historic day.
As we looked down over the cliffs, we could hear and see the waves powering against the rocks. In the distance we could hear sounds, a rumbling through the air and looked hard into the sky in case we caught a rare glimpse of any iconic planes taking to the sky once again. We found our minds drifting to what would be happening across the water. The sight of the parachutes tumbling down from the sky, gently drifting onto the beaches once more. Remarkedly those landing would include the very veterans that took to the skies with bravery and honour and landed into the unknown and danger all those years ago. Undoubtedly in their minds must have been of times gone before, and their colleagues lost in the painful and brutal war.
With that in our minds we endeavoured to tackle the harsh rock and cliff paths of the coastline of Jersey in order to pay our own respects to those who gave their all.
The paths were very rocky and difficult underfoot, imagine tackling this in the dark, and cold depths of winter, laden down with heavy equipment, ever conscious of stumbling across the enemy. Heart beating faster with anticipation, fatigue but sheer adrenalin and desire to complete the mission driving you on. This is what would have faced many of the Commando’s on any of the Channel Islands they would have landed on. The Islands as beautiful as they are in daylight masked many hidden dangers at night, the sea, the terrain, and the fear of the many mines that had been laid in their defence by the enemy that had now occupied them.
In our quest to retrace the Commando’s journey, we walked across the sheer face of the cliff paths, with loose rock underfoot, and an encapsulating view across the sea over to Normandy, we were unsure if we were on the right track but as we headed inland we came across a small narrow path.
Finally, we stumbled upon a small stone building, and I felt sure we were in the right place and so this is where the main story begins.
Late evening on the 25th December a Commando team arrived from a Motor gunboat at Petit Port Jersey. This was to be the only Commando raid on Jersey, commanded by Captain Philip Ayton aged 22. The picture below shows the point in which we believe they would have landed.
The following pictures depict the climb up from the landing place. Not knowing what they faced, the team would begin their mission, for one it would be prove very tragic.
From what I have read and of course we can never be sure of the facts without being there but the Commandos crossed a wire fence and discovered two buildings, one a corrugated iron shed, the second being a stone building possibly used by fishermen which I can only presume is the building still intact that we found.
They then proceeded to travel up from the cove encountering a fence advising of mines. Although the pictures may not show it, I can confirm it was quite a step climb. I found myself imagining what this could have felt like in the depths of winter, battling the cold and being weighed down with equipment. Our experience was quite a contrast, a very warm day, and the steep incline was a struggle, but we had no equipment to burden us, no enemy around the corner, nothing to be apprehensive about and no mines to concern us as we calmly put one foot in front the other, no care what was underfoot.
The Commandos proceeded uphill into cluster of buildings and a farm or hamlet named Egypt. This was apparently abandoned by a Jewish owner and may have been used by the Germans to train infantry. The Commandos then moved on using the roads to La Geonniere and encountered a lady from a farming family who maybe not wishing to become involved directed them to a neighbouring farm owned by two brothers. Initially they were understandably scared and disorientated by the unexpected visitors, however eventually they were then to take them to the outer east perimeter of Les Platons.
On the perimeter of Les Platons another minefield was located, but they realised by now that they only had 45 mins to make it back to Petit Port their landing point. At approximately 4.45 am they reached Petit Port but their dory was not there. In a bid to make their escape they moved across the coast, flashing their torch light in 15 min intervals.
They reached a cattle fence which they proceeded to crawl under leading them down the cliff. Tragedy would then strike as it appeared that unfortunately Captain Ayton had triggered a mine leaving him mortally wounded and despite making it back to a hospital in Dartmouth this would cost him his life.
Overall lots of ambitious plans were compiled but most never coming to fruition. The location, rough seas and visibility for any incoming invaders made many plans impractical. Some of the raids that did take place were to have serious implications for the local islanders held in captivity and they were consequently unaware that other wider plans were afoot to tackle the ever-present threats in Europe as a whole that were happening at the time. In addition, any mass raid would have inevitable caused mass causalities for the local islanders, a risk too great.
Commandos landing tactics
The raiding forces were accustomed to using the MTB 344, a Motor Torpedo Boat modified for their use nicknamed 'The Little Pisser'. Although the vessel was useful for a quicker getaway, one of the main disadvantages was that it was quite noisy defeating the main objective of a stealthy landing.
To overcome this nearing the objective the Commandos would board a more subtle vessel namely the 'Goatley' increasing their chances of an undetected landing. The Goatley which could be erected in a matter of minutes and carry ten men proved to be an essential tool. Designed by Fred Goatley it was lightweight in design made from wood and canvas.
Other variations of a lightweight boat used was the dory which would land approximately 8-10 men. All had the same intention of a silent approach.
Beyond the concrete fortifications and gun batteries that formed in order to make the Islands fortresses other tactics were also used to defend the Islands.
S mines were used by the Germans named the ‘bouncing betties’ and had catastrophic consequences for the raiding forces on both Sark and Jersey as part of operation Hardtack. Of course the local population were also in danger of accidently stumbling across these mines resulting in tragic consequences.
It is quite remarkable to discover the number of these mines that were laid on such small islands. It is reported that well over 65,000 mines were laid just on the Island of Jersey.
On Guernsey the first mines were apparently laid in November 1940, and there was as many as 118 minefields with well over 69,000 laid in total.
Sark had over 13,000 and Alderney 35,000. It was not just on the land that these mines were laid, it was also the surrounding seas.
A mass clear up operation after the war was formed but as we wander around the countryside today my partner especially who loves exploring all the hidden paths and undergrowth I wonder if some of the mines lay under discovered to this very day, both by land and the sea.
Other tactics included anti landing objects such as the Czech Hedeghog which would have teller mines attached, anti-tank walls, and anti-parachute devices in the fields.
Commando Global missions
Landing on the beaches they often encountered stakes with mines attached, it was deadly and could be devasting, let alone the biting cold of the unforgiving sea and the barrage of defences being thrust in their way, shells, machine guns, mortars the thought is unbearable.
Trudging through the deep heavy sand, laden down with full kit, smoke all around trying to disguise their attack but also engulfing their lungs, struggling hard to breathe finding the strength to carry on.
Many hard fought battles had occurred across the globe and even from the point of DDay and the Normandy landings it was a hard and determined road through, from Commandos right through all the forces, from many globes from many backgrounds with one ultimate goal. The journey was not easy a constant struggle, a battle of out witting snipers to tanks pushing through, clearing outbuildings and farms, some booby trapped some where the enemy had dug in. To close quarter fighting and the ever-concerning ambush just waiting to emerge unexpectedly through the undergrowth. For many months just living on the edge only adrenalin driving them forward. The battle was very tough as the losses clearly indicate and ultimately this would take its toll, for many until their final breathe way beyond the end of the war.
Evidence dictates that it is in the Commandos nature to fight for their comrades a band of brothers, to protect at all costs. In researching this I have read stories of the ultimate sacrifice knowing their own cause was lost due to severe injuries they would fight staving off the enemy to protect their comrades allowing them to escape with full knowledge their own battle would be lost costing and ultimately sacrificing their life.
That was their mentality a fighting instinct, an act of defiance until the final breathe, for that we can only commend their bravery.
There are many examples of the bravery, endurance and sheer courageous actions by the Commandos not only in their early years but throughout their history, but focusing on the Second World war efforts were awarded with recipients receiving the most notable Victoria Cross and Military Medals to name but a few.
Their journey from establishment in 1940 would lead them from the coasts of the Channel Islands, to Italy, the jungles of Burma with the crocodile and snake infested waters to the icy chill of the fjords of Norway. To the close quarter combat fighting in Normandy, across many other lands, they were to conquer it all, leaving us in complete awe of their bravery, the Commandos we can only admire.
One of the Commando training centres was based at Achnacarry House. The Commando Basic Training Centre CBTC, opened in March 1942. The Commando Memorial is close to here just outside the Highland Village of Spean Bridge.
River Hamble near Southampton depicts spot where Commandos left for Normandy