To what extent did Commando forces fulfil their aims and contribute to final victory in World War Two?

Commandos are often seen as super soldiers, part of a highly trained elite, who are highly effective in what they do. While this may be true of today’s Royal Marine Commandos, it is debatable whether the founding Commandos were as effective as propaganda portrays them. Norman Davies and Ronald Atkins both dismiss the idea of Commandos doing any serious damage against the German war machine. Davies argues that “Great play is made in British war mythology of the numerous special service units – the Special Operations Executive, Royal Marines Commandos, parachutists… Yet in the overall wartime scene their activities were extremely marginal – outward evidence of the basic fact that the British Army was incapable of challenging the enemy on an equal footing.”1 Atkins agrees with this idea arguing “Most [Commando raids] were no more than pin – pricks, and some proved embarrassing duds”. However he concedes that they “sustained British morale in those grim days” and “they were testimony to Churchill’s eagerness to attack, even at the most depressing of times, and helped to sustain the British people’s determination.”2 He also argues that the Commandos (especially the St Nazaire raid which he agrees was “Spectacularly successful”) encouraged Churchill’s “desire for further adventure”3 when it was necessary to remain practical about what could be achieved with the resources available.

However, historians like James Ladd4 argue that the actions carried out by Commando forces fulfilled their missions and that their impact on the war was very real, and was significant enough to shift the war favourably towards the Allies. Other arguments (many of which are provided below) support Ladd; suggesting that Commandos not only fulfilled what they were set up to do, but also had an important role in final victory. David Fraser states that “the Commandos flourished. The raiding policy of which they were the spearhead, led to an increasing expertise in amphibious operations… The combination [of airborne and Commando forces] bore triumphant fruit in Sicily, in Italy and ultimately in Normandy – the greatest operation against a defended coast in the history of war.” 5 Richard Overy argues that the morale impact of the Commandos was significant, not only for the average man on the street, but the war planners and the leaders of the allies. Talking of the Madagascan invasion (by Commandos) ‘it came at a dark time in the war for the Allied cause and was, Churchill later recalled, the only bright spot for Britain’s war effort ‘for some months”6. Harclerode and Reynolds argue “The concept of using Commando troops in an attack to inflict a significant blow against the Germans and force them to reinforce the area with more troops who could have been deployed elsewhere had proved to be very cost – effective.” 7

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Even after the successful evacuation of Allied troops at Dunkirk, Britain remained in a perilous position with the impending threat of invasion and the bad situation with the Atlantic convoys; all that stood between victory and defeat was the RAF. However, it was out of this period that Churchill ordered the creation of Commando raiding units. Primarily, these could demonstrate that Britain was still capable of offensive action, and through it increase morale and determination at home and do industrial damage and destroy the morale of the enemy. The Commandos also had a second less – obvious purpose. They were to form the nucleus of a resistance force (like the French Resistance) if Britain was overran and to continue with guerrilla warfare harassing the enemy for as long as the Commandos could. It was for this reason that no large raid occurred until after the threat of invasion was reduced and they kept guard over a large coastal area. “There ought to be at least 20,000 Storm Troops or ‘Leopards’ drawn from existing units, ready to spring at the throats of any small landings or descents.”8

In May 1940 Churchill asked his chiefs of staff to give a reasoned assessment of Britain’s ability to continue the fight. Their conclusions give a sober reality about the state of the British forces. The fact that the army is only mentioned in passing is indicative of the damage sustained in Europe and at Dunkirk. “Our land forces would be insufficient to deal with a serious invasion”9. Written just before the Battle of Britain, the emphasis is on holding air superiority over the island, “The crux of the matter is air superiority…” However, even after Churchill had got this report, he continued to advance the Commando idea throughout Whitehall, not only showing his eagerness to attack but also his forward thinking and understanding of the only practical way of countering the German threat at the time, other than strategic bombing.

Commando forces can be defined as small groups of combat soldiers, highly trained in special skills (such as amphibious and parachute assault, unarmed combat and demolition) and formed specifically for offensive action. They generally have high levels of personal initiative and leadership. The majority of their operations during the Second World War were “butcher and bolt”10 raids, following guerrilla warfare principles, though as seen on D-Day they can be used to lead longer lasting assaults alongside conventional forces. During the Second World War, Commandos utilised both ships and parachutes as a method of insertion. The idea of having Commando forces originated with Churchill who was reminded of German ‘Storm Troopers’ of the First World War who with their high mobility, stick grenades, and early automatic weapons had been effectively employed against hard points in trench defences. Winston Churchill said “What are the ideas of the C-in-C11 about Storm Troops?”12 When he became Prime Minister Churchill was unique in having active military experience; he had been captured by Boer Commandos and this was a significant reason for him choosing Commando as the title of the new force over “Special Service”.

In this essay, I shall assess a number of assaults (but focusing on three in particular) with the aim of not giving a narrative description of the assaults themselves, but focusing on what they really achieved compared to their aims and objectives, and whether the results of these assaults really had any effect on the overall situation in Europe between 1940 and 1945. I have chosen these three raids because they were such successes, and on their own influenced the War to such an extent that these three alone would be indicative of the success of the Commando raiding policy of World War Two. Therefore one must be under no illusion that these are representative of all raids undertaken by Commandos considering some 600 raids were mounted.

Dieppe (Operation Jubilee) is often seen as a Commando operation and is often used to highlight the failure of the Commando idea. However even though Commandos were utilised (successfully carrying out their missions), the bulk of the assault was led by Canadian forces. The aim of this operation was, however, different in that it was not a raid but more a reconnaissance in force; a way of trying out large scale amphibious assault to capture a defended European port intact.

It is important to remember that the aims and reactions to Commandos were different depending from which point of view one adopted. While the newly formed Army Press Unit was satisfied because they were able to exploit the idea of the ‘super soldier’ hitting back at the Germans, Winston Churchill was initially disappointed with the lack of damage at the start of raiding operations. Many Army personnel were unhappy too, with the Commando idea because the Commandos were creaming off the best leaders and fighting talent within the regiments. The way they went about their training was revolutionary and radical in every way, and many of the senior Army Commanders were deeply conservative in the way they regarded training and soldiering.

Other historians argue that the “leadership Drain” significantly weakened other forces to such an extent that the overall quality of the army was reduced by the arrival of the Commandos, rather than strengthened. Indeed army leaders were reluctant to let many of their soldiers apply, especially in the early months when they had not attacked or achieved anything. After all should not your average Commando have been a sergeant or a troop commander in a regular unit? Brooke (The C-in-C from December 1941) never approved of the Commando policy, thinking it a dangerous drain on infantry battalion quality, and that it deprived divisions of the challenge of maintaining and training their own raiding forces. Ladd argues that this so called leadership drain which many use as an argument against the Commando raiding policy was never as bad as critics made out. “The limited number of Commando units … never more than the equivalent of 20 infantry battalions at any time – can hardly be said to have impaired the officer corps in the Allied armies of several millions”13

The first Commando raids were however, complete shambles. The very first attack took place on the Channel Islands in June 1941. The raiders entered by boat and advanced across the island without proper direction and without intelligence regarding the enemy. The Commandos managed to steal a cow and kill one German, and when they got to the beach they found the boats moored about 400 metres off the shore, and they were forced to swim to the boats. About half of the force was left behind because they could not swim and they were captured. Winston Churchill was furious because it humiliated Britain and had “failed to kill more Germans”. He warned that there must be no more “embarrassing messes”14.

Operation Archery was undertaken to demonstrate the fact that Britain was still capable of effective offensive action. It was to be the first time that a large raid was mounted and therefore a relatively easy target was chosen – Vaagso, a small island on the Norwegian Coast. The effect of the raid was startling on the German High Command who had largely thought Britain as out of the war. Archery was the first time all three services combined their resources to mount an amphibious raid against a defended coast. As Mountbatten said at the outset “… nobody knows quite what is going to happen and you are the ones who are going to find out.”

The future pattern of sizeable raids and landings had been set. The Commandos achieved the successful destruction of coastal defences, oil and fish factories, radio transmitters, stores, a lighthouse, and a power station. The task force also sank shipping totalling 15,000 tons and destroyed four aircraft. 150 Germans were killed and 98 taken prisoner at a cost of some 51 dead, 71 wounded and 12 aircraft lost. The Press Unit had been very active during the raid and some of the most graphic and dramatic photographs in World War Two were taken. These and eye witness reports were later used for morale boosting purposes at a time in the war when there was little good news to cheer about. As Keegan writes “There were the raiding successes achieved by the Commandos – his ‘Tigers’ – at Vaagso and the Lofoten Islands…”15

Much was learned by both sides. Later the Germans over-stretched their Atlantic Wall with the deployment of 30,000 extra troops to reinforce the Norwegian sector. Clearly Hitler had taken the bait that Norway might well be the scene of an invasion attempt and thus “the zone of destiny in this war.”16 Ladd concludes “a modest navel force, a dozen squadrons of aircraft, and 600 Commandos with their Norwegian allies, had favourably influenced the strategy of the war at comparatively minor cost”17. Indeed Hitler stationed most of the remaining German Surface Fleet in Norwegian fjords in an attempt to deter Commando operations and to disrupt Convoys going to Russia.

During Mid-January 1942 the powerful German battleship Tirpitz moved from the Baltic and north to Trondheim on the Norwegian coast. There was a very real danger that she would break out into the North Atlantic and wreak havoc on allied Atlantic convoys. Admiral Tovey18 held the view that to sink the Tirpitz would be “of incomparably greater importance to the conduct of the war than the safety of any convoy.” Churchill shared this view commenting that “the entire naval situation throughout the world would be altered.”

Attempts to bomb the Tirpitz failed with the loss of 12 aircraft. The Germans needed dry – dock facilities before the battleship could be deployed to the Atlantic Ocean. The only port capable of handling it was St. Nazaire on the French coast. From within the Planning Division the idea emerged to destroy the lock gate at St Nazaire and this idea was taken to Mountbatten at Combined Operations. There were many problems with attacking St Nazaire; it was arguably the most heavily defended area along the whole of the German occupied Atlantic coast, requiring the raiding party to travel 5 miles exposed to heavy coastal defences all the way to the harbour.

The delayed action fuses detonated the high explosives in HMS Campbeltown’s hold at noon on the 28th March 1942. 440 Germans were near Campbeltown when it exploded and all were killed in the blast. The dock gates were destroyed and were not repaired until after the war. On the evening of the 29th the delayed action torpedoes were activated causing further damage and German casualties. Operation Chariot had succeeded.

The Tirpitz was never able to leave Norwegian waters for want of a safe haven on the Atlantic coast. The value of the shipping saved in terms of men, armaments and food, can only be guessed at but it was a very significant contribution to the Allied cause. The dry dock facility at St Nazaire remained disabled for the rest of the war and was only repaired in 1955. The Commandos killed over 550 and wounded 127. At the same time the Commando force suffered large losses with 168 dead and 214 taken prisoners (this figure includes naval personnel).

Although the costs of the operation were high in comparison to most Commando operations, one must remember that there were 5000 German troops garrisoned in the town, up against some 248 Commandos and 300 naval personnel. It was also high in casualty rates due to the significantly larger number of Commandos being used on the raid than on most. They achieved the aim and denied the Tirpitz or any of the large German vessels a safe port on the Atlantic coast. One must also remember the fact that the Germans considered this an invincible port. Indeed, Admiral Donitz when he visited the port only weeks before he asked German sailors what would happen should a British Fleet sail up the channel, and their reply was “it is impossible.” Donitz replied “Don’t be too sure” 19 and as Mountbatten stated defending the plan “The fact that it was considered impossible made it possible, the Germans never will expect it” 20. The Tirpitz would never break out into the Atlantic and never sank or damaged anything in combat.

Radar (Radio Detection and Ranging) was one of the key, high-technology battlegrounds of the war. It secured R.A.F. Fighter Command’s narrow victory in the Battle of Britain but the Luftwaffe also used radio navigation aids for blind bombing in the Blitz. In 1941 British bombers began to take the war to the heart of Germany forcing the Luftwaffe to develop its own defensive radars. Britain responded with jamming techniques and a private battle, (the “battle of the beams,”) developed between top scientists on both sides to gain the advantage.

In February 1942, men of the newly formed British 1st Airborne Division (Members of No.2 Commando) went into action for the first time. In one of the most daring raids of the war (Operation Biting), they seized, and brought back to England, vital components of a German ‘Wurzburg’ radar installation situated near Bruneval (France). The intelligence gathered by this raid enabled the development of chaff and other effective countermeasures to German Radar. As General Student said ‘[the raid] was the best example of the use of airborne forces with other forces’21 and Mountbatten ‘the most 100% perfection of any raid I know’22 For the cost of eight men, the British were able to get ahead in the radar war and effectively jam the Wurzburg radar system. This significantly improved the survival rate for bombers attacking Germany. What is important to note is that this is a typical Commando operation (though the target may have been more important) and thus is more representative of the role of the Commando force. This idea of quickly getting in with a small number of men and doing substantial damage and getting out with minimal loses is the key to the policy, as is superbly demonstrated here.

There were a number of things which all these successful raids had in common. Firstly, the objectives were all clearly laid out and understood by all the participants. Secondly, the men were given extra training in order to be fully prepared for the mission ahead; by the time the demolition teams got to St Nazaire, they could blow up any part of a dock facility in under ten minutes under all conditions (as long as there was not significant enemy opposition). Thirdly, intelligence regarding enemy numbers and movements was collected and taken into account, and thus proper direction was given to the attack. Most importantly, they all achieved total surprise. John Keegan notes this as their strongest virtue: the fact that where ever they attacked, the Germans did not know about it until too late. Finally, all the men had undergone a stringent selection and training process which gave them more fitness and fighting spirit than ordinary soldiers, and this will power was often enough to give the edge to the Commandos during battle. In most successful raids there was good co – operation between the services, with the RAF providing effective top cover (although in Chariot this turned out to be more of a hindrance).

The Guernsey raid had demonstrated the need for proper intelligence, a set objective, better co – operation between the Commandos and the other services and most importantly for better equipment especially landing craft if the Commando philosophy was going to work and Combined operations quickly learnt from the mistakes of early raids.

On 18th October 1942, Hitler issued his infamous Commando Order which stated that any ‘Commando’ whether inserted by boat or by parachute, whether in uniform or otherwise, whether armed or surrendering, was to be shot on the spot without trial. It is worth noting that Hitler expressly stated that this order be kept secret among senior German officers.23 When it was leaked to the allies, the British High Command took this as confirmation of the strategic and/or the morale impact that Commando raids were having on German forces. This evaluation of the Commando Order is obvious for Hitler would not have issued it if the Commandos were not having some effect.

One has to ask what Churchill’s expectations for the Commandos were. Many criticize Churchill for having too high expectations for the Commandos in relation to their size. It is hard to assess the success in relation to their aims because Churchill never stated clearly what he expected of them, beyond being a raiding force which could attack anywhere on the occupied coast. One has to be very careful at looking beyond the public figure that Churchill put forward during wartime when he called them his “Steel hand from the Sea” as one is sure to expect him to possibly exaggerate the impact that such forces had during a war in order to promote morale. In many ways they were the steel hand tackling a number of impossible missions, but how much of that is hyped up by media and Winston Churchill is another matter. Whether the Commandos fulfilled what Churchill expected of them is debatable because other than in the initial raids, Churchill never displayed any negative emotion towards the Commandos (other than Royal Marines should be employed more often in Commando Operations). It is clear that Churchill was one of the greatest supporters of unconventional warfare and he defended the Commandos from their formation from the disagreements of the Army Chiefs.

This (possible) “hyping up” of achievements happened with other forces, for example the Dam Busters raid of May 1943 clearly had a huge impact on the morale of the British population, but with hindsight the damage done on the Ruhr was not as major as made out at the time. One also has to question what else the Commandos or indeed any of the other British Forces could do. Davies argues that the Commandos were a reminder that the British were unable to challenge the German Army on an equal footing but until Normandy there was no opportunity for large scale engagement of the enemy. Hitler’s Commando Order must also counter this argument, for if they were unable to challenge the German Army, then why did Hitler issue such an order? Operations like St Nazaire also must be used to counter it, in that 248 Commandos (and 300 naval personnel) took on 5000 well trained German soldiers and yet still fulfilled the objectives of the mission.

On the 6th of June 1944, The Allied Forces conducted the greatest seaborne assault to date. Many of the techniques pioneered by Commandos would be present and indeed the Commandos played a vital role not only in deception activities before the landings but in the landings themselves. Two Commandos were deliberately washed ashore (supposedly from a reconnaissance mission on two of the main beaches to be used for the invasion). Rommel personally interviewed them and they provided him with a treasure of disinformation. Commandos were tasked with covering the northern flank and No.4 under Lord Lovat was tasked with punching through the German line to get to Pegasus Bridge to help the Parachute Regiment protect the bridge and the area, and they arrived in time to help repel a German counterattack. The Commandos played vital roles after D – Day spearheading the advance into Germany and were among the first troops across the Rhine.

As Fraser24 said, the combination of experience and expertise that had been gained since the formation of Commando and Parachute forces culminated in key landings in North Africa, Sicily, Italy and ultimately Normandy and the raids continued to harass and sabotage key weapons development and industry. Ladd raises an interesting point with regard to the cost of mounting raids. Ladd states “The achievement of sabotage raids must be set in the context of the overall war effort, when the loss of a bomber represented between �50,000 and �75,000 of effort, a submarine represented over �350,000… an estimate of the conventional forces needed to attack Bordeaux in the winter of 1942 was put at two divisions, yet the [5] RMBPD25 canoes successfully damaged 6 ships… Their canoes and explosives probably each represented less than �100 of time and materials, while training a canoeist cost less than training their counterparts in aircraft crews”26 Ladd admits that such equations of effective effort are something of a guessing game, but it is an interesting idea of the cost effective nature of such raiding activities. Mountbatten said that his intention was to have an organised raid somewhere on the enemy coast at least once every fortnight. Many people discount this number of assaults but German soldiers could never rest easy for fear of such an attack.

Keegan maintains a critical view of the Commandos, and while praising them for some operations, he criticised Churchill and planners for looking at the successes of the Commandos and using them as reassurance of the success of a plan like Operation Jubilee (Dieppe). “… a few Viking victories by the pick of the army over the small and third – rate garrisons of remote Norwegian fishing havens provided no basis at all for judging how a full – scale military operation against a defended Channel port would go.”27 One must agree to a certain extent that many of the raids were not up against well trained troops and certainly a raid against the Lofoten Islands is nothing like trying to capture a functioning and defended port. However there are a number of exceptions to Keegan’s argument; Vaagso had 50 – 75 troops from an elite mountain division on rest in the town over the Christmas period when the Commandos attacked it. St Nazaire was not in this category of poorly trained troops and regardless of the quality of the troops, the Commando forces were outnumbered over 20 to 1 against well fortified positions. St Nazaire was one of the most highly defended ports on the Nazi occupied coastline.

In conclusion, each of the raids I have looked at had a significant impact if not on the war, on a specific important aspect of it. It is nearly impossible to assess the morale impact of these raids, but it would be foolish to discount there not being any increase in fighting spirit, not only for soldiers in other regiments but the civilian population at large. The theft of radar technology was to have important implications for the later large scale bomber raids over Germany (regardless of how effective people may think the bombing raids were). The destruction of the only dry dock facilities on the Atlantic coast of France was to deny Tirpitz and large battle cruisers a safe haven should they be damaged at sea and in the end, Tirpitz was sunk without having sunk so much as a fishing boat. Ladd concludes “The British Army’s Commandos established their glorious reputation in only five years … Their mystique was … a feature of their success, as it is with any military unit carrying through a succession of difficult operations. But the Commando’s success was built on more than the shadows of reputation, their example of courage, personal initiative and flair for daring operations can be seen a succession of military feats of arms few units can equal.”28

However, the surest evidence of their success lies with the continuance of the Commando tradition. Royal Marines were given the Commando role after the end of the war and continue to use training and methods pioneered by their forefathers, showing that even in these modern times the British Government still sees the need for a specialist amphibious strike force.

Even with all the criticisms that the Army put forward against the new Commando force, it still proved itself worthy of being a special force. It achieved things which many thought to be impossible (like the raid on St Nazaire) and things way out of proportion to its size. What the regular battalions would have achieved with their best men left in the units is questionable, for it required a group of men of the same calibre who could achieve such successes as Archery, Bruneval and Chariot. In the end over 600 raids were made on coastal Europe, and it would be inaccurate to suggest they all had the same effect as the three which I have outlined but they all wore down the enemy, forced Hitler to over-stretch his defences and to commit resources away from other areas and therefore they fulfilled their aims as a small Commando Raiding force.