The Army Commandos: 1940 - 1946

Although very new in the 1940s, the term 'COMMANDO' is in widespread use today - often, though thankfully not always - associated with improbably muscular supermen firing improbably lethal weapons at equally improbable foes. In fact the term originated in South Africa at the turn of the nineteenth century, when Boer irregulars took on the might of the British Army, their combination of skill, intelligence, self-sufficiency and cunning being far more reflective of the new Commando ethos than any concoction ever to emanate from Hollywood.

Continuing the theme of highly trained and highly motivated minorities acting offensively in the stead of more conventional forces, the British, in the dark days which followed the evacuation of most of their expeditionary force from Dunkirk, resurrected the idea of employing élite "storm troops" to stage hit and run attacks on the enemy coast. When I say "the British", it should, however, be made clear from the outset that the concept of "irregular" formations came from only a small number of forward thinking officers desperate to find some way of hitting back at the enemy, and whose ideas were enthusiastically supported by a Winston Churchill who had been deeply impressed by the successes of small bands of highly trained German "Storm Troops" during the 1918 Ludendorff offensive. Even with the PM’s backing however, the struggle for acceptance would be long and difficult, as the three quotes immediately below confirm.

'I hear that the whole position of the Commandos is being questioned. They have been told "no more recruiting", and that their future is in the melting-pot.’ (Winston Churchill, 25. VIII. 1940: 'Their Finest Hour')

'The resistances of the War Office were obstinate. The idea that large bands of favoured "irregulars" with their unconventional attire and free-and-easy bearing should throw an implied slur on the efficiency and courage of the Regular battalions was odious to the men who had given all their lives to the organised discipline of permanent units.' (Winston Churchill, ’Their Finest Hour’)

And - ‘..no sooner had the (Commando) idea begun to take hold than a farrago of reasonable misgivings, stale bigotries and personal jealousies sprang up to obstruct our embodiment.’ (Captain Michael Burn, MC, ‘Turned Towards the Sun’)

Thus the British "Army" Commandos were born into an atmosphere of suspicion and mistrust such as would dog their acceptance for several years. This completely new unit consisted of hand-picked volunteers from existing formations whose desire to move on to "Special Service" was rarely greeted warmly by line commanders anxious to hold on to their best men. So used are we now to the existence and indispensability of Special Forces, it is perhaps hard to grasp just how much resistance there actually was to these new formations - all the way from the most junior commanders up to the War Office itself. Indeed growing resistance to the departure of the brightest and best of the regular army’s officers and men led to a recruiting crisis, only solved by the formation of more traditionally configured "Royal Marines" Commandos in February, 1942.

In an image again fostered by the media, soldiers are generally considered to have inhabited a world entirely divorced from civilian communities, living an unremittingly communal lifestyle, in barracks or encampments from which they were only occasionally granted leave. Discipline legislated against expressions of individuality; and endless drill attuned the mind to following orders without the need of independent thought. Here could be found attitudes and qualities entirely antipathetic to the new formations, for whom individuality and independence of thought were everything. No "dyed in the wool" officers brought up in the methodology of World War One, no mind-numbing "bull"; just space within which to develop the qualities that would allow each man to think and act effectively, even in extremis.

For a start, and as befitted a light striking force which could appear and disappear at a moment's notice, the Army Commandos had no permanent facilites. Instead of barracks, they lived within the community, feeding and housing themselves out of a living allowance whose value on the ground depended on each individual's creativity, negotiating skills and, on occasions, as can be seen below, sources of private wealth. Accommodation included hotels, boarding houses and private homes, whose complement of Commandos soon became "our boys" and honourary members of the family. Depending on where the unit happened to be stationed, men could even retire, when dismissed, to their own wives and homes.

Wherever Commandos were billeted, housewives and landladies had to become used to finding pistols, hand-grenades and various types of explosives strewn about the place. This was soldiering of a different order which, when allied to revolutionary training regimes, produced men for whom rank or status was not an issue, who could think, act and provide for themselves, and to whom could be entrusted tasks as daunting and dangerous as the assault on Saint-Nazaire.  

The writer and poet Captain Michael Burn, then in command of 6 Troop 2 Commando, wrote eloquently, and on occasion impishly, of this period of uncertainty and frustration, this selection of quotes from his autobiography "Turned Towards the Sun" * painting a unique and sometimes painfully nostalgic picture of early 1940s life amidst the new Commando élite. His text betrays the innocence and intense camaraderie which would be tested to the limit - and in the case of his beloved 6 Troop essentially destroyed - in the fire-swept waters of the River Loire.

'No barracks, no more bugles or wakey-wakey, no more tents, no regimental silver, no battle honours or famous dead, but landladies with teapots calling us to do or die and inspiringly appointed leaders under whom to establish a tradition.'

‘We did schemes against the burgeoning Home Guard. One, in Cornwall, and ending with a midnight feast, involved secretly crossing the River Tamar. The boundary bridge...was heavily manned against us. The river was in spate. We swam, and I thought I was going to drown. Tom Peyton (Lieutenant Tom Peyton was fated to be one of the many killed at Saint-Nazaire) did more shrewdly. He took his merry men to a railway station suitably distant, bought them all tickets, and crossed with them by train, in the guard’s van. This was thought “unfair” by our “enemy”. We throve on unfairness. Unfairness was the point. They (the military Establishment) did not like it on a night exercise, when we captured a Brigadier and pinioned him trouserless to a tree till day-break; or when top-secret documents disappeared from Army HQ to be returned by post with Commando compliments; or when a traffic-controlling Military Policeman was forcibly removed from a vital crossroads and a Commando impersonator substituted who directed a battalion down a third-class road dead-ending in the sea.’

‘It is difficult to write of Tom… . He shared my background. We were posh. For digs we chose the posh hotels. Our brother officers seemed to expect it. Tom and I went on leave together, taking the night train from Scotland, and had early morning breakfast at the Ritz. It was useful for writing paper and interesting scenically, like watching a chic survival course.’

‘Maurice Harrison (also) stays vividly in my memory. He had been one of the Territorial handful who volunteered with me from the Queen’s Westminsters and came to Norway. He shared my love of theater and music-hall and ballet. On leave once, I took my mother, Maurice’s sister Molly and him, with another sergeant bearing the splendid name of Nelson Smallbone, to see the Crazy Gang, and backstage afterwards to meet Bud Flanagan; a familiarity which might have been thought outrageous in a Regiment. He was training his section once on a river in the Isle of Wight. Their raft began to sink. He called them to attention and they went down with it, saluting and singing the National Anthem. Sent on a course during the bleak winter of early 1942, he wrote me a report beginning: “Fort Edinburgh. We are weak, writing is difficult…" a take-off of Captain Scott’s last message from the South Pole. He possessed a superb gaiety and seemed to epitomize youth.’ As with Tom Peyton, Maurice too would die in the conflagration engulfing Motor Launch 192 in the waters off the Old Mole in Saint-Nazaire. (NB: the bisexual Micky was in love with Maurice in spite of having, at one point, proposed marriage to his sister Molly)

Writing of the period to his mother Lady Burn, Micky described how, in the absence of the employment for which they had volunteered in the first place, the men were in danger of losing their edge. 'We are all grossly overfed and spoilt. One has to knock at the door and ask if the soldiers are in when one wants them, and instead of issuing orders for a parade, I am thinking of sending out cards: Captain Burn At Home 0900 to 1300 hrs. Uniform. RSVP. Please bring your rifle’.

Raiding plan after raiding plan was cancelled - sometimes with ample justification given that - ’With us any crackpot project had a chance. A naval commander was among our first encounters. Coming of a family accustomed to winning the Victoria Cross, he had only managed a DSO himself, and was consequently called the “Coward”. He put to us a project for spiking the big guns the Germans had installed at Cap Gris Nez. To get there we were to walk across the twenty miles of sea-bed, kept going underwater by oxygen paid out from the white cliffs (of Dover).’ !

Meanwhile frustration grew: ’Suspense produced a dangerously impatient recklessness in Commandos. At Paignton Tom Peyton and I had taken against some of the rich fugitives from the Blitz at our hotel. An order arrived for the Commando to move at once. A raid seemed certain. There was a farewell party of brother officers and NCOs. Second-Lieutenant Philip Walton, who claimed expertise in explosives, and I decided that we should give the residents something to remind them of us. Slabs of TNT were stored beneath my bed. Intending only a mild reminder, Philip miscalculated…enough to blow in what later assessment put at fifty windows. Another officer (Lieutenant-Colonel Charles Newman, leader of the Commando element during the attack on Saint-Nazaire!) chose the same moment to try out a new smoke cannister. Panic ensued. Next morning, before marching out, I apologised to the manageress….and gave her a huge bouquet of lilies which she accepted smilingly enough to give hope nothing more would come of it.’ The raid was cancelled and the Commando moved to Scotland: as, unfortunately for Micky, did the inevitable retribution!

‘For all (such) transgressions…..Charles Haydon (In charge of the Special Service Brigade to which all Commando units belonged) had to take the flak, and did, month after month defending us against those on high who remained set on abolishing us.’

With the threat of invasion all but gone, the various Commando units moved to Scotland - in 6 Troop’s case to Moffat, whose isolation and scenic beauty only seemed to intensify the closeness of relationships, and where the stresses of the inevitable training were relieved by romantic liaisons, evenings in the local watering-holes and dances at the Baths Hall. Micky’s friend Dinah Jones was just one of the visitors to the Star Hotel, her presence there accompanied by the inevitable gossip and "knowing" glances. (Dinah was madly, although sadly unrequitedly, in love with Micky)

‘We were at Moffat, in Dumfriesshire, a blessed place for us all. HQ was thirty miles away at Dumfries. Tom and I lived at the Star Hotel whose proprietors, Mr and Mrs Butler, had become surrogate parents to us all, and Mrs Butler, with a son on service far away, so much a mother that I gave it out that no one was to marry a local girl without her approval. Their bar became a meeting-place for all ranks.’ ‘On one of our schemes we had used the hotel as a strong-point, barricading the windows with the furniture while Rifleman Westlake and I fired live ammunition from the church tower.’

It might be something of a stretch, given the gruelling training and the intensity of the rain which all too frequently accompanied it, to describe this "Scottish" interlude as an idyll; however, it certainly engendered a depth of memory that would be retained throughout their lives by those for whom it would come to characterise a major element of their youth. And then, in early 1942, for a very select assembly encompassing the best of the best it came to an abrupt, but very enthusiastically embraced, end with the decision to attack the French Atlantic port of Saint-Nazaire. Here, at long last, came the opportunity for the Army Commandos to do what they had been created and trained for; an opportunity, given the litany of cancellations that had marred their existence thus far, which no one was prepared to relinquish under any circumstances.

When, in March of 1942, the Army Commandos did finally set sail for France it was therefore with a potent sense of mission born of frustration and a pent-up desire to excel: however, when examining the planning and execution of the raid it should always be remembered that the Commandos’ enemies existed at home as well as abroad, as a consequence of which they were denied the full catalogue of much needed resources. Not only that, but the raid contained within it a discomfiting sub-text in that aside from merely defeating the German defenders of the port, which victory would go a long way towards cementing an exceptance of the necessity for Special Forces, a defeat - especially a particularly costly one, for which the potential certainly existed - would play directly into the hands of those who had been claiming all along that the Commandos were nothing more than yet another of Churchill's facile and ultimately distracting flights of fancy.

*(courtesy of the Michael Burn Archive, the copyright owner)

SEE ALSO - http://saintnazaireraiders.blogspot.com/2018/07/commando-spirit.html

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Inverailort House, the Special Training centre where the early Commandos were trained. See the Commando Veterans Association page at - http://gallery.commandoveterans.org/cdoGallery/v/WW2/buildings/lochailort/

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Captain Michael 'Micky; Burn, MC

L: Brigadier J.C. Haydon R:Lieutenant Tom Peyton (KIA)

Lieutenant Philip Walton (KIA)

L/Sergeant Maurice Harrison (KIA)

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No. 2 Commando officers before the raid: Left to right - Lieutenant 'Hoppy' Hopwood; Lieutenant-Colonel Charles Newman; Lieutenant Johnny Proctor; Major Bill Copland; and Captain Stan Day.