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British Commandos
Military Intelligence Service, Special Series No. 1, August 9, 1942
[DISCLAIMER: The following text is taken from a WWII U.S. War Department Special Series publication. As with all wartime intelligence information, data may be incomplete or inaccurate. No attempt has been made to update or correct the text. Any views or opinions expressed do not necessarily represent those of the website.]


Section I. Origin and Organization

1. Introduction.—Since the decisive outcome of the campaigns in France and the Low Countries left the British Army considerably inferior to the German Army in strength and matériel, the British had no choice but to avoid full-scale fighting until new power could be marshalled. Accordingly, shortly after the withdrawal from Dunkirk in June 1940, the Imperial General Staff organized a Special Service Brigade under the control of the Director of Combined Operations, Admiral of the Fleet Sir Roger Keyes, who had learned the technique of coastal raids in the First World War. The Brigade was composed of raiding parties and task forces—roving hit-and-run fighters—and soon came to be known as "commandos" after a Dutch word, derived from the Portuguese, that had come into familiar use in the Boer War as a term describing any military body as well as a raiding party. Under Sir Roger the commandos carried out several "pin-prick" raids on the French coast and a larger raid on the Lofoten Islands in Norway, in which they developed their peculiar tactics.

By the fall of 1941 the commandos were reorganized and placed under the direct control of Captain Lord Louis Mountbatten, who, as Chief of Combined Operations, has been given the ranks of vice-admiral in the Royal Navy, lieutenant-general in the Army, and air marshal in the Royal Air Force, in order that the three services may have equal recognition in planning and carrying out combined operations. Under his leadership the commandos carried out the raid on Vaagso, Norway, in December 1941.

Actually the reorganization of the commandos consists chiefly of a reorientation of aims rather than a change in organization and administrative methods. The Brigade of commandos remains, for example, under the control of Combined Operations. which operates under the Ministry of Defence, an office held by the Prime Minister. However, the Brigade does not in fact train or function normally as such; the separate commandos are stationed in various places and are trained separately. The combined training of the commandos with naval and air units continues essentially as first planned; and now that Great Britain has regained the offensive power which she temporarily lost in the Battle of France and has otherwise increased her war-making potentialities, it is expected that the scope and number of commando operations will increase considerably.

The primary mission of the commandos is to carry out raids, and for that purpose they are specially and rigorously trained. Raiding parties may vary in size from a small reconnaissance group to a complete commando troop or even a larger force, and every raid will aim to destroy enemy installations and to obtain information. The secondary missions are: (1) to act as an elite or shock-assault brigade to seize and hold a bridgehead for covering a landing in force, and (2) to provide specially trained covering forces for any operation. In the Far East the scope of the commandos' operations will further include their use in support of guerrilla warfare in friendly and hostile areas. They will frequently be called upon "to show the flag"—to undertake an invasion primarily to encourage the resistance of small or conquered countries.

Commandos, therefore, will play an increasingly important role, and the available material on their history, organization, and experience has been digested in this bulletin for the purpose of providing a guide to the offensive possibilities of such units. An account of the British raid on Spitsbergen has been included because this operation, though not carried out by commando troops proper, had many of the characteristics of commando raids.

2. Organization.—The commandos adhere closely to the guerrilla system, in which small bands join together to form larger but easily manageable units. The basic organization is a "troop" of 62 enlisted men, commanded by a captain and divided into two sections under lieutenants, a section being the usual complement for one landing craft. Sections are composed of subsections (squads) commanded by sergeants. The next higher organization is the commando proper, which consists of six troops. The commando proper is led by a lieutenant-colonel, who makes a point of knowing every man in his organization and tries to develop among them a feeling of personal attachment and mutual confidence. In addition to the six troops, there is in each commando a headquarters of 7 officers and 77 enlisted men organized in Administrative, Intelligence, Signal, and Transport sections; also, there are attached 1 surgeon and 7 men from the Royal Army Medical Corps and 2 armorers from the Royal Army Ordnance Corps. The brigade of commandos is under the direct command of a brigadier.

3. Principles of Leadership and Discipline.—"Leadership" rather than "command" holds together the commando unit. Leadership is absolute. No higher command can intervene between the member and his immediate chieftain.

This extreme type of organization obviously could not be adopted in units formed under Regular Army auspices. However, Army traditions and conventions have been blended with the principles of guerrilla fighting to adapt them to the character of the British soldier. For commando service, regular troops of a high order of intelligence and daring have been selected, and have been physically conditioned and specially trained to deal swift and telling blows. As the modified plan now works out, commando officers are allowed to form their own units. They also have the privilege of sending any man back to his unit without explanation or right of appeal. On the same basis, enlisted men are given the right to return to their Army organization at any time, after giving notice and without stating their reasons. Experience has justified these innovations, for it has seldom been necessary to introduce any punishment other than a warning of dismissal.

4. Procurement of Personnel.—The significant fact about the commandos is that all personnel are volunteers. The first recruits were called by a circular letter sent from the War Office to the commanding generals of the five commands (armies). They were asked to call for volunteers "for special service" the nature of which was not indicated. The letter stated, however, that the men would not be asked to parachute unless they specifically volunteered for it, and promised that every volunteer would be interviewed privately by an officer. Thus a man had the opportunity to withdraw his application, if he wished, after getting some idea of the service that would be expected of him.

In general, the stated requirements for service in the commandos were:

a. Youth and physical fitness;
b. Intelligence, self-reliance, and an independent frame of mind;
c. Ability to swim;
d. Immunity to seasickness.

Items c and d were found particularly essential in actual commando operations; and in addition to the above requirements, every volunteer had to be a fully trained soldier. With the exception of trained staff officers, personnel of all arms were eligible, but this latitude proved to be too broad and was corrected after it was found that too high a proportion of skilled technicians were serving as infantrymen in the commandos. In fact, so many outstanding men volunteered that some resistance to the commando idea developed among unit commanders of the Army. As a result, it became necessary to obtain commando personnel from training centers.

At present the commandos contain men from every regiment in the British Army, from Canadian regiments, and from the Royal Marines. In a typical commando 50 to 90 different regiments may be represented. Officers and men are allowed to retain their regimental insignia, for these have been found to be a particularly strong incentive for each man to excel in his duties as a representative of his regiment. All personnel are seasoned and experienced soldiers, and a very high percentage have had combat experience in either Norway or France or in both. To lead the commandos the commanding generals were also asked to select officers who were not above the rank of lieutenant-colonel and who were under 40 years of age. These officers were also required to possess tactical ability and sound military judgment, a high order of leadership, and dash. The final selections from the army commanders' lists were made in the War Office.

The commando leaders selected their troop leaders from lists of officer volunteers at various army headquarters. In turn each troop leader picked his two Junior officers. Then each set of 3 troop officers went through the list of volunteers until 62 noncommissioned officers and enlisted men were interviewed and accepted. This procedure took time, but when it was completed every officer had the satisfaction of knowing that his men were personally selected. From those eliminated the commando leader made up a list of the more likely men who would be suitable for replacements, although, as the plan matured, a depot unit was formed to train additional volunteers as a commando reserve.

A very large proportion of noncommissioned officers is included in each troop, not only to facilitate tactical employment in very small parties but to offer reasonable prospects of promotion to the superior men who have been flocking into the commando ranks.

Since officers are detailed to the commandos, and not permanently assigned, they receive normal consideration for promotion in their Army units. Many officers have preferred to remain with the commandos rather than to accept a higher rank, if this meant returning to their old units.

5. Administration.—It was decided that the commandos should receive no quarters or rations from the Army. Instead each man draws an allowance of 6s/8d (about $1.40 a day, with double the amount for officers) with which to provide himself with lodging, food, transportation to and from his troop headquarters, and the upkeep of a suit of civilian clothes. (The civilian suit is required, for example, for secrecy in "trickling" troops into a home-port area prior to embarking for a raid.)

As for housing, each commando is assigned to a seaside town in which to organize and carry on training with naval units. On arrival at their "home town" newly assigned commando members disperse to find themselves lodgings. A recreation ground or local hall is used as a rendezvous where the men can join with members of the naval unit for recreation or training.

A suitable house is used as a supply depot and as a headquarters for a small administrative staff in order to relieve the commando leader of routine paper work concerning such things as pay, records, and equipment. This administrative staff is not designed to go on raids, and the administrative officer is usually a rather elderly major.

The system of individual maintenance allowances is merely the application of the normal practice of handling civilian labor in the Army, and the commando leaders are unanimous in its praise. After about 4 or 5 months' experience, they reported at a War Office conference that this system did more than anything else to teach the men self-reliance and to instill the "commando spirit." It considerably reduces administrative overhead and leaves every officer and enlisted man free to devote his whole time to training. He has none of the guard and other camp or garrison duties which normally cut into combat training. The system is immensely popular with the men, and it adds weight to the threat of dismissal for any breach of discipline.

The discipline and morale of the commandos is exceptionally high, as would be expected of a group of select volunteers. An excellent spirit of fellowship prevails between officers and enlisted men, and is evident in all the training and exercises. Officers participate in athletics with the men, and two half-days a week are set aside for rugby, soccer, cross-country runs, boxing, etc. All are required to take part in one form of sport or another. The fact that commanders may immediately return a man to his unit for breach of discipline or for ineptitude has an important effect in maintaining the high disciplinary level. The varied and realistic nature of the training undertaken is likewise an aid to morale. Current-events talks are given weekly by all troop commanders, and outside speakers (naval officers, civilians, professors, etc.) give weekly lectures on the larger aspects of the war. Frequent week-ends are granted from Friday p.m. to Monday a.m., and a liberal leave-policy obtains in order to prevent the men from going stale.

6. Training Principles.—Training of commando personnel is designed to develop individual fighting initiative, and is based entirely on offensive principles. The training program seeks the development, to the very highest possible degree, of stamina and endurance under any operating conditions and in all types of climate. It aims to perfect all individuals in every basic military requirement, as well as in the special work likely to be encountered in operations, namely: wall climbing, skiing, obstacle running, demolition, street fighting, both night and day shooting, solution of tactical problems, surmounting barbed wire, handling grenades and torpedoes, etc. Every man is expected to achieve some particular qualification, as motorcyclist, driver, boat operator, engineer, etc. The training succeeds in developing at one and the same time confidence, initiative, and ingenuity in the individual and perfect teamwork in the group. Commando leaders are given a free hand and a reasonable cash allowance to organize their own training program. Particular stress is placed on swimming and boating, although other exercises are also practiced in order to develop rugged physical condition. Stalking and the use of cover and concealment are stressed, but greater emphasis is placed on night problems, for the success of most raiding operations depends on an ability to work silently, with precision, in darkness.

The idea that no type of operation is unusual is inculcated in the men. At a moment's notice they should be able to ride bicycles or motorcycles; drive automobiles and trucks of unfamiliar types; ride horses and camels; and travel in aircraft, ships, and boats of any sort, all depending on the nature of the operation, the availability of means of transport, and the terrain in the various theaters of war. Commandos are sometimes carried as air-borne troops and receive special training for air-borne operations.

In the beginning, training in combination with naval units consisted of practice in handling miscellaneous watercraft, which were placed in charge of young volunteer Naval Reserve officers, with yachtsmen and fishermen as their crews. Now, however, the commandos have regularly manned ships with which to train and to sail in combined operations. The introduction of cooperative training with naval units, soon after the commandos were formed, was considered an essential element of the whole plan, for the "seaworthiness" of the commandos gives them their mobility. Thorough amphibious training enables these units to avoid obvious, sandy beaches and to strike unexpectedly on rocky coves or rugged headlands, making the most of the element of surprise.

The commando brigade is prepared to accept casualties in the training program rather than suffer the 50 percent or higher battle casualties that would surety result were the personnel inexperienced or unprepared for the realities of the battlefield. All training, therefore, is conducted with the utmost realism. Wide latitude is accorded commanders in the selection of methods, and thus the development of initiative and ingenuity in the solution of battle problems is encouraged. A similar latitude is accorded troop commanders.

7. Arms and Equipment.—In choosing the kinds of arms and equipment suitable for commandos, the determining factor was the type of operations in which they would engage. In the summer of 1940 the Germans were in positions along the coast line of Europe, from Narvik in northern Norway to Biarritz in southwestern France. Any part of this coast was within reasonable striking distance from the British Isles. In view of the Royal Navy's superiority at sea, the raiding opportunities for commando units seemed unlimited. The task was essentially one for an amphibious force—a sort of super-marines—who would fight only with equipment which could be carried on their backs from a boat to a beach. They would also need the guerrilla's traditional mobility on any terrain, which meant that vehicles larger than bicycles, and perhaps than a handcart, were not practicable. Any better means of transport would have to be captured at the scene of operations.

Consequently, regulation requirements for the number and allocation of weapons are not prescribed, but in every case distribution is made according to the tactical requirements of the particular mission to be performed. Every man who joins the commandos brings his own rifle or pistol, and he is also provided with a fighting knife, which is used by the commandos with particular effectiveness. Each commando headquarters has a separate store of extra weapons so that extreme flexibility in armament is assured. A typical store contains: Bren guns; Thompson submachine guns; caliber .50 antitank rifles; 2-inch and 3-inch mortars with a supply of both smoke and high-explosive shells; defensive (fragmentation) Mills hand grenades; offensive (plastic body, concussion type) hand grenades; smoke pots; Very pistols; "knuckle dusters" (brass knuckles); "Limpets" (magnetic, acid, high-explosive mines), one type suitable for use against ships and another for use against tanks; and demolitions of all types. Each troop is equipped with Bren guns, Thompson submachine guns, an antitank rifle, and a 2-inch mortar; normally each subsection is allocated one Bren gun and a submachine gun, the allocation of the antitank rifle and the mortar being left to the discretion of the troop commander.

The clothing and equipment furnished commandos includes a variety of types. Normal clothing is "battle dress," a two-piece woolen garment, stout shoes, and leggings. In colder weather a sleeveless button-up leather jacket which reaches the hips is worn over or under battle dress; a two-piece denim dungaree is also provided for wear over battle dress in damp or rainy weather. The men are further equipped with cliff-climbing and with hauling materials, such as rubber-soled shoes and toggle-and-eye ropes. A wool undervest and a heavy-ribbed wool cardigan with long sleeves and turtle neck are also available for cold-weather wear. Overcoats are never worn in training or in operations, even in severe weather. All clothing is designed and worn solely with a view to comfort and utility under actual operating conditions. No leather belts are worn either by officers or enlisted men; a fabric waistbelt is provided. In addition to his weapons, the individual soldier generally receives such items as these: Tommy (individual) cooker; lensatic compass; field rations; skis and poles; individual waist life-belt ("Mae West") ; Primus stove; 1-gallon thermal food-container; gas cape; wristlets. Troops are equipped with two-man rubber boats; plywood (sectionalized) canoes; collapsible canvas canoes; bamboo and canvas stretchers; 2-inch scaling ropes; 1-inch-mesh heavy wire in rolls for crossing entanglements; and toggle ropes. Transportation equipment for each commando includes Hillman pick-up 1,500-pound trucks, motorcycles, and one 3-ton truck. Communication equipment for each troop includes a number of portable radio sets, voice-and-key type, weighing 36 pounds with a voice range of 5 miles; semaphore flags; blinker guns; Very pistols and flares.

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