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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.]


Summary of Lessons

Value of raids   _ _ _ _ _    41
Choice of target   _ _ _ _ _    42
Choice of landing places   _ _ _ _ _    43
Reconnaissance   _ _ _ _ _    44
Size of raiding force   _ _ _ _ _    45
Sea transport   _ _ _ _ _    46
Selection of dates; tide factors   _ _ _ _ _    47
Timing   _ _ _ _ _    48
Naval plan   _ _ _ _ _    49
Air plan   _ _ _ _ _    50
Land-force plan   _ _ _ _ _    51
Training and rehearsals   _ _ _ _ _    52
Security   _ _ _ _ _    53
Clothing and equipment   _ _ _ _ _    54
Recognition at night   _ _ _ _ _    55
Action after landing   _ _ _ _ _    56
Arrival at home   _ _ _ _ _    57
Publicity   _ _ _ _ _    58

These lessons and conclusions are the result of British experience and did not come from the sources used for the other material in this bulletin; hence they are reproduced in a separate chapter.

41. Value of Raids.—The moral effect of a raid usually counts far more than any material success it may achieve. If the material effect is important, the moral value will rise sharply; but even if no material success is gained, the moral value may still be high. Unless a raid is undertaken for reconnaissance purposes only, the most important object should be to assure contact with enemy troops, and the target chosen should be of sufficient importance to make this a reasonable certainty. On the other hand, there must be no risk of a complete failure. The moral effect of one fiasco will outweigh that of several successful raids. Therefore, the target must not be one guarded by a formidable enemy force.

42. Choice of Target.—Actually, the target itself need not be of great importance. Not only is it very difficult to do really substantial material damage in the short period of a raid, but it will often be far more important to secure information and capture prisoners, etc. In fact, the main object of every raid should be to inflict casualties and gain information, and any targets allotted should be regarded mainly as guides on which to focus the attacks.

The following is the procedure recommended for choosing targets:

(1) Select an area of the enemy's coastline about which one has good information as to hostile strength and dispositions.

(2) Select a section within this area which may be approached without detection from the sea, and on which it is possible to land.

(3) Prepare a list of targets which lie in this section within a mile of the coast. Discard those which will probably be too well defended or which contain a strong concentration of troops, as well as those which probably have no troops at all.

(4) Of the remainder, select those which are:

(a) Within range of a suitable landing place;

(b) Easy to find;

(c) On the fringe of a troop concentration area.

(5) Finally, other things being equal, pick the one which is nearest the sea.

43. Choice of Landing Places.—At this stage, the Navy should be consulted; and possible targets should be examined in the light of facilities for a surprise approach from the sea and a landing in calm water. The latter is an absolute necessity, although it usually increases the difficulty of effecting surprise. Sheltered waters are usually enclosed in a bay or in the lee of islands, so that the ships run a risk of being spotted as they approach and intercepted as they return. There may also be protecting mine fields. Therefore, avoid any landing places which cannot be approached safely from several different directions.

It is not necessary, at this stage, to decide upon the actual landing points in detail, but the sailors and soldiers must, respectively, be satisfied that selected areas are possible for landings and that practical land routes exist from beaches to targets.

44. Reconnaissance.—Discreet photographic reconnaissance of the selected areas should be arranged, and all possible information about them should he collected from every source. It will usually also be necessary to land an agent or a reconnoitering officer to get last-minute information and to test actual landing facilities.

It is assumed, throughout this report, that the enemy coast is patrolled by aircraft and that landings will have to take place at night. Unless there is some very obvious landmark, the Navy cannot be expected to make so accurate a landfall in the dark that the boats can be beached at the exact points chosen for the landings. The land-force plan must be sufficiently elastic to cope with landings made at the wrong places.

45. Size of Raiding Force.—It will usually be found that the "military coat has to be cut according to the naval cloth." The soldier must, of course, estimate the smallest number of troops which can do the job, but the upper limit will usually be set by the carrying capacity of the available boats. Incidentally, inferiority in numbers is less important in a night raid. The exit from each landing place and the routes from it to the target will usually limit the numbers that can be employed. Overcrowding at bottlenecks in the dark is one of the things to be avoided.

46. Sea Transport.—The whole operation can be carried out in oceangoing motorboats, starting from a shore base or from a parent ship well outside the coastal zone; or ships must be brought close inshore and troops transferred to landing craft carried in the ships—either rowboats, motorboats, or specially designed landing craft. The distance of the target from the nearest shore base will settle the choice.

If the target is within the range of motorboats, and suitable craft of this type are available, there are many advantages in using them. They are fast and unobtrusive, and they offer poor targets for aircraft, guns, or mines. Furthermore, they reduce to a minimum the time taken to disembark and re-embark, and enable simultaneous 1andings to be made at widely separated points. This probably constitutes the greatest advantage which motorboats have over ships. Their disadvantages are that they make a good deal of noise and require a calm crossing. Suitable motorboats must be shallow-draft with protected propellers, so that they can be run ashore and then backed off with reversed engines. Some Royal Air Force crash boats will do this, but best of all is the Higgins "Eureka." Most of these boats carry 20 to 30 troops and have a minimum range of 200 miles. The range of motorboats can, of course, be increased by operating them from a ship out at sea. The procedure is for the unloaded motorboats to follow the ship out to a point where they close in, refuel, and embark their troops. Thus they are able to start their tactical mission with full operating range.

If the distance is too far for motorboats, a fast ship will have to be found, a naval escort provided, and some satisfactory means devised for transporting troops from ship to shore. The latter requirement presents considerable difficulty, except on rare occasions when a ship, specially fitted to carry landing craft, is made available for the raid. The next best thing is to try to find a fast ship whose davits can be adapted to carrying motorboats of the "Eureka" type. Only as a last resort should rowing ashore be tried. Raiding parties will seldom have time to use this means of locomotion, but if it is forced upon them, it will be better to transport the troops in the escorting naval vessels and avoid using a troopship.

47. Selection of Dates; Tide Factors.—The first combination of suitable moon and tide will usually fix the date of the operation, within a normal range of three consecutive days. As a calm sea is essential, the first of these three days should usually be selected, in order to leave two alternative days in case of bad weather.

The moon will help most when it is due to rise on the landward side soon after the raiding party is ashore. This will allow the ships and boats to approach in complete darkness, with landmarks faintly silhouetted against the glow which precedes the rising moon. Later the raiders will be advancing into an increasing glow of moonlight, which will help to show them the way and make a silhouette of an approaching enemy. Finally, the moon will still be low enough during the rest of the night to let the ships get away in comparative darkness.

Favorable tide conditions are more a matter of choice and will vary with different types of coast, though it is generally better to land on a rising tide. The reembarkation should also be timed to take place on a rising tide. The Navy will usually want to land at high tide when the boats can be brought well up to the shore, and a landing at high tide will certainly get the troops to their objective and away again quicker. But there are many advantages in a lowtide landing, not the least of which is the surprise element. The military commander will do well to consider this type of landing before accepting the naval plan. The defensive arrangements at night—fixed lines of machine guns, etc.—will usually be designed to catch landing parties somewhere near the high-water mark. Accordingly, if the landing is made at low tide there will be a fair chance of accomplishing, without interference, the critical task of disembarking troops from the boats. In such a landing there may even be space to assemble before the advance and to maneuver in order to flank likely machine-gun posts. The farther out the tide, the less chance there will be of the landing being seen or heard by the normal shore posts, and the risk of running into underwater entanglements is reduced to a minimum. The chief disadvantage of a landing at low tide is the loss of time; it may add as much as a mile of distance to the beach and troops will have to wade in from the boats and back.

48. Timing.—The timing will depend on whether the whole raid is to be completed during one night or whether the troops are to remain ashore for the day and be taken off the following night in a thickly garrisoned country with good communications, such as northern France, it will be necessary, as a rule, to take the raiders off the same night; and in the following paragraphs it will be assumed that this is to be done. In such cases it may be taken as a rough guide that ships must not be within 12 miles of the coast during daylight. A naval calculation will give the earliest possible time for the landing and the latest time at which troops have to be reembarked. The land-force plan must be designed to fit between these two limits, which do not usually allow the troops ample time ashore. On a short summer night in the Channel there may be as little as three hours left after allowing for disembarkation and reembarkation. It will be unsafe to allow less than an hour for each mile to be covered ashore. The time schedule should also allow generously for unforeseen delays.

49. Naval Plan.—Once the decisions discussed above have been made, the naval plan can be drawn up. In addition to covering all of these points, it will name the craft in which the troops are to be transported and the place and times of embarkation. It will cover also the composition and action of the naval escort, and will usually give a rendezvous at sea, within striking distance of the coast, from which the actual approach to the landing places will start. Finally, it will lay down arrangements for signals between ships and shore.

50. Air Plan.—During a night raid, there will not be much chance for air cooperation with the troops ashore, and the chief role of aircraft will be to protect the ships. It may therefore be necessary to include the air plan in the naval plan. The air plan, however, in addition to covering the protection of ships on both the outward and homeward passages, will include details of any offensive action to be taken against the enemy defenses ashore, before and after the raid.

For the outward passage, it will probably be sufficient to put shore-based aircraft at the call of the naval escort for the remaining hours of daylight. The maximum air protection is likely to be needed at dawn next day, and it may be necessary to send out fighters to meet the returning ships, and to have more standing by on call if needed.

For each operation, the pros and cons of a bombing attack before the landing will have to be carefully balanced. Though a well-timed air raid will unsteady the defenders and drive them into their shelters, it will keep them awake and may put them on the alert. If the raiders can get ashore undetected on a quiet night when there is no sign of anything unusual, they are more likely to achieve a cheap success. Aircraft can, however, make a very useful contribution toward surprise by drowning the noise of a landing, especially when high-speed motorboats are used. However, if this expedient is to be used, it is essential that an "educational" flight should be made for several nights beforehand, always at the same hour and covering a wide frontage of coast. By this means the enemy will soon get used to hearing a regular air patrol and think nothing unusual of it on the night of the operations. Once the troops have landed, any air attacks wi11 be most usefully directed against hostile "E-boat" and destroyer bases in order to prevent enemy craft from putting to sea and intercepting the raiding vessels.

The value of smoke screens in covering landings and reembarkations must also be considered.

51. Land-Force Plan.—The land-force plan must follow the naval and air plans. Its preparation in detail should be delayed as long as possible, for it must be based on last-minute information. As late intelligence arrives, alterations may have to be made in the naval plan; and only when this is in its final form can the land-force plan be completed. The plan will detail troops to the craft allotted by the Navy, assign the precise landing places for each group f boats, and lay down the objectives for each landing, as well as the routes to it and the routes to the points chosen for reembarkation. Precise instructions must be set out for signals between the troops and the ships and boats. The preparation of a good land-force plan will depend very largely on the quality of photographs which the Air Force can produce.

One of the main considerations in drawing up the land-force plan will be to insure a safe line of withdrawal back to the boats. The simplest method, of course, is for the troops to go back along the way they came and reembark at the landing place; but if a good coast road exists, this method invites the risk of being cut off. The necessity of keeping open a line of retreat imposes caution on the advance of the most dashing troops. The alternative is, after the mission has been completed, to continue the advance to another beach for a rendezvous with the boats. This method removes from the minds of the troops any fear of being intercepted, and gives them a goal generally straight ahead and a set time by which to reach it. It is economical in men, saves time, and enables the raiders to take the defenses of the embarkation beach from the rear; but the method involves some serious risks. The riders may, during the course of the raid, run into unexpectedly strong defenses and fail to penetrate them; or the boats may get into difficulties and fail to reach the right place at the right time. Certainly it is the more ambitious plan, and it will rely for success very largely on good communications. Radio telephone from the troops to the boats will usually be needed. Whatever reembarkation method is used, a single boat should never be allocated to a landing place by itself. The boats should always be kept in pairs or threes, in case of accidents.

Before the land-force plan is completed, the controversial matter of the best type of landing place should be discussed. The Navy will very naturally wish to select the steeply shelving sandy beach of the text-book, as their task is to land the soldiers safe and dry, with their arms and equipment. The leader of a raiding party will, on the other hand, be well-advised to avoid such a landing place, for it will certainly have drawn the close attention of the defense. He should explain clearly to the sailors that the troops will expect to get wet, and that he would rather risk losing a man or two by drowning than have to disembark his men under machine-gun fire. It is largely a matter of training the troops. If all are quite prepared to swim if necessary, and are able to climb on to rocks, then there will always be a fair chance of getting ashore unopposed. Once the Navy can be shown, during training, the unlikely looking places at which troops can get ashore, there will be far more scope for landings without casualties on a well-guarded coast. General Wolfe's discovery (with respect to time Heights of Abraham at Quebec) is as good a guide today as ever, and troops who can scramble ashore on a rocky promontory, or scale a cliff face from a small cove, will achieve complete surprise nine times out of ten. To quote one case in the present war: a British landing party, operating against Germans in northwest Europe, got ashore in a small rocky cove from which the only exit was a flight of 200 steps, cut in the cliff face, which had to be negotiated in single file. The whole party reached the top undetected and, after completing their task, were able to reembark the same way without interference. During the course of this operation, enemy machine guns commenced sweeping a nearby "ideal" sandy bay.

52. Training and Rehearsals.—The troops and sailors detailed for the operation should meet for training as early as possible. It is very important to have the same boats and the same crews for both the training and the operation, and to keep the same group of soldiers with the same boats throughout. The sole object of the training period is to rehearse the operation under conditions approximating as nearly as possible those which will be met during the raid. Most of the training will have to be done at night, and at times when the conditions of moon and tide will be somewhat like those required for the landing. Every effort should be made to rehearse the landing on a piece of coast which is like the one chosen for attack. To prepare for the land action, the chief aim will be to get the raiding troops thoroughly familiar with the ground over which they are to operate. This aim can be accomplished before the troops join the sailors.

The main requirements are an early and generous supply of charts, maps, and air photographs (with enough magnifying glasses and stereoscopes), a large-scale elaborately made sand-table model, and a secluded open space, flat or hilly, depending on the target area. In this space, a full-scale replica of the target area should be constructed, roads and tracks taped out, and buildings represented. Here troops should be repeatedly rehearsed in the dark, and movements from point to point carefully timed. The success or failure of the whole operation will depend upon the rehearsing done before the operation, and every conceivable effort to achieve realism will help to assure success. During this training, a need will probably be found for various special equipment, such as scaling-ladders, special demolition apparatus, etc.; and if there are any unusual obstacles to be met—such as a sea-wall or the face of a promontory—it will be worth making full-scale models as accurately as possible for troops to practice on. Finally, "recognition drill" and communications with the Navy will need special attention.

53. Security.—Once training starts, the maintenance of secrecy will be a difficult problem, and a security officer and staff should join the troops as early as possible. It will be virtually impossible to conceal the fact that a landing operation is being prepared; and efforts should be concentrated only on keeping secret the date and place. There will be no need for anyone to know the date until the time comes to move to the port of embarkation; but secrecy regarding the destination will conflict with the vital necessity of familiarizing troops with the ground over which they are to operate. Air photographs need reveal nothing if the Air Force is asked to print copies without any identification marks (not even an arrow pointing north), but it will usually be advisable to print special maps with no place names marked. Maps of this kind will be needed in any case, together with air photographs, for the use of the people who are going to build the sand model. As a further precaution, maps can be printed upside down, or with the north side pointing east or west, provided the troops are told in time to correct compass bearings.

Perhaps the only real way of insuring secrecy will be to keep both soldiers and sailors in strict isolation during the rehearsal period, with no contact at all with the outside world. This will not always be possible, and it will still leave the problem of concealing the departure of personnel from the area. A good deal of ingenuity will be needed to accomplish a secret departure. Any mass exit by troop train, etc., must be avoided. Men can be trickled away and down to the port of embarkation over a period of two or three days, both by road and rail, sometimes in uniform and sometimes in plain clothes. Once at the port, the strictest isolation is essential. Khaki-clad figures on board a naval vessel will give the game away to the whole dockyard, and troops should either be marched on board, dressed as sailors, or dribbled in with the dock workers in plain clothes. Uniforms can be stowed on board in kit bags beforehand without causing comment, as can arms and ammunition, etc. At sea, no troops in khaki should be allowed on deck during daylight, as they will give clear warning of an impending landing to any hostile aircraft which spots them.

Once on board ship, all secrecy can be abandoned and the men told exactly where they are going. They should also be assigned a rendezvous, a time, and a signal for use on the night after the operation in case any man is left behind and there is a chance to evacuate him. Every man should be instructed beforehand on his behavior in case of capture, and it will be well to insure, at the last moment, that none are carrying diaries or informational documents of any sort.

When the time comes for the actual landing, silence will be the most important thing of all.

54. Clothing and Equipment.—At sea, each man will need one of the naval-pattern inflatable lifebelts, which he will have to wear throughout the operation. Raiding parties should receive these early enough to get used to them during training.

The clothing and equipment of the landing party must be reduced to the minimum, and special footgear will be needed to suit the type of landing place. Every man will have to be prepared to swim with his uniform, arms, and minimum equipment. Very little ammunition will be needed at night, and no man will need more than one weapon and a few grenades. Steel helmets are heavy and apt to be noisy, though very useful for recognition purposes (they make familiar silhouettes). Shorts are useful in good weather, and a loose blanket, which can be thrown away if necessary, is the best protection against cold. Bicycles will be useful in some places. They should be of the very lightest civilian type with everything possible removed—mudguards, bells, lamp-brackets, etc. They can be bought secondhand and abandoned when the time comes to reembark. Finally, nothing should be worn which will show up in the dark, except the agreed recognition signals.

55. Recognition at Night.—Recognition in the dark will be one of the greatest difficulties, particularly when the time comes for reembarkation. By this time, the withdrawing raiders will probably be mixed up with hostile beach patrols, and enemy craft may have got among the boats. A password is some help but no real solution, as men have to get very close to recognize the password above the noise of waves, etc. Flashing of lights is far too dangerous, except by a few selected leaders; and, incidentally, it will be well to insure during the sea passage that the men have no unauthorized flashlights. The best means of recognition is some very distinctive headgear, or an agreed arm signal. Another system which has been tried is to issue to the men a pair of small white discs made of plywood, to be tied on to the belt in front and behind. These discs are made either square, round, or triangular, so that the recognition mark can be changed for each operation.

56. Action after Landing.—Action after landing will, of course, vary with every task and every terrain, but it will generally follow well-defined stages:

(1) Getting from the highwater mark to the mainland.

(2) Finding the way to the target and overcoming opposition en route.

(3) Dealing with the target.

(4) Getting back to the beach.

(5) Finding the boat.

(6) Getting aboard.

The first men ashore should guard the flanks of the landing close to the water and stay in position as long as the boats are there. Their task is to deal with beach patrols and to prevent the enemy from giving the alarm. They should carry submachine guns but avoid any firing if possible. The Germans have a habit of patrolling the beach with small parties of cyc1ists who approach very silently and keep close to the water's edge where the wet sand provides good going. They provide the best chance to capture prisoners, as they can be upset, knocked on the head, and bundled into the boats at leisure without interfering with the progress of the raid.

The next men ashore should establish the exits from the beach. They should be armed with light machine guns. The main body can then follow and make for the target, posting sentries along the return route as they go. Wherever they cross a road they will have to leave detachments to establish road blocks and to ambush motor vehicles which run into them. These detachments will need submachine guns and coils of wire to make a very quick block. They should be as strong as possible, as they may well encounter more enemy troops than will any other element of our forces. Some of the sentries should have light machine guns. The main body will be working mostly at close quarters and will need submachine guns and grenades as well as explosives. It should provide for its own local security throughout the operation.

By the time the raiders start work on the target, the commander will have a good idea as to how long it will take them to get back to the boats, and can calculate exactly when to order the withdrawal. His main preoccupation will be to coordinate the withdrawal. The main body should go first, followed by its rearguard. This rearguard will collect the sentries and road-ambush detachments en route, and, finally, will call in the men covering the beach exits. The flankguards at the water's edge will go last. The whole success of the withdrawal will depend on good drill and rehearsing and, above all, on efficient "recognition" drill. Throughout, there should be as little shooting as possible, at least until the whole of the inland party is back on the beach.

While the raiders are ashore, the boats should be a short distance out at sea to avoid being spotted; as a result, they may be difficult to find on the return. If necessary, the raiding party may have to call for light signals from the boats. Once on board, the main danger will be air attack. If motorboats are used, aircraft may discover them by seeing their wash; but they are unlikely to see a motorboat which has heaved-to or is moving very slowly. In any case, fire should be withheld until daylight, unless a boat is actually attacked. Antitank rifles should be ready on motorboats for use against "E" boats.

57. Return.—A good many reception arrangements will be needed at the home port, and an officer should be left behind to make these. There should be medical arrangements to receive casualties, escorts to take off prisoners, and baths and hot breakfasts for the troops. They will need accommodations near at hand where they can get some rest before returning to their stations.

In all raids it will be important to get prisoners, and there should be enough spare accommodation in the boats to allow for them. Their evacuation and embarkation during a raid will always be difficult but will be well worth-while, and its importance should be impressed on the troops. Intelligence officers should always accompany the expedition in order to confront prisoners on the return passage, while they are still suffering from the shock of capture. If no prisoners are taken, efforts should be made to carry off dead bodies. Not only are these valuable for intelligence purposes, but the defenders are influenced when they find men vanishing in the night without trace. If neither prisoners nor bodies are evacuated, the jackets or blouses should be stripped off enemy casualties, as they will often furnish identifications and contain papers in the pockets.

58. Publicity.—Publicity will play a very big part in exploiting the moral value of a raid. Although this publicity should stick to true facts, it should exploit the results of the raid as much as possible. It is essential to make an announcement early, before the enemy has time to issue a communique. The opponent who gives the story first is more likely to be believed, as he automatically forces the other side to take the defensive. The communique can be drafted in general terms before the operation, and completed and issued immediately after receipt of a telephone message from the commander of the expedition. This telephone call should be the commander's first job on landing, after assuring himself that all his boats are in. It is difficult to exaggerate the importance of good publicity. It may easily extract great moral effect from a raid which achieves few concrete military results.

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