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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 II. Mountain Training

16. General.—Anticipating the probability of fighting in theaters of war that have mountainous terrain, the commandos have made a study of the principles and technique of mountain training. This discussion summarizes the observations of a British commando officer who has had recent experience in irregular mountain warfare.

In training for this type of fighting, the commandos are guided by three simple but fundamental principles:

a. Acquire a knowledge of certain elementary facts drawn from the experience of those who have spent much of their time in the mountains;

b. Give considerable time to the practice of mountain-craft;

c. Cultivate the right state of mind toward the rigors of mountain operations.

It is important to start mountain training gradually, especially with older men. The pace should not be hurried, especially at the beginning of the day. Planning a route is important. A commando soldier should be able, after looking at a range of hills and consulting a map, to select the easiest route over them. Valleys are likely to be marshy and full of vegetation which would slow up a march. Ridges are uneven and rocky, and climbing them usually involves considerable exertion because of the numerous dips and rises in such a terrain feature. When possible it is best to follow a zigzag route over the easiest available ground.

A long, unhurried step is best for mountainous country, and in marching on slopes the heels should not be kept off the ground. It is much less exhausting to put the whole foot on the ground with each step, and with practice even steep slopes can be climbed in this manner. In a descent the route should be chosen if possible over short grass. Short paces are best on steep slopes, the heels being dug in solidly.

Steep rocks should be avoided by the inexperienced, although all rocks look steep at a distance, and much depends on the nature of the rocks. In crossing torrential waters it is a great help to hold hands and thus form a chain for mutual self-support. The soldier must never relax his self-control. There is nothing more dangerous or exhausting in mountain marches than to lose full control of the body, whether in rushing and slipping downhill or in jumping over a stream. Loss of control strains the muscles and destroys march rhythm.

Rhythm and deep breathing are the secrets of easy climbing. A steady, even pace and deep breathing should be correlated. Efficiency in this is obtained only by filling the lungs to the maximum extent possible. This must be done consciously at first; for instance, breathing in for three steps and breathing out for the next three. Later, deep breathing becomes automatic.

As the state of mind is all important, it is essential not to let the men become discouraged. If a man knows that others have marched 30 miles over mountainous country with heavy loads, and that he is fit and properly equipped, he will feel that he is able to do it, too. The men should camp out several days at a time, using different types of equipment, and living on concentrated rations. This will give them confidence. Gradually, as they get physically conditioned, they will think nothing of doing 30 miles a day in mountainous country with 40-pound packs. The officer or noncommissioned officer in charge should carry as much as or more than the men. The men should walk in single file as a general rule, following the route chosen by the leader. Thus a tired man is less likely to lag. It is good practice to let each man lead in turn, in order to introduce variety and to share responsibility. When men are tired, it is best to promise them rest at a definite time or place, for nothing is more exasperating than to march interminably onwards at the will of somebody else.

17. Food.—Food should be eaten frequently, especially if the troops are young men and the operations are not too strenuous. Great care should be taken to share all food with the utmost equality, and hoarding of rations should be discouraged. The men must be taught what fruits, plants, mushrooms, etc., are edible so that they can supplement their rations or live off the country. They should know how to milk a cow, how to clean and prepare carcasses of animals, birds or fish, and how to catch game by all possible means—traps, snares, dead-falls, etc. it is not harmful to drink as much as a glassful of water each hour, but it is good discipline not to drink en route; many persons find it makes them more thirsty to do so, and in tropical countries such a habit would be fatal.

18. Clothing.—It is best to wear as little clothing as possible when actually climbing and to put on more clothes at halts; otherwise the troops will suffer chills when their perspiration evaporates. Clothes should be as loose as possible, especially around the neck and legs. Suspenders are better than a belt, for they allow free circulation of air and free use of the abdominal muscles.

Even temperature is maintained by warm air held between successive layers of thin garments, and thin clothes are easier to carry and to dry. Over all should be worn a light, windproof garment to imprison this warm air. Thin underclothes, a flannel shirt and trousers, a fine wool jersey (and another in reserve), and a suit of closely-woven cloth should be adequate protection in any weather. The jacket should have a hood with a sliding cord round the face. If waterproof garments are worn, the sweat cannot escape and the inner clothes get soaked. The Balaclava wool helmet is far too hot except in the Artic. A cap-comforter or wool band covering the ears is all that is needed beneath the hood. Battle dress is too hot for mountain climbing. Denim battle dress, being light and slightly windproof, is far better, but a loose-fitting blouse with a hood should be designed for irregular troops if they are expected to operate during the winter months in eastern Europe or Scandinavia.

For the hands, mittens with all the fingers in one compartment, or with the trigger finger separate, are best. A thin windproof outer glove should be worn over the mitten if necessary. Mittens and ordinary gloves are apt to constrict the circulation at the base of the fingers. There is a type of mitten in which the part over the fingers can be folded or buttoned back.

19. Footgear.—Ordinary Army shoes are not suitable for mountain operations. For general use in mountain terrain the British have found their "Boots, Army, Special" more useful. These shoes are without toe-caps and are built on a wide last, slightly raised at the toe and over the instep. Another type of shoe regarded as excellent is the "hunter's boot", which is built on a sprung last that allows for the natural curve of the foot when walking, and obviates the danger of getting blisters from the fold which forms behind the toe-cap. It is heavily nailed, the nails at the toe being driven through a zinc plate.

Since all nailed boots make a great deal of noise on rocks and pavements, particularly at night, rubber-soled shoes are essential for irregular troops. The best of this type, the British believe, is the Maine or Logan hunting boot, which is extensively worn in the United States and Canada. Ankle or knee high, this boot has a heavily studded rubber sole and upper, the rest of it being made of soft waterproof leather. This footgear is absolutely silent and waterproof, does not slip on rocks or roads, and does not draw the foot, as do shoes with gum-rubber soles.

The British recommend two types of nails for mountain footgear: clinkers, large nails which are used around the edges of soles and which, being made of soft steel, are cut into by rocky ground; and triccunis, smaller, toothed nails of very hard metal, which bite into the rock. These two kinds last much longer than ordinary hobnails. A metal horseshoe on the heel will last a long time, but does not furnish a good grip, and makes it necessary to have nails in the center of the heel.

Shoes should not be oiled or greased daily, or they will become too soft and will not let out perspiration. The sole and welt may be greased more frequently, but the uppers should be greased only once a week. When wet, shoes and boots should be stuffed with bran or newspaper and slowly dried.

When the feet are soft they should be protected by plenty of socks and by an insole if there is room for one. Thick ski socks are good but they dry slowly. Feet can be hardened by the frequent application of alcohol; old soldiers lubricate the feet and socks with soap. Two laces may be used on each shoe or boot to prevent the outer sock from slipping down and forming an irritating ridge. The lower lace may be tied really tight while the upper one is kept loose in the upper two or three holes. This is important in cold weather, for any obstruction above the ankles is liable to impede circulation and cause frostbitten toes.

20. Packs.—In mountains, if ponies and mules are not available, troops must carry their own gear, and for this purpose ordinary web equipment is not suitable, for it constricts circulation, breathing, and muscles, and destroys balance and comfort. The rucksack, with its loose construction, is practicable for loads up to 20 pounds, but for more than 20 pounds a rucksack or pack with a frame is essential. Any bag without a frame is very tiring on the shoulders.

Awkward loads, such as Bren guns and ammunition boxes, should be carried on Everest carriers,1 whose frames leave the chest and arms free, do not interfere with balance, and can be adjusted to carry the weight in the right place. Another advantage is that they do not show a definite outline to the enemy. With such carriers, loads of 60 to 80 pounds can easily be carried with practice. For heavier loads a tumpline, or sling that passes from the load up to and around the forehead, should be employed to take up part of the weight. Once the neck muscles have been developed—in about 2 or 3 weeks—loads of 80 to 150 pounds can be carried with ease.

A British officer who has fought in mountainous terrain believes that a new type of military rucksack, with aluminum or wickerwork frame, should be designed to carry everything an irregular soldier needs.

21. Mountain Tents and Bedding.—A mountain tent should be light and weatherproof, and easy to carry, camouflage, and erect. A British commercial type that meets these requirements is described here.

The tent holds four men easily and six may crowd into it if necessary. It is 8 by 7 feet, with a projecting flap at the bottom, 9 inches wide, on which rocks or sod can be piled. The wall is 15 inches high, protected by an overhanging eave 4 inches wide. The height of the tent is 4 feet. It is supported by two jointed bamboo poles. There is a ventilator with a loophole at one end and a double fastening at the other. The inside of the apex is fitted with a tape for drying clothes, and ample tape is sewed on the outside for the purpose of attaching camouflage. The whole tent weighs 8 pounds and fits into a small bag 2 feet 2 inches long and 4 inches in diameter.

A light down sleeping bag, weighing not more than 6 pounds, is recommended. If only blankets are available, they should be formed into a bag. Mattresses should not be carried.

1 Pack carriers with rigid frames.

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