Tag Archives: commando

Falklands 30 – The Battle in the Mountains #1

Position of Mount Challenger relative to other...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Even before 2 Para had finished fighting the Battle of Goose Green, Brigadier Julian Thompson had begun to move the rest of 3 Commando Brigade out of the San Carlos Beachhead. He was under pressure from the chain of command and politicians back in Britain, who wanted the Islands retaken quickly before losses became untenable or before international opinion turned.

After landing at San Carlos, the British Land Forces were going to have to confront and defeat the Argentine forces on East Falkland, and capture the objective – Stanley. Between San Carlos and Stanley was a range of hills and mountains, from Mount Kent and Mount Challenger in the West; to Two Sisters Ridge, Mount Harriet, Mount Longdon, Mount Tumbledown, Wireless Ridge and Sapper Hill.

With the loss of Chinook Heavy lift helicopters on the Atlantic Conveyor, there were only two options for moving across East Falkland to the Mountains area – march, or move by sea. And as we have seen previously, movement by sea was relatively simple and kept troops fresh, but frought with danger. There were a limited amount of ‘Jungly’ Sea Kings of the Commando Helicopter Force, but these were occupied moving heavy equipment.

As with Goose Green, it might be thought that because most of the Argentine troops were conscripts that the task of the attacking troops was simple. However, the Argentines had had plenty of time to get dug in on the mountains and to prepare positions. As one Para at Goose Green wistfully said, any conscript can dig in in a sangar and fire a .5inch Machine Gun. Evidence suggests that the Argentine conscripts were poorly treated by their superiors and were perhaps not in the best condition (see Martin Middlebrook’s ‘The Argentine Fight for the Falklands’), but they had no shortage of heavy weapons and were in range of supporting guns at Stanley. Normal military philosophy suggested that troops attacking prepared positions needed a superiority of 3 to 1. The British were slightly outnumbered, but time and political pressures forced them to attack regardless. Although the Argentines had garrisoned the Mountains strongly, they also had several Regiments – roughly equivalent to a British Battalion – around Stanley itself, and at Stanley airport – still fearing a British landing directly on Stanley itself.

The first actions in the battle for the Mountains came on 31 May, when the Marines Mountain and Artic Warfare Cadre fought a battle with an Argentine patrol at Top Malo House, and K Coy 42 Commando reached the summit of Mount Kent. 3 Para had secured Estancia House by 2 June, and on 4 June 45 Commando had yomped from Teal Inlet to the foot of Mount Kent, ready to reinforce either 42 Commando or 3 Para as necessary. What followed was a difficult battle, with the only option to attack and take each mountain range in turn, before leapfrogging onto the next, using each captured peak as a platform for another unit to come through and assault the next.

While 5 Infantry Brigade was establishing itseldf on the southern axis, 3 Commando Brigade was preparing to attack the first mountains in the north. 3 Para were alloted the objective of Mount Longdon, 45 Commando Two Sisters, and 42 Commando Mount Harriet. Brigade Headquarters was established around Teal Inlet. Some time was spent in reconnaisance patrols, and the disaster at Bluff Cove delayed 5 Infantry Brigade in preparing for its part of the advance. The Battle began on the night of 11 June.

3 Para had tabbed to the foot of Mount Longdon from San Carlos. The Paras had a battery of 6 105mm guns in support, as well as naval gunfire from HMS Avenger. Longdon and the adjoining Wireless Ridge were garrisoned by the Argentine 7th Infantry Regiment, and a stiff battle saw the Paras come up against heavy opposition in the form of Argentine bunkers well dug into the mountain, and anti-armour weapons were frequently used to dislodge these prepared positions. 18 Paras and an attached Royal Engineer had been killed in the battle. Sergeant Ian McKay was awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross after he was killed commanding his platoon taking on a machine gun post. 3 Para were also awarded a DSO, two MC’s, 2 DCM’s and 3 MM’s for Longdon. The Paras spent the next two nights on Longdon and on the slopes approaching Wireless Ridge, being heavily shelled.

45 Commando, meanwhile, attacked Two Sisters. They had in support a battery of 105mm guns, and the Destroyer HMS Glamorgan with her two 4.5inch guns. Two Sisters was occupied the Argentine 4th Infantry Regiment, who were also on Mount Harriet. X Company approached from the East from Mount Kent, while Y and Z Company’s attacked from the left flank. Distracted by X Company’s frontal attack. Two Sisters was in British hands by dawn, and altough 45′s CO prepared to attack Mount Tumbledown, he was held back by Brigadier Thompson. The Royal Marines had lost three men, and a Sapper from the Royal Engineers. 45 Commando were awarded a DSO, 3 MC’s, a DCM and 4 MM’s for Two Sisters.

Mount Harriet was assaulted on the same night by 42 Commando. The Commandos had a battery of guns in support, as well as gunfire support from HMS Yarmouth. Their battle plan was similar to that of 45 Commando, in that one company launched a frontal diversionary feint. J Company moved up from Mount Challenger and  waited on Wall Mountain as a reserve and a diversion, while L and K Company’s ‘dog legged’ to the south and then attacked the objective from the rear. Harriet was taken by dawn, for the loss of only one Marine killed. 42 Commando received one DSO, an MC and 4 MM’s.

With the first line of Mountaisn secure, planning began for the second phase of attacks. Only Wireless Ridge, Mount Tumbledown, Mount William and Sapper Hill were between the British forces and Stanley.

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Commando Tactics of the Second World War by Stephen Bull

As Stephen Bull quite rightly states in this book, the word ‘Commando‘ has become common currency for all kinds of special forces operations.

The ‘commando’ concept originated from the Boer War, when Dutch-descended ‘Kommando‘ units caused havoc for much larger British units in the South African veldt. Winston Churchill, who was a war correspondent at the time, recalled the idea in 1940. At the outset of the Second World War, Britain didn’t really ‘do’ special forces. The Commando’s were formed in 1940, partly by initiative amongst the armed forces, but also spurred on by characteristic notes that flourished from Winston Churchill demmanding instant action. The idea was that while Britain was unable to stike back at the enemy in a conventional manner, small groups of nimble special forces could inflict an impact on occupied Europe out of all proportion to their size.

Commando’s made their presence felt on the Lofoten Raids in Norway; at St Nazaire and Dieppe; on D-Day and in Siciliy and Italy. Strictly speaking the British Army C0mmandos were formed from volunteers from Army units, but the Royal Marines also formed their own Commando units later in the war. The Parachute Regiment was formed from No 2 Commando in 1940, and the SAS and SBS were formed by formed Commando officers. Thus it could be argued that the Commando’s formed their embryo for modern British special forces. Ironically, whilst the Royal Marine Commandos, Parachute Regiment, SAS and SBS still exist, the Army Commandos were disbanded soon after the war.

The title of this book focuses on tactics, but Bull goes much further by writing about the wider history of the Commandos, and the impact that the development of the Commando’s has had on British military ethos and development, the effects of which can still be seen today. But the real strength of this book is in the description of the making of a Commando – what went into selecting and training the men, the development of tactics and equipment, and how mistakes were made and lessons were learnt until a well-honed concept was arrived at. The ‘small, heavily armed but highly mobile’ approach has become widespread amongst all special forces to this day. There is also much in the selection and training that will be familiar to anyone who has read Bravo Two Zero or the million and one other SAS memoirs.

 This book adds considerably to the historiography of British special forces during the Second World War. It is an interesting read in its own right, but it also stands up extremely well as an in-depth military study. It contains some fascinating biographies of leading Commandos, and some useful eyewitness accounts. But the real piece de resitance is the inclusion of contemporary documents, such as details of Commando clothing and equipment, the establishment and armanent of Commando units, and a booklet describing Commando Battle Drill.

Commando Tactics of the Second World War is published by Pen and Sword

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The Fighting Fourth: No.4 Commando at War 1940-45 by James Dunning

One of the lingering misconceptions of the Second World War is that ‘Commando’ = ‘Royal Marines‘. True, the Royals might sport the green berets nowadays, be called Commando’s, and even serve in a Commando Brigade. Over the past 60 or so years they have very much made the name their own.

But the birth of the Commando is slightly more complicated than that. The first Commandos were in fact formed in 1940, during the invasion scare. And whats more, the first units were formed from Army personnel – volunteers who were bored and looking for action. Realising that the country was going to be on the defensive for some time, and had a paucity in regular troops, Winston Churchill ordered the raising of Commando special forces, based on the Boer Kommando he had encountered in South Africa years before.

No 4 Commando had an impressive list of battle honours during its short life. Lofoten Islands, Dieppe, D-Day and Walcheren are impressive honours for any unit. But upon reading this history by a veteran of No. 4, its impossible not to admire these fine men. They were clearly trained to a high pitch – sniper training, amphibious training, mountain training, general physical fitness, field craft – these really were some of the best men Britain had to offer.

After opening their account in the daring Lofoten raid in 1941, destroying a fish oil processing port in Northern Norway, No 4 then guarded the left flank of the ill-fated Dieppe raid. Although the raid was nothing short of a disaster, No 4 did extremely well, putting a gun position out of action, and Captain Pat Porteous won a Victoria Cross for repeatedly leading attacks while seriously wounded. I certainly dont agree that Dieppe gave valuable lessons – it shouldn’t have taken such a disaster to learn such elementary lessons. Then on D-Day No.4 Landed at Ouisterham, and hot-footed it across the Orne at Pegasus Bridge. They spent much of the Normandy campaign in the line in the Orne Bridgehead with the 6th Airborne Division, including in the Mosquito-riddled Bois de Bavent. After being withdrawn from Normandy, No.4′s final operation was the little-known but bitter fight to clear the Scheldt, where they carried out an amphibious landing at Walcheren Island. In early 1946 they were disbanded, after ending the war in Germany.

Some very famous men came from No 4 – none other than Lord Lovat, who went on to Command the Special Service Brigade that landed on D-Day and marched to reinforce the Paras at Pegasus Bridge, complete with personal Bagpiper Bill Millin. The spectacle is immortalised in the Overlord Embroidery. The unconventional nature of the Commando’s clearly attracted a lot of ‘individual’ officers and men, who were no doubt misfits to conventional military thinking. But unconventional was the norm in units such as the Commandos – in fact, they had their own organisation, with HQ commanding a number of troops (roughly equivalent to infantry platoons), with no Company level command in between. This meant that the command structure was flexible, and junior officers and NCO’s had to show initiative. In Normandy and Walcheren French Troops were also attached.

I found this a really interesting book to read. A few things really jumped out at me – it was interesting to read that No 4 Commando trained for a long time in the Purbecks region of the Dorset coast – at Worbarrow tout, Arish Mell gap and Chapmans pool. I walked over them all last summer, and its very rugged terrain to say the least. Also, I could not help but be impressed by the rigorous training that the Commando’s went through. Sadly, I have to compare it to the impression I have of the 1st Airborne Division‘s training before Arnhem, and it strikes me that they weren’t as well prepared as the Commandos. A salutory lesson – even in modern warfare, with remote-control fighting, first class training and fitness – healthy mind, healthy body and all that.

I’ve often wondered which unit, if any, could be called the ‘British Band of Brothers’. C Company of John Frost’s 2 Para have always been foremost in my mind, but the story of No.4 Commando is also a very fine one indeed.

The Fighting Fourth: No.4 Commando at War 1940-45 is published by The History Press

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Portsmouth’s WW2 Dead – the Royal Marines (part 1)

Formed back in the eighteenth century, the Royal Marines have a long and illustrious history of service at sea. Much of the Corps served onboard Royal Naval ships, providing security, landing and boarding parties, bands and – on larger ships – crewing one of the main guns.

Yet the Second World War found the Royal Marines involved more than ever before in a new form of warfare – amphibious operations. In modern times the Marines are known primary for their green beret, command role. But in the Second World War the Royal Marine Commandos were a pretty new concept.

116 Royal Marines from Portsmouth died during the Second World War. As one of the main manning ports of the Corps, a large proportion of men came to settle in the area.

Areas

35 – Southsea (30.17%)
13 – Eastney (11.2%)
9 – Milton (7.76%)
8 – Fratton (6.9%)
7 – Copnor (6.03%)
5 – Cosham (4.31%)
3 – North End (2.59%)
2 – Mile End (1.72%)
1 – Buckland (0.86%)
1 – East Cosham (0.86%)
1 – Landport (0.86%)
1 – Paulsgrove (0.86%)
1 – Portsea (0.86%)

27 Royal Marines – 23.28% – are listed simpy as from Portsmouth. The remainder are unknown, or appear to come from somewhere else but perhaps have some Portsmouth connections.

The concentration of so many Royal Marines living in Southsea, Eastney, Milton and Fratton is not surprising, given the presence of the Marines Barracks at Eastney.

Years

11 – 1939 (9.48%)
6 – 1940 (5.17%)
45 – 1941 (38.79%)
20 – 1942 (17.24%)
13 – 1943 (11.2%)
9 – 1944 (7.76%)
7 – 1945 (6.03%)
5 – 1946 (4.31%)
1 – 1947 (0.86%)

All but one of the men killed in 1939 went down on HMS Royal Oak. The large number of men killed in 1941 is due to the large number of casualties suffered in the sinkings of HMS Hood and HMS Barham.

Ages

10 – teenagers (inc. 2 17 year olds) (8.62%)
39 – 20′s (33.62%)
28 – 30′s (24.14%)
15 – 40′s (12.93%)
5 – 50′s (4.31%)
2 – 60′s (1.72%)

The age of 18 Royal Marines – 15.52% – is unknown.

The majority of Royal Marines were in their 20′s or 30′s. Its noticeable, however, that the Royal Marines also contained a sizeable number of teenagers. A number of older former Marines were recalled to the sevice to act as instructors or in an administration role during the war, and these account for the men who were in their 50′s and 60′s.

Ranks

6 Portsmouth Marines – 5.17% – killed during the war were officers:

3 – Captain
3 – Lieutenant

The remaining 110 Marines – 94.83% – were NCO’s or junior ratings:

1 – Master at Arms
1 – Company Sergeant Major
2 – Quartermaster Sergeant
8 – Colour Sergeant
11 – Sergeant
4 – Bandmaster
5 – Corporal
2 – Lance Corporal
74 – Marine
2 – Boy Bugler

Units

The vast majority of Marines who were killed during the war became casualties while serving onboard ships:

57 – Ship duty (49.14%)
22 – RM Band Service (18.97%)
21 – unknown (18.1%)
6 – Mobile Naval Base Dockyard Organisation (5.17%)
4 – Commando (6.9%)
3 – Landing Craft (2.59%)
2 – RM Police (1.72%)
1 – RM Engineers (0.86%)

In particular, many Marines lost their lives onboard the Battleships HMS Royal Oak, HMS Hood and HMS Barham. In addition, most of the Royal Marine Bandsmen who were killed were onboard ships. Although sea service was the overwhelming tradition of the Corps, there is evidence that the Royal Marines were beginning to diversify – forming Commando units, crewing Landing Craft, and providing personnel for the Mobile Naval Base Dockyard Organisations.

Cemeteries and Memorials

As the vast majority of Marines – 70 men, 60.34% – were lost at sea, most have no known grave other than the sea and are remembered on the various naval memorials:

63 – Portsmouth Memorial
5 – Plymouth Memorial
2 – Chatham Memorial

46 men – 39.66% – were buried ashore:

30 – UK
3 – Egypt
3 – Italy
3 – Sri Lanka
2 – France
2 – Holland
1 – Australia
1 – India
1 – Malta
1 – New Zealand

Of the men buried in the UK, 9 were buried in Highland Road Cemetery (close to the Marine Barracks at Eastney), 6 in Milton Cemetery and 2 in Kingston Cemetery. Others were buried in other naval locations, such as Haslar, Lyness, Milford Haven, Portland.

Many of the overseas burials seem to have been men who were taken ill onboard ship and died in hospital in principal naval ports, such as Sri Lanka or Malta. One Marine who died in France was killed at Dieppe, another the day after D-Day. One man in Holland was killed in the Walcheren landings, another – a Marines Engineer – was killed in the Rhine Crossing.

Decorations

4 Portsmouth Marines who died during the war – 6.9% – were the holders of some kind of decoration:

Cross of St George 4th Class (Russia)
Colour Sergeant Frederick Bird (won in WW1 at Jutland)

Mentioned in Despatches
Sergeant Arthur Bradley (47 Commando, Malta Convoys)
Sergeant Christopher Blake (Northern Waters)

Kings Badge
Sergeant John Maker

The Kings Badge was awarded to the best all-round recruit in each intake of Marines.

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The Army Commandos

Nowadays we associate the word Commando with the Royal Marines and their green berets. But during the Second World War the Commando units were also drawn from the Army. The word itself derived from the Boer em>kommando who caused the British Army so much trouble in South Africa.

As with the Parachute Regiment, Army Commando men volunteered from another unit, rather than join straight from civilian life. In the 1940 the British Army began to form and recruit company sized Commando units, which eventually grew to Battalion size. These special forces units spawned a number of famous Regiments, in particular the Special Air Service, the Special Boat Service and the Parachute Regiment.

Commando’s fought in the defence of Crete against a German airborne invasion in 1941.Corporal George Sheridan was killed on 25 May 1941 while serving in 7 Commando. Orginally from the Hampshire Regiment, he was 20 and from Fratton. He is buried in Suda Bay War Cemetery on Crete.

Private John Stevens, 22 and from Southsea, died on 13 May 1943. Originally from the Hampshire Regiment, he was serving in 12 Commando. He is buried in Milton Cemetery.

Commandos were par of the force that invaded Sicily in 1943.Gunner Richard Tickell was serving in 3 Commando. Orginally of the Royal Artillery, he was killed on 10 July 1943. He is buried in Syracuse War Cemetery, Sicily.

Army Commandos were among the units that landed on D-Day. Lieutenant Michael Burness landed on Sword Beach on D-Day with 4 Commando. Originally from the Ox and Bucks Light Infantry, he was 26 and from Southsea. He was killed on D-Day and is buried in Hermanvlle War Cemetery.

After D-Day the Commando’s fought on throughout the battle of Normandy, serving alongside the arborne troops in holding the Orne bridgehead. Private Andrew Newham of 6 Commando was killed on 20 August 1944. Aged 20 and from Southsea, he was formerly a member of the Royal Warwickshire Regiment. He is buried in Ranville War Cemetery.

Private Frederick Lyons was serving in 2 Commando when he was killed in Italy on 9 October 1944. Orginally from the Queens Regiment, he was 29 and from Southsea. He has no known grave, and is remembered on the Cassino Memorial.

After the war the Army Commandos were disbanded, leaving the Royal Marines to carry on the role.

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A German frogmen raid on Portsmouth?!

North Portsmouth, showing Ports Creek

North Portsmouth, showing Ports Creek

I have been having a very interesting discussion on ww2talk with member Steve G and several other interested parties about the possibility that the Germans may have either conducted, or have been planning to conduct, a commando raid against the Railway and or Road Bridges across Ports Creek. The subject arose when Steve was investigating a bomb or aerial mine that is believed to have hit nearby in 1940.

For those of you not in the know, Portsmouth is an island, divided from the mainland by a narrow strip of tidal sea water called Ports Creek. On the very north end of the island, butting up against the Hilsea Lines fortifications, was a Royal Army Ordnance Corps depot. Also nearby was Portsmouth Airport, where Airspeed – builders of the Oxford trainer and the Horsa Glider – had their main factory. In addition, the possibility of cripping Portsmouth Dockyard by cutting it off from the mainland must surely have tempted the German planners – particulary ahead of the possible German invasion in the summer of 1940.

Not only that, but it would have been possible to enter Ports Creek via Langstone Harbour. While Portsmouth Harbour was very heavily defended by an anti-submarine barrier and boat patrols, Langstone Harbour was much more vulnerable. It might have been possible to canoe up the Harbour in a similar manner to the Cockleshell Heroes raid on Bordeaux later in the war. Under cover of darkness and high tide frogmen could have swam to the piers of the road and rail bridges and set explosive charges on them.

According to something of a local legend, explosive charges were found nearby when work was begun on building the A27, which runs to the north of Ports Creek and has completely changed the area from its wartime appearance and geography. There remains a Second World War Pill Box near the Railway Bridge, facing south over the Creek, although when it was built we are not sure.

This is certainly the kind of operation that Major ‘Blondie’ Hasler would have approved of, and the Italians definitely had some capable frogmen as shown by their cripping of HMS Queen Elizabeth in 1942. But did the Germans possess the special forces to take on such a task? As far as I can tell, German Marines were an almost non-existent entity in 1940. Even so, it would have taken a considerable raid by the Luftwaffe to destroy the Bridges – and even then success could not be assured – whereas a couple of frogmen would have had a reasonable chance of crippling Portsmouth.

Did it happen? If not, could it have happened? Hopefully I can find out… unless anyone else out there can shed any light on this story?

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VC’s of the St Nazaire raid

HMS Campbeltown at St Nazaire

HMS Campbeltown at St Nazaire

Jeremy Clarkson called it ‘the Greatest Raid of all’. Out of a total of several hundred men, 5 Victoria Crosses were won. This makes the St Nazaire raid possibly the most decorated operation for its size since Rorkes drift.

In 1942, the Bismarck had been sunk. Only the Tirpitz remained of the German Battleship fleet. Whats more, there was only one dry dock in Nazi-occupied Europe that was big enough to repair her, at St Nazaire in Brittany, France. Destroy that, the British realised, and the Tirpitz was hamstrung.

A daring plan was devised for 28 March 1942, codenamed Operation Chariot. A redundant Royal Navy Destroyer, HMS Campbeltown, would be rammed into the dock wall. Loaded with explosives, she was set to explode some time later. A flotilla of coastal forces boats would also bring in Commandos and Engineers. Once the operation was completed, it was planned to withdraw by sea. In the event, there was such heavy fighting in St Nazaire and so many of the flotilla’s ships were destroyed that only a fraction of the men escaped. Many were killed or taken prisoner.

But the dock was destroyed, and the Tirpitz was left stranded in Norwegian fjords until she was finally destroyed by the RAF in 1945. The allied shipping that was saved by the St Nazaire raid is impossible to quantify.

Captain Robert Ryder, the senior Naval Officer, won a VC for his leadership, and for exposing himself to fire whilst evacuating the Campbeltown.

Lieutenant-Commander Stephen Beattie, in command of HMS Campbeltown, was awarded a VC for gallantry shown in steering his ship into the dock walls in the face of blinding searchlights and under intense fire.

Able Seaman William Savage also received a VC for great skill and gallantry shown in manning a pom-pom gun on a Motor Gun Boat. Savage remained at his post, resolutely firing away until he was killed.

Sergeant Thomas Durrant, a Royal Engineer, was attached to the Commando forces. He was in charge of a Lewis Gun on a Motor Launch, and although wounded and with no cover, he carried on firing until taken prisoner. He died of his wounds the next day. He was awarded a Posthumous VC.

Lieutenant Colonel Augustus Newman commanded the commando troops, and received a VC for leading his men and directing operations with no concern for his own safety. He only surrendered once ammunition had run out.

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