Tag Archives: special forces

SAS Trooper by Charlie Radford, edited by Francis Mackay

I really enjoyed this book, and probably for different reasons than intended. And probably for what some people consider to be the least glamorous parts of this story!

Charlie Radford grew up in Devon. Joining the Royal Engineers just prior to the start of the Second World War as a boy Sapper. We follow Charlie to North Africa, where he was in action with an RE Field Company in Algeria and Tunisia – one of the least known campaigns of the war. Volunteering for Special Forces, Charlie then joined the SAS. The SAS had been formed only a few years before in North Africa, and Charlie Radford joined just in time to take part in operations behind enemy lines in German occupied France, immediately after D-Day. After returning from France, his unit were then sent to Italy, to link up with Partisans in Northern Italy.

The SAS in 1944 was still in its infancy, and although the modern Regiment traces its lineage back to this time, the early pioneers were still very much finding their way by trial and error. Trained to parachute into action, the SAS had much success operating in North West Europe behind German lines, with heavily armed and mobile Jeeps. It was a tactic that had worked in the Desert. By contrast, when Radford and his comrades parachuted into Northern Italy, they seem to have struggled for equipment and supplies, and were dependant on local partisans – a slightly precarious position, one feels.

After leaving the SAS, Charlie had to serve out his service with the Royal Engineers, his parent unit. He didn’t do this quietly, for he was sent to East Africa as an NCO in an Engineer Squadron, working with African natives, in particular the Askari tribe, in Kenya, Tanazania and Somalia. These were interesting times, and Radford’s recollections of life in 1940′s British Africa are fascinating. In fact, to consider this just another  Special Forces memoir is to do it a diservice.

The stories of SAS raids are exciting, and I suspect why the publishers felt Radford’s memoirs deserved to make it into print. But for me, it is the human elements that make this story so interesting. The memories of a young man from Devon joining the Army and going through basic training, life onboard troopships, liaisons with women during wartime, Army food, and things like that. For example, Charlie felt that Winston Churchill lost the General Election in 1945, as his generation were more educated and more independently minded than their forefathers in 1918, and did not want to be controlled or talked down to any more. Interesting stuff for the social historian. In particular I was rivetted by his experiences in East Africa, certainly not a part of the world that many young men from England would have known much about in the 1940′s.

But all throughout, Radford sounds like a very normal, down to earth young man – something that is very endearing to the reader, and very important in keeping our sense of perspective that these men were young men, the same as we are today. The more of these kinds of memoirs that make into print the better – we will be very glad of it in years to come.

SAS Trooper is published by Pen and Sword

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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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Skorzeny: the most dangerous man in Europe by Charles Whiting

I had always been under the impression that Nazi Germany didn’t really ‘do’ special forces – much like Napoleon, Hitler didn’t seem to see the value of irregular warfare, and moreover there was not room for special operations in Blitzkrieg; the short, sharp war. The Germans had nothing to compare with the plethora of special forces that sprang up in Britain – the SAS, the SBS, the Commandos, the Paras, the Long Range Desert Group and Popski’s Private Army to name but a few.

Yet this book by Charles Whiting suggests that this is a slighty simplistic view. Otto Skorzeny performed some daring and almost improbable acts during the war – rescuing Mussolini from captivity, kidnapping the son of the Hungarian Regent, and an infamous role in the Battle of the Bulge. What is even more fascinating, is that Skorzeny was not a career soldier, and largely developed his own theories, which the Nazi High Command only showed interest in once the war turned against them. He gained unique access to Hitler and other Nazi grandees, and for a relatively junior officer had quite a privileged place in the Nazi war machine.

There are some interesting lessons for military enthusiasts. Principally, how special forces operations seemed in the main to only occur to both belligerents when they were forced onto the defensive – Britain in 1940, and Germany after Stalingrad and Alamein. But, whereas after 1940 Britain kept on developing special forces capability which came in use when the tide turned, Germany was continually on the back foot until defeat in 1945. Also, the fact that Skorzeny was outwardly an unpromising, amateur soldier shows how military hierarchies – particularly one as stiff as the ‘prussian’ officer class, are not always adept at embracing unconventional tactics.

The impact of Skorzeny’s operations in the Ardennes are perhaps his best known legacy. Heading up a special unit of men dressed in US uniforms, and who broke through the front line to cause havoc behind the American lines. Rumours spread that Skorzeny was going to go all the way to Paris to assasinate Eisenhower. Although slightly ridiculous, these rumours caused panic and meant Eisenhower was a virtual prisoner in his headquarters during a critical phase of the battle (this incident led to his ‘most dangerous man in Europe’ tag). Thus Skorzeny and his men had exerted an influence out of all proportion to their size, merely by the suggestion of what they might do. Such is the strategic impact of special forces.

One of the most prolific military historians ever, Whiting based this book on interviews with Skorzeny, while the former was lying seriously ill in Germany towards the end of his life. Whiting does not merely tell us about Skorzeny’s wartime career – there are also startling tales about his involvement in Peronist Argentina (including an affair with Eva Peron), and a shady role in Nasser’s Egypt. These are stories that may well be new to the eyes of many, me includuded, and they all go towards painting a picture of an extraordinary man.

Skorzeny: the most dangerous man in Europe is published by Pen and Sword

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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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