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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21 responses to “Commando Tactics of the Second World War by Stephen Bull

  1. John Erickson

    James- Any idea if this book, or (what I assume is) the accompanying volume about British Infantry, is available over on this side of the pond? I know of a number of re-enactors over here who would love this as a source book. Does Mr. Bull make mention of some of the truly improvised features of the Commandos such as soliciting holiday snaps as recon for the Dieppe raid? (Yes, I know it was less creativity and FAR more desperation!) I’d like a copy of this to add to my Dieppe research library, since almost all of my information covers the Canadians during Dieppe, with only brief mentions of the British. (Forget about the Yank Rangers who participated, neither Canada nor the UK want to claim them!) See, nobody loves us brash Americans. 😉

  2. James Daly

    There is a sizeable section on Dieppe. It sounds to me like the only success story from Dieppe was the way in which the Commandos secured the flanks and assaulted flanking gun batteries.

    Something I neglected to mention in my review is the way in which the US Army studied the Commando concept carefully and borrowed from it for their own Rangers.

    Take a look at PnS’S Website John, I think they ship to the US. I would highly reccomend it to re-enactors, its got a lot on uniforms, tactics and such like.

    • John Erickson

      Hey, hey, don’t you go talking down my Rileys! The RHLI was the only Canadian unit to get into the town, unlike all those bums from western Canada! :p
      Seriously, I’ll have to dig on the P&S site, I didn’t see anything saying they ship across the pond. (To be fair, I didn’t see anything that said they don’t.) The only problem with books from Britain is the shipping is usually a killer!

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