The Army Commandos

Although very new in the 1940s, the term 'COMMANDO' is in widespread use today - often, though thankfully not always, associated with improbably muscular supermen firing improbably lethal weapons at equally improbable foes. In fact the term originated in South Africa, at the turn of the nineteenth century, when Boer irregulars took on the might of the British Army, their combination of skill, intelligence, self-sufficiency and cunning being far more reflective of the later Commando ethos than any concoction ever to emanate from Hollywood.

Continuing the theme of highly trained and highly motivated minorities acting offensively in the stead of more conventional forces, the British, in the dark days which followed the evacuation of most of their expeditionary force from Dunkirk, resurrected the idea of employing élite 'storm' troops to stage hit and run attacks on the enemy coast. Thus were born the British 'Army' Commandos, consisting of hand-picked volunteers from existing formations whose desire to leave for 'Special Service' was not always greeted warmly by their line commanders. So used are we now to the existence and indispensability of Special Forces, it is perhaps hard to grasp just how much resistance there actually was to these new formations - all the way from the most junior commanders up to the War Office itself. Indeed growing resistance to the departure of the brightest and best of their men led to a recruiting crisis, solved by the formation of Royal Marines Commandos in February, 1942.

Commando memorial, Spean Bridge, November 2012

In an image again fostered by the media, soldiers of the period are generally considered to have inhabited a world entirely divorced from civilian communities. They lived an unremittingly communal lifestyle, in barracks or encampments from which they were only occasionally granted leave. Discipline, often harshly applied, legislated against expressions of individuality; and drill attuned the mind to following orders without the need of independent thought. Here could be found attitudes and qualities entirely antipathetic to the new formations, for whom individuality and independence of thought were everything. No 'dyed in the wool' officers; no screaming NCOs; just space within which to develop the qualities that would allow each man to think and act creatively even in extremis.

For a start, and as befitted a light striking force which could appear and disappear at a moment's notice, the Commandos had no permanent facilites. Instead of barracks, they lived within the community, feeding and housing themselves out of a living allowance whose value on the ground depended again on each individual's creativity and negotiating skills. Accommodation included hotels
, boarding houses and even private homes, whose complement of Commandos soon became 'our boys' and honourary members of the family. Depending on where the unit happened to be stationed, men could even retire, when dismissed, to their own wives and homes. Three short passages from Michael Burn's, 'Turned Towards the Sun' highlight just how different these arrangements were:

(p116) 'No barracks, no more bugles or wakey-wakey, no more tents, no regimental silver, no battle honours or famous dead, but landladies with teapots calling us to do or die and inspiringly appointed leaders under whom to establish a tradition.'

'We were at Moffat, in Dumfriesshire, a blessed place for us all. HQ was thirty miles away at Dumfries. Tom (Peyton, killed at Saint-Nazaire) and I lived at the Star Hotel whose proprietors, Mr and Mrs Butler, had become surrogate parents to us all, and Mrs Butler, with a son on service far away, so much a mother that I gave it out that no one was to marry a local girl without her approval. Their bar became a meeting-place for all ranks.'

And finally in a rather wistful comment to his mother, Lady Burn - (p118) 'We are all grossly overfed and spoilt. One has to knock at the door and ask if the soldiers are in when one wants them, and instead of issuing orders for a parade, I am thinking of sending out cards: Captain Burn At Home 0900 to 1300 hrs. Uniform. RSVP. Please bring your rifle'.

Lance-Sergeant Des Chappell, of 1 Commando, fondly remembered when as a Bren-gunner, he was able to go home and leave the weapon with his wife Frances, who would then strip and clean it like an expert. When stationed in Scotland, Lieutenant Tom Peyton's young wife Cécilie would take part in Commando exercises, acting as impromptu courier, or pretend 'spy'. Wherever Commandos were billeted, housewives and landladies had to become used to finding pistols, hand-grenades and various types of explosives strewn about the place. This was soldiering of a different order which, when allied to revolutionary training regimes, produced men for whom rank or status was not an issue, who could think, act and provide for themselves, and to whom could be entrusted tasks as daunting and dangerous as the assault on Saint-Nazaire.  Given the loss of the boats that were supposed to take them home; given the geographical impossibility of their position; and given the sheer scale of the forces ranged against them, who else but Commandos could have taken the decision to break out of Saint-Nazaire rather than accept defeat and bring the suffering of their many wounded to an end?


  Lt. Colonel A. C. Newman, VC                                                Captain Michael Burn, MC

Standing as a prime example of the qualities which made Commandos 'different', is Lieutenant Colonel Augustus Charles Newman, Military Force Commander on the raid, and C.O. of No.2 Commando, the unit which provided all of 'CHARIOT's 'assault' and 'protection' parties. He is described below by Captain Michael Burn, who commanded No. 6 Troop, this quote also deriving from Micky's autobiography, 'Turned Towards the Sun' (see the 'Links' page for details)

"Numerous heroes and born leaders came my way in the Commandos....Charles Newman is the one I am most thankful to have had as our Colonel. He was thirty-eight, a Territorial officer with sixteen years in the Essex Regiment, by profession a building engineer, in politics Conservative and very 'sound', married, unlike nearly all of us, with a family, convivial, gregarious, a non-intellectual, ringside, rugger-playing hearty, who also played jazz and music-hall on the piano. The Commando became an extension of his family. To me Charles remained volunteer, almost civilian; when forcing his way into a house (in Saint-Nazaire) and knocking steel helmets against an emerging German, the first thing he said was 'Sorry'. He imposed discipline, but lightness bubbled up; sternness came out of a necessary tap. I do not say that he made war fun. The purpose of a soldier in war is to kill and not be killed. But I reckon that he saw training as a kind pf playing-field: not for him at Eton, on which the battle of Waterloo may or may not have been won, but somewhere more gritty, familiar to those his Essex Regiment had trained in peacetime, 'all these lads from Barking and East Ham' (he wrote in his diary), ' we knew all their families and loved them all.' He allowed, it was in his nature, that some at least of our training should be fun." (p122)

Initially rather 'ad hoc', Commando training became more formalized in the Spring of 1942 when Achnacarry Castle, the ancestral home of the Camerons of Lochiel, became their Basic Training Centre - where, incidentally, Commandos and American Rangers trained together. As a consequence of the gradual move of Commandos to Scotland, this wonderfully scenic area has come to be permanently associated with  these élite units, whose memorial is now situated at Spean Bridge where veterans, families and friends gather each Remembrance Day. 

Achnacarry Castle, November 2012

For those who wish to further research  the Commandos and their training, particularly as it relates to Achnacarry ('Castle Commando'), you need look no further than James Dunning's 'It Had to be Tough' - see