British special forces trained and equipped for hit and run operations were called commandos, after the irregular militia organizations of the Boers in South Africa at the end of the nineteenth century. The need for elite raiders arose early in World War II, when the British army was ejected from the European continent. Faced with the prospect of German invasion, Britain needed a means of keeping some offensive capability, and the commandos were born.
Organized in July 1940, the first commandos were volunteer officers and soldiers, mostly from infantry units. The organizational structure called for a headquarters and ten troops, each with five hundred or more personnel. The first two troops largely contained men who had previously served in unattached or independent infantry companies and thus were accustomed to working on their own.
In November 1940 the commandos were organized into a special service brigade under Brig. J. C. Haydon. He established the unit’s reputation for physical and mental toughness, realistic (often dangerous) training, and daring plans boldly executed. Haydon was succeeded by Col. R. E. Laycock, who as a major general oversaw combined operations.
Organization evolved during the war, and by 1945 a 450-man commando battalion was composed of a headquarters, five troops (companies), and a heavy weapons troop. Much like airborne operations, commandos were essentially light infantry who fought without benefit of armor or artillery. Consequently, they relied on speed, surprise, and heavy firepower. Commando troops possessed proportionately greater automatic weapons than did infantry companies, especially Bren guns and submachine guns.
Because so much commando activity involved assault from the sea, a special boat section was formed, in part with the assistance of the Royal Marines. Also, because by necessity many commando operations occurred in Occupied Europe, various Allied nations were represented. The Allied commando, under British leadership, included two French troops and one each from Belgium, Holland, Norway, and Poland. There was also a troop composed of native Germans and Austrians who wanted a chance to fight against the Nazis.
British special operations forces were combined in September 1943 when the Special Service Brigade merged with the Royal Marine Division. The final reorganization occurred in 1944, emerging in the shape of the Commando Group. Its composition was roughly half army and half marines under a headquarters group, four brigades, an engineer commando, and training units. The latter specialized in basic commando training and a mountain warfare center. While some speculation existed as to the ultimate goal of the latter (Hitler’s reputed Berghof Redoubt was mentioned), in practice it proved useful in assaults on seaside bluffs.
Between 1940 and 1944 commandos struck wherever German forces were stationed. Raids were made on the French coast, Norway, North Africa, Madagascar, throughout the Middle East, and in Sicily and Italy.
On D-Day two special service brigades of D-Day commandos landed in Normandy. The First Brigade operated with the British Sixth Airborne Division on the eastern flank of the landing beaches, while the Fourth Brigade entered combat on D+6. Both brigades were active in subsequent actions in Western Europe, including the Rhine crossing.
Two other brigades were committed to combat elsewhere, including Italy and the Far East. Wherever they were engaged, commandos made their presence felt. Seven men received the Victoria Cross, including Lt. Col. Geoffrey Keyes, who died leading the raid on Field Marshal Erwin Rommel’s North African headquarters in November 1941.
As chief of combined operations, Adm. Lord Louis Mountbatten made effective use of commandos and was popularly regarded as Britain’s ‘‘senior commando.’’
This article is part of our larger selection of posts about the Normandy Invasion. To learn more, click here for our comprehensive guide to D-Day.