Special Operations: British Army Revives Its Commandoes

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April 19, 2006: Britain is converting one of its infantry battalions into a commando unit. The British Army, which pioneered the development of modern commando operations, disbanded all its commando units after World War II. But the Royal Marines, which also had formed commando battalions, kept theirs. Eventually, all Royal Marine infantry units became commandoes, as they are to this day. The British marines take a dim view of the new British army commandoes, and are planning to use the new army battalion for second line (guard duty and such) operations for a year or so. In that time, the army commandoes will have an opportunity to get the training they need to operate at commando level.

The original commandoes were formed after France fell in mid 1940. At that time, there were plenty of British soldiers eager to volunteer for a unit that was going to fight back right away. The major problem was the resistance of commanders reluctant to see their best troops volunteer for these new units. This was partly solved by forming two of the units from independent companies raised earlier in the year from reservists. These "independent companies" were sort of commandos, but mainly they were to be used when a small unit of infantry (an infantry company has about 150 men) were needed to land in a coastal area and destroy something an approaching enemy might want (port and communications facilities, air fields and the like.) These independent companies were formed using men who had been discharged from the army over the past few years after serving seven year enlistments and were now in the reserves. These men were thus experienced, a little older (and wiser) and not already part of a unit that didn't want to lose them.

The eleven "Independent Companies" were used for raids from the sea against German facilities, or small garrisons, in Norway. Four of these companies had already been used in a May, 1940 as part of the British operations around Narvik, Norway. So there were already many officers in the army who were open to the idea of commandos. But the "Independent Companies" were just volunteer infantrymen, who were willing to undertake very risky raiding operations.

The British had a tradition for raiding type operations, especially over the last two centuries. This sort of thing was not seen as totally alien. Officers who served in Britain's numerous colonies had developed and used raiding type operations to deal with bandits or guerillas. British historians had made much of the experience with "Rangers" in North America (both before and during the American Revolution) and light infantry units during the campaigns Napoleon in Spain in the early 19th century. More recent experiences, against Boers at the turn of the century, von Lettow Vorbeck's Askaris in Africa during World War I, and the German storm troopers at the end of World War I, had made a strong impression on the World War II generation of British generals. While some commanders muttered about commandos being "private armies', there was enough enthusiasm for the project to see it got going with a minimum of interference.

Initially, each "commando" was a battalion size unit of some 600 men, with the fighting elements being ten fifty man troops (a British term for platoons). In early 1941 this was changed to six troops of 65 men each. This was dictated by the capacity of the newly developed amphibious landing craft the troops used on many of their raids. An assault landing craft (LCA) could hold 35 troops (or 800 pounds of equipment), so each commando needed two LCAs.

By the end of the war, Britain had ten army "commandos" (as the commando battalions were called), and all were disbanded, along with all other commando units (like the SAS). The Royal Marines kept three of their nine commandos. The British revived the even more elite SAS in the 1950s, but the Royal Marine Commandos have the distinction of being the longest serving commando unit.

 


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