Thursday, 4 December 2014

Going Commando

Some of the very best ideas and debates are formed over the course of a few beers. Unfortunately so are many of the worst. I'll leave the reader to decide at the end which category this falls into. Hopefully it'll be interesting if nothing else. Because today we're going Commando.

Specifically in response to the question; "(Hic)... What I don't understand, right (hic)... is why the army got rid of the Commandos?"

The answer is that technically speaking it didn't.

The Commandos were formed during the second world war after the British evacuation from Dunkirk. The purpose was to create a force that would hit back at the Germans by raiding areas under German occupation, doing damage to the German war effort, tying down German forces needed to guard the coasts, and serving as a morale booster to the British public that would also show potential allies such as America that Britain was still in the war and actively fighting.

The application of this concept would come from units that were roughly the size of an infantry battalion (a "Commando") and who had carried out specialist Commando training both to increase physical standards and to teach unorthodox skills such as small boat handling and explosives work. In theory at least a full "Commando" would attack some objective in enemy territory, and potentially many Commandos could be brought together to attack much larger targets.

In practice the results were exceptionally mixed. Planned raids were routinely called off for a variety of reasons and many of those that went ahead proved to be disasters. Two of the more successful ventures were Operation Biting, which involved the capture of a German Wurzburg radar set, and Operation Chariot, the raid on the St. Nazaire docks. Oddly enough both raids had a connection to No.2 Commando; Biting was carried out in February, 1942 by members of the 1st Battalion, The Parachute Regiment, which had previously been known as No.2 Commando until November of 1940. At this point a fresh unit took up the No.2 Commando mantle and it was this unit that took part in Chariot in late March, 1942.

But the raid on St. Nazaire also highlighted one of the main problems with Commando raids. If a large force could not be extracted immediately then it was prone to suffering heavy casualties as the infantry - lacking the support of heavy weapons and artillery - was gradually rounded on by the local defending forces. Many other raids failed before reaching their targets because of the inherent difficulty associated with inserting a large force covertly and then keeping them hidden. A large number of men spread out in sub-groups, often navigating at night, proved apt at stumbling across German patrols or checkpoints, thus raising the alarm and compromising the operation.

The solution to this problem was devised convergently (at least the evidence points that way) by two men. One was Roger Courtney, a Corporal who had been through Commando training and who was convinced of the potential value of a small unit that used kayaks to covertly approach enemy warships in their harbours in order to plant explosives on them. At first ignored, Courtney later successfully (and at some risk to his own life) boarded a Royal Navy ship anchored in the Clyde by approaching it in his Kayak. He thieved the cover off a deck gun which he later used as evidence of his activities, along with having cheekily inscribed his initials on one of the doors of the ship. He was promoted to Captain and given command of a new unit that would ultimately become the Special Boat Service.

The other, and undoubtedly the more famous now, was David Stirling, a Lieutenant in No.8 (Guards) Commando. It's possible that Stirling had been influenced by Courtney, as Courtney's first command was only a small unit that was originally attached to a formation known as "Layforce", of which No.8 Commando was also a constituent part. As things stand though there is no real evidence that the two met or had any conversations on the matter.

Stirling was frustrated with the constant failure rate incurred by the Commando units and became enamoured with the idea of using small units dropped behind enemy lines by parachute. Once on the ground the men would split into teams of around five and walk to their targets. He reasoned, correctly as it turned out, that these very small teams would find it much easier to hide from the enemy and to slip onto a defended objective using stealth instead of firepower.

Thus it was Stirling's new unit "L Detachment, Special Air Service Brigade" (an intelligence fiction that only had around 60 men) that really began to unlock the potential of the Commando concept. Its raids behind German lines in North Africa started to inflict significant damage, especially against the Luftwaffe's transport aircraft that were often used to ferry vital fuel supplies. Increasing numbers of German soldiers were tied down on guard duties across a swathe of sites, and when things went bad for the members of "L Detachment", the nature of the small parties meant that losses were comparatively light.

The solution to the Commando's problems had been found.

And really that in turn answers the question on the fate of the army's commando units. They still exist, just now in the form of the SAS. Even then, many of the roles they used to perform have been replaced. Because one of the major issues that led to the formation of units like the SAS was the desire to destroy targets of high value to the enemy. Bomber aircraft of the time generally lacked the accuracy to hit precise point targets like a specific dock or power plant. 

These days any reasonably large, static object like those mentioned are highly susceptible to being hit with modern precision guided munitions. The requirement to send in a unit of men to blow up a bridge tends to look a little mute when we have the ability to either fire Tomahawk cruise missiles from over a thousand miles away or to have a pair of aircraft whizz overhead and hit the bridge at multiple aim points with laser or GPS guided weapons.

That's not to say that there is absolutely no use for a unit like the SAS in its more traditional role of sneaking around behind enemy lines blowing things up. I'm sure you could rattle off plenty of scenarios where this would be a preferable solution. But that list of scenarios has shrunk significantly over the years and without some revolution in counter air defences it's likely to stay shrunk.

And if you want to be somewhat liberal with definitions then the Commandos still live on, partly of course in the shape of the Royal Marines, and also in the Parachute Regiment. As mentioned above, the Parachute Regiment was first formed from what used to be a Commando and all of its members were Commando trained. To this day the Parachute Regiment retains a training and selection regime that goes slightly above and beyond what is normally expected of an infantryman, coupled with actual parachute training.

There is also one little interesting nugget that seems to have been lost to general history that I turned up while doing some additional research; even the RAF had its own Commando units. 

I shit you not.

They were first formed by the RAF in early 1942 at the recommendation of Lord Louis Mountbatten, who was the then Chief of Combined Operations and responsible for fostering solutions to some of the problems that would be faced in the event of future allied landing operations. One of these problems was that tactical fighter aircraft - especially those that would provide direct close air support to advancing forces - would need somewhere to land that was relatively close to the frontline in order to maintain reasonable coverage. The army was already working on the means to rapidly construct new forward airfields and the potential of capturing German ones was obvious, but a new problem now reared its head; who was going to rearm and refuel the aircraft? 

The squadrons own ground crew would be needed back in Britain to keep the aircraft flying during the landing operations and it could take potentially days for these crews to move along the logistics chain from their normal sites to somewhere like Normandy, during which the aircraft would have to be grounded. The answer, as realised by Lord Mountbatten, was to form new units made up of technicians, armourers and the like, along with supporting staff, who would go in with the landing troops and service the aircraft at the forward airfields until the normal ground crews could arrive, at which point the temporary crews would move forward to the next site and so on and so forth.

These units were given the full gamut of Commando training to prepare them for the rigours of the landing operations and life in the field close to the enemy, and became the Royal Air Servicing Commandos. You can read more about them at their associations website linked here, as well as the account of Sergeant Edward Handbury Tee, which goes into more detail about the nature of the training and gives a flavour of the sort of operations they conducted in North Africa, link here.

EDIT; Commenter Topman provided this link to an RAF Historical Society document which contains more information on the Servicing Commandos.


  1. Hi Chris

    Nice mention of the Servicing commandos, like you say hardly anyone knows of them (funny you should mention them I was reading about them the other day). If I'm honest I only heard of them about a year ago. Minor point the idea for them came from inside Fighter Command, a staff officer I believe in an attempt to rectify the issues that came about in 1940. The main issues in 1940 during the battle for France were the crews were undertrained and the rearm and refueling at French held airfields didn't work because of a lack of self sufficiency. However this new idea of SCU worked much better however especially in N Africa. I think could turnaround 200 aircraft a day.

    Although Mountbatten came up with the name, the original idea for the name was 'RAF Commando'. Although many in the RAF didn't really like the idea of having a 'special' group of this sort of thing, I think Sleesor dismissed the whole idea, especially the name calling it 'a stupid title', some things never change!

    It's an intersting corner of RAF history, there was some paper about what we could learn from these units. Last time we used something like this 1982 for the Harriers.

    1. Hello Topman,

      I was under the impression it was Mountbatten's idea because the only sources I could find all mentioned him as such. Is there another open source available with more detail or was your other reading an internal RAF thing? I'd like to know more if there's more info, I think it's quite an interesting little tid bit of history.

      I've always wondered why the army and navy supported their own special forces but the RAF never really seemed to catch onto the idea of having a specialist unit of their own? Perhaps because the SAS was effectively acting in their support in Africa so they assumed they wouldn't need them? Might become a post one day.

  2. Chris

    I did some reading about them a year ago. There's a paper online here about them and compares it to a possible use in todays climate of EAWs. I think it's a few years old but still relevant. There's also plenty of other reading material.

    Number 39

    I think SF have always been about the man, the RAF has always been about technology from the very beginning. I think it's a difficult circle to square, so doesn't really fit in anywhere. I see what you are thinking a strike role but ground based against a/c? Not really something I could see us doing.

    I can't really think of SF in many airforces around the world.

    1. Ah ha, fantastic stuff! I'll give it a read at some point over the weekend (and some of that other stuff as well by the looks of it) and probably update the post. Cheers Topman, super find!

      re; special forces, I just always found it odd that both the army and RN fostered the development of special units (to a degree), realising the big potential gains for minimal risk and outlay, whereas the RAF never seemed interested. Case in point being the SAS operations in North Africa during ww2. I'd have thought the RAF would have leaped at the concept of potentially destroying significant numbers of German aircraft on the ground for the risk of just a few men, but they never embraced it themselves.

      In the modern world things have obviously become a bit more joint and the modern SBS for example is more than just a marine CT and beach recce unit. No other air force has a SF unit either, but it does seem odd that the RAF has never considered the potential of their own SF in terms of close target reconnaissance, perhaps SEAD work going after radars, maybe attacking a/c on the ground is a bit much but I guess it would depend on the circumstances, rescuing downed pilots, general deep recce in support of air operations (watching highways for enemy movements to support an interdiction campaign for example).

  3. Could you not consider the Dambusters raid to be a type of SF operation? A small highly trained unit with mission specific equipment.

    1. I guess you could argue that in a sense. I think the only knock on that would be the idea that they were still bombing, like most of the other squadrons, they just had more time to prepare for their mission, whereas SF work is generally recognised as being something that is highly unique or unconventional compared to the norm for a service.