A Short History of the Royal Marines

US:UK EnsignWhat is a Marine?  The short answer would be a specialized member of the armed forces who participates in efforts to project naval power ashore. What makes a Marine stand out from a regular soldier and sets him apart from any other fighting organization isn’t just a matter of how they’re trained, the equipment they use, or their tactical skills.  It is the fighting spirit that lives within each Marine —and this is what drives a Marine to accept nothing less than victory in all lethal situations.  It is the determination to win, the eagerness to fight, and the high standard of excellence they demand of themselves and each other that makes a Marine unique.  Their battle record speaks for itself.

Marines are, by definition, an expeditionary force in readiness who are deployed at a moment’s notice to quickly and aggressively win their nation’s battles.  Marines have a long history of developing expeditionary doctrine and amphibious innovation that sets the standard for all other branches of military service.  In projecting naval power into a hostile environment, Marines rely on their superior training, their self-confidence, their discipline, and each other to win the day.  Toward this end, Marines are trained to improvise, adapt, and overcome every obstacle in whatever situation they encounter.  They are not only willing to engage any enemy force; they are also determined to defeat them until national victory has been achieved.  Marines have but one mission: fight, and win.

Of all Marine organizations that exist in the world today, only two stand out: United States Marines, and their British counterparts—the Royal Marines.

RM 001 BadgeThe story of the Royal Marines began on 28 October 1664 when Great Britain formed the Duke of York and Albany’s Maritime Regiment of Foot.  It soon became known as the Admiral’s Regiment. The Holland Regiment (later called The Buffs) was also raised to serve at sea on 11 July 1665.  Both regiments were paid for by the Admiralty.  John Churchill, later 1st Duke of Marlborough, was a famous member of The Buffs.  Additionally, a company of foot guards served as Marines to augment the Admiral’s Regiment during the sea battle at Sole Bay in 1672.  The Holland Regiment was disbanded in 1689 after James II was deposed during the so-called Glorious Revolution.

Two maritime regiments of the British Army were raised in 1690 —the Earl of Pembroke’s and Torrington’s Regiments, later designated Lord Berkeley’s Regiment.  These Marines participated in an opposed landing during the Williamite War in Ireland at Cork on 21 September 1690, John Churchill commanding.  The Marine Establishment was reformed in 1698.  Two existing regiments became a single regiment under Thomas Brudenell, and the foot regiments under William Seymour, Edward Dutton Colt, and Harry Mordaunt were converted to Marine regiments —all of which were disbanded in 1699.

In 1702, six regiments of Marines and six Sea Service Regiments of foot were formed to participate in the War of Spanish Succession.  While on land, the Marines served under Brigadier General William Seymour; while at sea, they fell under the authority of the senior naval commander and the captain of the ship to which assigned.  The Admiral’s Regiment first distinguished itself in 1704 when the Marines captured the mole [1] during the assault on Gibraltar.  British and Dutch Marines later defended the fortress from counterattack.  After the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713, three Marine regiments were transferred to the army, where they were designated as the 30th, 31st, and 32nd Regiments of Foot.

RM 001A Uniform
Painting of an early maritime officer.

The Admiral’s Regiment was redesignated as His Majesty’s Marine Forces on 5 April 1755; fifty companies were organized into three divisions, placed under the command of the Admiralty, and stationed at Portsmouth, Chatham, and Plymouth.  Note: shown left, a painting of an early Maritime officer.

British Marines were not the first naval infantry to emerge in Europe.  They were preceded by the Spanish Infanteria de Marina (1537), Venice’s Fanti da Mar (1550), the Portuguese Marine Corps (1610), and the French Troupes de Marine (1622).  The British, in turn, established a regiment of (3,000) American Colonial Marines during the War of Jenkins’ Ear, around 1739.

In the early days, all field-grade officers of the Marines were serving officers in the Royal Navy.  Because the Admiralty believed that the top field officer ranks were largely honorary posts (which was also true in the Army), the farthest a field officer could advance was to lieutenant colonel.  It was not until 1771 that the first Marine officer was promoted to colonel, but this situation persisted well into the 1800s.  In any case, British Marines performed numerous amphibious landings throughout most of the 18th Century.  Among the more famous was the landing at Belle Isle [2] in 1761.  British Marines also served during the American War of Independence.  A company of Marines under Major John Pitcairn broke rebel resistance at Bunker Hill and took possession of the American’s redoubt.  When Royal Navy ships were becalmed, Marines often took to ship’s boats to repel attackers during blockade operations.  On the day that Captain James Cook was killed in Hawaii (14 February 1779), he had with him four British Marines: Corporal James Thomas, Private Theophilus Hinks, Private Thomas Fatchett, and Private John Allen.

In May 1787, four companies of Marines under Major Robert Ross accompanied the First Fleet [3] to protect a new colony at Botany Bay (New South Wales).  Due to a gross oversight, the First Fleet departed Portsmouth without its main supply of ammunition, cartridge paper, and flintlock tools.  The oversight was noted early in the voyage and a dispatch sent back to England that the missing supplies be urgently forwarded to the fleet.  Captain William Bligh was assigned this mission while in command of HMS Bounty.  Ten thousand rounds of ammunition were obtained from Rio de Janeiro, but these stores were still inadequate and in time, the Marines would find themselves in difficult circumstances.  A full measure of stores was never sent to the First Fleet.

In total, the Marine contingent of four companies included 212 Marines; of these, 160 privates.  Marine strength was based on the advice of Mr. Joseph Banks, who counselled the British government that local Aborigines were few and retiring by disposition.  Upon their arrival at New South Wales, Captain Arthur Phillip, Royal Navy, found that the natives were populous and aggressive.  Within a year, Aboriginals had killed 6 of the First Fleet and wounded scores of others. Marines were ordered to expand the initial settlement area at Sydney Cove and organize farming operations at Parramatta.  When Aboriginals contracted smallpox, some journalists claimed that the British Marines deliberately spread the disease.  Most modern scholars regard this as uncorroborated bunk, however.

At the instigation of Admiral John Jervis, 1st Earl of St. Vincent in 1802, His Majesty’s Marine Forces were titled Royal Marines by King George III.

Up until 1804, the Royal Artillery Regiment had provided artillery support to the British Marines.  A lawsuit by a Royal Artillery Officer led a civil court to declare that Army officers were not subject to Navy regulations or the orders of Naval officers.  Accordingly, Royal Marine Artillery was added to the Royal Marines in that very same year.  They were referred to as “Blue Marines” because these forces retained the blue coats of the Royal Artillery Regiment.  In contrast, the Royal Marines dressed in scarlet coats (as did the British Army).  They were called “Red Marines” or, more derisively, Lobster backs by the unenlightened naval ranks.

During the Napoleonic Wars, Royal Marines took part in every notable naval battle on board Royal Navy ships, executed amphibious raids, provided security aboard ship, maintained discipline among the crew, engaged enemy crews with long rifles, and led boarding parties.

The number of Marines assigned to Royal Navy ships depended on the size of the ship, but Marine strength was usually maintained at a ratio of one Marine per ship’s gun, plus officers commanding.  A “first rate ship of the line” would have a compliment of 104 Marines; a 28-gun frigate would have 29 Marines.  Between 1807 and 1814, a total of 31,400 men served in the Royal Marines but given the size of the Royal Navy during this period, and the missions assigned to the Royal Navy, British Army detachments frequently served aboard Navy ships to augment the Royal Marines.  Seaborne operations frequently included blockading French ports and conducting amphibious raids against French signal communications stations and other operations designed to harass the enemy.

In the Caribbean, freed French slave volunteers formed the 1st Corps of Colonial Marines to help bolster the ranks of Royal Marines.  This practice was repeated during the War of 1812, when escaped American slaves were formed into the 2nd Corps of Colonial Marines.  These men were commanded by Royal Marine officers and fought alongside their regular Marine counterparts at the Battle of Bladensburg (August 1814).  During this battle, a detachment of Royal Marine Artillery under Lieutenant John Lawrence deployed Congreve rockets [4] with telling effect against American militia.  A battalion of Royal Marines augmented the 21st Regiment of Foot during the burning of Washington.  They did not torch the U. S. Marine Corps Barracks at 8th & I Streets, however.

During the War of 1812, Royal Marines frequently operated in the Chesapeake Bay, including operations up the Penobscot River.  This was a composite battalion, formed from several ship’s detachments, serving under Captain John Robyns [5].  A smaller organization of Royal Marines, numbering around 100 troops, served under captains John T. Wilson and John Alexander Phillips that augmented the British Army force of 700 men under Major Thomas Adair, who successfully led an attack against the west bank of the Mississippi River.  This was Britain’s only success at New Orleans.  These same Marines later helped to capture Fort Bowyer in Mobile Bay —the last action of the War of 1812.

In 1855, the Royal Marines were renamed the Royal Marines Light Infantry (RMLI).  A slight modification to this designation was affected in 1862: Royal Marine Light Infantry.  After 1850, the Royal Navy saw limited service at sea until 1914.  During this time, Naval planners became more interested in the concept of Naval Brigades, which is to say Royal Marines, augmented by artillery, who would make amphibious landings ahead of naval infantry and conduct skirmishes —a traditional function of light infantry.  For most of their history, the Royal Marines have functioned as fusiliers (riflemen).  In this capacity, they served with distinction during the First and Second Opium Wars (1839-1860) in China.  Every engagement in China was successful save one: when British Admiral Sir James Hope ordered the Marines to make a landing across a wide expanse of mud flats.  I will forego any comment about Admiral Hope’s leadership ability.

RM 002 Boxer Rebellion
Royal Marines during the Boxer Rebellion

Royal Marines, along with their American counterparts, played a prominent role during the Boxer Rebellion in China in 1900.  See also: Send in the Marines!

Pursuing a career in the Royal Marines was considered “social suicide” through much of the 18th and 19th centuries.  Royal Marines had a lower standing than their counterparts in the Royal Navy [6].  In 1907, the British government reduced professional differences between the Royal Navy and Royal Marines.  In time, the Royal Marines were elevated to a position of respect within the British forces, although sharing a pint of ale with British Army veterans, one might come away with an entirely different point of view.  What British soldiers have never understood, however, is that ARMY stands for “Aren’t Ready to be Marines Yet.”

During the first part of the 20th century, the role of the Royal Marines remained traditional, that is, providing shipboard infantry for security, boarding parties, and amphibious raids.  The Marines’ other traditional role while aboard Royal Navy ships was manning gun turrets on battleships or cruisers.

During World War I, Royal Marines landed with the Royal Navy Division in Belgium in 1914 to defend Antwerp.  They later participated in the amphibious landings at Gallipoli in 1915 and conducted the Zeebrugge Raid in 1918.  After this “war to end all wars,” Royal Marines took part in the allied intervention in post-Revolutionary Russia.  In 1919, the 6th Battalion mutinied and was disbanded in disgrace.

RM 002In 1922, during post-war demobilization, the Royal Marines were reduced from a strength of 55,000 to around 15,000.  To further reduce the costs of maintaining this force in readiness, Royal Marine Artillery (RMA) and Light Infantry units were consolidated in June 1923.  Even so, tremendous political pressure was applied to disbanding the Royal Marines altogether.  As a compromise, opposing politicians agreed to a Royal Marine organization of 9,500 troops.  To accomplish this, the RMA was deactivated; henceforth, the title Royal Marine would apply to the entire Corps.  Artillery organizations would be part of the force structure, but on a much smaller scale.  After consolidation, the Royal Marine full-dress uniform became dark blue and red; Royal Marine officers and SNCOs continue to wear scarlet uniforms as part of their mess dress kit.  The rank structure was also modified.  The private of infantry and gunner of artillery were replaced by the rank of Marine.

In World War II, Royal Marine shipboard detachments continued to make amphibious raids with limited objectives, such as accepting the surrender of French Axis forces.  Initially, Royal Marine infantry units were organized as Mobile Naval Base Defense Organizations (which were similar to U. S. Marine Corps’ Advanced Base Defense Battalion).  The MNBDO’s took part in the defense of Crete, Malaya, and Singapore.

RM 004 WW IIIn 1942, Royal Marine infantry battalions were reorganized as commando units.  The Division command structure became a Special Service Brigade command.  In total, four Special Service (Commando) Brigades were raised during World War II.  Nine RMC battalions were created, numbered from 40 Commando to 48 Commando.  Brigades were task organized, which means that Royal Marine commando organizational structure depended on their assigned mission.  In the early years, British Army units served alongside the Marines within Commando Brigades.  Support troops served as landing craft crew and saw extensive action on D-Day in June 1944.  In January 1945, an additional two RM brigades were formed, both organized as conventional infantry.  Of these, only one saw any action during World War II.

Several Royal Marine officers served as pilots during the World War II, one of these leading the air attack that sank the German warship Konigsberg.  Eighteen RMOs commanded fleet air squadrons, and after the formation of the British Pacific Fleet, Royal Marine aviation assets were well-represented in final operations against Japan.  Squadron commanders were usually captains and majors.  Lieutenant Colonel R. C. Hay commanded an air group on board HMS Indefatigable.  Meanwhile, Royal Marine detachments continued to serve aboard Royal Navy cruisers and battleships.

During World War II, the Victoria Cross [7] was awarded to only one Marine: Acting Corporal Thomas P. Hunter, aged 21 years, of 43 Commando, during combat operations at Lake Comacchio, Italy.  On 2 April 1945, Hunter commanded a Bren gun (light machine gun) section.

RM 004 T P Hunter
Corporal Thomas Peck Hunter, RM

According to the citation for this award, 43 Commando was advancing to its final objective and was within 400 yards of an east-west canal.  Corporal Hunter observed that the enemy was entrenched around a group of houses south of the canal and realized that his troops, who were following in trace of his advance, would soon be exposed to enemy fire in an area devoid of cover or concealment.  Seizing his light machine gun, Hunter charged alone across two hundred yards of open ground.  The Germans engaged Hunter with no fewer than nine automatic weapons.  Attracting enemy fire away from his men, and demonstrating a complete disregard for his own safety, Corporal Hunter assaulted the German position while firing from the hip, changing magazines as he ran, killing several of the enemy and clearing houses of all enemy troops.  Six German soldiers surrendered to him, while the remaining enemy fled across a footbridge to the north bank of the canal.  Taking a position atop of pile of rubble, Corporal Hunter engaged the enemy’s new positions with deadly accurate fire while encouraging his men to take up secure positions within the cluster of houses.  It was then that Corporal Hunter received the bulk of enemy’s fire and he was killed.  Corporal Hunter is remembered at ten separate locations throughout the United Kingdom.

In 1946, British Army Commandos were disbanded, leaving the Royal Marines to continue the commando role (with supporting army elements).

Drysdale 002
LtCol Douglas B. Drysdale, RM

At the outset of the Korean War, 41 Commando was reformed for service with the United States Navy.  After the landing of the X Corps at Wonsan, 41 Commando joined the 1st U. S. Marine Division.  41 Commando formed the nucleus of Task Force Drysdale under Lieutenant Colonel Douglas B. Drysdale, Royal Marines, with one US Marine Corps rifle company and one US Army rifle company, and attachments of rolling stock and fought their way from Koto-ri to Hagaru-ri after the Chinese erected blockades along the north road.  It then took part in the epic Battle of the Chosin Reservoir.  41 Commando subsequently implemented several raids against Communist Chinese forces.  The Royal Marines were withdrawn from the Korean conflict in 1951.  For its service in the Korean War, 41 Commando was awarded the United States Presidential Unit Citation and Colonel Drysdale received the Silver Star Medal for valor.

Between 1948 and 1960, elements of the Royal Marines participated at various times and places in the Malayan Emergency [8].  In 1955, 45 Commando was dispatched to Cyprus to undertake anti-terrorist operations against Greek Cypriot insurgents.  In 1956, 3 Commando Brigade with 40, 42, and 45 Royal Commando took part in the Suez Crisis. This event marked the first time the Royal Marines employed helicopters in vertical assault operations.  British and French forces ultimately defeated the Egyptians, but US diplomatic activities helped to defuse the crisis.  40 and 41 Commando were sent to Borneo at various times to help defuse tensions between Indonesian-Malayan belligerents.  In January 1964, elements of the Tanzanian Army mutinied.  The United Kingdom responded by dispatching 41 Commando from Devon and landing Royal Marine elements from HMS Bulwark.  The Tanzanian revolt was put down rather quickly, but it took another six months to disarm rebel elements of the Tanzanian military.

Royal Marine units regularly deployed to Northern Ireland to help contain that conflict.  Referred to as “the Troubles,” the Northern Ireland conflict lasted from 1969 through 1998.  In total, 24 Royal Marines died as a result of protestant snipers and bombers.

Between 1974 and 1984, the Royal Marines undertook three United Nations peacekeeping tours of duty in Cyprus.  The first was operation took place after the Turkish invasion in November 1974.  41 Commando took over responsibility for the Limassol District from the 2nd Battalion Guard’s Brigade.  41 Commando was the first Royal Marine unit to wear the light blue beret of the United Nations Command.

RM 003 Falklands
The Battle for Stanley

When Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands in April 1982, the United Kingdom dispatched a task force to recapture them, which given the necessity for an amphibious assault, included the Royal Marine Commando.  British troops landed at San Carlos Water on East Falkland and moved across the entire island to the capital city of Stanley.  In Royal Marine parlance, the troops “yomped” across the Falklands, which means a long-distance force march in full kit.  Stanley fell to the Brits on 14 June 1982.  Major General Jeremy Moore, Royal Marines, commanded the land forces in the Falklands Conflict.

During the 1991 Gulf War, 24 Marines from Kilo Company, 41 Commando served as six-man raiding teams aboard Royal Navy destroyers and frigates.  They were mainly used as ship boarding parties.  Elements of 3 Commando Brigade were deployed to provide aid and protection to Iraqi Kurds in Northern Iraq as part of Operation Safe Haven.

RM 007
Royal Marine Commando, Helmand Province

After the turn of the century, Royal Marines began converting from their light-infantry role towards an expanded force-protection role.  The British refer to this reorganization as Commando-21: the establishment of two battalion-sized commando units (which included 40 Commando and 45 Commando.  Each organization consists of six company sized units, and these organized into “troops,” (platoons).  The change has given the Royal Marines more firepower, greater mobility, better access to intelligence, and more operational flexibility.  The size of each commando is roughly 692 of all ranks.  41 Commando has taken on a specialized maritime mission since 2017 under the auspices of 3 Commando Brigade.

Now approaching the end of the second decade of the 21st Century, Royal Marines and their American counterparts have never been closer.  They share a tradition, a similar mission, and the title Marine goes a very long way in defining who they are.  To cement this tie, British flight officers have begun training alongside Marine Corps aviators; US Marine officers serve in exchange billets in the United Kingdom, and lately, junior Royal Marine officers (three so far) have begun serving 18-month tours within US Marine Corps ground units.  US Marine Corps lieutenants have not yet started serving in similar capacities in the United Kingdom, but it is likely that this will happen in the future.

Sources:

  1. Ballantyne, I. Strike from the Sea.  Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2004
  2. Chappell, M. Wellington’s Peninsula Regiments.  Oxford: The Oxford Press, 2004
  3. Moore, J. The First Fleet Marines.  Queensland: University of Queensland Press, 1989
  4. Mountbatten, L. Combined Operations: The Official Story of the Commando.  New York: Macmillan Company, 1943
  5. Poyntz, W. H. Per Mare, Per Terram: Reminiscences of Thirty-two Years’ Military, Naval, and Constabulary Service.  London: Print & Publishing Company, 1892
  6. Thompson, J. The Royal Marines, from Sea Soldiers to a Special Force.  London: Pan Books, 2001

Endnotes:

[1] A mole is a massive stone structure constructed to serve as a pier, a breakwater, or causeway between bodies of water.

[2] The operation at Belle Isle was an amphibious expedition intended to capture the French island off the Brittany coast during the Seven Years’ War.  The initial attack was repulsed, but a second landing forced a beach head.  After a siege of six weeks, the French surrendered (as they almost always do) and this gave the British total control of the island.  Belle Isle was returned to French authority after the Treaty of Paris in 1763.

[3] The First Fleet consisted of eleven ships that departed from Portsmouth, England on 13 May to establish a penal colony that became the first European settlement in Australia.  The fleet involved two Royal Navy vessels, three store ships, and six convict transports carrying between 1,000 to 1,500 convicts, Marines, seamen, civil officers, and free people.  From England, the fleet sailed to Rio de Janeiro, east to Cape Town and then to Botany Bay … arriving between 18 to 20 January 1788.

[4] The Congreve rocket was designed and developed by Sir William Congreve in 1804; it was an adaptation of the Mysorean rockets used against the British in India.  By 1813, there were three classes of Congreve rockets: heavy, medium, and light.  Heavy rockets consisted of between 100 and 300 pounds but were generally regarded as too cumbersome to use in the field.  Medium rockets were between 24 and 42 pounds, and from two to four feet in length.  Light rockets were between 6 and 18 pounds and from 16 to 25 inches in length.  Medium and light rockets could be case shot, shell, or explosive.

[5] Major General John Robyns, Royal Marines, (1780-1857) served with distinction during the Napoleonic Wars, including Martinique, and the War of 1812.  In America, Robyn faced off against the U. S. Marines at Bladensburg, Washington, Baltimore, and New Orleans.

[6] This was true in the United States, as well.  My grandmother was devastated when I joined the U. S. Marine Corps in 1962.  Every member of my family up until then had served in the Army.  It wasn’t until 1965 when my uncle (my grandmother’s son, a career army NCO) was able to convince her that the Marines was the right choice for me.  I was, at the time, a very proud and somewhat cocky corporal of Marines.  By the time I received my commission in 1975, Grandmother had fully embraced my service and bragged to her few remaining friends that her grandson was a United States Marine.

[7] The Victoria Cross is the United Kingdom’s highest and most prestigious award for gallantry in the face of the enemy.

[8] Following World War II, British authorities attempted to form the Malayan Union.  Their goal was to create a state wherein all citizens (Malay, Chinese, and Indian) would have equal stature, but many ethnic Malayans, along with regional rulers, rejected this scheme.  Armed insurgency first occurred on 16 June 1948 when three of four targeted plantation managers were assassinated.  The ensuring guerrilla war involved pro-communist, anti-British forces who engaged in terror tactics like those employed by the Viet Cong during the Viet Nam War.  Nearly 12,000 people lost their lives in this 12-year conflict.

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Mustang

US Marine (Retired), historian, writer.

10 thoughts on “A Short History of the Royal Marines”

  1. I believe Captain Bligh did not have a “t” on the end of his name. I cannot prove it. In the painting of fighting in the Falklands, the troops seem to be wearing red berets vice green berets. The dark red berets indicate The Parachute Regiment. Two VCs awarded there, both to Paras. Green is for Marines that pass the Commando Course. Maj Gen Jeremy Moore was the overland land commander….but did not step foot on the island until rather late in the game. Brigadier Julian Thompson, Officer Commanding of 3 Cdo Bde and attachments (the Paras and later 5 Bde made up of one Gurkha Bn and two Bns from the Bde of Guards. I knew one personally…who is retired: Maj Gen Scott of the Scots Guards. He got a DSO for his trouble and a CB on retirement. Sadly, the whole of the British Defence Forces are very small these days. That is what Socialism does to countries.

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  2. Where do you find the time to do all this flawless research, sir?? It is impressive to say the least.

    With your end note 2 in mind, I got my chuckle for the day. Shall I send over a nice bottle of French wine?

    And with respect to end note 6, a certain cousin of yours still refers to you fondly as your family’s Black Sheep.

    God bless you and the Corps, sir.

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  3. Absolutely loved this story. And not to challenge to your assessment of Royal Marines, but a Marine Recon Corpsman I know once confided that the only military force he’d be hesitant to engage was the IDF. Just fwiw.
    That as 12 or so years ago.

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    1. Corpsmen who serve alongside Marines (in the US) are USN hospital corpsmen. They are authorized to wear a special adaptation of the USMC uniform, but they are not Marines … but the Marines love them as if they were. I do not know what the field corpsman relationship is within the Royal Marines. As for the IDF, my guess is that they have fewer “rules of engagement” than within the western forces.

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