After the British Expeditionary Force had been evacuated from Dunkirk in 1940 , then Prime Minister Winston Churchill ordered the creation of a force capable of carrying out raids against German occupied Europe. Churchill envisioned a “ … specially trained troops of the hunter class, who can develop a reign of terror down these coasts, first of all on the ‘butcher and bolt’ policy (hit and run).” What transpired from Churchill’s order was the formation of the British Commando, an idea inspired by Lieutenant Colonel Dudley Clarke, whose suggestion was forwarded to General Sir John Dill, then serving as the Chief of the Imperial General Staff. General Dill, who was aware of Churchill’s directive, approved Clarke’s proposal.
The Commandos were assigned to the operational control of the Combined Operations Headquarters with overall command assigned to Admiral Sir Roger Keyes, who was a veteran of the Gallipoli Campaign and the Zeebrugge Raid of World War I. Accordingly, a call went out for volunteers from among serving British Army regulars within formations still in Britain and the men of the disbanded divisional independent companies  originally raised from the Territorial Army units who had seen service in the Norwegian Campaign . By autumn of 1940, more than 2,000 men had volunteered for commando training.
Under pressure from Churchill, the Combined Operation Headquarters developed a plan dubbed OPERATION COLLAR. Its objective was a reconnaissance of the French coast and the capture of German prisoners. The operation was planned to commence just three weeks after the completion of Operation Dynamo . This early in the war, the British Commando was inadequately trained to conduct amphibious raids, and most units were significantly understrength. One of the Independent Companies, Number Eleven, was selected for the mission. Its commander was Major Ronnie Tod from the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. The company was formed by soliciting volunteers from among the men already serving in Independent Company One through Ten. The strength of Number Eleven was 25 officers and 350 enlisted men.
Major Tod removed his company from Scotland to the south coast city/seaport of Southampton. Not long after arrival, Number Eleven began a series of exercises against local infantry battalions on the River Hamble. Tod soon realized that the boats he had been provided were inadequate for transporting his men across the English Channel. There being no other resources available for this purpose, Major Tod approached the Royal Air Force for the use of their air rescue craft that were based at Dover, Ramsgate, and Newhaven. Lacking navigational equipment and reliable compasses, none of the boats were equipped for this type of operation—but they would have to do.
The final raiding plan would be carried out by 115 officers and men, who were divided into four groups targeting the beaches at Neufchâtel-Hardelot, Stella Plage, Berck, and Le Touquet. During the crossing of the English Channel, the RAF pilots, who were unaware of the operation, flew close overhead of the boats to investigate, which endangered the men to the notice of German military and naval units. Fortunately, the men proceeded without notice of the Germans and arrived at their designated targets at around 0200 on 24 June.
At Le Touquet, the raiders were assigned the Merlinmont Plage Hotel as an objective. British Intelligence had suggested that the Germans may have been using the hotel as a barracks. The raiders met this objective but discovered that it was empty and all doors and windows had been boarded up. Unable to discover another target, the group returned to the beach only to find that their boat had withdrawn back to sea. While waiting for the boat to return, two German sentries stumbled on the raiders and were quickly killed by bayonet. Another German patrol happened by and discovered the raiders. Unable to engage the Germans by fire, to protect the security of the three other units, the raiders of the Le Touquet operation abandoned their weapons and swam out to their boat.
The raiders at Hardelot penetrated several hundred yards inland, but encountering no Germans, they returned to their boat. At Berck, the raiders discovered a heavily defended seaplane anchorage. The mission being one of reconnaissance and capture, these raiders decided against attacking the anchorage. At Stella Plage, Major Tod engaged a German patrol in a short-lived fire fight, which resulted in an observer, Lieutenant Colonel Clarke, receiving a slight wound.
Overall, the mission was one of mixed success. The commandos learned something about the equipment they would need for future operations, they killed two enemy and stirred up other German units, and they caused Adolf Hitler to proclaim them as “terror and sabotage troops,” who, because their mission was “the murder of innocent civilians,” were acting contrary to the Geneva Convention.
Once the commandos had returned safely to England, the British Ministry of Information announced, “Naval and military raiders, in cooperation with the RAF, carried out successful reconnaissance of the enemy coastline. Landings were effected at a number of points and contact was made with German troops. Casualties were inflicted upon the enemy, but no British casualties occurred and much useful information was obtained.” It wasn’t a precisely accurate announcement, but it did have a positive effect on the British people.
The British Commando was an all-volunteer force organized for special services. While they originally came from the British Army, the force would eventually consist of all branches of the British military along with certain foreign volunteers from countries occupied by Nazi Germany. In time, the Commandos formed more than 40 separate units and four assault brigades.
Throughout World War II, commando service took place in all the theaters of war, from the Arctic Circle to Europe, the Middle East, and in the Pacific campaigns. Operations ranged from small groups of men landing from the sea, or by parachute, to brigade-sized assaults that spearheaded the Allied invasion of Europe and Asia.
Following World War II, most commandos were disbanded, leaving only the Royal Marine 3 Commando Brigade, the Parachute Regiment, Special Air Service, and the Special Boat Service —all of which can trace their origins to the British Commandos. Today, British Royal Marines and the Parachute Regiment share this tradition with the Dutch Corps Commandotroepen, and the Belgian Paracommando Brigade.
- Chappell, M. Army Commandos, 1940-45. Osprey Publishing, 1996.
- Dunning, J. The Fighting Fourth: No. 4 Commando at War, 1940-45. Sutton Publishing, 2003
- Joslen, H. F. Orders of Battle, Second World War, 1939-1945. Naval & Military Press, 1990.
- My father-in-law (now deceased) was one of the more than 400,000 British, Belgian, and French forces evacuated from Dunkirk between 26 May and 4 June 1940. Operation Dynamo became necessary when British and allied forces were surrounded and cut-off by three corps (nine divisions) of German troops and Panzer tanks during the six-week long Battle of France. In total, the evacuation included the British Expeditionary Force (BEF), three French field armies, and what remained of Belgian forces. During the Battle of France, the BEF lost 68,000 men (dead, wounded, missing, or captured) along with 2,472 artillery pieces, 20,000 motorcycles, and nearly 65,000 other vehicles. Also given up were 416,000 short tons of stores, 75,000 short tons of ammunition, and 162,000 short tons of fuel. All 445 British tanks were abandoned at Dunkirk.
- Independent companies were originally raised by the English Army and later the British Army during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries for garrison duty in the homeland and at overseas colonies. Independent companies were not part of larger military units (battalions/regiments), although they may have been detached from larger units. In the 20th Century, the term applied to units organized to support temporary expeditionary missions. During World War II, Independent Companies were raised from volunteers from Territorial Army divisions. The Territorial Army formations were reserve units placed throughout the British Isles.
- The Norwegian Campaign was an attempt by Allied forces to liberate Norway from invading Nazi forces between 9 April – 10 June 1940. The unsuccessful campaign prompted King Haakon VII and his family to flee to Great Britain.
- France’s Vichy government signed a peace accord with Nazi Germany on 22 June 1940, hence the term “Occupied France.”