~ 9 COMMANDO ~
This is a brief account of the history of No 9 Commando from its formation in the summer of 1940 to disbandment in 1946. It was most heavily involved in operations around the coasts of Italy, Yugoslavia, Albania and Greece.
The evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force from the beaches of Dunkirk in May and June of 1940 had a profound effect on the future conduct of the war. Gone was the chance of shipping large armies onto friendly shores to take on the Germans. Instead, large scale amphibious assaults against heavily defended enemy held territory would be required and, for this, a new approach was needed involving the combined forces of the army, navy and air force.
Churchill realised that an amphibious invasion of mainland Europe, with any reasonable chance of success, would not be possible for several years. In the meantime he wanted to harass the enemy along the length of the occupied coastline from northern Norway to southern France. This would force the Germans to deploy more men, armaments and materials in these areas than would otherwise have been necessary leaving fewer resources to be used elsewhere (notably against the Soviet Union from June of 1941). On the 3rd of June 1940 he wrote to the Chiefs of Staff;
The completely defensive habit of mind, which has ruined the French, must not be allowed to ruin all our initiative. It is of the highest consequence to keep the largest numbers of German forces all along the coasts of the countries that have been conquered, and we should immediately set to work to organise raiding forces on these coasts where the populations are friendly. Such forces might be composed by self-contained, thoroughly equipped units of say 1,000 up to not less than 10,000 when combined.
And two days later he elaborated: Enterprises must be prepared with specially trained troops of the hunter class, who can develop a reign of terror first of all on the 'butcher and bolt' policy. I look to the Chiefs of Staff to propose me measures for a vigorous, enterprising and ceaseless offensive against the whole German occupied coastline.
As a consequence of these new circumstances on June 14 1940 Lieutenant-General Alan Bourne was appointed by the Chiefs of Staff (under increasing pressure from Churchill to make an appointment) to the position of "Commander of Raiding Operations on coasts in enemy occupation and Adviser to the Chiefs of Staff on Combined Operations." Bourne was a Royal Marine Commander with experience of both land and sea operations. However, at Churchill's behest, on the 17th of July 1940 Roger Keyes replaced Bourne and was appointed to the strengthened position (certainly as viewed by Keyes himself) of Director of Combined Operations to be followed by Lord Louis Mountbatten in October 1941.
Irregular Commando units were raised and undertook what turned out to be ineffective raids on Boulogne and the Channel Islands. Churchill was not impressed with these pin-prick raids and for 8 months there was little activity as the role of the Commandos, their training needs and modus operandi were refined and developed. These deliberations resulted in the formation of Commando Units in the first few weeks of July 1940.
Some of the Units had a distinct geographical base as Army volunteers came forward. Nos 3 and 4 Commandos were formed from Southern Command, Nos 5 and 6 from Western Command, No 7 from Eastern Command, No 8 mainly from the London District and the Household Division and Nos 9 and 11 from Scottish Command. No 1 Commando was formed from disbanded Independent Companies whose members were trained to fight independently as irregulars and not as part of a formed military unit. Initially designated the No 1 SS Battalion by March 1941 it was renamed No 1 Commando. [Photo; the Commando Memorial, Spean Bridge, Scotland, courtesy of Stephen Eblet.]
Unless otherwise stated SS in this article denotes 'Special Service,' not to be confused with the German SS.
There was not much Commando activity after the successful 1st Lofoten Islands raid in March of 1941. It was a frustrating time for all concerned but in July the idea took hold that the Spanish might enter the war on the side of the Axis powers. As a result planning for the invasion of the Canary Islands was set in train to deny the enemy a naval base from which they could threaten Allied shipping in the Atlantic approaches to the Mediterranean. The operation was codenamed Puma (later Pilgrim).
The force comprised two Royal Marine Brigades, Army troops and Commandos. They were assembled at Inveraray under Major General Robert Sturges of the Royal Marines. The Commando element comprised Nos 1, 2, 4, 9 & 12. Command of Force 110, as it became known, was transferred to Lt General Sir Harold Alexander, the GOC of Southern Command.
On the 15th of Sept 1941 part of the force was sent to Freetown and then Lagos in Sierra Leone to undergo amphibious training in the right topographical and climatic conditions. The Commando contribution to the Force comprised four small parties of one officer and 25 other ranks including one drawn from No 9. However, by February 1942 the risk had subsided and they returned home.
On the night of November 22/3 1941 a troop of 100 men of the Commando set out to attack a 4 gun emplacement east of Houlgate on the French coast south of Le Havre. They came ashore a few hundred metres from their intended landing beach and were unable to press home their attack because of an intervening clay cliff. Pte J Davidson, a bren gunner in the cover party who stayed aboard the 2 LCAs involved, recalled that the troop had stayed aboard Princess Beatrix for a couple of weeks before setting off on the mission. They were issued with 1000 French francs and escape rations.
As they landed one of the LCAs broached to and was towed off with difficulty. It was likely that the returning raiding party would have to swim out to the craft. At first there was no sign of the enemy but soon the area was lit up with Very lights and search lights. Trucks were seen approaching from about 3 or 4 miles away so the raiders still on the beach swam out after exchanging torch signals with the cover party. The LCA gunners withheld fire not wishing to give away their position.
Meantime another party of raiders called at a farmhouse to be told of an imminent 2 man bicycle patrol. The raiders set a rope across the road to dismount them but no sooner had this been done when a Stuka aircraft attacked the LCAs. By this time Pte Davidson's LCA was half full of water with only one engine working. However, on the second strafing he managed to put two bursts into the plane. It did not return and may have been disabled or shot down.
This version of events differs from the official record which reports a successful landing and that the raiders had insufficient time to carry out the intended raid. The Commandos had difficulty contacting the LCAs and they were, in any event, too far off the beach to come in and lift them off. The men swam out to the craft but the enemy had been aroused by the commotion. The Commandos suffered no casualties but the raid proved the need for better planning and execution.
Mediterranean [ Gibralter, Italy, Albania, Yugoslavia, Greece.]
Early in November 1942 No 9 Commando, under Lt Col Ronnie Todd, was indirectly involved in Operation Torch when they were sent to Gibraltar to reinforce the garrison there. There was concern that the Axis forces might move through Spain in retaliation for the Allied invasion of North Africa. The Commandos returned to the UK in early March 1943 to be replaced by No 3 Commando. [Map opposite shows major place names mentioned in the text. Greece is on a separate map below.]
In the autumn of 1943 Laycock reinforced the Mediterranean Commandos by sending out No 9 and later No 43 (RM) Commando after the latter had completed their training. By the time No 43 arrived in the Mediterranean in November 1943, No 9 had been operational at Molfetta on the east coast of Italy since November 8. A week later they were carrying out reconnaissance on the small islands of Tremiti and Pianoso in the Adriatic to the north but found no evidence of the enemy on either.
At the end of November they moved to Naples on the west coast of Italy this time coming under the command of the US Fifth Army. The Germans had set up a defensive line on the Garigliano and Rapido rivers. A plan to force a crossing of the Garigliano near its mouth was abandoned in favour of a similar operation but this time a feint to keep the German's forces occupied in the west.
No 9 Commando were given three objectives by X Corps - a hill called Monte d'Argento about 2000 yards NW of the river mouth, the destroyed bridge carrying route 7 over the river and a spit of land NW of the river mouth which separated it from the coast. The three formed a triangle and Lt Col RJF Tod's idea was to land half way along the shore side of the triangle and then divide the force into three, one for each objective. Since the operation was a feint they would withdraw across the river to their home bank once the positions had been taken. As a pre-requisite to the Commando action the enemy positions on their home bank were to be softened up and subdued.
They undertook a rehearsal on the night of the 27/28 December on their home bank and on the 30th they learned that most of the enemy on their home bank had been cleared by the 167 Brigade and the Guards Brigade. The task would be quickly completed. The scene was therefore set for the operation and on the evening of the 29th the Commando embarked in HMS Royal Ulsterman and Princess Beatrice.
The LCAs were lowered into the sea 6 miles south of the landing beach opposite friendly shores. They formed up and set off at 2130 hrs. Inaccurate navigational advice from accompanying US Navy craft would have placed the raiding party 2 miles SE of the river but Tod realised the error and advised his 2nd in command, Major E W Clark. He moved his craft up the coast and landed about 700 yards NW of the river mouth at 0035 hrs. This was about 1000 yards short of the intended beach and 90 minutes later than planned. There were no distinguishing features on the coastline which was, in any event, difficult to see because of smoke and dust.
One LCA developed a steering fault and did not land. The three raiding parties were reorganised and by 0100 hrs they had accurately established their position on the coast. Y force of 120 men from Nos 1 & 2 Troop was under the command of Captain J McNeil. Their objective was the hill feature. Progress was slow due to the extra distance, irrigation ditches, mines and wire but they reached their objective after 2 hours. They split into two troops one to attack the top of the hill and the other to clear the houses and to block the road to the north.
The hill itself was defended mainly by mines and booby traps with the enemy concentrated to the north. The troop searched the lower ground and blew up a PzKw Mk III Special tank found in a cave. In the action they killed six enemy and captured four at a cost of four casualties to themselves.
Their route back to the beach took them close to No 6 Troop's objective - the bridge. As they approached they heard the unmistakable skirl of bag pipes playing the 'Pwbrrachd of Donald Dubh'. In reply McNeil ordered his piper to play his Troop's march 'Green Hills'. In this way the two Troops met up without firing on each other. [No 9 and No 11 Commando were originally formed as Scottish Commandos and each Troop had its own piper. This proved invaluable in action for locating and rallying the men.]
Captain Cameron who led Z Force comprising Nos 4 and 6 Troops had also found progress very slow arriving at the bridge at 0500 hrs. With the support of artillery they overran a pillbox and suffered no casualties. Cameron was sceptical about a message he then received from 201 Brigade that the home bank near the bridge had been cleared of the enemy. The Commandos rigged up a toggle rope bridge to cross the two 15 foot gaps in the road bridge and made there way across where they took a number of German prisoners.
X Force, meantime, had swept through the spit taking one prisoner although they suffered 5 casualties to a mine. They joined up with Y Force and returned to their home bank in American DUKW amphibious wheeled vehicles at 0730 hrs. 9 Commando lost 9 men and suffered 21 wounded in the operation but they killed 16 enemy and took 28 prisoners. Operation Partridge successfully persuaded the enemy to reinforce this part of the front line to the betterment of operations in other areas.
A plan to drop parachutists on high ground which overlooked the planned landing beaches at Anzio was set aside in favour of an overland assault. The objective was to deny the elevated position to the enemy. On the morning of January 20 1944 No 9 Commando with 43 (RM) Commando embarked in HMS Derbyshire. They sailed with the rest of the Armada and arrived off the beaches on the night of January 21/22. They made the shore without difficulty but sustained a few casualties from an early morning aircraft attack.
Each man carried 70 lb of equipment and supplies and they dragged along a number of heavily laden handcarts. Progress was slow due to mud but only occasionally did they run into enemy parties. Both Commandos were in position for the main assault by 1330 hrs. They attacked from the NE and W and by 1430 they were securely on the high ground. Next morning the US Rangers took over their positions and the Commandos were placed in reserve before returning to Naples on an LST arriving on the morning of the 25th January. It had been a relatively easy operation but Anzio had not yet earned its dreadful reputation for fierce fighting.
On arrival No 2 SS Brigade, of which No 9 Commando was part, was warned to prepare for further action at short notice. Initially No 9 and No 43(RM) Commandos were to meet up with No 40 (RM) Commando to form part of a counter-attack force. However, General McCreery, the Commander of X Force, decided to use Nos 9 and 43(RM) to extend his foothold in the hills west of Garigliano by taking control of the three peaks that made up the Monte Ornito - Tugo (2000 ft), Ornito (2,400 ft) and Faito (3000 ft). The terrain was rocky, uneven and in places very steep with scree slopes... and there was virtually no cover. Even without enemy action supplying troops on these summits with food, water and ammunition would involve a great deal of human effort.
Because of transport problems and lack of sleep the attack was postponed by 24 hours during which time further reconnaissance was not possible due to thick mist and enemy shelling which caused 16 casualties including 5 killed.
No 9 Commando passed Monte Tugo and proceeded NW. They came under heavy fire from a feature which lay in front of Monte Faito. This was taken by three Troops against heavy mortar and shell fire causing some casualties. The firing continued while the Commando consolidated and reorganised. They continued to advance still under fire during which Tod suffered a bad injury to an arm, Major E W Clark the 2nd in command was killed and six other officers wounded. There was little choice other than to withdraw to Monte Ornito because of the withering fire.
Interrogation of prisoners indicated that the enemy had withdrawn to Monte Faito and that a counter attack was likely. Because of the serious injury to his arm Tod was ordered to hand over command to his 2nd in command. Reinforcements were needed to continue the attack but meantime the increasing intensity of the enemy artillery indicated that a counter attack was imminent. At 1600 hours it started with No 43 (RM) Commando taking the brunt, but they succeeded in beating it off.
Such was the German determination to hold on to their defensive position it changed hands 6 times in the ensuing months before finally falling to French Goums.
Anzio was not yet finished with No 9 Commando. The Allied presence in the Anzio area threatened the German lines of communication running north of Rome and Kesselring had been strongly counter-attacking from the end of January. No 9 Commando was ordered back to the area with Tod once more in command. They arrived on March 2 1944 and under 167 Brigade of the 56th Division they undertook offensive patrolling.
On March 10 they were put on notice of an imminent operation and were soon engaged clearing three wadis about 11 miles N of Anzio and 2 miles west of the main road north. It was known that the Germans used this area as a forming up point for counter attacks. The Commando had one week to prepare their plans
The wadis formed a U shape and each arm was given a code name (see opposite). Tod's plan was to attack Haydon at night and then to clear Charles giving access to Laycock. Once Laycock had been cleared a defensive position would be established. For the raid Tod split the Commando into 3 'two troop' squadrons A, B & C.
The action started at 0200 hrs on March 19 and Haydon was easily taken by B & C Squadrons. Machine gun fire was then encountered but was quickly silenced. A Squadron and Tod's HQ came under artillery fire as they moved on the wadis but they joined up with the B&C in Haydon. The action to clear Charles commenced at 0530 hrs but was met with heavy fire and Tod ordered his men back to Haydon in the midst of a German counter-attack and heavy sniper fire.
The enemy concentrated heavy fire on their positions to the extent that it became impossible for urgently needed supplies to get through. The evacuation of the wounded also proved impossible but this was achieved under cover of a Red Cross flag which the Germans respected.
As darkness approached the Germans had already mounted a number of counter-attacks which were beaten off, but such was their determination and ferocity it became clear that to hold Haydon would be costly and risky. When there was a lull in the fighting an order to withdraw, received earlier from 15 Brigade, was put in train. Improvised stretchers were used to remove the wounded and friendly machine gun fire and artillery prevented the enemy pursuing the withdrawal too closely.
No 9 Commando had lost 19 killed, 50 wounded and 4 missing in the action. The Commando was withdrawn to Anzio and met up with No 40 where they remained for a few days before moving with the rest of the Brigade to Molfetta on the Adriatic for rest and reorganisation.
By May 1944 No 9 Commando was getting back to full operational status. On the night of May 25/26, under the Command of Major M R H Allen MC, 75 men were involved in an operation to rescue Allied prisoners of war. They sailed from Termoli in an LCI to a point 30 miles south of Ancona which was 70 miles behind enemy held lines. They met up with A Force who were responsible for handling escaped prisoners of war. After an initial navigating error they were guided in by a US Navy 'Beach Jumper Party' and 120 POWs were evacuated.
On Jul 28 1944 a small party of 40 porters drawn from No 9 Commando was involved with No 2 Commando, a company from the HLI and others, in a raid on Albania, codename 'Healing II.' It was designed to open up the coastline south of the Linguetta Peninsula because the partisans were in desperate need of supplies. The action against the 150 strong German garrison at Spilje was designed to create a relatively safe landing area. However, a combination of events conspired against the raiding party. Albanian Quislings had alerted the Germans so the element of surprise was lost and they were well prepared. In addition radio communications were adversely affected by surrounding trees with predictable consequences in not achieving the best use of the resources available. Machine gun nests took an increasingly heavy toll and, with time running out, the Commanding Officer, Colonel Fynn, had no choice but to withdraw his exhausted men including the wounded. 20 men were killed in this action and 60 wounded.
However, the result was better than had first appeared. Many of the German defenders had been killed and wounded together with a number of Quislings. The garrison strength had been weakened to such an extent that local partisans had rounded up the remaining Germans thus taking control over the coastal strip in the area. Brigadier Davey, in a note to Colonel Fynn, considered the mission a 'complete success' notwithstanding the casualties.
The only raid in August was 'Gradient I' which was designed to disrupt enemy shipping in the northern Adriatic. The destruction of a swing bridge between the islands of Lussino Piccolo and Lussino Grande would cause enemy vessels plying their trade between Istria (Rumania?) and Yugoslavia, to take a longer route, and in the case of ships travelling south, would put them within the range of Allied naval forces at Ancona.
109 men from No 9 Commando left Ancona in 3 MTBs and 1 MGB. One party was to seize and destroy the bridge while a second, using bicycles for transport, was to destroy a local garrison. The operation itself took place on the night of August 9/10 1944. There was no opposition at the bridge which was destroyed and two Italian guards were taken prisoner. The local garrison could not be found so the bicycle party destroyed the local telephone exchange and returned with documents of possible interest and some civilians for questioning. On the way back to Ancona a grateful American pilot was picked up after spending a week adrift in the Adriatic.
Another account, which may relate to the same operation, states... A raid by 109 Commandos on the bridge joining Cherso and Lussino Island and the Fascist HQ at Nezerine (40 miles NE of Zadar) was successful against no real opposition.
No 9 were given the task of destroying a German radar station at Kythira on the southern tip of Greece. A reconnaissance party parachuted in on the night of 10/11 September 1944 to find that the Germans had pulled out the day before. The decision was taken to establish a naval base at Kapsali and No 9 Commando were landed on the island on the 17th September and stayed in Greece for nearly 6 months making up the bulk of Foxforce. Foxforce also included elements of the SBS (Special Boat Section), LRDG (Long Range Desert Group), the Raiding Support Regiment and later some Sappers and 350 men of the Greek Sacred Regiment.
Tod was in overall command. His orders were to guard the naval base at Avlemonas on the eastern end of the island and later Kapsali on the SW corner where weather and infrastructure were more favourable. However, as the Germans retreated, division amongst the various resistance groups began to surface in the political and security vacuum the German's left behind. ELAS and EAM were controlled by the Greek Communist party while EDES were non-communist. All were against the Greek monarchy.
Foxforce HQ in Kythira was increasingly the focus for the reporting of malicious stories about the three factions... by the three factions! Although diplomacy was not part of his training Tod thought he should do what he could to prevent a civil war breaking out between the communist and non-communist forces. On the mainland ELAS tried to take over towns as the Germans retreated eliminating the Greek Security Battalions left behind to enforce law and order. The Allied Military Mission asked Foxforce to help and together with 70 of his men, and assisted by the Swedish Red Cross, the Security Battalions were imprisoned on the Island of Spetsai for their own safety.
As the German retreat continued Tod found himself in a fast moving and changing situation. When the Peloponnese (large peninsula in southern Greece) and the island of Poros were evacuated by the Germans, the naval base at Kythira was moved to Poros for operational reasons. Before leaving Kythira, Tod secured the agreement of the Partisan leaders to uphold the Greek Government, keep the peace and not to deport any individuals or factions.
The move to Poros caught the Germans by surprise and hastened their withdrawal from Piraeus and Athens. On October 14 Foxforce landed at Piraeus after negotiating enemy minefields. They received a tumultuous welcome from the locals who had seen the last of the Germans leave the day before. One troop provided guard duty at Kalamaki airfield while the remainder of No 9 Commando took part in a liberation parade in Athens and Tod was made a freeman of the city. [Photo courtesy of David Cramer shows the ceremonial entry into Athens on the 14th October 1944. The flag bearer was his father, L/C John Cramer MM, who was the first to land in Greece on Kithera Island. Click photo to enlarge.]
There then followed some rapid changes to Foxforce. The SBS and LRDG left Tod's command and he returned to Italy to take over 2 SS Brigade. Major M R H Allen MC assumed command and, at the end of October, No 9 Commando moved to Salonika where it undertook normal garrison duties. In early December Lt Col J M Dunning-White, newly arrived from the UK, took over command. December proved to be a tense month as civil war broke out in Athens. Fortunately, it did not spill over into Salonika and 9 Commando returned to Italy in February 1945 when the political situation had settled down.
On March 14 No 9 Commando rejoined the brigade which by then had the Partisan 28 Garibaldi Brigade under command. For what turned out to be their last mission the Commando was to seize a spit of land running between Lake Commachio and the sea and to tie down enemy forces in the area while the main force tackled the Argenta Gap. They were to approach the south western half of the spit by crossing the lake. When this had been cleared, and subject to other units clearing areas to the north, No 9 would pass though and capture Porto Garibaldi.
As darkness came the LVTs formed up on the lake but became bogged down in mud. The depth of water near the shore was very limited in normal times but a spell of hot weather had reduced this further. Navigation on the lake was also a problem since there was no discernable horizon due to the flatness of the land. Navigational lights were set up across the lake to assist and sufficient artillery support was made available if needed.
The Commandos transferred from their LVTs to storm-boats and Goatleys amid considerable chaos. Dunning-White wanted to postpone the operation but Tod, in overall charge, decided to push on since the same problems would present themselves again. The storm boats towed strings of Goatleys and, just before first light, No 9 Commando reported that they were coming under fire and requested that the supporting artillery lay down covering fire.
By 0630 hrs the Commando had landed. The enemy was well dug in and the task of clearing the area was made all the more difficult by the excellent camouflage of the enemy positions. All but one position succumbed to the attack. The position, codenamed Leviticus, resisted artillery, mortars and fighter bombers. In the afternoon a second attack was mounted under cover of a smokescreen and with a piper playing 'The Road to the Isles.' As No 1 and 2 Troops approached at a distance of 150 yards the smokescreen lifted and they came under heavy Spandau machine gun and mortar fire. However, the position was taken with the capture of almost 100 prisoners. As the exhausting day was drawing to an end Tod decided to postpone the advance to the following day. No 9 was placed in reserve.
No 9 were then tasked to seize a bridge over the canal Fossa Marina which ran from Lake Comacchio to Reno at Argenta. They landed on April 13 1945 a little forward of 169 Brigade's position. The Buffs and Scots Guards advanced towards Fossa Marina but were held by the enemy short of it. No 9 Commando were ordered to pass through and seize the original objective and a hydro-electric plant. However, very heavy fire prevented them from taking the two crossing places. A second attempt the following night also failed when they found a 30 foot gap in a bridge and the canal had been drained leaving impassable mud several feet deep. Despite these set-backs No 9 closely observed the enemy positions and drew up an accurate plan of their disposition. This information was of great value to the 24 Guards Brigade when the enemy defences were finally overrun the following night.
This was the last action No 9 Commando fought in and by mid November 1945 disbandment began when personnel, who had not already been demobilised, were sent back to their regiments. The following year the Commando was disbanded.
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