THE ROYAL NAVAL COMMANDOS ~
The Royal Naval Commandos were also informally known as the Beach Commandos.
Their primary task was to control the movement of men, vehicles and supplies
through the landing beaches during major amphibious landings. The avoidance
of bottlenecks and delays gave them a pivotal role in the supply chain. [This
account was written by
S. H. Kipling.]
The earliest attempts at exerting some control were undertaken by the Royal Navy manning the
landing craft but these proved to be inadequate. As a result specialized 'beach parties' were
formed and trained and were first tried during Operation Ironclad to capture the port of
Diego Suarez at the northern tip of Madagascar between 5th and 7th May l942.
This proved so successful that the Royal Naval Commandos (RNC), sometimes known as 'Beachhead
Commandos,' were formed. Their duties included:
- landing in or ahead of the first wave to clear the beaches, to mark the limits
of the beachhead and to consolidate the beachhead;
- clearing Allied personnel and equipment from
the beachhead expeditiously,
- helping moor landing craft correctly,
- removing mines and underwater
obstructions and taping the safe passage routes off the beaches for the wounded,
- informing subsequent waves of important intelligence about the defences and strengths
of the enemy and advising how to exploit the enemy's weaknesses,
- setting up important ammunition and supply
- supporting a wide variety of troops with
any initial advance inland,
- supervising enemy prisoners of war,
- being available to tackle any task and act
as a rearguard during any withdrawals.
The first RNCs were formed during the spring of l942 from
general service, reservists and 'hostilities only' officers and ratings. Each
Commando unit came under the command of a Lieutenant-Commander or Commander and
comprised three sections e.g. K1, K2, and K3. Each section consisted of two officers (a
Beach Master (BM) and Assistant Beach Master (ABM), a Petty Officer and seventeen other ratings
of varying rank. Acting rank could be found from time to time. Later, in the
light of experience, the structure of the Commandos was changed to ten
officers and sixty-five other ranks divided into three
parties of twenty-five men each - one BM, three ABMs and twenty-two other ranks.
They were responsible for a particular section of beach on a large invasion.
Each RN Commando unit could occasionally come
under the command of a Principal Beach Master (PBM) with the rank of
Captain but this usually only occurred on larger invasions where each unit was
spread over many miles.
In August l942 members of the RNCs (C and D) took part in
Operation Jubilee, the Dieppe raid, with a BM and beach
party assigned to each of the beaches. Some could not reach their assigned beach
due to heavy gunfire. They suffered very heavy casualties with many others
becoming prisoners of war. They would go on to play other roles within the heart
of Germany itself. One such was the famous account of 'Albert RN'... but that's another story.
The problems at Dieppe were very grave but many
lessons were learnt including the need for Combined Operations and within this
the vital role of the RN Beach Parties in any future amphibious landings large
and small. It was clear that
those recruited to the Beach Parties
needed specialized training and a school was established at Ardentinny in the
Clyde estuary in Scotland.
To put all this activity into context it's worth
mentioning here that in October 1941
Lord Louis Mountbatten took over the
command of Combined Operations from Roger Keyes.
The motto of Combined Operations was appropriately 'United We Conquer' and the
RN Commandos were later to share in the many actions undertaken by this famous wartime
The school at Ardentinny (HMS
Armadillo) accommodated between 500 and 600 men. Officers
were mixed in with the ratings which was a most unusual arrangement for the times.
Good use was made of Loch Long for amphibious landing drills, reconnaissance and
specialised beach skills. Other training included weapons usage, rock
climbing, assault courses, embarkation and debarkation using various types of
landing craft under battle conditions, route marches and field survival.
these skills were honed at Achnacarry in the north of Scotland in the area where
the famous Commando Memorial has stood at Spean Bridge since the early 1950s.
Trainees were put through their paces by the famous Army Commando Officer,
Colonel Vaughan. Despite the arduous nature of the training very few men were RTU'd (returned to unit) as being unable to complete the course.... nobody wanted their service record
noted with such an entry. The RNCs were
expected to pass the Commando training course and receive their much coveted
green beret along with the famous F-S dagger from Colonel Vaughan at special
parades. It is said that their time spent at Achnacarry was responsible for their
new motto IN PRIMO EXULTO - first in last out.
There was additional training for those selected
for overseas operations and other specialised duties viz;
training at Kabritt, near the Suez Canal,
in the Middle East,
training at the Jungle Battle School at Chittagong
for service in South East Asia,
parachute training (many would later wear the SAS/SBS wings),
underwater swimming to qualify as 'frogmen'.
All of the skills acquired during the extensive
training period were to prove invaluable in subsequent operations. The
experience gained at Dieppe was instrumental in shaping the then future expanded
role of the RNC.
Once formed, RNC units were assigned letters rather than numbers
and by the
end of l943 twenty-two units had been formed. During Operation Torch in late
l942, four hundred and ten RNCs proved themselves in the first major
Anglo-American amphibious operation of the war. Four augmented units took part - C
(reformed after the heavy losses incurred at Dieppe), E, F, G and parts of H and J
under the auspices of the three task forces (Western Task Force - Casablanca,
Central Task Force - Oran and the Eastern Task Force).
The RNCs landed with the first assault elements
and took immediate charge of the beaches. After first eliminating snipers they
dug slit trenches for protection and set up Lewis guns for use against low
flying enemy aircraft. The Commandos' major task was to guide ashore 29,000
troops, 2,400 vehicles and l4,000 tons of supplies on three different beaches.
Those RNCs working with the American assault troops wore American uniforms since
the Vichy French Troops, in French occupied territories in North Africa, were
very suspicious of the British. Overall the RNCs worked very efficiently during
Operation Torch despite problems in controlling the incoming landing craft.
However, despite these difficulties, there was no doubt that the outcomes were far
better than would have been the case had the RNCs not been present. (Photos
left; Christmas card sent home from the Mediterranean by Ken Oakley of Fox Group
to his mother in 1943).
The next major operation for the RNCs was
Operation Husky the invasion of Sicily. This involved more than 2,000 ships and landing craft. The
units involved were C, E, F, G, K, M and N assigned to the Eastern Task Force
(British) to cover twenty-seven landing beaches. Getting the Assault troops ashore
with their equipment and supplies was just the beginning for the RNCs.
They usually had to work the beaches for weeks beyond the initial landings
directing in the supplies and reinforcements and guiding out the wounded and
prisoners of war. As a sideline the RNCs took the Island of Monte Cristo on
which an enemy radio station was located. It was capable of plotting Allied shipping in the area
and reporting back to the mainland. Also, D party took part in the capture of the Island of
In September of l943 RNCs (C, G, H, K, M,
N and O parties) went in with the Army assault troops and
Royal Marine Commandos when the Allies landed in Italy.
Later during the advance up the Italian coast they helped
open up anchorages. At both Salerno and Anzio landings the RNCs neutralised
minefields prior to the arrival of waiting landing craft.
At Anzio they used their F-S daggers to probe for
wood encased mines which could not be located by the Royal Engineers' metal detectors. Sand bars
offshore also created great difficulty during this landing but the RNC performed
admirably, keeping the beachhead functioning throughout the initial landings and
for months afterwards despite almost constant German shelling. As the advance
moved further up the Italian mainland they were given two additional roles - the
recovery of escaped Allied prisoners of war along the Adriatic coastline and
protecting suspected war criminals from the retribution of local inhabitants.
This was necessary in
order to hand them over
for Allied interrogation and preparation for war crimes trials once the war was
[Photo of No 14 Beach Group in 1942 and kit list for "C"
Commando courtesy of Ron Giles
whose father Ronald
Victor Giles is top right. Other names available are: 2nd row from front - Sgt.
G C Hillman, BG; Petty Officer H G Ord, RNVR; Sgt A Bagnall BG; Lieut J Palmer,
RNVR, Beach Master; Capt T A Lines, Queens, Commanding; Lieut D Durham, RNVR,
Beach Master; Sgt E O Strefford, BG; Petty Officer A E Burton, RNVR; Front Row;
Lieut A G Dunbar, RA, AMLO; Sgt G Kidd, BG; Lieut R I Walton, P C, AMLO.]
In early June l944 tragedy struck the RNC while involved in
Brassard which was the invasion and capture of the Island of Elba involving A and O
parties. Two sub-sections from each had undertaken special rehearsals to carry
out their assigned tasks in this important landing. However, no amount of
training and preparations could have overcome the enemy's coastal defences, inland
batteries and gun sites. They put up such stiff opposition that many of their gunners were killed by their own guns.
It was not until the l9 June l944 that the island's garrison finally surrendered
and Elba passed into Allied hands. The casualties sustained by the RNC were
heavy and the operation was nicknamed 'bloody little sideshow'. The parties
making up A and O suffered the greatest casualties but O.(3) was practically wiped out losing
2 officers, 2 petty officers, l leading seaman and l3 ratings, while A
party lost 2 officers and l8 men. The remnants of these parties were
eventually returned to the United Kingdom.
Some of the RNCs had a break from
Italy. They crossed into Yugoslavia or went down to the Greek Islands to help
push the enemy back. Those who remained in Italy found themselves up against a
new enemy - those unfortunates who were conscripted from the German
occupied countries. They were tough fighters and at times suicidal because they had nothing to lose. If they did not fight they, or their families, would be shot.
Even if they were captured on return to their homelands after the war they could
have been shot as traitors. The
Germans used them mainly against Allied Special Forces who were also known for
their toughness. The RNCs reached northern Italy at the end of the war just as
the Allies were about to launch the invasion of Austria. They were denied this
movement finding themselves returning to southern Italy
and then returned back to England by sea.
RNCs who specialised in jungle warfare at the training school at Chittagong included H party which took part in the landings on the Arakan coast.
These operations commenced with Screwdriver in February 1944 followed by
Srewdriver II. C and E parties were active in Malaya in 1945 and helped prevent
the Japanese carrying the war into India.
The largest RNC operation of the war was Neptune,
the naval portion of Overlord. Eight parties F, J, L, P, Q, R, S, T and W
(mostly Canadians) were assigned and trained for this the largest amphibious operation of the war. RNCs
were in the first wave to judge whether subsequent landing craft could land at the same points or divert elsewhere.
They took heavy casualties in Normandy. On some
beaches they dug in to fight off counter attacks and their commando training
proved very effective in overpowering the German troops... a task many found less difficult than
dealing with the congestion on the beaches! Wrecked landing craft and vehicles
were a major problem especially when they blocked the exits from the beachhead.
Despite these difficulties they managed to clear the obstacles, organise the
exits and bring supplies ashore. Most of the RNCs on the
Normandy beaches stayed for at least six weeks helping to salvage sunken landing
craft, moor Mulberry Harbours and Phoenix Piers but most of all helping to bring order
out of the inevitable chaos arising from the largest amphibious operation in the history of warfare.
(Photo; RN Commando from FOX group prior to D-Day).
The Normandy invasion was the high point of RNC operations but it
did not mark the end of hostilities for them. In early November they took part in the capture
of Walcheren and in crossing the Rhine at Arnhem, although not in the abortive
airborne assault. L and M parties were most active here. It was later decided to
send the RNCs to the Pacific to take part in the invasion of the
Japanese home islands. C, E, H, J, M, N, R and V parties were picked for this task.
They were to join Force X and Y from the South East Asia Command (SEAC) but the dropping of the atomic
bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki brought a speedy conclusion to hostilities and
the Commandos were not needed.
The RNCs went through the same rigorous training
Army and Marine Commandos but they also had to perform a difficult
command and control task amid the chaotic conditions of amphibious operations.
At the end of WW2 they ceased to exist but the importance of their role did
not go unnoticed. From time to time, under different names, their roles were revived along
with the old spirit, modernised for post war
operations right up to the Gulf War of January 1991.
Honours and awards given to members of the Royal Naval Commando both during
and after the war are difficult to identify. The London Gazette entries do not
identify the recipients as serving in the RNC, only doing so when an individual
citation comes to light. However, every member who served knows of his own
courage, humour and tragedy in those dark war years. To many today it
is history but to those who took part at the time it was everyday life which
was written in the best traditions of the ROYAL NAVY.
Other specialist R N Assault Landing Parties also served in every assault landing from Dieppe to the
crossing of the Rhine and they deserve mention here. These units were the Beach Signal Sections; Landing Craft Obstacle Clearance Units; Combined
Operations Pilotage Parties; the Special Boat Squadron; the Forward Observation
Bombardment units, and not least members of the WRNS who served in support of
On 23 May, l987 a Memorial Plaque was dedicated
at Ardentinny ''In memory of the Officers and Men of the Beach Parties and Royal
Navy Commandos who gave their lives for their country during the Second World
'Then they are glad, because they are at rest and so he bringeth them unto
the haven where they should be.'
The author's unit was formed at HMS Armadillo in February, l943 under the
command of Lieutenant Commander MV Redshaw, RNVR. On completion of training
the unit proceeded to Foliot (camp at Plymouth, now Marine Commando
Barracks) and Achnacarry, the Army Commando Training Centre, before being
attached to Force V with whom the unit sailed for Sicily on 29 June l943.
After Operation Husky, 'Nan' was stationed at Bougie before returning to
Sicily to take part at the crossing from Messina to Reggio. In October, l943
the unit moved to HMS Saunders at Kabrit where it remained until it
returned in the cruiser HMS Phoebe to Italy in time for the Anzio Landings,
operation Shingle, on 22 January l944 at which 'Nan' company sustained
several casualties. After a period in Corsica and Naples the unit moved to
the Adriatic in May, l944, where it saw extensive service in the forward
port areas with the 8th Army. 'Nan' unit was disbanded at HMS Dundonald
in November l945.
The Principle Beach Masters RNBC 'NAN'
were; Act. Commander PWF Stubbs, DSC, RN, April-September l943; Lieutenant J Russell, DSC, RN September l943-February l944; Lieutenant-Commander TJ Turton RNVR May-June l945; Lieutenant A Varley, RNVR June-November l945.
Subject - RN
(Beach) Commandos. No.3 R.N. Commandos were billeted in the town of Hythe prior to
embarkation for Normandy from Hythe Pier.
Location. The Memorial Stone is situated in
a small park close to Hythe Pier.
The stone was erected
by the town's folk to commemorate the event.
RN (Beach) Commandos.
memorial plaques on the left are situated in Ardentinny Church on Loch Long
in Scotland close to where the RN Commandos training base at HMS Armadillo was located.
The primary task of the RN Commandos was to control the movement of men,
vehicles and supplies through the landing beaches during major amphibious
landings. The avoidance of bottlenecks and delays gave them a pivotal role
in the supply chain.
RN (Beach) Commandos.
The memorial cairn is near the village of Ardentinny on the shore of Loch Long in Scotland where
the RN Commandos training base at HMS Armadillo was located. The
stone badge on top of the cairn was sculptured by a serviceman at HMS
Armadillo to mark the location of the RN Commando training base.
[Photo 1st right].
As above. [Photos courtesy of Tony Rodaway.]
There are around 300 books listed on our 'Combined Operations Books' page which can be
purchased on-line from the Advanced Book Exchange (ABE) whose search banner
checks the shelves of thousands of book shops world-wide. Type in or copy and
paste the title of your choice or use the 'keyword' box for book suggestions.
There's no obligation to buy, no registration and no passwords. Click
'Books' for more information.
Beachhead Assault by David Lee. The Story of the Royal Naval
Commandos in WW2. Foreword by Tony Parsons. Published By Greenhill Books
in October 2004.
The Beachhead Commandos by a Cecil Hampshire.
Published by William Kimber & Co Ltd in 1983
I am presently researching my grandfather's unit during World War 2, NAN
Commando RN with a view to writing an article or book in the future. I have put
together a gallery of pictures with notes predominantly from or about men who
served in NAN Commando and I was wondering if you would be willing to put the
link below on your page featuring Syd Kipling's article on "The Royal Naval
Commandos" in the hope that veterans or their families will get in touch.
Regards, Griffin Turton.
Naval Commando Uniforms. I've just joined Combinedops by paypal and
already I have some questions which you might be able to help me with. All are
about Royal Naval Commando uniforms. Firstly were green berets worn by ranks and
ratings and if so what sort of cap badge was worn by other ranks? Secondly, did
Royal Naval Commandos wear the yellow thread tombstone Combined Operations
insignia on their battledress or was it for dress uniform? For those
Commandos trained as parachutists, were the wings worn above or below the
combined operations insignia on the right arm?... and finally
what colours of lanyards did each Naval Commando wear as I believe each
"letter" wore a different colour.
thanks for any help you can give. Simon Moore.
If you have any information or book
recommendations about the Royal Naval Commandos