~ 4 COMMANDO ~
A brief history of No 4 Commando from its formation in July 1940 to disbandment in July 1946 including: 4 March 1941 - Lofoten Islands, Norway; The Canary Islands; 27 December 1941 - Vaagso, Norway (Operation Archery); 23 March 1942 - St Nazaire; 21/22 April 1942 - Hardelot (Operation Abercromby); 19/8/42 Dieppe; June 6th 1944 Overlord and Nov 1 to 8 1944 Walcheren.
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 chance of success, would not be possible for several years. In the meantime he wanted to harass the enemy right along 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 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) of Director of Combined Operations to be followed by Lord Louis Mountbatten in October 1941.
Irregular Commando units were raised and undertook 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.
The Commando units were formed in the first few weeks of July 1940. Some 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.
Unless otherwise stated SS in this article denotes 'Special Service,' not the German SS.
Formation and Early Re-organizations
Not long after the establishment of the various Commando units they were reorganized in October 1940 when; Nos. 4 and 7 Commandos were absorbed into 3 Special Service Battalion (3SS), which was based at Girvan in Scotland under the command of Lt-Colonel D.S. Lister MC of The Buffs, and No.4 Special Service Battalion (4 SS) was formed from Nos 3 and 8 Commandos.
4 SS Battalion was selected to take part in Operation Claymore, against the Lofoten Islands, together with 3 SS. On 21st February, under the command of Brigadier Charles Haydon and his headquarters, with 50 Norwegian sailors aboard, they sailed from Scapa Flow. Accompanying HMS Queen Emma and Princess Beatrix was a naval escort.. They stopped en route at the Faroe islands for final training and, while there, No.3 SS Battalion Company became No.4 Commando and No.4 Company was designated No.3 Commando. Haydon had successfully argued the case for smaller units. Amongst other points he asserted that it was unlikely that the Special Services Battalions would fight as a single unit, that the SS's were too large to travel on a single ship and that troops should be of a size to exactly fit an LCA. With the new designations in place they set off again on the 1st of March, arriving at the Lofoten Islands in the early hours of 4th March.
[Photo; F troop of No 4 Commando sent in by Jill Burgess whose father, James Coxon Burgess (gunner) Royal Artillery and No 4 Commando, is in the back row on the right. Service number 2066140. Died 5th April 1985. Front row extreme left is Alfred Thomas Hilton, service no. 3770266. We're grateful to his son John for identifying the Troop.]
4 March 1941 - Lofoten Islands, Norway
The Germans were totally unaware of the attack and their troops were taken by surprise. Several Fish Oil factories and military installations were destroyed. Lord Lovat, of No.4 Commando, captured the German staff at a seaplane base where he was accused of unwarlike conduct with the promise that he would be reported to the Fuhrer! The trawler Krebs was boarded but not before an Enigma cypher machine was thrown overboard. This was a considerable loss to the British effort to break German coded radio messages, however, a spare set of cyphers were found and passed on to Bletchley Park, Britain's top secret decoding centre. The men re-embarked with 315 volunteers for the Norwegian forces, some Quislings and 225 German prisoners, all for the cost of one casualty - an officer who had accidentally shot himself in the thigh. See First Lofoten Raid for a more detailed account.
A mission was planned against the Canary Islands when it seemed possible that Spain might enter the war on the side of the Germans. Ten Amphibious landing ships with Force 110 aboard, together with a Commando contribution of four small parties, drawn from Nos. 2, 1 + 3 (combined), 4 and 9 Commandos. They sailed to Freetown, Sierra Leone, where they remained for a time but the plan was abandoned. On the return journey to the UK the flotilla stopped off at Ascension Island where a risk of invasion was thought to be possible.
27 December 1941 - Vaagso, Norway (Operation Archery)
The next planned raid, codenamed Anklet, was to Floss, Norway, on the 9th of December 1941 with No 6 Commando and half of No 9 Commando. While at sea, on the landing ship Prince Charles, there was a grenade accident causing casualties which compromised the competence of the ship's navigation. The raid was abandoned but a second was planned for the 27th December 1941, this time against Vaagso, with the objective of destroying German military installations. As with all Commando raids, along the western coast of Europe, the wider aim was to tie up German forces which could be used in other theatres of the war, notably the Eastern front. To this raid No.4 Commando contributed a medical detachment. No.12 Commando mounted a diversionary raid against the Lofoten Islands and captured the garrison there. Vaagso was raided with the support of naval gunfire, Bomber Command Hampdens and Coastal Command Blenheims, with other Blenheims and Beaufighters overhead to keep the Luftwaffe at bay. They landed at 0700 on the 27th. One landing craft was hit by a phosphorous bomb dropped by an aircraft and also hit by German fire. The main objectives were taken but South Vaagso was tougher than expected since, unbeknown to British intelligence, a number of additional German troops were billeted there on Christmas leave. Almost the entire force was required to reduce the garrison. The force re-embarked at 1445 hours, bringing back some Norwegian volunteers, 98 prisoners and 4 Quislings. 17 Commandos were killed and 53 wounded while the Navy suffered 2 killed and 6 wounded. See Vaagso for a more detailed account of the raid.
23 March 1942 - St Nazaire
On 23 March 1942, a raid was mounted on the dry dock at Saint Nazaire. Before the Tirpitz, and other German capital ships, could be deployed against the Allied shipping life-line to the USA and Canada, they needed dry-dock facilities on the Atlantic coast. The only port capable of handling these large ships was St. Nazaire on the River Loire estuary. Denying the Germans the use of the dry-dock at St. Nazaire would effectively neutralize the threat posed by these formidable fighting ships. In the raid HMS Cambeltown was packed with high explosives, ran the gauntlet of intensive German gun fire and rammed into the gates of the dry dock. The losses from those on board, and in accompanying vessels, was high but it was a supremely successful operation. The damage to the dry dock was not made good until after the war. No.4 Commando provided volunteers for the demolition parties. See St Nazaire for a more detailed account of the raid.
21/22 April 1942 - Hardelot (Operation Abercromby)
On 21/22 April 1942 an operation took place to reconnoitre the beaches off the village of Hardelot, to capture prisoners and to inflict as much damage as possible on the German defences including the destruction of a searchlight battery. Chosen for this task were 100 men from No.4 Commando and 50 from the Canadian Carlton and York regiment, under the overall command of Major The Lord Lovat, 2nd in charge of No 4 Commando. The first planned attempt was on 18-19 April. This was aborted due to rough weather when the ALCs, under tow by MGBs, took in water. The bad weather prevented a second attempt planned for the night of 20/21 April. The following night the raid took place using LCS (Landing Craft Support fitted with two machine guns and a mortar.) The northern landing by Lord Lovat's own group was achieved without opposition but, due to a navigational error, the Canadians failed to get ashore.
Lovat's party, once they reached the sand dunes, were caught by search lights, parachute flares and Very lights, and were slowed by a mass of wire entanglements. Enemy machine guns opened up from the flanks but fire from the two LCS's partially neutralized them, and several empty bunkers were subsequently discovered. The searchlight battery was located by a fighting patrol, but time ran out and the attack was called off.. The party withdrew and re-embarked without incident.
There was now a pause of about 4 months in UK based Commando activity. The Dieppe Raid was No.4 Commando's next major assault. The wider raid, involving a large number of Canadian forces, was a disaster, but, many valuable lessons were learned which were effectively applied, two years later, in Normandy. No. 4 Commando achieved the only clear-cut success of the landings, when Lord Lovat's Commando attacked a battery of six 150mm guns by Varengeville-sur-mer. He split his force in two and his second in command, Major Derek Mills-Roberts, landed with 88 men on Orange beach 1. He engaged the battery with small arms and mortar fire from a wood some 3,000 yards away. Lovat took the remainder of his men across Orange 2, where they attacked the battery from the rear. A fighting patrol cut the communication lines from a German observation post in a lighthouse. Both the main groups suffered casualties as they got into position. Major Pat Porteous, acting Liaison officer between the two groups, came forward when Captain Pettiward was killed and, in the action that followed, he saved the life of a British sergeant, earning himself a VC. Spitfires of 129 Squadron strafed the battery while Mills-Roberts laid down an intensive machine gun barrage and fired smoke from his 2inch mortars. Lovat fired a series of white Very lights and when Mills-Roberts stopped firing, the Commandos charged, led by Major Porteous and Captain Webb. The party destroyed the guns and withdrew successfully.
In Early 1943, it was agreed that all Army Commandos would serve overseas, leaving the Royal Marine Commandos committed to Overlord. Initially the plan called for No.4 Commando to serve under Brigadier The Lord Lovat, DSO, MC, as part of HQ 1 SS Brigade, alongside Nos.1, 5, 6, 10 (IA) and 12 Commandos. This structure was quickly abandoned because of feelings of antipathy between the Army and RM Commandos. A new order of battle was adopted at the end of 1943, with No.1 SS Brigade comprising Nos. 3, 4, 6 and 44 3(RM) Commandos.
Three troops of No.4 Commando were used in Manacle operations on the Normandy coast. Their objectives were to take out German strong-points and to conduct reconnaissance, as part of Layforce II. They were unofficially known as the "Menday Force" after their commander. No.4 Commando participated in Manacle 5 at Qnival and Manacle 8 at Quend Plage operating from Dover. The latter was abandoned due to rough weather. The Menacle, and associated Hardtack pin prick raids, were finally abandoned on the orders of Laycock because they encouraged the enemy to reinforce their positions which, in the longer term, could be disadvantageous to the Allies. By April 1944, the command was passed to that of 21st Army Group.
Overlord - June 6th 1944
Within Overlord, No.4 Commando took on an assault role. They were the first Commandos to hit the beaches on D-Day. Having disembarked from their landing craft Princess Astrid and Maid of Orleans, with 500 men, they landed on Queen Red beach to find 8 Infantry Brigade pinned down by enemy fire. In the mêlée that followed the Commandos suffered forty casualties including the Commander, Lieutenant-Colonel Dawson. He handed over his command to Menday. The Commando pushed forward, breaking out onto the coastal road and set off for Ouistreham, led by Nos.1 and 8 (French) troops of No.10 (IA) Commando. No.4 Commando joined the others at Hauger and dug in between Sallanelles and Le Plein.
Continuous enemy pressure on the Commando forestalled efforts to send a relief force to No.45 (RM) Commando, and by 8th June Nos.3 and 6 were both forced to mount counter-attacks during the day. By the evening, No.45 managed to break out and reach No.4's lines. No.4 Commando was withdrawn, for some much needed rest, and replaced by the 12th Parachute Battalion .
On 1st August, Mills-Roberts was ordered to seize and hold a section of high ground by dawn the following day. This was in support of a further advance to Dozule by 6th Airborne Division. No.4 Commando led with Nos.3, 45 and 6 following behind. The Brigade infiltrated through the German line and reached the objective before the Germans realized it. There were four counter-attacks throughout the day but the brigade held firm.
No.1 SS Brigade landed at Southampton and Gosport on 8-9 September, and No.4 Commando moved to Shanklin, Isle of Wight to retrain, reequip and rest. During this period new volunteers were recruited and trained. No.4 Commando was later sent back to the continent to take over from the shattered No.46 (RM) Commando, which was down to a strength of only 200 men. See Operation Overlord for a wider view of events that day.
Walcheren - Nov 1 to 8 1944
The fortified island of Walcheren guarded the approaches to Antwerp some 25 miles up the Scheldt. The use of Antwerp harbour was needed to supply the advancing Allied forces, but first of all the German's had to be removed from Walcheren.
In the assault on the island No.4 Commando was tasked with crossing from Breskens and attacking Flushing. This was to be done in concert with Nos.1 and 8 (French) Troops and supported by 155 Infantry Brigade. No.4 Commando landed at 0545 hours and attacked Flushing after having some trouble finding a suitable landing spot. By 1600 hours they had reached most of its objectives, and consolidated, continuing the battle the next day. Typhoons attacked enemy positions and after a prolonged battle the Germans made a bolt for it suffering several casualties from No.5 (French) troop.
No.4 handed over to 155 Brigade two days later and embarked by LVT to assault two gun batteries, W3 and W4, north-west of Flushing, They landed in a gap in the dyke but the attack was postponed to give the Commando the rest it needed after 40 hours of continuous activity. The attack was later cancelled when No.47 (RM) Commando broke through. Now concentrated at Zouteland, there was a pause for re-supply. The next mission, in conjunction with No. 48, was to clear the Overduin woods, and then push onto Vrouwenpolder to engage remaining enemy resistance.
As the front moved westward No.4 Commando were made responsible for the Walcheren area. After a period of refitting and rest at Ostend they spent the remainder of the war guarding the approaches to Antwerp. Visit Walcheren for a full account of the action.
No.4 Commando was wound down in Germany having had a strength of only 180 men by June 1945. It was disbanded in mid-November 1945.
(4/04) F-Troop No 4 Commando. My father served with No4 Commando at Walcheren and D-Day landing. Several years back he died and left me two flags. I am wondering if anyone knows anything about them. One flag is a union jack with what I believe to be possibly most of No 4 Commando signatures - including Lovat's. The other is a German swastika with the epaulets of German officers sewn in a circle around the swastika. - Can anyone shed light on these two old and unusual flags? Click on thumbnails to enlarge. firstname.lastname@example.org
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.
The Fighting Forth - No 4 Commando at War by James Dunning. ISBN 0-7509-3095-0
Swiftly They Struck - The Story of No 4 Commando by Murdoch C McDougall. Published by Oldham Press Ltd.
The Commandos at Dieppe: Rehearsal for D Day by Will Fowler. Published by Harper Collins 2000. ISBN 0 00 711125 8. Detailed account of the successful destruction of the Hess Battery by No 4 Commando commanded by Lord Lovat.
No 4 Commando Gallantry Awards [There is an inaccuracy in the information on this external website. For Peter McVeigh please read Patrick McVeigh].
Commando Training Manual Considering the loss of life at Dieppe there was little good came of it except lessons learned. However so successful was the raid by No 4 Commando that a training manual was published for the benefit of future operations. Visit the above link and scroll down the page to see the manual contents.
Please let us know if you have any information or book recommendations to add to this page.
This page about No 4 Commando is based on an article by James Paul.