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Combined Ops Assault Pilotage Parties.

Clandestine work on potential landing beaches

Combined Operations Assault Pilotage Parties - COPPSs.Combined Operations Assault Pilotage Parties risked their lives to gather information about proposed landing beaches and in-shore waters, usually under the noses of enemy coastal defences, including land and sea patrols. It was hazardous work of great importance to the planners.

[Photo; Two COPPists in a canoe used by them to reach  landing beaches from submarines or boats. © IWM (MH 22716).]


Both by instinct and training, sailors show great respect for uncharted and unfamiliar coastal waters and, given the option, they would choose to give them a wide berth. The natural hazards of submerged shoals, rocks and unpredictable tides and currents, present a formidable challenge to those navigating in these waters. When submerged enemy coastal defences and beach patrols are added to the toxic mix, the dangers and difficulties are compounded. This was the scenario which confronted Lt. Commander Nigel Clogstoun-Willmott, RN, as he pondered a raid on the Greek island of Rhodes in the summer of 1941. He was to be the navigating officer on the planned raid.

He recalled the difficulties which his uncle had experienced off Gallipoli in 1915, when the deployment of battleships was delayed or restricted for fear of enemy mines. Closer inshore, there were natural and man made obstacles to contend with in waters offering limited room for manoeuvre... and all under the gaze of enemy gun emplacements with barrels pointing seaward. Many doubted that a 4000 ton landing craft, needed for a major raid or landing, would survive these multiple hazards. Willmott fully appreciated the dangers and risks to landing craft from his experiences in Norwegian waters, when over half of the Allied ships lost in 1940, foundered on rocks and shoals in coastal waters. To improve the odds in favour of the amphibious landing forces, many thousands of fully trained navigators were needed. However, in 1940/41, they were already in short supply and most suitable training establishments and training resources were given over to satisfy the RAF's greater need.

As the Lt. Commander surveyed the coastal waters and beaches of Rhodes from the periscope of a mine laying submarine, he was acutely aware that the information he was gathering was of limited value. He could not, for example, confirm the nature and disposition of enemy defensive positions on and near the landing beaches; he had no knowledge of hidden sandbars close to the beaches, which could mislead heavily laden troops to prematurely disembark into deep water believing they had shallow water all the way to the dry beach; he could not be certain of the composition of the beaches and thereby their suitability for the discharge of heavy lorries and tanks onto them. The lack of information (intelligence) on any one of these aspects would put lives at risk and missions in jeopardy.

In time, beach reconnaissance would become very sophisticated and based solidly on observations and the scientific analysis of data on currents, tides and samples of sand and gravel taken from the beaches. It was very different from Willmott's early experience of basic covert beach reconnaissance on Rhodes with his compass and torch! Others had undertaken similar recces including Lt Commander Milner-Gibson, RN, who had made 9 reconnaissance visits to beaches near Boulogne in 1940, prior to a raid.

The Formative Months  

Willmott put his ideas into effect by visiting the beaches of Rhodes but not without internal opposition. Field commanders were fearful that tell tale traces of such visits would alert the enemy to the possibility of attack, while the capture of the men and their equipment would jeopardise months of detailed planning and future operations in the area.

Brigadier Laycock (of Layforce) introduced Willmott to Roger Courtney of the Special Boat Section (SBS). So the RN Lt Commander and the Army Captain began the task of laying down the foundations of what would become the Combined Operations Assault Pilotage Parties. Courtney instructed Willmott in the use of the frail Folbot canoe and together they practised swimming ashore, organising sentry duties, foraging around beaches all without leaving any evidence of their visit or being detected.

COPP collapsible canoe.They were very different characters in build and approach to problems. Willmott, the navigator, was tall, thin, precise and meticulous in his approach, whereas Courtney was heavily built and something of an adventurer and improviser when in a tight corner. Each brought his own knowledge, skills, experience and temperament to the challenges they faced.

[Photo; Robin Harbud (to the rear) and Sgt Ernest COOKE, Cookie to his friends, as they manhandle their canoe, used for Combined Operations Pilotage Parties (COPP), through the forward hatch of a submarine. © IWM (MH 22715).]

They undertook beach recces on Rhodes from the submarine HMS Triumph. Their Folbot was equipped with their weapon of choice, the Tommy gun, grenades, infra-red signalling gear and a flask of coffee laced with brandy. The Folbot was carefully lowered by ratings from the submarine into the water. The two men rowed the mile and a half towards the beach and, at about 100 yards, Willmott slipped over the side into the cold water. From there, he swam ashore and immediately discovered that an area identified for tank landings was completely unsuitable, because of rocky outcrops. At one point, as he lay half on the beach and half in the breaking waves, he had a close brush with enemy sentries. He lay motionless and it was a considerable relief when the patrolling sentries moved on. In all, he managed to gather information from 4 locations on the beach and its approaches. He found a false beach 15 yards from the shore, beyond which was a deep trough. Without this vital piece of information, disembarking tanks would have disappeared below the waves.

The two did 4 more recces on consecutive nights. On the first 3, Willmott was the "swimmer" and Courtney the "paddler". Their roles were reversed on the last night, which could so easily have ended in disaster. Courtney suffered severe cramp on the beach, while a nearby agitated dog barked loudly. Willmott brought the Folbot inshore, Tommy gun at the ready. Courtney was in obvious pain but swam out to meet him and managed to pull himself on board.

With the German advance into Greece, the planned raid on Rhodes was abandoned. Courtney returned to his SBS activities and Willmott returned to his planning duties. Those in authority were, however, very pleased with the information gathered and back at Combined Operations HQ (COHQ) in London, beach reconnaissance was integrated into the planning for the invasion of North Africa (Operation Torch). Willmott was recalled to the UK in the summer of 1942 to set up the required training programmes.

The Training

As was often the case with Combined Operations, time was at a premium. It was early September 1942 before formal approval for the training programmes was received. This left just 8 weeks to train sufficient men for the North Africa landings. With Mountbatten's approval, Willmott recruited Lt Neville McHarg, RN, and Lt Norman Teacher, RN, to his team. Later they were joined by Roger Courtney's brother, when the number of landing points was increased. The training was initially based at the yacht club on Hayling Island and later at the Hollywood Hotel in Largs, Scotland.

The training was substantially based on Willmott's experience on the beaches of Rhodes and, like the equipment available to them, was rudimentary. However, the range, quality and functionality of their equipment improved in the light of operational experience. By 1943, the standard equipment included;

  •  a wet suit with watertight fit around exposed face, reinforced elbows and knees (for crawling), buoyancy control, various pockets and pouches and rope soled fishermens' boots,

  •  chinagraph pencil attached to the suit by short line,

  •  matt white slate for underwater writing,

  •  revolver in holster, which had to be stripped and cleaned after each sortie,

  •  waterproof torch with blue lens,

  •  fighting knife in scabbard,

  •  weight on line for depth of water measurement,

  •  fishing line on reel attached to 1 ft brass rod for distance from shore measurements,

  •  waterproof small compass,

  •  infra-red signal lamp (Morse code),

  •  No 36 or similar grenade for use as SUE (Signal Underwater Explosion),

  •  auger tube for taking core samples from beaches,

  •  'bong stick' - a metal box containing a mechanical hammer operated by a rotating handle attached to a rod of a fixed length. With the rod in the water, the sound could be picked up by Asdic from a distance of up to 12 miles. It was more certain as a homing device than infrared, which could often be obscured by wave action.

Also occasionally carried, were trowels, flares, a bandolier of bags for shingle samples, emergency rations and a brandy flask.

The Parties

In June 1944, the total number of personnel (all ranks) was 174; HQ training and Admin 57, parties 1 - 6 & 10 had 12 each = 84 and parties No 7 - 9 had 11 each = 33.

Lt Peter Wild, RN, No 1 COPP.No 1 COPP undertook beach surveys in the winter months of late 1943 and early 1944. On D-Day, navigators/pilots from this COPP led the British 1 Corp to Sword and Juno beaches. They used X craft (midget submarines) to provide the approaching landing craft with navigational markers. Also in 1944, they surveyed the landing beaches in Southern France for Operation Anvil, later renamed Dragoon.

In 1945, under Lt Peter Wild, RN, they saw action in the Far East while attached to the Small Operations Group (SOG). They set timed demolition charges and blew a gap in the anti-boat stakes in the area of the Myebon landings. In the process of night time recces, the canoes collided with a Japanese boat. Although the enemy was alerted, they paddled away to safety, probably being mistaken for natives. Danger was a constant companion for the COPPists during their 15 operations in the Arakan, as they made their way around enemy sampans, as search lights probed the waterways.

They were waiting for new orders in Madras, when the war in the Far East ended.

See also Lt Cdr PW Clark's entry on the "They Also Served" webpage.

NMap of Burma and the Bay of Bengal.o 2 COPP crewed Landing Craft Navigation (LCNs) in late 1943 as part of the Normandy surveys. They later moved to the Aegean and Adriatic Seas under the command of Lt Richard Fyson, RN, where they worked with raiding forces.

No 3 COPP undertook recces of Sicily's beaches and coastal waters in February of 1943. Sadly, 3 of their number were lost. In July 1944, they undertook recces in the Arakan, as part of the Small Operations Group (SOG) (see map above). In March 1945, they landed at Phuket Island on what was an unsuccessful recce. Later in 1945, they surveyed the Morib beaches for the planned Malaya landings.

No 4 Copp suffered losses on February 26 and March 9, 1943, while undertaking recces of Sicilian beaches. As the amphibious war drew to a close in the west, this party, with others, moved to the Far East attached to SOG. They operated in the Arakan, often in very difficult conditions.

No 5 Copp reccied off Syracuse, Sicily, in late June of 1943. They discovered, hitherto unknown gun emplacements tunnelled into the cliffs and not visible from the air. They laid 3 beacon buoys on D-1, which were timed to surface just before H hour on July 10. Despite stormy weather, their canoes were launched and they, together with other COPPists in Motor Launches, led the British assault force onto the landing beaches, using signals from the beacons to fix accurate positions.

In July, they undertook further surveys in the Gulf of Gioia, which were not, in the event, used. In August, they operated in the Salerno area with the Special Boat Section (SBS). On return to the UK, they reccied the Rhine crossing point at Wesel the night before the crossing took place on March 23/24, 1945. Although there was no artillery support and the area was illuminated by a bright moon, they successfully surveyed the river bank for minefields. They were later shipped out to Asia but were "too late to take part in any operations."

No 6 Copp operated in the Mediterranean from April 1943, surveying Sicilian beaches in June of that year. During the Normandy landings, they guided in Armoured Vehicle Royal Engineers (AVRE) to their designated beaches. These tank-like heavy tracked vehicles provided battlefield engineer support to armoured battle groups by clearing obstacles, bridging gaps and ploughing through minefields with 'Python'.

[ My Uncle, Victor Frederick Peter Manning, known as Peter Manning was a Commando during WW2 and also a COPPist.  He was part of COPP 6 and trained on Hayling Island.  He took part in Operation Husky in the invasion of Sicily in 1943. Unfortunately he never returned. It is believed that Sub Lieutenant A G Sayce and L/Seaman V F P Manning were struck by a glider that fell short, landing in the sea instead of the mainland. Neither has a known grave.

Peter's fellow COPPists in COPP 6 were Donald Amer, Watson, McKenzie, Hunter, Peter Wild, Plummer, Sayce, Palmer, Shorty Bowden, Phillips, Gray. I would love to hear from anyone who might have known my uncle or has any information re the COPPists. Many thanks in anticipation. Joanne Johnston (9/08).]

No 7 Copp was the first party to reach India. They reccied Akyab Island off Burma in October, 1943 and in the following March, an island off Sumatra. On return to the western front, they undertook river recces in NW Europe, as the Allied armies advanced. Most notable of these was the swimming of the River Elbe in April, 1945, to recce the crossing point.

No 8 Copp followed No 7 to India and operated NW of Akyab and northern Sumatra.

No 9 Copp crewed a marker boat off Sword beach on D-Day, June 6, 1944, to guide landing and other craft to their designated beach. In 1945, they saw active service in the Far East attached to the SOG and came under fire on several occasions.

No 10 Copp carried out 31 operations between June and November, 1944, in the Medterranean - Anzio, Adriatic Islands, Piraeus and Salonika. They moved to India in 1945. See 'Correspondence' below.

From the memoirs of Lt Cdr Thomas H Shaw RNR

Lt Cdr Thomas H Shaw RNRTom Shaw was the navigating officer of the Infantry Assault ship HMS Prince Leopold, which had just returned to Gourock following the Vaagso Raid in Norway. He continues;

"A personal letter from H.M.S. Dryad informed me that I was being attached to Combined Operations (early 1942) for navigating duties and would be sent on a special training course, a short one, in their Pilotage Parties. I thought this was something to do with the pilotage of vessels but, to my horror, found out that the object of C.O.P.P. was to land on and survey enemy beaches in advance of any landings. However well charted these may be, there was always the possibility, that the beach in question had local obstructions, such as rocks and so on that was not shown on the ordinary chart. No problem for ordinary navigation but for landing craft running on to the beach, very important indeed, if they did not want their bottoms ripped out or severely damaged. In short, a very skilled and dangerous job and for which I showed no notable enthusiasm! It was all very well carrying out our training on our own beaches, even these had their hazards, but no joy on enemy occupied territory, which was mostly heavily guarded, mined and all carried out in total darkness.

Briefly, each team consisted of two men, one or both being navigating specialists or experts in other fields, who were taken close inshore, usually by submarine. They were dressed like a present day skin-diver, or frogman, and at the dropping point, paddled to the beach in a folbot and the survey carried out. The folbot had to be safely secured and the beach covered on foot by walking up and down, probing for any possible obstructions. All this had to be done quietly and it was not easy to take notes in the dark, all the while being aware that one may be discovered or set off a mine. On completion, the folbot was recovered and paddled out to the pickup position, which in theory meant that the submarine trained an infra-red signal lamp on a certain bearing. The returning team picked up the ray, made a similar one in return and got alongside and then on board. All very well, if both craft knew where each other was and in direct signalling line with each other but not so hot in practice!

For some strange and unknown reason, Tubby and I were sent with another team to carry out a survey on what was considered to be a quiet sector of the French coast. I could have seen the sense in it, if they had split us up with the more experienced officers but we were to land together alongside the other craft. The weather and sea conditions were ideal that night and we had no trouble getting ashore, securing the folbots and carrying out the survey, also collecting some sand and shingle specimens for analysis on return. Our return was not quite so smooth, as we lost sight of our companion craft and, I in front, was not having any luck picking up the submarine’s signal beam in between bouts of paddling. In short we did not have a clue as to where anyone was, except Jerry landwards! So much for accurate navigation.

Memorial to the Combined Operations Pilotage Parties.We kept paddling on and spotted our companions just off our bow. A low hail told us they were as clueless as we were as to our position and were keeping their fingers crossed. Just then, the whole area was lit up with what appeared to be a combination of Blackpool illuminations, V.E. and V.J. polytechnic fireworks! At least it seemed that to me but, in fact, was the bold boy Tubby, taking advantage of the break in the paddling, endeavouring to light his pipe! Now a match or even the glow of a cigarette in the darkness at sea stands out for miles.

A memorial to the Coppists was erected on Hayling Island and dedicated on September 27, 2012. Visit their website at www.coppheroes.org for more information.

I expected the whole German Army to open up on us! However, it had its good uses as the submarine closed on us and made contact, they having spotted the flare of the match which meant that they had been keeping a very good look out in the right direction. We got inboard in no time, had a good stiff drink and off to base. Tubby’s first words on the way to our quarters after landing was 'have ee got a match, Tom? Mine be finished!' No comment. A great character. whom I am sorry to say, died from a heart attack in 1950. "

Memorial to the Combined Operations Pilotage Parties of WW2.Tom Shaw did not do any further operations with COPPS although he did take part in the Dieppe Raid in August 1942. He was one of the navigating officers of the Infantry Assault ship HMS Invicta. At the very last minute, he agreed to replace a landing craft officer who had fallen sick. Tom landed Canadian soldiers of the South Saskatchewan Regiment on Pourville Beach (Green Beach). He later made several return landings under murderous fire to rescue soldiers wounded and trapped on the beach,  before finally being wounded himself by a shell exploding near his landing craft ramp.

Further Reading

There are around 300 books listed on our 'Combined Operations Books' page. They, or any other books you know about, can be purchased on-line from the Advanced Book Exchange (ABE). Their search banner link, on our 'Books' page, checks the shelves of thousands of book shops world-wide. Just 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.

www.coppheroes.org  This website contains information on missions, composition of the COPPs units and biographical details including many photographs

https://www.coppsurvey.uk/ - A website under development but already a mine of useful in depth information.

Survey by Starlight by Ralph Neville, Hodder & Sloughton, London, 1949. (Ralph Neville was an alias for Ralph Stanbury, the commander of COPP Team 5.)

Stealthily by Night by Ian Trenowden, UK.Crecy.1995. 250pp Ills. Map.

The Secret Invaders by Bill Strutton and Michael Pearson. Hoddar & Stoughton, 1958. The Secret Invaders is the story of how the COPPists were
trained and how they carried out the reconnaissance of proposed landing beaches on enemy occupied territory under the very noses of patrolling guards.


Lt/Capt Robert James (Bob) Taylor

I'm trying to track my grandfather's WW2 service since his family know little of what he did. He only ever said he was in intelligence and that his missions were top secret. He was an officer in RE and has campaign medals for France/Germany and also North Africa. We only have vague details that he was part of a 'recon' team that collected soil samples from the D-Day beaches prior to Operation Overlord - and that's it!

Group wartime photo of unknown oiigin.I read in the Times that Major General Logan Scott-Bowden had sadly passed away. His mission history lead me to read about COPPs, which I now believe my grandfather served in. The photo opposite shows him second from the left in the back row. Does anyone recognise the photo, group or background? It may have nothing to do with COPPs - we simply don't know.

My grandfather was a very outgoing Irish chap. It would help our family greatly if we knew more about what he did that haunted him so much to his dying day. 

Many thanks,

Email icon.Simon Moisy 

(LCpl 3 Sqn HAC)

Lieutenant David Brand

This is information on an unlisted coppist, my father, Lieutenant David Brand from Glasgow, Scotland. He trained at Hayling Island and served in the Royal Navy on HMS Nigeria and was in a Combined Operations Pilotage Party that served in the Middle East. He did not speak about his time during the war but, as usual, stories leaked out about some of his adventures.

In March 1943, he was part of a 15 man team doing sea reconnaissance. While on a "Sicily" mission David and Lieutenant Robert Smith, the expedition leader, surveyed the Gela area on the south west coast. Due to a storm on completion of their mission, they missed the rendezvous with their carrier, the Royal Navy submarine P44 United. To avoid capture, they made an epic 75 mile trip back from Gela to their Malta base at Valetta in heavy seas and with just one paddle. After 40 hours of paddling and bailing water every few minutes from their open canoe they eventually made it back, exhausted. Brand and Smith were awarded the DSC for their courage but, overall, the operation was not a success. Of the 15 men that set out, 5 were captured, 5 were lost and only 5 returned to base.

Sadly my father passed away in 1974.


Kerr David Brand.

COPP 8 / PO Gascoigne.

I'm seeking information on P.O Gascoigne who served in Copp 8 and also a couple of information sources cited in Ian Trenowden’s book “Stealthily by Night”. These are Alec Colson’s transcript of the COPP 8 logbook and his unpublished manuscript about Operation David (“Double Handle”). In particular I'm interested to know if these documents are still available to public scrutiny.

Any assistance will be greatly appreciated

Email icon.Thank you in anticipation.

Paul Mille

Commander Harry Goulding RNR (SSRF & COPP). 


My Grandfather was Commander Harry Goulding RNR assigned to COPPs. He received a DSO with Bar and I believe he may have been awarded a second bar. He was also a very active member of SSRF (Small Scale Raiding Force) and may have been instrumental in setting up this team and being involved in their operations. We have various documents some marked 'Secret' and 'Most Secret' and others such as manuals, a newspaper cutting and a 1946 letter to my father from Laycock. He was a very close friend of Blondi Hassler.


A COPP memorial is being planned for Hayling Island Seafront which has now passed planning and I am keen to find out more about my grandfather's war service in these special forces before it is unveiled. If any visitors to your website have information or can recommend sources of information I'd be delighted to hear from them.


Many thanks in advance. Email icon.


Charlie Goulding

Major Jack Crane – COPP 1.

I would like to hear from anyone who served in Combined Operations Pilotage Parties (COPP), or from their relatives. My grandfather was Major Jack Crane, Royal Engineers (277770), who was part of the COPP 1 re-commission that served in the Far East (Sri Lanka, Burma, India) from November 1944 to September 1945.

I would especially like to hear from anyone related to the other members of that COPP 1: Lt-Cdr Peter Wild RNVR, Sub-Lt Robin Harbud RNVR, Sub-Lt Michael Pearson RNVR, Sub-Lt David White, Sergeant E Cook, Petty Officer EA Fish, Corporal Richey SBS, Sapper Hawkin RE, Leading Seaman Stewart, Petty Officer A Briggs (P/JX 144952), Leading Stores Assistant FI Wilkins (P/MX 59960), Lance Corporal RNW Kedge RE (1949872), Able Seaman A Prior (P/JX 19124).

My grandfather also did a few operations in Burma working within the COPP 4 re-commission led by Lieutenant DH Mackay.

I would also be interested to hear from anyone who would have been completing their commando training at around the same time as my grandfather (around June 1944 to October 1944).

Email icon.With many thanks in advance.

Rob Crane

Royal Navy Submarine Museum in Gosport, Hampshire.

I am an ex-submariner and now work part time at the Royal Navy Submarine Museum in Gosport, Hampshire. I am one of several guides giving tours around a 1947 submarine we have here and answering any questions from our visitors.


At the Museum we have a ' Wall of Remembrance' dedicated to those men who lost their lives in submarines. We are often asked about the men and the circumstances of their loss and I'd like to gather information to help us answer these questions. In particular I'm interested in 5 men who were aboard HMS Unrivalled between the 4th and 8th March 1943. They were: Cooper, N.W. Lt RNVR; Burbidge, G.W. Capt. (Army); Davies, N.E. Lt RN; De Kock, P.D. Lt SANF and Crossley A.H. Sub Lt SANF.


I am fairly sure that all were COPPists who went ashore on Sicily prior to the Allied invasion, I have been in touch with South Africa and know about the two SANF's but understand from my contact there that, in total there were about eight or ten landed. Some were captured, some shot and two, Email icon.having missed their pickup submarine, paddled their canoe from Sicily to Malta. Any information or book references would be greatly appreciated. Many thanks in anticipation. David Yeomans.

Hayling Island.

I'm chair of a heritage group on Hayling Island called Discover Hayling charged with raising awareness of our island's history. We have been going for 3 years and, as I delve deeper into our past, I'm both fascinated and saddened that locally so little is known of the COPPs presence here at Hayling Island Sailing Club (HISC). We aim to remedy that by giving the COPP story on Hayling the prominence it merits. I'm anxious to speak to any surviving members, or their families, for information of interest and to create some sort of memorial to the COPPists on the Hayling seafront. We have had full cooperation from HISC, but the logistics of their operation precludes a public memorial on the original site. I would Emai icon.appreciate your views and help in making contacts. I have already been fortunate to meet and talk to Logan Scott-Wilmott. Yours, Robin Walton. [Anyone with information likely to be of interest to Discover Hayling should contact Robin on the e-mail link opposite.]

10 Copp - Book Publication.

My father George Talbot DSC was in COPP 10 After the war he wrote a book about his experiences. A copy of the book which is both factual and amusing about operations such as Anzio, Yugoslavia, Italy and the Greek Islands has been held in the Imperial War Email icon.Museum. As his daughter l am about to have the book published and would be very interested to hear from any of the COPP 10 members or their families. Thank you in anticipation. Jill de Angelis.

Parry Copp.

My father served in the Royal Navy between 1930 – 37 and 1940 – 45. After serving on King George V and other ships, he was transferred to Parry COPP on 21/01/44 until end of 1945. Could you tell me what Parry was and what number COPP it was? I obtained this information from Royal Navy Command records office. My father’s name was Able Seaman [signaller] William Charles Marsling NO: JX133969. Email icon.Thanking you for your time and Back to Top button.effort in advance. I think the web site is pretty brilliant! Steve Marsling [son] If you have information please contact Steve on the e-mail link opposite.

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