~ COMBINED OPERATIONS ~

WW2 land, sea and air forces of the Allied Nations planning, training and operating together as a unified force on amphibious raids and landings against the enemy.

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Hundreds of thousands of visits each year to 200  web pages & 4000 photos. The Website has been published & hosted by Geoff Slee since 2000.

Around 40 D-Day Stories by veterans of the Navy, Army, Air Force and Marines who served in or alongside Combined Operations

~NO. 1 COMMANDO ~

This is a brief history of No 1 Commando from formation in July 1940 to disbandment in Jan 1947 following a period of merger with No 5 Commando, as 1/5 Commando, while operating in the Far East. They saw action in northern France, North Africa and Burma.

No 1 Commando in 1943 (Click to enlarge and click again)

Background

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 with their weapons, transport and supplies through friendly ports and harbours to take on the Germans. Instead, large scale amphibious assaults onto unimproved, heavily defended landing beaches would be required. For this to happen, a new approach was needed where the the army, navy and air force would plan, train and work together as a unified force under the a new organisation called the Combined Operations Command.

It was a colossal task that would take years to re-equip and train an invading force of hundreds of thousands in amphibious beach landings, while under fire from the enemy's defensive positions. In the meantime, Churchill 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 deployed elsewhere, notably against the Soviet Union from June of 1941. On the 3rd of June, 1940, Churchill 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 this imperative, 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.

[Photo - Keyes and Churchill watching a Commando Exercise on the River Clyde, Scotland  in 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.'

Early Small Raids

On the night of 27/28th September, 1941, No 5 Troop of No 1 Commando undertook a raid on a couple of enemy held beaches with the aim of taking German prisoners. The target beaches were on the Pointe de Saire near St Vaast on the French coast, east of Cherbourg and Courseulles, north west of Caen.

[Map courtesy of Google Maps. 2019.]

They sailed from Spithead on board Raiding Craft Carrier HMS Prince Leopold. In mid channel, the men transferred to their Assault Landing Craft (ALCs) to be towed by motor gunboats to their destination beaches. Lt Scaramanga's party landed as planned at St Vaast Bay and were faster on the draw with their Tommy guns when confronted by a German bicycle patrol. Three of the patrol were killed and the remainder scattered.

The Commandos made their way back to their ALC carrying one corpse. They were fortunate to suffer no casualties when fired on by a machine gun but, less fortunate when they missed their rendezvous with their MGB and the Prince Leopold. They made their own way back to Portsmouth, arriving there at 1600 hrs.

The second party under Captain Davies had a very different experience. As they approached their designated landing beach, they realised they were off course. Time was short, so they carried on in the hope of taking a prisoner. However, on landing, they were immediately challenged, followed by rapid machine gun fire. Davies ordered an attack on the gun position, which involved climbing a 10 foot sea wall and breaking through two coils of dannert-wire. In the process of negotiating these obstacles, two more machine gun positions opened fire and the Commandos had no choice but to withdraw. By the time they boarded their ALC, one of their number was wounded and two were missing. Nothing further could be done, so they returned at full speed to their waiting MGB.

The raids were not successful but they provided a welcome boost to flagging morale, caused by the relative inactivity following the Lofoten raid... and valuable lessons were learned.

Volunteers with specialised training in explosives and demolition were recruited from No 1 Commando (as well as 3, 4, 5, 9 & 12) for the 'greatest raid of all' - Operation Chariot, the raid on St Nazaire on the 28th March, 1942.

North Africa - Operation Torch

It was already October, 1942, before Lt Col Tom H Trevor was informed that No 1 Commando was to be involved in Operation Torch - the Invasion of North Africa. The ensuing weeks were hectic, as preparations were made and plans worked out to integrate the American 168th Regimental Combat Team with Nos 1 and 6 Commandos. On the 14th of October, the Commandos left Belfast with No 1 aboard SS Otranto and USS Leedstown and No 6 aboard the SS Awatea. For 5 days, they cruised at sea, while the British and US planners worked out the detail of the forthcoming amphibious operation and the Commandos got to know their US counterparts. They practiced a landing in Loch Fyne close to Inveraray and anchored off Arran before setting off for North Africa on the 26th of October.

Reminiscent of Captain Wolfe's crossing of the Atlantic on the way to Quebec, the time at sea was spent familiarising themselves with maps and models and the refining of plans. The Commandos were equipped with US helmets and Garand rifles, in the hope that the Vichy French would surrender more quickly to US forces than to UK forces... the destruction of the Vichy French fleet at Mers el Kabir by the British on the 3rd of July 1940, still rankled.

On the 8th of November, half of No 1 Commando landed at Cap Sidi Ferruch, about 10 miles to the west of Algiers, under the command of Lt Col Tom Trevor. They successfully captured the fort there without a shot being fired. Amongst the prisoners were the German Armistice Commissioners and the German Ambassador and his family. The Commando then seized the airfield at Blida.

The other half of No 1 was under the Command of Kevin Trevor, cousin of Tom. Their objective was the capture of Fort D'Estree and the Batterie de Lazaret on the east side of the Bay of Algiers. About 7 miles from the shore, they left the Leedstown at 0030 hrs and proceeded towards their landing beaches. When about 2 miles off shore, they were fired upon by a heavy gun battery, as a powerful searchlight lit up the sea around them. Fortunately, the boats came under the cover of an intervening hill and they soon formed up in preparation for landing.

They beached at 0312 hrs and started to disembark, when a large swell lifted the landing craft high and dry onto the beach. Although slightly off their target beach, they made their way to Cap Matifou to attack the Batterie de Lazaret. As they approached, they came under sniper fire and took cover. Under covering fire from No 1 Commando, a mortar was set up in relative safety behind a shed but its fire had little effect. A subsequent attack by a troop also failed and resulted in one death and 7 wounded.

A destroyer was called to shell the fort, which it did, but sadly before the troops completely withdrew from the area. There were casualties amongst the Commandos and the civilian population were scared witless. The Vichy French garrison in the fort remained defiant, so dive bombers were deployed and, shortly afterwards, the French forces surrendered as No 1 Commando stormed the Batterie. The defenders had realised the hopelessness of their position much earlier in the action but the French Commandant was reluctant to accept defeat.

Both No 1 Commando groups had successfully completed their missions. The next day, armistice negotiations were started, which provided a short break as plans and preparations were made for the next phase, the advance into Tunisia. Sadly for No 1 Commando, the USS Leedstown was sunk on the 12th November with the loss of their kit. All they had were the clothes and equipment they had with them on the raid.

On the 12th of November No 6 Commando captured the port of Bone and, on the 20th, No 1 Commando arrived from Algiers to join them. Their next mission was an amphibious assault on Sidi el Mouhjad, about 15 miles west of Bizeta, with the aim of turning the enemy flank.

On the night of the 30th November, 1942, they embarked with four US 168 RCT troops into 9 LCMs (Landing Craft Mechanised) and 4 LCAs (Landing Craft Assault). The journey was uneventful and they made a wet landfall in the early hours of the following morning. They advanced inland, destroying and disrupting the Axis communication lines as they went. For 3 days the Commando dominated the area denying the enemy use of the Bizeta to Sedjenane road and a troop kept the aerodrome at Sidi Ahmed, about 7 miles NE of Douar, under continuous observation.

The total area in which the Commando operated with relative impunity was 125 square miles of difficult terrain. On occasions, local Arabs gave away Commando positions to the enemy, resulting in pitched battles. Losses were not insignificant at 60 British and 74 American. The Commando were forced to withdraw to Cap Serrat when food supplies were used up. Each man's rations comprised two tins of stew, half a tin of bully beef, three bars of chocolate and two packets of biscuits, supplemented, where possible, with foraged food like chicken and eggs.

The Commando were next deployed in support of regular troops on the front line. During this period, they came under the operational control of various formations and their numbers were dwindling. The lack of reinforcements, heavy weapons and transport allocated to a normal infantry battalion were not forthcoming, so the Commando was withdrawn from the line and returned to England on the 24th of April, 1943.They operated effectively as normal infantry, although some people regarded this as a misuse of their special skills. However, as the nature of the war changed from small scale raids to major landings, the experience of No 1 and No 6 Commando in Tunisia influenced future decisions on the organisation, deployment and use of the Commandos.

In recognition of their contribution, Eisenhower wrote to Colonel Trevor,

Dear Colonel Trevor,

You and the men whom you command have been identified with the TUNISIAN campaign since the very day on which the initial landings were made. Since then you have been engaged actively on the most difficult mountainous terrain on the entire front.

As the time draws near for your departure from this theatre, it is a real pleasure to me to express to you and your gallant men commendation for a job well done. You have exemplified those rugged, self-reliant qualities, which the entire world associates with the very name 'Commando'.

Please transmit my appreciation to the officers and men of your command.

Sincerely yours,

(Sgd) Dwight D Eisenhower.

Burma

In August 1943, Lord Louis Mountbatten set up his South East Asia Command (SEAC) HQ in India. So far the Japanese advance had been relentless and Mountbatten laid plans to regain the initiative with an assault on Burma. 

In the UK, No 5 Commando, then under the command of Lt-Col D M Shaw, MC, became part of 3 SS Brigade under the command of Brigadier W I Nonweiler. Together with No 44 Royal Marines Commando, No 1 Commando with Ken Trevor in command and No 42 RM Commando, they left Gourock on the River Clyde in Scotland on 15 November, 1943. No 5 Commando and No 44 RM Commando arrived in Bombay on 19th December, 1943 after a five week voyage. They travelled by train to a camp at Kedgaon near Poona - a "cold, windswept, bleak and bare hill". At Lake Kharakvasla, also near Poona, a Combined Training Centre had been established to practice amphibious landing techniques. A month later, following an unscheduled visit to Alexandria for repairs to bomb damage, No 1 Commando and No 42 Royal Marines Commando arrived. No 2 (Dutch) Troops of No 10 (IA) Commando left the United Kingdom on 11th December with the ultimate intention of helping in the liberation of the Dutch East Indies.

No 5 Commando and No 44 RM Commando were soon on the move again. In late December, 1943, the XV Indian Corp launched an offensive in the Arakan (north west Burma) and on the 9th January, 1944, the 5th Indian Division had captured Maungdaw. With the onset of the Japanese 'Ha Go' counter-offensive against the 5th Indian Division, Nos 5 and 44 Commando returned to Bombay, where they boarded HMS Keren on the 22nd February bound for Cox's Bazar on the north east coast of India, close to the Burmese border. They arrived there on the 5th March, 1944, to prepare for Operation Screwdriver - the invasion of Burma.

By this time the 'Ha Go' offensive had been halted and XV Corp planned to clear the Maungdaw to Buthidaung road. In support of this operation, No 5 and No 44 Commandos landed near Alethangaw on 11th March to the enemy's rear, assisted by RN Beach Commando 'Hotel'. Buthidaung and the Japanese stronghold of Razabil were captured and No 5 Commando returned to the coast at Maungdaw to be followed later by No 44 Commando.

On 23rd March, 1944, two troops were called out to help extricate an artillery battery from an exposed defile. On their way back, they were ambushed in a narrow defile and suffered heavy casualties. Their success was later recognised by the awards of two MCs, an MM and two mentions in Dispatches.

The Japanese Fifteenth Army then launched an offensive in northern Burma, which culminated in battles around the towns of  Imphal and Kohima. No 5 and No 44 Commandos, who were engaged in routine patrol duties in and around Maungdaw, were hastily dispatched to Silchar, where they arrived on the 11th April, 1944. This was a vital communications junction and 3 to 4 day long patrols were undertaken in the Assam hills to monitor any enemy activity. The Commandos remained in this area until August, 1944, when they returned by rail to Bangalore via Calcutta.

Fourteen days leave was authorised for all. During September 1944, they were deployed to Trincomalee in Ceylon, where Nos 1 and 42 Royal Marines Commandos rejoined the Brigade. They had spent the spring of 1944 on jungle training at Belgaum and the summer at Cocanada on the hot and humid coast of India. Around this time, the Dutch troops returned to the UK, since there was little early prospect of an invasion of the Dutch East Indies and  they would be better deployed in the liberation of Holland.

The 14 days leave for all Commandos in Ceylon was short lived. Brigade staff flew to Burma at the end of September, 1944 to plan a further operation in Arakan with XV Indian Corp. No 3 SS Commando Brigade moved to Teknaf, via Calcutta and Chittagong, to participate in the planned operations. They were joined by the Special Boat Squadron (SBS), who operated against a number of coastal and offshore island targets using small craft including canoes, inflatable boats, paddle boards and swimmers.

[Photo; SBS photos do not exist but the craft they used were similar to the one in this photo of COPPists at work. © IWM (MH 22716).]

During this time, 3 Commando Brigade was placed under the command of the 25th Indian Division. Nos.1 and 42 (RM) Commandos took over a section of the line south of Maungdaw and conducted reconnaissance patrols to neighbouring islands using LCAs. No 42 had a relatively peaceful time. No 1 was split into two, half, under Major JHS Turnbull MC, carried out exhausting patrols in the hills but saw little of the enemy, while the other half, under Major Davies, undertook patrols on the plains, where a number of skirmishes with the Japanese inflicted several casualties on them. 3 troop captured a live prisoner... a relatively rare event. One Commando officer was killed in these actions and awards included one MC and three MMs.

By the end of December, XV Indian Corps was ready to take the offensive once more against the Japanese 28th Army. General Christison, the Corp Commander, planned to use 3 Commando Brigade to clear the island of Akyab. In the event, the island was undefended and the landing was used as a training exercise. The island was quickly secured and used as a supply base for future operations. On a patrol to a neighbouring island, No 5 Commando killed four enemy at no loss to themselves.

General Christison's next objective was to destroy the Japanese 28th Army before it could retreat across the mountains to the valley of the Irrawaddy. As part of this, No 3 Brigade was tasked with landing on the south-eastern face of the Myebon peninsula. They landed in the early morning of 12th January. Reconnaissance raids by a COPP team had earlier laid delayed action charges to destroy beach obstacles just before H-Hour. No 42 Commando made the first landings but soft mud prevented the tanks of the 19th Indian Lancers from following, so, by the afternoon, the landings switched to a more favourable beach. This was open from the next morning having been prepared by Indian engineers. However, anti-personnel mines slowed progress and the beach-master was killed as he stepped ashore.

Despite these setbacks, 42 Commando seized their objectives and secured the beachhead. No.5 Commando then passed through, meeting little opposition until the approaches to a hill, codenamed 'Rose', where they came under machine gun fire and suffered a number of casualties. 1 Commando followed No 5 and, at 0830 the next day, after an air strike and naval bombardment, the 'Rose' feature was attacked by No 5 Commando supported by A Squadron of the 19th Lancers. The area was cleared with no prisoners taken, the Japanese preferring to fight to the death. No 42 Royal Marines came through to attack Myebon village, which they took with little difficulty, supported by the 19th lancers.

The brigade then proceeded to clear the Myebon peninsula. Captured documents and the interrogation of the only two prisoners taken, showed that there had been 250 Japanese on the peninsula. Only 40 had escaped the net, at a cost to 3 Brigade of 5 killed and 30 wounded. The brigade withdrew to the beachhead for two days of rest.

With the capture of the Myebon Peninsula, the enemy could no longer evacuate the Arakan using the many waterways. Their only option was the Myobaung to Tamandu road. General Christison decided to cut the route near the village of Kangow but, to reach the area without alerting the enemy, required an indirect water borne approach south east from Myebon and then north for some 18 miles. 

Of the landing beaches on the Daingbon Chaung, between the Thames and the Mersey, (see map) Peter Young, who had temporarily taken over as Brigade Commander pending the arrival of Campbell Hardy in December, wrote, 'There was no road. The landing was through mangrove, the paddy for about three quarters of a mile, leading up to Hill 170, was swamped by the spring tides. Even the bunds didn't make proper footpaths being broken in many places. No tanks could be got ashore - or guns - the first few days, but we had air support, mediums for the Myebon area and a lighter battery and a sloop. MLs and LCs guarded the chaung L of C." The various areas of high ground marked on the map were not, therefore, of great height, although some were of significance in the forthcoming action.

On previously reconnoitred beaches, No 1 Commando landed at 1300 hours on the 22nd January under cover of an aircraft laid smokescreen. They cleared the bridgehead and pushed on to Hill 170, which lay between the chaung and the village of Kangaw. They secured this position, except for a small pocket on the northern edge. By this time, Nos 5 and 42 Commandos were ashore and No 5 moved in support of  No 1.  No 44 stood by in readiness to attack another feature codenamed 'Milford' to the east of Hill 170, which, at 1930 hours, they captured without opposition, later handing the position over to No 42 Commando as forces were redeployed in the course of the action. During the night, the enemy counterattacked No 1 Commando from the northern tip of Hill 170 but, they were beaten back, after hand-to-hand fighting. At first light, the remaining enemy were cleared from Hill 170 and No 44 Commando moved forward to Pinner, south-west of Kangaw. 

Intermittent shelling of the bridgehead continued but the troop of tanks successfully landed and joined No 1 Commando on the northern edge of Hill 170. On the 25th, they came under heavy shellfire, which continued for four consecutive days. On the 26th, 51 Brigade landed and took over positions at Milford and Pinner. On the 28th, they launched an attack on Kangaw and the two features which overlooked it - Perth and Melrose. The attack on Perth failed to make an impression but Melrose was substantially cleared. The next day (29th), No 5 Commando set up an ambush and patrolled Kangaw but no enemy was encountered. On the 30th of January, the order to relieve the Commandos was received. 

No 5 Commando remained under the command of 51 Brigade on the Pinner feature, while No 44 Commando returned to Diangbon under 51 Brigade. This left Nos 1 and 42 Commando on Hill 170. On the morning of 31st January, the position occupied by No 4 Troop of No 1 Commando came under attack. A tank of the 19 Lancers was destroyed by Japanese engineers and, in the ensuing ferocious battle, many heroic deeds were recorded. Suffice to note, in this short account, that 24 men of No 4 Troop held off 300 Japanese for over two hours. The survivors held onto the position for another day and were reinforced by a platoon from No 42.

They put in a counterattack, which was beaten back. Further reinforcements were called in to clear the area. They met stiff opposition and there were many casualties. No 5 Commando's commander brought forward a troop and then a second to relieve the forward elements of No 1 Commando. The following morning, No 5 Commando cleared and consolidated the position; no less than 340 Japanese dead were found on the slopes of the position. This was the battle of Kangaw. The Commandos were relieved on 1st February, having suffered five officers and forty other ranks killed and a further six officers and 84 other ranks wounded.

The Battle of Kangaw prevented the Japanese from cutting off the road from the beaches which enabled the 51st Indian Brigade to maintain their strangle hold on the road. General Christison wrote in a Special order of the Day to 3 Commando brigade:
 

The Battle of Kangaw had been the decisive battle of the whole Arakan campaign and that it was won was very largely due to your magnificent defence of Hill 170.

A third DSO was awarded to Campbell Hardy, Ken Trevor received a DSO and Knowland received a VC.

The Brigade then moved to Akyab and then to Madras, where all were given leave. They then began preparations at Karakvasla for the invasion of Malaya - operation Zipper but this was cancelled when the war in the Far East ended and it turned into a re-occupation operation. In November, 1945, Nos 1 and 5 Commandos were in Hong Kong. The war was over and they were in the process of running down their numbers through demobilization. As numbers decreased, No 1 Commando and No 5 Commando merged to form No 1/5 Commando. No 45  gradually took over their duties until 1/5 Commando was finally disbanded in January, 1947.

Further Reading

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.

Royal Air Servicing Commando Unit 3201. 3201 accompanied 1 Commando and this webpage provides a light hearted account of the hazardous duties of the unit illustrated with cartoon images drawn by the author.

Correspondence

St Vasst or Courselle raid? My father was Hugh Maines and he was a member of No 1 Commando. Before his death in 1978 he gave me a photograph showing him and a group of other commandos in a landing craft having just carried out a reconnaissance raid on the coast of France. He told me that the main object of the raid was to take German prisoners.

I would be very interested in finding out which one of the two Sep 27/28 raids this photo depicts i.e. St Vasst or Courseulles. As you will see from the photo one of the commandos has clearly received an injury and has some sort field dressing to a head wound.

If you or any visitor to the website can provide me with assistance or advice on this I'd be most grateful. Andrew Maines. (1/08)


Dear Geoff,

My father, Derek R Quick, served in no1 commando in Burma during WW2. I have some photographs, his pay book, his release documents, a service certificate and a letter to him from Chief of Combined Ops at the end of the war. Iíd love to be able to find out more about what he did during the war but unfortunately he died in 1981 aged 58.  At the time I was 21 and didnít really ask him much about the war. Any help would be gratefully received. His details are: Army Number - 14003051; Rank - CSM; Regiment - London Scottish; Unit - No 1 Commando; Served in - India, Burma, Ceylon and Hong Kong.

Nigel Quick

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