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No 5 Commando - A Brief History.

This is a brief history of 5 Commando from formation in July 1940 to disbandment in January 1947 including Hardelot and Merlimont - August 1941, St Nazaire - 28th March 1942, Madagascar - May 1942, India and Burma - December 1943 on.


The evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force from the beaches of Dunkirk in May and June of 1940 had a profound effect on the future conduct of the war. Gone was the chance of shipping large armies onto friendly shores to take on the Germans. Instead, large scale amphibious assaults against heavily defended enemy held territory would be required and for this a new approach was needed involving the combined forces of the army, navy and air force.

Churchill realised that an amphibious invasion of mainland Europe, with any reasonable chance of success, would not be possible for several years. In the meantime he wanted to harass the enemy along the length of the occupied coastline from northern Norway to southern France. This would force the Germans to deploy more men, armaments and materials in these areas than would otherwise have been necessary leaving fewer resources to be used elsewhere (notably against the Soviet Union from June of 1941). On the 3rd of June 1940 he wrote to the Chiefs of Staff;

The completely defensive habit of mind, which has ruined the French, must not be allowed to ruin all our initiative. It is of the highest consequence to keep the largest numbers of German forces all along the coasts of the countries that have been conquered, and we should immediately set to work to organise raiding forces on these coasts where the populations are friendly. Such forces might be composed by self-contained, thoroughly equipped units of say 1,000 up to not less than 10,000 when combined.

And two days later he elaborated: Enterprises must be prepared with specially trained troops of the hunter class, who can develop a reign of terror first of all on the 'butcher and bolt' policy. I look to the Chiefs of Staff to propose me measures for a vigorous, enterprising and ceaseless offensive against the whole German occupied coastline.

As a consequence of these new circumstances on June 14 1940 Lieutenant-General Alan Bourne was appointed by the Chiefs of Staff (under increasing pressure from Churchill to make an appointment) to the position of "Commander of Raiding Operations on coasts in enemy occupation and Adviser to the Chiefs of Staff on Combined Operations." Bourne was a Royal Marine Commander with experience of both land and sea operations. However, at Churchill's behest, on the 17th of July 1940 Roger Keyes replaced Bourne and was appointed to the strengthened position (certainly as viewed by Keyes himself) of Director of Combined Operations to be followed by Lord Louis Mountbatten in October 1941.

Irregular Commando units were raised and undertook what turned out to be ineffective raids on Boulogne and the Channel Islands. Churchill was not impressed with these pin-prick raids and for 8 months there was little activity as the role of the Commandos, their training needs and modus operandi were refined and developed. 

The Commando units were formed in the first few weeks of July 1940. Some had a distinct geographical base as Army volunteers came forward. 3 and 4 Commandos were formed from Southern Command, 5 and 6 from Western Command, 7 from Eastern Command, 8 mainly from the London District and the Household Division and 9 and 11 from Scottish Command. 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 1 Commando.

Unless otherwise stated SS in this article denotes 'Special Service,' not the German SS.

Formation and Early Re-organizations

In October 1940, a few months after recruitment started, 5 and 6 Commandos were absorbed into 5 Special Service Battalion which was based at Helensburgh in west central Scotland. The commanding officer was Lt-Colonel T. Featherstonhaugh of the King's Royal Rifle Company.

There were many who were unhappy with these changes in Commando designations and a further reorganization took place after the Lofoten Islands operations in mid-March 1941. 5 SS Battalion became 5 Commando under Lt-Colonel W.S.S. Sanguinetti of the Hampshire Regiment based at Barrhead, but shortly to move to Falmouth.

Hardelot and Merlimont - August 1941

5 Commando's first operation was on the night of 30-31st August 1941, and was codenamed Acid Drop. It consisted of two simultaneous operations each carried out by a party of one officer and fourteen men. Their targets were the beaches at Hardelot and Merlimont with the aim of carrying out reconnaissance and, if possible, to capture a German soldier. It was a hit and run type raid with only thirty minutes ashore but, in the event, neither party encountered the enemy. However, useful lessons were learnt.

St Nazaire - 28th March 1942

Volunteers from 5 Commando participated in the St Nazaire raid. Use link for details.

Madagascar - May 1942

With the fall of Singapore in February 1942,  the Japanese invasion of Malaya and recent incursions of Japanese submarines into the Indian Ocean, it became an imperative to secure the island against possible future use by the enemy. At this time British forces in the Middle East were supplied and reinforced by shipping convoys using The Cape route. An Axis base at Diego Suarez would threaten the Allied war effort if this route became unsafe. So the objective of Operation Ironclad was set. 5 Commando was placed under 29 Infantry Brigade for the assault, the Commando itself being commanded by Lt-Colonel Sanguinetti. They were to make a silent landing a few hours before the main assault with the objective  neutralising two artillery batteries. They achieved complete surprise, achieved their objective and captured some 300 prisoners with only very light casualties during the operation. They then joined in the capture of Diego Saurez which fell two days later after a brief naval bombardment.

After Diego Saurez was fully operational and reinforced 5 Commando were involved in the landing at Majunga and Tamatave on the west and east coasts respectively and later in the advance on the capital, Tananrive. The Vichy French rejected the British armistice on 18th September and a further landing was mounted. Here the Commando was embarked in four destroyers which fired on the port after the French refused to surrender. The Commando went ashore on an isolated quay and after some spasmodic street fighting, the French garrison surrendered. Tananrive was entered on the 23rd September and there was little further resistance in the south of the island. Taking advantage of local resources available to be commandeered one party of 5 Commando operated on horseback for a while. Resistance finally ceased on 5th November by which time 5 Commando was arriving back in the United Kingdom.

This was 5 Commando's first major action - successfully completed 9,000 miles from their home base. Visit Operation Ironclad for more information on this action.

India and Burma - December 1943

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 5 Commando, now under 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, 1 Commando and 42 RM Commando they left Gourock on the River Clyde in Scotland on 15 November 1943. 5 Commando and No 44 RM Commando arrived in Bombay on 19th December 1943 after a five week voyage. They were moved 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, after putting into Alexandria for repairs following a German bombing raid, No.1 Commando and 42 Royal Marines Commando arrived. No. 2 (Dutch) Troops of 10 (IA) Commando left the United Kingdom on 11th December with the ultimate intention that they should take part in the liberation of the Dutch East Indies.

No 5 Commando and 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' counteroffensive against the 5th Indian Division, 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 5 and 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 5 Commando returned to the coast at Maungdaw to be followed later by 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 now launched an offensive in northern Burma which culminated in the battles around the towns of  Imphal and Kohima. 5 and 44 Commandos were engaged in routine patrol duties in and around Maungdaw when the call came for them to proceed at haste to Silchar where they arrived on the 11th April 1944. This was a vital communications junction and 3 to 4 day patrols into the Assam hills were mounted. The Commandos remained in this area until August 1944 and then 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 by 1 and 42 Royal Marines Commandos rejoined the Brigade. They had spent the spring of 1944 doing jungle training at Belgaum and the summer at Cocanada on the hot and humid coast of India. During this time the Dutch troops returned to the UK. They correctly surmised that there was little early prospect of an invasion of the Dutch East Indies and preferred to take part in the liberation of Holland than doing nothing useful in the far east.

[Photos courtesy of Chris Kelly. Believed to show members of No 5 Commando at Cocanada. Can anyone identify the occasion or the participants?]

Their sojourn in Ceylon was short lived. Brigade staff flew to Urma at the end of September 1944 to plan a further operation in Arakan with XV Indian Corp. 3 SS Commando Brigade moving to Teknaf, via Calcutta and Chittagong, to participate 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. 

During this time 3 Commando Brigade were placed under the command of the 25th Indian Division. 1 and 42 (RM) Commandos took over a section of the line south of Maungdaw. Both also conducted reconnaissance patrols to neighbouring islands using LCAs. 

By the end of December XV Indian Corp were 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 had a brush with the enemy killing four 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. The assault was made with 42 Commando making the first landings. Soft mud prevented the use of the tanks of the 19th Indian Lancers and by the afternoon the landings switched to another beach. This was open from the next morning having been prepared by *Indian engineers. Anti-personnel mines slowed progress and the beach-master was killed as he stepped ashore. Despite these obstacles 42 Commando seized their objectives and secured the beachhead. 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 5 up and at 0830 the next day, after an air strike and naval bombardment, the 'Rose' feature was attacked by 5 Commando supported by A Squadron of the 19th Lancers. The area was cleared although no prisoners were taken, the Japanese preferring to fight to the death. 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. [* Information has been received that the credit for clearing the beach of mines and linking Charlie Red and Easy beaches should go to 3 Troop Royal Marine Engineer Commando and not Indian Engineers. Whilst 3 Troop and 3 Commando Brigade were part of the 25 Indian Division to call them Indian Engineers is not the full picture. This will be incorporated into an amended text in due course.]

With the capture of the Myebon Peninsula the enemy could not now 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.

1 Commando landed at 1300 hours on previously reconnoitred beaches 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 5 and 42 Commandos were ashore and 5 moved in support of 1. Meantime 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 42 Commando as forces were redeployed in the course of the action. During the night the enemy counterattacked 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 44 Commando moved forward to Pinner, south-west of Kangaw. 

Intermittent shelling of the bridgehead continued but the troop of tanks was brought ashore and they joined 1 Commando on the northern edge of Hill 170. On the 25th they came under heavily 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. That on Perth failed to make an impression but Melrose was substantially cleared. The next day (27th) 5 Commando set up an ambush and patrolled Kangaw but no enemy were encountered. On the 30th of January the order to relieve the Commandos was received. 

5 Commando remained under the command of 51 Brigade on the Pinner feature while  44 Commando returned to Diangbon under 51 Brigade. This left 1 and 42 Commando on Hill 170. On the morning of 31st January the position occupied by 4 Troop of 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 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. The commander of 5 Commando brought forward a troop and then a second to relieve the forward elements of 1 Commando. The following morning 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 officer and forty other ranks killed and a further six officers and 84 other ranks wounded.

The Battle of Kangaw prevented the Japanese from cutting the road from the beaches and enabled 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 moved first 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 and turned into a re-occupation operation. In November 1945, 1 and 5 Commandos were in Hong Kong. The war was over and they were in the process of running down run through demobilization. As numbers decreased 1 and  5 Commandos merged to form No 1/5 Commando.  No 45 gradually took over their duties until 1/5 Commando was finally disbanded in January 1947.

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