In 1942 a group of commandos gathered for a class in Inveraray, a small village in the Highlands of Scotland. Their instructor was a former assistant commissioner of the Shanghai Police named William Fairbairn, and he surprised the commandos by giving each in turn a loaded revolver. They were even more surprised when Fairbairn selected Albert Cattell and told him to stick the gun in his back. The instructor then said, ‘Now, when I move you pull the trigger!’ Cattell was convinced that Fairbairn would be shot and was amazed to find himself shooting wide. ‘As soon as he moved, I pulled the trigger,’ Cattell remarked. ‘My arm was over there, bang! We couldn’t fathom out how he did it, he did it with all of us. The trick was, before your brain could get the signal to your trigger finger, he’d turn round. If you were right-handed he’d turn to the left, so as he came round his left arm knocked that away, his right hand at your throat or your eyes.’Fairbairn had taught the commandos a valuable lesson. ‘What I’m trying to demonstrate is you never push a gun into the enemy’s back; you never get that close,’ he told them. Such unorthodox training was new for British forces in World War II, but the commandos themselves were a brand-new type of highly trained special forces that had been formed under Combined Operations Command to raid and to fight in enemy territory.
Since WWII, commandos have become legendary in military history, and their famous green beret is now an internationally recognized symbol of an elite fighting force. During the war each branch of Britain’s armed forces had its own commando force.
Thousands of pages have been written about the exploits of the British army and Royal Marine commandos who carried out recklessly daring raids at such places as St. Nazaire (see World War II, March 2003), Vaagso and Normandy. Lost in all the accolades, however, has been the role played by the Royal Navy Commandos, Britain’s forgotten special forces.
The Royal Navy Commandos had one of the most important and dangerous tasks of the war: They were the first onto invasion beaches and the last to leave. The navy commandos had their beginnings after the disastrous campaign in France and the ‘Miracle of Dunkirk’ in June 1940, when small groups of Royal Navy officers and ratings (enlisted men) were organized to man an assorted collection of vessels that would be used to carry out the first commando raids from England across the Channel into occupied France. These groups later became designated as Royal Navy Beach Parties, and in 1942 they led the landings at Madagascar and Dieppe, where they suffered terrible casualties.
Assigned to Combined Operations Command following the Dieppe mission, the beach parties were officially formed into Royal Navy Beach Commandos. Later they became known simply as Royal Navy Commandos. Apart from spearheading the landings on invasion beaches, the commandos had the task of establishing communications (their signalers were organized into separate Royal Navy Beach Signals sections) and controlling the landing craft of an invasion force.
The Royal Navy Commandos had their base, called HMS Armadillo, at a forestry camp near the small Highland village of Ardentinny. It was at Armadillo, and the famous commando training center at Achnacarry, that the sailors were turned into commandos. And it was at Armadillo that they were issued their Fairborn Sykes Commando knives–the hallmark of all British commandos.
Unlike their army and marine colleagues, Royal Navy Commando units were denoted by letters, from A Commando through the all-Canadian W Commando. Each such unit consisted of 10 officers and 60 ratings and was commanded by a principal beachmaster with the rank of lieutenant commander. Junior officers were beachmasters and assistant beachmasters. Much like the captain of a ship, during a landing a beachmaster had the final word on operations and outranked any officer who crossed his beach.
Following their official organization after Dieppe, the Royal Navy Commandos participated in Allied landings in North Africa, Pantelleria, Sicily, Salerno, the Volturno River, Anzio, Arakan, Normandy, Elba, Walcheren and Commachio. Of all those operations, Normandy was the largest, with nine commando units taking part. The second largest commitment was at the July 10, 1943, landings on Sicily.
As a precursor to Operation Husky, as the Sicily invasion was known, Royal Navy Commando D led the way during the operation to seize the island of Pantelleria in June 1943. Securing that island was vital because of the threat posed by Axis aircraft stationed there. The landings were accomplished successfully, and the stage was set for the beginning of the Italian campaign in Sicily.
While the operation to capture Pantelleria was underway, the main body of the Royal Navy Commandos had been making its way to Sicily. On the way, F Commando stopped at Suez long enough to attend a review by General Bernard L. Montgomery. Sub Lieutenant Derek Whitehorn’s experience at that parade illustrates his unit’s relative obscurity, even to the general who was leading the invasion force that it would be spearheading. ‘Doing his rounds in a jeep,’ Whitehorn remembered, ‘General Montgomery pulled up and asked me, ‘Who are the sailors and where do they come from?”
The Sicily landings took place on the southeast corner of the island. The Royal Navy Commandos led the way for the Eastern Task Force on the beaches from a point just south of Syracuse down to Cape Passero. The American Western Task Force, which had its own separate beach arrangements, landed from Scoglitti westward.
In the British northern sector, code-named ‘Acid,’ Whitehorn’s F Commando was first in when H-hour came at 0330 hours. Able Seaman Ken Oakley remembered that the sea was very rough when his unit set off for the beach in its assault craft. ‘Now came that very trying time between ship and shore when one wonders if he will survive the unknown that lies ahead,’ he later said. ‘The boats were tossed all over the ocean and all the soldiers were seasick, but they had cardboard boxes to vomit into and this helped them a lot.’
With about a mile to go, Whitehorn and Oakley had an additional danger to overcome–they were spotted from the shore, and all hell broke loose. ‘Suddenly a flare burst above us and surprise was lost,’ Oakley said. ‘The formations split up and began to make for their own landing places, with fire from enemy machine guns passing over them. Tat-Tat-Tat-Tat, Bren guns began to speak and then, ‘Crunch,’ ‘Down door,’ and we were there. A sapper began to cry, plead and cling to the floorboards, swearing he would not move.
We left him–his nerve was gone–and dived into about three feet of water to wade 50 yards to the shore. The shrill whine of bullets speeded us on, and at last we went to earth at the water’s edge. Bren guns engaged the enemy machine guns and we began to take our bearings. We had landed in almost exactly the right place.’
Farther north, E Commando was also running into difficulties. Strong winds had caused the airborne division’s gliders to ditch in the sea. Petty Officer Henry Clark would never forget the sight as he and the men came into the beaches: ‘It was heartbreaking to pass glider troops in the water. They were shouting, ‘Go on commandos, knock hell out of the Eyeties!’ We were overloaded. So we couldn’t help. I later learned that a lot drowned.’
Unlike F Commando, E Commando landed on the wrong beach. Prior to the landings the beaches had been surveyed by canoeists from the Combined Operations Pilotage Parties, and they had identified which beaches were suitable for landing large numbers of troops and vehicles.
Some of the soldiers traveling with the commandos as they went toward shore decided that they would rather be on dry land than head out to sea again, so they climbed out of the landing craft when it touched at the wrong place and disappeared. Clark, however, knew that it was critical that he land on the correct beach and decided to make a second attempt. ‘We went back out to sea and approached the beach to our right,’ he said. ‘Before we hit the beach a machine gun opened fire from a pillbox, and because the LCAs [landing craft, assault] are made of plywood, we started to take in water. I lifted the cover over the engines and said to the stoker, ‘Can you go any faster? We are under fire.’ He looked at me and said, ‘Is this where all this bloody water’s coming from?’ He was sat [sic] in between the two engines and was up to his knees in water.
‘After a bit of juggling he coaxed more speed, and we hit the beach. My objective was the pillbox on the right. As I ran toward it, a huge steel door opened, and four men ran out and ran up a lane along the side of the river. At the top of this lane was a bridge over the road to Syracuse. We chased after them and caught up to them sitting on boxes of explosives that they were supposed to explode. Fortunately, they changed their minds. We took them prisoner and later handed them over to the military police.’
Farther south, near Cape Passero, N Commando was leading the way in for units of the First Canadian Army. Immediately south of Acid Sector was Bark East Sector and Bark West Sector, which ran right down around Cape Passero. Each sector was further divided into areas, and these areas contained the individual landing beaches, which were always code-named ‘Green,’ ‘Amber’ or ‘Red.’
For some commando units the landings were uneventful, but for Leading Seaman Ray Bromley’s N Commando there was heavy shelling before they even got to the beach. ‘We landed…and came under fire from the German howitzer guns on our way in,’ Bromley said. ‘At first we thought the shells were from one of our cruisers falling short and only later learned that they were firing at the howitzers that were firing at us. On leaving the assault ship and on our way in, Able Seaman Perry of our commando wanted to go to the toilet real bad and was promptly told to sit over the stern to the amusement of all including the LCA crews. This while shells were dropping all round us!’
Once the commandos reached the beach, they found a troublesome machine gun pit that had to be knocked out in order for the landing troops to quickly get off the beach and proceed inland. Bromley was one of those who was tasked with neutralizing the enemy position. ‘We were pinned down for a while until I was called forward with my stripped Lewis gun to return fire,’ he said. ‘Able Seaman Dodds, my number two, took up position among some grapevines, and Lieutenant Harrison took up position on my right to direct my fire. We opened up on the hut and spotted the machine gun post to the right, which was duly attended to. On completion of the return fire Petty Officer Letby, Leading Seaman Lamb and Able Seaman Pete Lightfoot charged from the left as Lieutenant Russell and Leading Seaman Sam Gregory came in from the right.’ Working as a closely coordinated team, the commandos were able to neutralize the gun position and secure that portion of the beach.
Another portion of N Commando landed a little to the south of Bromley and his group. Lieutenant Commander Maurice Vernon Redshaw was the beachmaster in charge. ‘Our landing craft hit a false beach in the half light,’ he reported, ‘and we had to swim a little way. The weather was warm and a swim would have been welcome but for the fact that we were in battle order and rather weighed down–I carried a tommy gun, a Smith & Wesson .45, four hand grenades, binoculars, compass and a great deal of ammunition and 24-hour ration pack. We landed against light opposition.’
Although the commandos were now ashore, a new set of problems presented themselves to Oakley and his comrades. They had landed with Whitehorn, their assistant beachmaster, but now they could not find their superior officer, and Oakley was sent off to try to find him. ‘Off I went toward the Marina d’Avola,’ Oakley said. ‘I joined up with four more beach commandos but could not find the beachmaster. We were approaching the marina tower when a sniper opened fire at us. We took cover and replied as best we could. Our cover was a ledge toward the top of a small cliff, and to regain the beach we had to cross a lot of open ground.’
At that point, Whitehorn was approaching Oakley and his group of commandos. As assistant beachmaster, it was Whitehorn’s job to conduct a reconnaissance of the smaller side beaches, looking for obstacles in the water and on the beach, as well as exit points for possible use later on. As he came toward Oakley and his group of commandos, the bullets from the sniper’s rifle started to kick up the sand a couple of feet in front of him.
Not only was the sniper a problem but shells from a British destroyer also were falling short and endangering the commandos. Whitehorn was totally exposed on the beach, with no cover and only a loaded revolver with which to defend himself. With time running out, Oakley and his men also knew that they had to act. ‘We had decided to make a dash for it when one of our destroyers, HMS Tartar, opened fire at the tower,’ he said. ‘The situation became sticky. Tartar‘s shells fell short and were too close for comfort. I decided to make a run for it when the sniper opened up again at a man coming from our beach. This man appeared to be hit for he rolled in the water and floated away–we found out later that it was Whitehorn and he was just playing possum. A little while later we made a run for it and regained our beach safely.’
This had all taken place in the immediate aftermath of the landings, and now Oakley and the others had made it back to their own beach, where they hoped things had quieted down a little. It was not to be. About an hour after Oakley and his group had landed, a battery in the hills behind the beaches began shelling the area. The guns’ target was a landing craft carrying about 250 men.
As ladders went down and men were coming off the landing craft, shells from the battery were landing all around. Oakley went out to help. ‘I waded out and told the men to jump for it as the water was not very deep,’ he said. ‘A few jumped and I steadied them as they fell, and then it came. A terrific explosion–and I felt myself fading away into oblivion. I came to under the water. I felt numb and shocked. Had I been wounded? Or maybe some limbs were missing? I could not tell, and then I felt someone catch my legs and drag me down again.
‘I lost my reason and kicked like mad until I was free and shot to the surface. A body floated by, its limbs still kicking. It must have been the man who clutched me. The water had become a sea of blood and limbs, the remains of once grand fighting men who would never be identified. I staggered through all this to the water’s edge and then looked dazedly around. My comrades were fleeing for cover, and in the water were men crying for help.’
After one more trip into the water to help anyone he could find, Oakley came back with a wounded man. ‘I then collapsed,’ said Oakley, ‘exhausted, and still those shells came down, far too close for comfort. I rose again to see a man sitting on the ladder of the landing craft crying, ‘Help me, oh help!’ I went and goodness knows how I got him to the beach. He was hit all over his body and was a dead weight with shattered legs dragging in the water. I shall never forget how he thanked me as I lay there almost sobbing at such terrible sights; so this was war! By this time the cruiser supporting us had silenced the batteries, and I had time to look around. The landing craft had been hit directly above where I was standing at the time of the explosion.’
About four hours after H-hour, Oakley and his fellow commandos were finally reunited with their beachmaster, and the unit was together again on the beach. But the drama had not yet finished. The beachmaster was now in charge, and there was an LCI (landing craft, infantry) that had just arrived, beached a little way out from the shore. It was clear to the commandos that an order had gone out for the men on board to disembark, but as they were getting out into the deep water their clothing and equipment were weighing them down.
‘I went out to give a hand and was swept off my feet by the receding tide,’ Oakley continued. ‘I caught hold of one soldier and tried to get him ashore but I discovered that my boots and tin helmet were pulling me down. I was forced to release the soldier and had to fight for my own life as the tide was taking me out and under. I struggled desperately but it was no use. I threw away my tin hat and tried again. Twice I went under and I had almost given up when I saw a boat coming along, picking soldiers up. I hailed it with what little breath I had left, and they threw me a line, which I missed. So I was left until they had picked up the two soldiers and then they threw me a life belt and towed me to the beach, where I collapsed again.’
By now the beaches were secure, and the invasion could get underway. But there was still considerable danger from air attack as well as from mines and booby traps. Petty Officer Ken Harvey of E Commando kept a diary throughout the Sicily operation that included this entry: ‘July 12, 1943. We are attacked once again this morning at 0630. We get down as far as possible in our slit trench. One more transport ship hit and after 2 great explosions she goes down in half an hour.’Petty Officer Henry Clark from E Commando also remembered the danger from mines and booby traps: ‘In greenhouses among the tomatoes were red devices shaped like tomatoes. If you weren’t careful they blew your hand off. In houses if you used the toilet and pulled the chain, Bang! Pictures that weren’t straight, once straightened, Bang! S mines had green prongs amongst the grass. If you stood on them, when you removed your foot it sprang into the air and exploded.’
Farther south, G Commando experienced similar terrifying frustration from concealed bombs. Able Seaman Lofty Lucas spent some time after the landings clearing beaches of hardware left behind by the Germans and Italians. ‘We did mine clearance with a bayonet,’ he reported. ‘We had to be careful with barbed wire because of booby traps; we never cut the strands because as soon as you did the whole thing went up. We would get a jeep, put a rope on it and then get well away, then half the beach would go up. Red devils were hand grenades, which the Italians armed and put in the sand. If you stood on one of them you stopped, and the demolition army blokes would come along and put a pin in it so you could take your foot off. They were full of ball bearings.’
M Commando had landed at Cape Passero, and fortunately for its men they encountered no opposition in their landing area. One of their beaches was later found to be too unsuitable to bring in the tank landing craft so the commandos were concentrated together on just one beach where they focused on bringing in the necessary men and equipment.
Sub Lieutenant Joe Bramble, who was one of M Commando’s assistant beachmasters, saw a DUKW amphibious truck being driven off a landing craft that had run aground on a bank and had its bow hanging over deep water. Unfortunately, some mistaken assumptions had been made about the vehicle’s amphibious capabilities. Bramble remembered how the tragedy unfolded: ‘The luckless driver of the first DUKW was given the order, ‘Drive off!’ and proceeded to the ramp, driving straight into the water and immediately sank. The poor fellow was drowned as he was wearing heavy gear and could not swim. Before anyone could do anything it was too late and a salutary lesson was learned–once again too late.’
Despite the dangers, vehicles were a useful addition to any commando on the beaches. Occasionally a DUKW would be available or there was a chance to borrow a jeep. Bramble managed to obtain a motorbike when a Canadian unit went through his beach and left it behind. After a new coat of paint, the motorbike then belonged to the Royal Navy, although it later crashed and was written off by the principal beachmaster of M Commando, Lt. Cmdr. Patrick Bayly.
As the British landing craft continued to come ashore, the Royal Navy Commandos worked tirelessly to get the men and their equipment unloaded and moving inland. In no small measure due to their efforts, by the end of the day Montgomery had established a firm bridgehead from Syracuse to Pozzallo and was ready to move his troops inland.
For the next two weeks, the Royal Navy Commandos remained on the invasion beaches, working to remove enemy mines and booby traps and helping to clear the beach. Following a brief respite, most would go on to repeat their Sicilian performance when Montgomery led his army onto the Italian mainland at Reggio di Calabria on September 3, 1943. N and G Commandos were in action again for the crossing from Sicily to Reggio di Calabria, and G Commando was involved shortly afterward in the landing at Vibo Valentia.
After Vibo Valentia the Royal Naval Commandos went on to lead the landings at Salerno and Anzio. But F Commando was on its way back to the Royal Navy Commando base at Ardentinny, where it would prepare for its role as the spearhead of the British landing at Normandy’s Sword Beach on June 6, 1944. Despite their continued valuable performance in many of the remaining battles, shortly after the end of the war, the Royal Navy Commandos were disbanded and forgotten. The tradition-bound Royal Navy was never very happy seeing its sailors fighting in army khaki and was quick to dispense with their services. Their wartime assignment as amphibious landing specialists was given to the Royal Marine Commandos, who retain that role to this day.
This article was written by David Lee and originally appeared in the January/February 2005 issue of World War II.
David Lee is an expert on the Royal Navy Commandos. For further reading, see his book Beachhead Assault: The Story of the Royal Navy Commandos in World War II. For more great articles subscribe to World War II magazine today!