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WWII

When the Royal Marines went commando

How the Marines got their iconic green berets.

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‘Royal’, ‘marine’ and ‘commando’ are three words that naturally go together in the British military lexicon.

However, it was not always thus.

Initially, the marines were, from their start in October 1664, the Duke of York and Albany’s Maritime Regiment.  

In April 1755, they became His Majesty’s Marine Forces and came under the control of the Admiralty. Then in 1802 they were rebranded ‘Royal’ Marines by King George III.

The ‘commando’ part did not come until the Second World War.

The idea of a special raiding force drew its inspiration from Boer commandos the British had come into contact with in South Africa. In ‘The Royal Marines 1939 – 93’, Nick van der Bijl explains how this concept was turned into a military policy when, following the withdrawal from Dunkirk, Prime Minister Winston Churchill put out a directive for his military leaders to:

“ … organise small self-contained, thoroughly-equipped raiding units [to] ... strike terror down the enemy coast (of Europe).”

As it turned out, there were both British Army and Royal Marine Commandos during the war, where the distinctive lovat green beret came into use, though Army commandos were disbanded when the war ended. (The US special forces organisation the Green Berets take their name from the fact that they too underwent commando training).

Despite Army commandos being disbanded, and the fact that all Royal Marines have been commando trained since 1959, it was actually the Army that predominated in early commando training.

This is because the Army responded to a call to form an amphibious raiding group to strike at the Germans during the Norwegian campaign early in the war. Commandos ended up in the Special Service Brigade, and early on there were some individual Royal Marines within it, but again, the Army predominated at this early state.

New marines who entered service in the very first days of the conflict usually ended up not in Commando training but in  the Royal Marine Brigade or the MNBDO.

The MNBDO stood for the Marine Naval Base Defence Organisation, or, as men serving at the time called it, ‘Men Not to Be Posted Overseas’, since it was intended that its early role would be guarding Royal Navy bases and anchored ships.

In actual fact, the MNBDO did serve overseas, and ended up reinforcing the Army in Crete. 11 Royal Marine Battalion, part of MNBDO I/Landing Defence Force even conducted raids on Crete in April 1942. They then raided the port at Tobruk in September that year, though this was a disaster for them.

This was still somewhat of an exception though. As well as other duties in the MNBDO, other examples of roles the Royal Marines performed included serving on ships, serving in the Marine’s Air Defence (which meant home defence during the Blitz); some ended up in Force Viper in Burma (i.e. with the Burma Corps), and others in the Royal Marine Brigade, which was half the size of an Army brigade.) This was first formed in 1939 and used against Italy in the Mediterranean, eventually becoming part of the Royal Marine Division.

This in turn was later disbanded, and some of its members would then be recast as commandos.

The Commandos Gain Momentum

A large part of the impetus for the creation of more Commandos was the Chief of Combined Operations, Lord Louis Mountbatten.

When he took over this role in 1941, he called for the creation of more Commandos to replacement the ones that had been lost by that point in the war.

But the Army was this time reluctant to create any more of these units because they wanted their troops to start training for the eventual invasion of France. (Given the amphibious nature of D-Day, this seems ludicrous in retrospect). 

The Royal Navy, meanwhile, wanted marines for coastal batteries and for ongoing service with the Fleet.

Yet Mountbatten persisted, and he succeeded in getting men from the Royal Marine Division for retraining as commandos. 

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Various illustrations depicting WW2 Commando training (image from ‘British Commando 1940 – 45’ by Angus Konstam © Osprey Publishing, part of Bloomsbury Publishing)

An Inauspicious Start

Not that the Commandos would take anybody who showed up, mind you.

The first 250 men from the Royal Marines who went for Commando training at Deal North Barracks in February 1942 were those left over once men deemed unfit or unsuitable had not been selected.

Those who were chosen were to be led by Lieutenant Colonel Joseph Picton-Phillips. They soon moved to the Isle of White where they were rebranded Royal Marine ‘A’ Commando. 

Along with three other Commandos, some US Rangers and men from 2 Canadian Division, they took part in the failed Dieppe Raid of 1942, an action that saw Lieutenant Colonel Picton-Phillips get shot and killed. 

Commando Training

Men going into later Commandos, both Royal Marine and Army ones, were trained at the Commando Basic Training Centre at Achnacarry House, near Spean Bridge in Scotland.

As Angus Konstam explains in ‘British Commando 1940 – 45’, the training school opened in March 1942 and continued training incoming and would-be commandos for the remainder of the war.

It was an arduous process:

“Trainees were allocated to a training troop and then put through a rigorous programme of physical development, weapons training, long-distance marches, rock climbing, boat training, tactical development and battlefield exercises.”

The illustration above depicts several aspects of this early-style Commando training. The soldiers shown climbing across the rope are crossing the river Arkaig by climbing over it. 

There is also rock climbing, which could be practiced easily where the centre was based in Scotland, or possibly a little further away in Glencoe.

There were also shooting ranges and a kind of ‘kill house’ on the shore of Loch Arkaig in which trainees practiced house clearing. They also rehearsed attacks on simulated strongpoints.

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Operation Flipper, the attempted assassination of Rommel, was carried out mostly by men of 11 Commando, an Army unit, though some SBS members were involved (image from ‘Kill Rommel!’ by Gavin Mortimer © Osprey Publishing, part of Bloomsbury Publishing)

Out On Ops

Marines who completed their Commando training ended up in operations all over the world during the war, usually within the Special Service Brigade.

For example, 3 and 40 Commandos fought in Sicily in 1943, and 2 and 41 Commandos fought their way into Italy at Salerno. The latter two units sustained 50 percent casualties in the process.

Marine Commandos also went on to fight elsewhere in the Mediterranean, as well as in Normandy.

By 1944, a Royal Marine Commando consisted of 450 men divided into five 60-man troops (A through E), a heavy weapons troop, an HQ and a signals section. Each troop had its own HQ with five men, and two sections each in turn divided into two rifle subsections of 11 men each and a support sub-section of five men.

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A diagram showing how a Royal Marine Commando of 450 was organised by 1944 and 45 (image from ‘The Royal Marines 1939 – 93’ by Nick van der Bijl © Osprey Publishing, part of Bloomsbury Publishing)

In terms of equipment, by the end of the war, according to Angus Constam, commandos carried the No. 4 Rifle, which replaced the SMLE (Short Magazine Lee Enfield), a Fairbairn-Sykes Commando Knife Mark II, a Colt M1911 pistol and, if they had some kind of machine gun, either a Thompson M1 submachine gun, or a Bren gun. (for more on the firearms used in the Second World War, click here).

17,000 Royal Marines participated in the D-Day landings and Battle of Normandy, with the 1 Special Service Brigade* coming onto the beaches and then going inland to support 6 Airborne Division, which held crossings over the River Orne. This meant they were essentially the backup for the men who participated in the famous Pegasus Bridge operation, amongst multiple other important tasks performed during and after the D-Day landings.

(*Nick van der Bijl explains that in December of 1944, the Special Service Group was renamed the Commando Group, and Special Service Brigades rebranded Commando Brigades. This was to disassociate them from the German SS and Waffen-SS, some of whom had actually fought).

Royal Marine Commando units were then amongst those that fought their way into Germany and they were present in the Pacific Theatre, where they fought the Japanese. 3 Commando Brigade was present in Hong Kong when it was handed back after years of Japanese occupation.

By the time the war was over, the Royal Marines had become forever associated and involved with Commando training, something that would become a permanent part of service in the years to come.

To learn more about the Royal Marines and Commando training in the Second World War, read ‘The ‘Royal Marines 1939 – 93’ by Nick van der Bijl, ‘British Commando 1940 – 45’ by Angus Konstam and ‘Kill Rommel!’ by Gavin Mortimer. Visit Osprey Publishing for more military history.

For more on the Royal Marines, click here and here.

For an early history of the Royal Marines, click here

And for more on the development of the Commandos in World War 2, and how they overlapped with the emergence of the early SAS, click here

Thanks to the National Museum of the Royal Navy for assistance with this article.