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 ~ 50 (MIDDLE EAST) COMMANDO ~

An Integral Part of 'Layforce' in the East Mediterranean

Other Links of Possible Interest; 52 (Middle East) Commando

Background

In 1940, there were proposals to set up a Commando force in the Middle East from serving soldiers already in the theatre of operations. Early plans to raise 3 Indian Commandos and one from the Polish forces did not materialise. However, two Commando units were raised from within British forces and a third from Palestinian sources officered by the British, including British Non Commissioned Officers (NCOs). This account is about one of the 2 British Commandos which became known as No 50 (Middle East) Commandos. The other was 52 (Middle East) Commando. They later became part of a larger Commando force named "Layforce" after its commanding officer Robert Laycock. It drew on 'A' Troop from  No. 3 Commando, No. 7, No. 8 (Guards) Commando and No. 11 (Scottish) Commando.

[Photo; Knuckle-duster knife produced during 1940-41 for use by members of 50, 51 and 52 Commandos. These three Commandos were raised in the Middle East and the knives were made locally in Egypt. The hilt of the knife takes the form of a substantial brass knuckleduster, on to which the single-edged blade is brazed. It seems likely that more were produced than were strictly required by the three Commando units, as numerous examples survive. Courtesy of Imperial War Museum. © IWM (WEA 659)].

Major George Young of the Royal Engineers, was tasked to raise the 2 British Commandos. Before the outbreak of the Second World War, he, along with several other officers, was posted to Egypt to plan, train and undertake, if required, operations which would disrupt and hamper the prospective enemy. One such operation was the destruction of oilfields in Rumania, plans for which had been drawn up as early as the summer of 1939 because of their strategic importance to enemy forces. Young visited the site and made contact with a group of British engineers working there.

Back in Egypt, a Field Company was selected from the Royal Engineers to train for this task. Preparations moved briskly and in May 1940 they were posted to Chanak in Turkey, which was much closer to their intended targets. Dressed in civilian clothes, the men worked on improvements to local roads and the harbour. However, by the spring of 1940 and the evacuation of the Allied expeditionary force from Dunkirk, the Royal Engineers returned to Egypt due to sensitivity over Turkey’s neutrality and Rumania’s leaning towards Germany and her Axis allies.

Young was now put in charge of raising the Middle East Commando assisted by an officer from the Durham Light Infantry, Captain Harry Fox-Davies.

No 50 Commando - Recruitment

By July 1940, No 50 Middle East Commando had a provisional strength of 371 all ranks. It comprised an HQ and 3 Troops, each of 4 Sections, under the command of a Section Officer with 25 other ranks under his command. A Royal Army Medical Corps (RAMC) doctor and 3 orderlies were attached together with a Royal Army Ordnance Corps (RAOC) sergeant and 2 interpreters they could call upon as required.

With HQ restrictions on the redeployment of tank crews, engineers and men from the technical arm of their forces, all ranks were recruited from the infantry, with a maximum of 10 all ranks from any single Battalion or Regiment. However, some men were recruited from the 1st Cavalry Division, then in Palestine. They were mainly from Yeomanry Regiments still using horses, although conversion to armour would soon follow. To these were added a number of Spaniards who left Spain after the Republican Forces were defeated by Franco’s army during the Civil War.

They originally crossed the Pyrenees into France with the intent of enlisting in the French Army to carry on the fight against the Fascists. Most were sent to Syria, then a French mandate, while others found themselves in the French Foreign Legion. With the fall of France and the creation of the Vichy Government, Syria fell into line with Vichy and again fearing that their safety, the Spaniards commandeered a couple of vehicles and crossed the border into Palestine, where they declared their intent to fight under the control of the British. The 63 men were interviewed by Young and Fox-Davies in Moascar. The Spaniards were regarded as a valuable asset and were accepted into the ranks of the Commandos.

Training

By August 1940, the Commandos were based at Geneifa in Egypt and training had begun. Where possible, sections comprised men from the same Regiment. Their primary task was to mount raiding operations on enemy coastlines which, with Italy now fighting on the side of the Axis powers, would likely include the Libyan coast as a prime target.

The men were all trained soldiers, but for the challenging tasks ahead, more rigorous training was required in endurance and physical fitness. Each man was expected to undertake three 30 mile marches, in full kit, within the space of 24 hours on consecutive days! The use of water and consumption of food were strictly controlled. Military discipline would be invoked if permission from an Officer or NCO was not obtained in advance. Such rigorous controls were necessary because of the arid terrain, extremely high day-time temperatures and remoteness from support and supplies. It was envisaged that most work would be undertaken during the hours of darkness, with the hottest parts of the day, laid up, under shade.

They had to be self-sufficient with each man carrying enough food and water for the duration of each operation. They unsuccessfully experimented with dried beef but settled on the ubiquitous Bully Beef with packs of rice, dates, limes, army biscuits, chewing gum, tea and sugar. A full bottle of water, along with a water purification kit, allowed them to replenish their bottles if they came upon a water source.

Just before Italy’s declaration of war in June 1940, Lt. General Maitland Wilson, known to many as Jumbo, explored the feasibility of raising a unit of paratroops to operate behind enemy lines, but with parachutes in short supply in this theatre of war, the idea was shelved. Landing craft for training exercises were similarly scarce, so they made do with a few old whalers and rafts that they could improvise. They commenced the nautical part of their training at the Middle East Combined Training Centre on the Bitter Lakes, which formed part of the Suez Canal.

[Maps of the training area opposite and below.]

All Private soldiers now assumed the new rank of Raider and uniforms were adapted for rough service. Hard rubber soles were added to regular issue boots and regular issue shorts gave way to khaki drill trousers. The wardrobe changes included a bush type jacket and a hat similar to that worn by Australian forces, although some opted for the old pith helmet.

The weapon for other ranks was the standard issue .303 SMLE rifle with Bren gun teams, NCOs and Officers carrying revolvers. Thompson sub-machine guns were issued to NCOs. The Fairbairn-Sykes fighting knife, not yet in general service with the Commandos, was a fearsome weapon with a knuckle duster on the handle. This became the unofficial badge for the Middle East Commandos and was known as a Fanny.

All Commandos received training in the use of explosives for demolition work, an essential part of many clandestine operations behind enemy lines. Not all were proficient, at least in the early period, because of constraints on time and supplies of explosives but the objective was for all to be able to set simple charges on land and underwater.

In October 1940, Young was promoted Lt. Colonel and Fox-Davies stepped up to Major becoming 2nd in command. Training was still going on apace until all had fully completed the Commando training course. Back at MEHQ, plans to expand the Commandos continued with the previously 3 Indian Commandos further augmented by a 4th British Commando; but once again, these plans did not come to fruition.

Early Deployments

After the Italians crossed the border into Egypt on the 13th September 1940, the Commandos were deployed, even although only part of No 50 was operational. In mid-October, they were ordered to attack Bomba to the east of Benghazi on the north African coast, a recently established Italian seaplane base. It had been already been attacked by aircraft of the Fleet Air Arm during August but the objective now for No 50 Commando was the destruction of the base.

[Map of Eastern Mediterranean courtesy of Google Map Data 2017].

At Geneifa on the Suez Canal, Young and Fox-Davies planned the operation with both Captains of their escorting ships, the destroyers HMS Decoy and HMS Hereward. With the aid of air photography, maps and a mock-up of the target, they finalised their plans and several rehearsals were carried out to familiarise each man with his particular tasks. They were to land at 00.00 hours, guided in by an RN submarine and then to attack the tents and huts of the Italian garrison. Meanwhile, Royal Navy motor launches would attempt to destroy the moored, Italian seaplanes, using rockets.

On the night of the 28/29th October, in great secrecy, the Commandos boarded their escort destroyers moored in the Great Bitter Lake and set off for Port Said. For security reasons, they were confined below deck, out of the sight of any prying eyes. Just when the weeks of planning and rehearsals were about to pay off, the operation was cancelled when the Italians declared war on Greece.

The raiding force was recalled to Alexandria over concerns that both Greece and Crete would be invaded, the latter occupying a strategically important position in that area of the Mediterranean.

Many of the Commandos were bitterly disappointed by this turn of events after so much planning and training. However, unbeknown to anyone at the time, this was only the start of a period of cancelled Layforce operations. On the night of 16/17th January 1941, the Commandos embarked on a raid of the Dodecanese island of Kasos (Operation Blunt), but this was cancelled just as landing vessels were being lowered into the water and a second attempt on 17/18th February was also aborted.

Admiral of the Fleet, Sir Andrew Cunningham, Commander-in-Chief Mediterranean, had his sights on the island of Castelorizzo, about eighty miles east of Rhodes and just three miles off the Turkish coast. He wanted a secure motor torpedo boat base to support future operations against the Italians in the Dodecanese.

At Geneifa on the Suez Canal, Young and Fox-Davies planned the operation with both Captains of their escorting ships, the destroyers HMSs Decoy and Hereward. With the aid of air photography, maps and a mock up of the target, they finalised their plans and several rehearsals were carried out to familiarise each man with his particular task. They were to land at 00.00 hours, guided in by a RN submarine and then to attack the tents and huts of the Italian garrison. Meanwhile, Royal Navy motor launches would attempt to destroy the moored, Italian sea planes, using rockets.

On the night of the 28/29th October, in great secrecy, the Commandos boarded their escort destroyers moored in the Great Bitter Lake and set off for Port Said. For security reasons they were confined below deck, out of the sight of any prying eyes. Just when the weeks of planning and rehearsals was about to pay off, the operation was cancelled when the Italians declared war on Greece. The raiding force was recalled to Alexandria over concerns that both Greece and Crete would be invaded, the latter occupying a strategically important position in that area of the Mediterranean.

Many of the Commandos were bitterly disappointed by this turn of events after so much planning and training. However, unbeknown to anyone at the time, this was only the start of a period of cancelled Layforce operations. On the night of 16/17th January 1941, the Commandos embarked on a raid of the Dodecanese island of Kasos (Operation Blunt), but this was cancelled just as landing vessels were being lowered into the water and a second attempt on 17/18th February was also aborted.

Admiral of the Fleet, Sir Andrew Cunningham, Commander-in-Chief Mediterranean, had his sights on the island of Castelorizzo, about eighty miles east of Rhodes and just three miles off the Turkish coast. He wanted a secure motor torpedo boat base to support future operations against the Italians in the Dodecanese.

Operation Abstention - "Confused, Incompetent, Inept and a Mess"

On the evening of the 23rd/24th February 1941, 200 men set off for Castelorizzo aboard HMS Decoy and HMS Hereward, accompanied by escorts including an Australian cruiser. Operation Abstention was underway. Each of the destroyers carried 5 whalers to carry the men, their supplies and ammunition ashore. These craft were not as versatile as landing craft, so supplies were broken down into easy to man-handle loads. The gunboat, HMS Ladybird, carried 24 Royal Marines and two agents from the Special Operations Executive (SOE) were embedded within the British forces.

[IWM 1941 photo of an RN whaler. © IWM (A 6079)].

However, there was a major flaw in the planning of the operation - the Commandos had not been involved. This was a major error clearly demonstrating that some officers did not understand the vital need for joint planning in Combined Operations. It was the only way to achieve the high level of commitment, cooperation, communications, coordination and mutual confidence needed to achieve success.

Issues the Commandos might have raised, had they been consulted, included; 1) their dual role as an amphibious assault/invading force and an occupying force with defensive responsibilities for which they were not trained, 2) the type of craft to transport them and their supplies from their mother ship to the shore were not suitable for the task and too few in number, 3) their planned billets required them to march in full view of potential spies and sympathisers who could report numbers, disposition, armaments etc to the enemy on neighbouring islands.

Despite their concerns about their lack of involvement in the planning process, the Commandos struck up a good rapport with their Royal Navy counterparts on the destroyers. They took an indirect course to the island, heading initially for the Palestinian coast before steaming on to Categorize. The short voyage took less than a day and aimed to reach the island by 03.00 hours on the 25th where a Royal Naval submarine would guide them into their final position south-west of the island.

As darkness fell, the Commandos emerged from below decks, made their final preparations and proceeded to board the navy’s whalers. One of the landing parties rowed into the harbour alerting the Italian garrison and causing another boat to return to its mother ship. However, those in the harbour swiftly dealt with the opposition and consolidated their position. The remainder of the force landed successfully and prepared for the arrival of the garrisoning force.

Before daybreak, the naval forces of the 3rd Cruiser Squadron withdrew, leaving only the Ladybird in support. She, at first light, shelled one of the Commando's objectives, the Palecastro Fort, to which the Italian garrison had withdrawn and one company of Commandos attacked the town itself, overcame the sentries and took control. The Italian garrison put up very little resistance.

A 2nd company of Commandos, assisted by gunfire from the Ladybird, began their assault on the fort whilst the remainder scaled the heights at the flanks of the fort to cut off any attempted escape. The Italians, uncharacteristically, resisted strongly but, by 10.00 hours, the fort was finally under Commando control. Although Italian communications had been destroyed early in the landing, they had alerted their compatriots on other islands of their predicament.

The Italians responded with unexpected vigour by shelling and bombing the small British invading force. The British plans to land a company of the Sherwood Foresters to form a garrison began to unravel as the Italian air and naval activity made further landings impractical, forcing them to return to their base in Cyprus, with the intention to return at a later date.

Meanwhile, the Italians forced a landing on several beaches of Castelorizzo putting the Commandos under pressure. Air attacks damaged HMS Ladybird which was running short on fuel forcing them to return to Cyprus with her small contingent of Royal Marines. This compounded the Commandos difficulties as the Ladybird was their only radio link with the outside world. Throughout the day, the Italian air force bombed and strafed the Commando positions, killing 3 and wounding 7. Dusk brought a welcome respite... but not for long. An Italian warship entered the harbour, lit up the Commandos defensive positions with a searchlight and shelled the area forcing them to withdraw. Although limited in weaponry, the Commandos shot down 2 enemy bombers and forced a third into the sea. The crew were rescued by islanders.

The Italians followed up this initial bombardment by landing around 240 soldiers just north of the harbour while their warships shelled the British positions. The British navy intended to disrupt the Italian forces but were unable to make contact with them. Rough seas provided a day of respite from naval bombardment but the Commandos position was bad and likely to worsen. They were isolated from supplies and reinforcements with no means of communication and the plan envisaged they would be relieved within 24 hours of landing. They were provisioned accordingly. Food and drink could be obtained locally but their ammunition was inadequate for a sustained action.

Around this time, the Small Fleets commander was replaced by Captain Egerton of HMS Bonaventure due to illness.

When the weather improved, the Italians resumed their troop landings, shelling and air force sorties, increasing the pressure on the Commandos but causing no serious casualties. In their turn, the Commandos unsuccessfully tried to make contact with the Royal Navy by torch signals, but when their batteries ran down they were left with matches as a light source. The outlook was bleak and some no doubt felt abandoned with death or being taken prisoner realistic prospects. The positions they held were well spread out but they still managed to send out patrols to the beaches while working parties went in search of Italian rations. The possibility of a counter-attack was considered but not followed up due to time constraints.

With the landing of more enemy troops from 2 destroyers in the harbour, the gravity of the Commando's situation worsened when the Italians infiltrated the Commando positions close to the cemetery. By midday the Commandos, which had been split into 2 groups, one still covering their landing beach and the other covering the cemetery, the town having been given up earlier, had to withdraw to the high ground to avoid being overlooked by the enemy. This pre-emptive redeployment proved fortuitous as the Italians landed more troops on the Commando's landing beach while under covered by one of their destroyers. As dusk fell, the Italians occupied a ridge some three-quarters of a mile from the consolidated British positions and began to advance towards them in sections. At around 300 yards they opened fire with rifles and Bren guns. Nightfall brought this little action to a halt.

By this time the Commandos had run out of food and water and all sources of water were held by the Italians. With their reserve ammunition on a beach occupied by the enemy, their ammunition was down to what the men carried in their pouches. Their force was depleted by around 60 officers and men who were missing from the main party. Morale was on the wane since there were no sensible options open to them. It was only a matter of time when further resistance would be futile. The 4th day was punctuated by ineffective naval shell fire and bombs and their desperate situation seemed quite hopeless when British destroyers from the relieving fleet, returned to the island and made contact.

Aboard one of the destroyers were men of the Sherwood’s, known affectionately as the Notts and Jocks. When they landed the witnessed the results of the 4-day action and found at least one dead Commando. However, they also made contact with some of the men cut off from the main force of Commandos. They occupied an isolated small plateau on the east of the island and since their position was untenable, and with the failure of the garrison to arrive from Cyprus, their only option was to withdraw.

Although most men were able to re-embark some were left behind and became prisoners of war. As the re-embarking men passed by the old Venetian fort on the way to the dock, one of the SOE operatives called the operation ‘confused, incompetent, inept and a mess’. The soldiers, carrying their weapons and equipment, awaited evacuation and must have reflected on the total breakdown of communications. The debacle brought scathing comments from Admiral Cunningham who described the operation as ‘A rotten business and reflected little credit to everyone’. During the 4 days of fighting, No 50 Middle East Commando lost 32 men either killed, wounded, prisoners of war or missing. 50 ME Commando departed Castelorizzo in March for Crete being replaced in their garrison duties there by the 1st Royal Welch Regiment. They returned to Geneifa on the Suez Canal where they were amalgamated with their comrades from No. 52 Middle East Commando.

On the Athens Memorial in Greece are the names of Tom Blackburn, Jack Pollard, James Bate, Francis Tunstall, John McCormick, Leslie England, George Robinson and Richard Sharman. These men were from the group who were cut off and unable to re-embark with the main body of Commandos. They, along with others, attempted to escape by swimming across the water to nearby Turkey but were unable to make it. Their bodies were never recovered. There is an account, held at the Imperial War Museum, of three commands who successfully completed the swim. Also named on the memorial was 2nd Lieutenant Michael Arnold Smith of the Royal Sussex Regiment. He was killed on the beach during an air raid. Sadly, his body was never recovered. On the island of Rhodes lie the graves of the 3 other ranks who were killed in the action, Harry Knott, Alfred Taylor and Ernest Dawes.

Troops on Special Service returned to this island 3 years later when the Special Boat Service filled the space the Italians left behind when they surrendered in September 1943. They used the island as a base for operations against the enemy, rekindling the spirit of its original planned use.
Before these ideas were executed, an entirely different deployment came to the fore on the 28th November 1941 when both No 51(Jewish) and No 52 Middle East Commandos were put on 24hours notice to move. The planners of General Wavell’s limited offensive 'Operation Compass', to attack Italian forces in western Egypt and Cyrenaica, the eastern province of Libya, saw a role for them to play but they were stood down on the 1st December 1941.

Acknowledgements

Researched and written by Alan Orton. Redrafted for website presentation by Geoff Slee and approved by the author before publication.

 

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