An Integral Part of 'Layforce' in North East Africa
Other Links of Possible Interest: 50 (Middle East) Commando
Recruitment and Training
Recruitment into 52 Commando was voluntary but the Commanding Officers of Regiments and Battalions had the power to block any application they wished - a power they used to retain their best men in whom they had invested a great deal of training. The corollary of this practice witnessed the approval of applications from some men whose COs considered less proficient. The newly raised No 52 Middle East Commando had their fair share of these men, but as the training progressed, they forged themselves into an effective fighting force.
[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).]
No 52 Middle East Commando began its short life on the 2nd of November 1940. Their initial cadre was 380, including 19 officers, drawn from 35 different Regiments or Corps serving in the East Mediterranean theatre of operations. Most were, of course, from the regular Army with some from the Yeomanry of the 1st Cavalry Division. They were to be commanded by Harry Fox-Davies, but due to illness, George Young took his place before the transfer occurred. Subsequently Lt Col Peter Symons became their first CO. They were a light raiding force with no heavy weapons at their disposal or the transport to carry them. They make the best of a bad situation by scrounging whatever transportation they could find.
A training and administrative depot was set up on 25th January 1941under the command of Major D W Melville. Its primary purpose was the provision of trained replacements for the inevitable future losses. There was a shortfall in both men and equipment in this theatre of the war and there was little prospect of an early improvement. Against this background, plans for an Indian, Polish and 4th British Commando Unit, to be called No 53 Middle East Commando, were shelved.
52 Commando's training programme lasted 6 weeks, half the time of their counterparts back in the United Kingdom. As with No 50 Commando, their training included demolition work, seamanship, map reading, knots and lashings, first aid, weapons training and methods of attack including guerrilla tactics and unarmed combat. Desert training included physical fitness and caring for and riding camels!
The 5th Division attacked Italian positions at Kassala and Gallabat in Sudan. While the attack stalled, positions gained were held pending the arrival of fresh supplies and reinforcements. In the mistaken belief that this was an appropriate role for 52 Commando, the 5th Division's Staff Officers deployed them as reinforcements to fill out the ranks of their infantry.
On the 16th December 1940, the Commandos left Geneifa, on the Suez Canal, by train for Port Said. Procuring sufficient weapons and equipment was a constant problem and opportunities for doing so were diminishing. At Port Said, they embarked on the 12,000 ton, French ship, President Doumer owned by Bibby Brothers and Co of Liverpool and operating out of Aden.
The 2nd Battalion of the Highland Light Infantry was also on board. Relations between the two groups took a turn for the worse when the Commandos accused the Scots of misappropriating their Christmas goodies including a quantity of whiskey. Being the national 'beverage' of Scotland, it was, perhaps, unsurprising that the 'Jocks' shouldered the responsibility for the losses, whether they were guilty or not!
Their initial destination was Port Sudan on the Red Sea, over 900 miles to the south. It proved to be an extremely uncomfortable journey in very hot weather so their arrival was a great relief for everyone.
Their next destination was Gedaref, the railhead for the forces in Gallabat in the Metemma sector. A direct overland journey was not possible because the Italians occupied Kassala through which the direct railway line passed. After 3 days they arrived at Gedaref on the afternoon of the 22nd December and spent the next 2 days or so getting themselves organised. The men were paid and allowed free time off camp. Inevitably, there was trouble with the locals which led to several stabbings. The overstretched Military Police relied on the Commando's own officers to round up their men!
On Christmas Eve the Commando paraded and were transported by trucks to an area close to the front line. There, they came under the command of the 9th Infantry Brigade (5th Indian Division) led by Brigadier Ashton G O Mayne. By May of 1942, Mayne, himself, would command the Division.
The Commandos were briefed on the disposition and strength of the Italians. The overall strength of the enemy was numerically greater but their number included many native troops. The Italians also had command of the air since Allied air cover was almost not existent. The British forces were primarily defending their positions mounting opportunistic attacks on enemy forces and positions. Aerial photos and intelligence from the field were inadequate for effective planning, so No 52 Middle East Commando's were tasked to patrol the front line area to gather information and engage with the enemy where prudent to do so.
The Commandos needed time to acclimatise to the local environment which was well over 1,000 miles south of the more familiar surroundings in Palestine and Egypt. It was the dry season and the landscape was covered with bushes, small trees and swathes of elephant grass almost 8 feet tall. The nearby Atbara river, the last tributary of the Nile before it reached the Mediterranean, flowed northwards in the wet season. It lay on the Commandos left flank and was little more than a series of pools. However, it was the only source of water for everyone living in the area - friend and foe alike.
Young and his accompanying officers set out on Christmas Day to reconnoitre the Italian positions, guided by men of the Sudan Defence Force. By the 3rd January 1941, Young was sufficiently knowledgeable about the terrain, road communications and the deployment of the enemy to plan for the tasks assigned to his command.
C Company, under the command of Captain David Smiley of the Royal Horse Guards, undertook the Commando's first patrol with an advance section, followed by 3 platoons in single file. They came under fire from high in some trees and from nearby elephant grass. Gunfire was immediately returned and grenades were thrown which set the bush alight. The brief exchange was swiftly broken off by the native soldiers as they fled leaving behind two dead. The Commandos suffered one casualty from a minor bullet wound. On the 8th of January, the Commandos carried out a long distance raid on the enemy's lines of communications between Khor Kumar and Khor Abd-er Razzag.
The next target was an important crossing on the Atbara river about a two day march away. The Sudan Defence Force provided a guide for the reconnaissance mission to establish what presence if any, the enemy had there. In the event the crossing was unguarded. In the near certain knowledge that the enemy would use the crossing at some point an ambush was planned and put into effect by Major John Milman, of the Highland Light Infantry, who had been on the earlier reconnaissance. George Young, the original leader, was out of action due to illness.
The plan envisaged 2 companies of Commandos trekking 15 miles or so behind enemy lines to set up an ambush. Major Milman was not involved in the planning of the 3-day operation and the target area was unfamiliar to him. Both factors, taken together, amounted to a significant disadvantage. Each Commando carried rations for 3 days and a forward base, prepared by their Adjutant, Major William Seymour of the Scots Guards, was available to them at the end of the first day. They prepared their ambush for the night of day 2 leaving the 3rd day for their return. [Later in the war Major Seymour serve with Mission 204 with distinction.]
Milman and his men set off on the 10th January keeping to the planned schedule for reaching the river. However, a patrol sent out had not returned when expected because they had been unable to find the river. In addition, it became clear food supplies were insufficient for everyone so Milman ordered one of the Companies back to base leaving their food supplies behind. The plan was beginning to unravel.
Meantime Brigadier Mayne mounted a diversionary action to draw the enemy from the ambush area but unfortunately, Milman had no knowledge of it. Believing that his forces were in danger of being compromised, he ordered the remaining company back to base. He then carried out his own reconnaissance locating both the river and the road. The operation was unsuccessful with much of the blame falling on Milman, but some blame lay with the planners and even Mayne himself who, like so many other senior officers in these early days of the war, had little idea of how to use the Commando's irregular form of warfare.
A further raid into this area began on the 17th January, essentially a carbon copy of the previous one with a few modifications. This time George Young took command of the force and as before, 2 companies moved out to Khor Ghumsa in the evening, where they laid up until the afternoon of the 18th. They then set out towards the Atbara River where Seymour had once more prepared a forward base for the men to lay up. On the night of the 19th/20th, they planned to attack the Gondar road and return to their forward base. However, on the 18th, the guide leading Seymour’s party lost his way wasting 8 hours causing George Young to postpone the attack to the 20th. On an otherwise frustrating day, they received the welcome news that the Italians had withdrawn from Kassala to a new position in the area of Agordat and Barentu.
On the 19th they were involved in a brief engagement with enemy troops who were able to bring up reinforcements causing the party to withdraw. Their Abyssinian guide was wounded in the leg, left behind in a safe, concealed location and recovered the following day by a stretcher party.
At 18.00 hours on the 20th, the main body of men crossed the river and by 2100 hours had reached the road and deployed to set up the ambush. C Company became engaged with an Italian patrol and suffered 2 killed and 2 wounded. They were ordered by Young to hold their ground while B Company was ordered to withdraw to positions held by his HQ section which would then provide support for C Company. The enemy re-engaged with C Company forcing Young to withdraw. They returned to base on the 22nd of January but one of the Commandos, 2695905 Lance Sergeant Ronnie Harrison, aged 20, who had been wounded was left behind in error. He hailed from Yorkshire and served in the 2nd Battalion of the Scots Guards. He has no known grave but is commemorated on the Khartoum Memorial.
A third and final attempt to attack the enemy on the Metemma-Gondar road was thwarted when the Commandos encountered a strong enemy force. After engaging with the enemy they were forced to withdraw due to their superior numbers and firepower. The Commando suffered a few light injuries.
Routine patrols continued but the Commando had only one more engagement with the enemy before they (the enemy) began to withdraw from the area. A Company, as part of a Brigade operation, attacked the enemy on positions known locally as the 'Three Bumps.' The aim was to force the early withdrawal of the Italian forces which was, in any event, thought to be imminent. During the attack the Commando sustained one casualty wounded.
On the 31st January, a Commando patrol discovered that the enemy had withdrawn from Djebel Dufeir and Djebel Negus. This withdrawal, together with that in Abyssinia, brought an end to the Italians brief period in East Africa.
The nature of the conflict was changing fast as Brigade HQ prepared to pursue the retreating enemy with what transport they had, reverting to standard infantry tactics. The Commandos had served their purpose and were, effectively, stood down. They were withdrawn to a camp close to the Atbara River until ordered to Gedaref where men of No 51 (Jewish) Commando were billeted. There was no transport so the journey of over 100 miles, on foot, took several days. Their earlier training in Egypt, especially during desert exercises, proved its worth as the men took the march in good stead.
On February 24th at 16.00 hours they boarded a train for Kassala, arriving there at 01.00 hours on the 25th. There was a short period of rest and recuperation until the 4th March, followed by training for operations in Abyssinia which would include operations in the mountains. However, with the withdrawal of the Italians from Abyssinia on the 3rd of March, 52 Commando received orders to return to Egypt by a mix of rail and river. They arrived at Abbabassia on the 9th, then a camp at Taheg, close to Cairo. They finally reached their regular camp at Geneifa, on the Suez Canal, on the 23rd of March 1941.
No 52 Middle East Commando, were amalgamated with No 50 Middle East Commando, combining as 5 Companies, each Company having two troops of 50 men each. This restructuring brought consistency with the United Kingdom formed Commandos forming other Battalions for Layforce. Lt. Col. George Young, Royal Engineers, was in overall command of No 50/52 Middle East Commando (D Battalion Layforce). His Company Commanders were:
A Company – Captain K.E. Hermon – Durham Light Infantry
B Company – Captain C Parish – Royal Sussex Reg.
C Company – Captain W.J. Burton – York and Lancaster Reg
D Company – Captain R. Boyle – Black Watch
E Company - L.N.R. Wilson – Royal Sussex Reg.
In April they moved to Sidi Bishr on the outskirts of Alexandria, and on the 24th May they embarked for Crete.
George Young, in a report he wrote after the second of the three failed road attacks, opined that the size of the force he deployed was inadequate and that the Commandos training would benefit from more standard infantry tactics. It was also evident that a number of his men fell short of the standard required. They were weeded out and when men lost through illness were added, his force was depleted by 50 men. To that were added 60 men who succumbed to malaria.
4919364 Pte. Joseph Flood aged 24 of the South Staffordshire Regiment
2657950 Gdsm. George Howarth aged just 21 and from the 3rd Battalion Coldstream Guards remained behind this being the human side and cost of war. His date of death is recorded as the 5th January 1941 making him No 52 Middle East Commando's first fatality.
2695640 L/Cpl. Edward Norman aged 22 and from the 2nd Battalion Scots Guards,
4621750 Pte. Lionel Vokes aged 24 of the 1st Battalion Sherwood Foresters,
Charles Messenger – The Commandos 1940-1946
Charles Messenger – The Middle East Commandos
H W Wynter – Special Forces in the Desert War 1940-1943
Researched and written by Alan Orton. Redrafted for website presentation by Geoff Slee and approved by the author before publication.