W COMMANDO ~
W Commando were Canada's Beach Commandos. They were specially trained Commandos set
up to create and maintain order on Normandy's Juno Beach during the landings. Such was the
uncertainty of what they would find that they trained for all conceivable
contingencies from protection against chemical warfare and clearing obstacles to
driving Sherman tanks! However, their main task was to keep the traffic of men,
machines and supplies flowing through the beach area.
W Commando was made up of volunteer members of the Royal
Canadian Navy. In August of 1943 it was assigned overseas to
HMS Armadillo at Ardentinney in the
Clyde estuary of Scotland. The Commando unit was made
up of 3 sub-units, W 1, W 2 and W 3 each with 25 ratings and leading seamen
and 3 officers under the
combined leadership of a Commanding Beach Master and an
Assistant Beach Master.
The Commando was set up to organise and control the flow
of vehicles, men and supplies onto and through Juno Beach on D-Day and for
several crucial weeks thereafter. Any congestion on the beach resulting in
delays in the orderly supply of ammunition, vehicles. equipment, food, medical
supplies, not to mention fresh troops, would have dire consequences for the
progress of the war. For general information about the work of beach Commandos
visit RN Beach Commandos [Book cover reproduced
courtesy of Scholastic of Toronto, Canada.]
HMS Armadillo was a relatively small and rugged Royal Navy Combined Operation base
specializing in beach commando training. On arrival we were inducted into the
code of requirements as trainees at the base. We were supplied with British
Army uniforms and fatigues with badges to be sewn on and assigned to our
sleeping quarters in Nissan huts. We were left to locate the heads (toilets) and
mess hall but since we arrived late for supper we went without.
Our six month training period during that winter was very
arduous. Quite apart from the frequent cold rains the temperatures hovered
around freezing with snow on the hill tops. The general tenor of the training
was best illustrated by the trainers often shouted learning point, 'If you're
dumb enough to get yourself killed, we'd rather have it happen here than
later in combat when others will be depending on you.’
Learning to crawl under barbed wire with live machine-gun
fire overhead was a salutary experience as was making our way through a detonating mine field on the long
assault course. To describe it as stimulating is an understatement. I finished one exercise
with a bullet hole through my backpack. There were many sessions of unarmed
[The photo opposite and the two
below were taken by Lt.
Milne, RCNVR. They show Canadian Navy Commando "W" training at
HMS Armadillo in 1943. In the one
opposite, the Commando top right is Bill Newell of Canada who sent the photos
in. In the two photos below note the evidence of nearby explosions which were a
characteristic of the realistic conditions under which the training was
Our numerous three-day exercises in the rugged hills around Ardentinney
were gruelling, cold and tough, but the experiences instilled a strong sense of
survival in us, which was the purpose behind the training. Getting any sleep at
night was a trial as we fashioned one-man tents with our ground sheets as best
we could. We ate meagre amounts of food consisting of one K ration* for each day with a small block of sugar
and one of chocolate which was hardly adequate considering the physical
exertions involved. However, the experience made us appreciate the 'comforts' of
our camp accommodations which, although basic, were luxurious in comparison. We were always pleased to get home from the hills.
[* K rations were issued to American service personnel in the field.
Unlike regular military rations they required minimal preparation using canned,
pre-cooked or freeze-dried foods, powdered beverage mixes and concentrated food
The weapons and survival equipment we used in
the training was old and worn and although it served the purpose it caused
frequent accidents resulting in casualties which the instructors seemed to
anticipate. We made many practice night landings from a well-worn Landing Craft
and not once did the ramp operate properly... so it was over the top and down
into frigid water. Many items of equipment and weapons were left on the bottom
in the interest of surviving and as a result of these nocturnal exercises our sleeping hut was
continually cluttered with clothes lines loaded with wet clothes.
We completed the course at Ardentinney in February 1944 and we were sent to
HMS Lizard in Hove, on the south coast of England adjacent to Brighton. From
there we were posted to various Canadian Army and Combined Operation bases
throughout the south of England for specialty training. In the Hazelmere area we
operated Sherman tanks and other mechanized equipment and dispatch riding on Harley-Davidsons
(on the road) and Nortons off the road. Elsewhere we trained in sniper firing,
chemical warfare, flame-throwing, detecting and disarming mines and booby traps,
and demolition. We were issued with reading materials on aircraft recognition to
study at night.
Part of the motorcycle course involved jumps in an area
known as the ‘Devil’s Punchbowl.’ There were many accidents and minor injuries
and the instructors seemed more concerned about the
bikes than to the riders! The tank operating training was undertaken with
enthusiasm and, as it turned out during the Normandy landings,
it paid off in large measure in keeping the armoured traffic moving through the
beachhead. Any serious congestion on the beaches would have severely restricted
the deployment of fresh troops and their equipment as well as supplies of fuel,
food and armaments to the advancing front line.
The soldiers of the Canadian Army regiments stationed at the
bases where we received training did not welcome our presence because of the
danger that our higher levels of discipline and fitness might be adopted by
their own commanding officers. One such example was the requirement to
'double-up' anywhere outside our living quarters except while we were on leave.
Also, whereas they would discard much of their mess hall food with complaints,
we would often return for seconds because it was so much better than our rations
on the British bases both in quantity and quality.
A short time later we moved to an army base in the Hindhead area
for a ten day training course in chemical warfare and flame-throwing. After the
cold winter months spent in Scotland the weather in the late spring of southern England was
balmy in comparison. We put up four-man bell tents for our sleeping quarters in a valley below
the main camp with outhouses and water troughs for washing. 45 gallon drums with classified contents
were everywhere. The
flame-throwing training used Bren-gun carriers against mock pillboxes which
we were expected to encounter along the beaches of France. The fluid used was a
new development which later became known as napalm. It would stick to whatever
it hit up to a hundred yards and continue burning with a very hot flame.
Training with the mustard gas often used during WW1 was
unpleasant and hazardous. It was dabbed on our hands and arms to illustrate what
would happen if we failed to protect ourselves. Liquid
mustard gas was also covertly sprayed on the wooden floor of the training lab
with the result that several of us felt painful burns on our feet as the gas
penetrated through the soles of our jack boots.
We discovered that exposure to the gas had the effect of
desensitising our noses. Two of us had been accidentally sprayed with liquid gas on the backs of
our fatigues and our necks. The burning pain was instant and painful causing us
to run back to our camp to wash it off. By then it was late in the day so we
went for a glass of
bitters before supper in the canteen. It was full of soldiers and the air
very warm and thick with smoke. We picked up our drinks at the bar and made our way through the crowd to a
table in the far corner. We were oblivious to all of the coughing and
spluttering going on around us and to the sudden preference people had for the
outdoors. In no time we had the entire canteen to ourselves and shortly
afterwards an MP wearing a respirator entered and ordered us to vacate the
we encountered the patrons in resentful mood at having had their rest and
relaxation so rudely interrupted. The incident did not endear us to our Canadian army
On returning to HMS Lizard we learned that W-1 unit was to be
sent to HMS Volcano in the Cumbrian mountains of northwest England for a ten-day
course on handling explosives, demolition, detecting mines and booby-traps. Much
of the training was performed on beaches overlooking the Irish Sea from where we could see the
Isle of Man on a clear day. We learned to load and detonate ‘Beehive’
anti-pillbox devices which fired a nickel ball through concrete up to two feet
thick, and the application of cortex cord explosives used in removing anti-tank
pillars as well as detecting concealed booby-traps.
On returning to HMS Lizard once again we were relocated to
HMS Mastodon at Exbury, Hampshire where we were to provide security on the
Rothschild estate. This had been requisitioned by the RN for the planning of
Operation Neptune - the water-borne part of Operation Overlord. The comings and
goings of many high-ranking personnel during this period was strictly
classified. While not engaged on security patrols we continued training in the
use of small arms and elsewhere on the nearby Beaulieu River others were
training crews for the many types of landing craft to be used in the forthcoming
Many night hours were spent here watching for low flying
German aircraft which were known to be dropping espionage agents in the area.
One Junkers 188 was shot down and crashed on the front lawn of the estate. There
were seven bodies pulled from the wreckage whereas this aircraft was known to
have a crew of only five. Our searches for enemy agents in the surrounding
country only turned up Land Army girls working in the fields.
Early in May '44 we were moved to HMS Vectis, a holiday camp
near Cowes on the Isle of Wight which had been requisitioned by the RN for use
as a Combined Operations base. It was here that we waited for our assignment
into action with the invasion, although at the time we knew nothing about when,
where or what. I spent much of my time on the firing range practicing with my
elderly Lewis air-cooled machine-gun. Above the target bank we could see many of
the barrage balloons in the near distance as they drifted above all of the ships
anchored in the channel. Each ship had two balloons with dangling cables as
protection against dive bombers.
The required sequence of .303 cartridges loaded into the breech
pan of the Lewis gun was one ball, one armour-piercing and one tracer. The
tracer enabled the gunner to see where he was shooting. The down side to this
sequence was that in constant rapid fire the barrel of the gun seriously
overheated. To reduce the likelihood of this happening I occasionally had the
pans loaded without tracers. The gun was heavy and had a tendency to pull
upwards when firing, and for better control I preferred to lie down to fire the
gun. In any position it was quite hard to control. One of our officers
criticized my low firing position and wished to show me how to do it standing
up. I removed the empty pan and loaded one with no tracers. The kick from the
gun was much greater than he expected and he could neither control the upward
drift or release the trigger. We stayed well out of his way and watched as one
the barrage balloons succumbed to his uncontrollable fusillade by deflating and
falling to the ship's deck with all of its
cables. Much to his discomfort and our pleasure he handed back the gun and left
the scene muttering obscenities as he
Bomb Disposal at HMS Volcano
It was about a five hour ferry and train ride from our
operational base at HMS Vectis on the Isle of Wight to London and a lot
longer from there to the small community named Holmrook on the west coast of
Cumberland (now Cumbria) some 300 miles further north. At the railway station
we boarded two trucks which were there waiting for us and after a
comparatively short ride we passed through the gates of an estate. The mansion
house was similar to HMS Mastodon but considerably smaller.
We were W-1 Unit made up of twenty five men and three officers
from Royal Canadian Navy Beach Commando ’W’ which was composed of three
units…W-1, W-2, W-3, totalling 75 men and 11 officers. Since completing our
basic Commando training at HMS Armadillo in Scotland, each unit had
been sent to several different training centres for a wide variety of
offensive and defensive instruction. [Photo of the now demolished Holmrook
Hall (HMS Volcano) courtesy of
Sheila Ann Cartwright.]
The men were assigned to two temporary out-buildings at the
rear of the mansion and on a bank overlooking a fast-flowing river, and the
officers were taken into the mansion. There was a small mess hall nearby and
the meals were typical of that provided at most British bases, but still an
improvement over that fed to us during our six months of basic training at
HMS Armadillo in Scotland during the winter.
After breakfast we were mustered on the small parade square
with our weapons and told that we were to double down about a half mile to the
beach for explosives training. The beach was secured off from the public and
on a clear sunny day we could see the Isle of Man. On arriving at the beach we
found three instructors waiting for us and we were broken into three groups of
nine each. The instructors allowed us to handle various types of explosives
such as forcite, cortex and cordite. He instructed us in detail as to the use
of each type and the amount applied in each application.
There were 6 inch diameter wooden poles driven deep into the
underwater beach at an angle towards the sea and which showed about two feet
above the surface when the tide was out. We were taught how to cut these off
underwater using a triple cord of cordtex with a blasting cap. Many of these
posts were armed with an explosive which we were taught to disarm prior to
cutting the pole off, but of course in our instance dummy explosives were
In the area directly behind the beach in long grass we were
shown how to recognize the anti-personnel ’S’ mines. They were vicious,
hard-to-see and easily-tripped devices that had three tempered steel wires
protruding about six inches above the sand holding a ball bearing amongst
them. If any of the wires was jarred by a boot the ball bearing dropped down
through a canister and detonated a firing pin, similar to a shot gun shell,
which blew the canister into the air where it exploded about ten or twelve
feet above ground, spraying some 200 lead pellets in a circle. The only
effective action was to stand aside, let the 'S' mine eject into the air
and then lie down over the hole it had created because the pellets sprayed
outwards leaving an untouched space of about six feet in diameter in the
centre... easier said than done!
There were various simulated concrete German defence
structures such as gun emplacements on the beach for practicing the use of
demolition devices. One of these devices was known as a ’beehive’. It was
about the size of a large coffee can with three small steel bars about six
inches long attached around it. Also attached was a length of cortex with a
fuse cap inserted into the core of it. The objective was to fasten the device
to the concrete wall by cord, if possible, and then light the fuse. In about
twenty seconds the fuse detonated a charge which fired a white-hot nickel ball
with the capacity to penetrate a concrete wall up to two feet thick and then
ricochet around inside the bunker disabling or killing the gun crew.
We were also taught the skill of using the No. 36 hand grenade
while at HMS Armadillo, from pulling the pin and holding the spring
lever down until we knew where to throw the grenade. This was a dangerous
practice to yourself and to others nearby if you were hit by enemy fire or
inadvertently dropped the grenade it would explode. We also learned how to
detect anti-tank land mines which required a weight of 1500 lbs to detonate
Back at the base there was a wooden building set off by itself
which was used for training in the detection of booby traps. Such devices were
hidden under simulated casualties lying on the floor, attached to furniture
and anything else that could be moved. These were small hidden explosives
which could be detonated by the slightest movement. The idea was, in the event
that you occupied any facility which had previously been occupied by the
enemy, to move very carefully and not move anything until the area had been
checked and cleared.
The first enemy bunker which I occupied just behind the beach
on Juno was a four foot deep excavation about twelve feet by ten feet with
three feet of sand bags around all sides except the opening to get in and out.
The two beds inside comprised twelve German army blankets. The only booby trap
I could find was a large picture of Betty Garble taking a milk bath!
Two weeks later we were transported to Ryde where we boarded
an LCI(L) to be taken across the channel to Juno Beach in Normandy where wee
took over the positions of ‘P’ Commando, which had suffered a number of
casualties. The sight of all the battle cruisers, destroyers, mine-sweepers,
landing ships and landing craft was awesome. While there was still enemy shelling
and dive-bombing of the landing area, the ground combat action had moved
inland some distance behind the beach. There were increasing numbers of German
prisoners being gathered on the beach and many of them had soiled field
dressings on their wounds.
From that point on we were busy night and day guiding in
landing craft and directing the steady flow of incoming troops as well as
unloading tanks and other armoured equipment. We were also occupied carrying the
wounded and escorting prisoners into empty landing ships to be taken to England.
My weapon was always at my side ready for firing in the event of counter attacks
and for firing at low flying enemy
aircraft intent on strafing the beaches. The first day I found a vacant enemy bunker in the sand dunes behind
the beach which was close enough for me to use for short naps during any lapse
in the traffic. I was taken aback to find twelve German army blankets for a bed
and a large picture pinned on the sand bags of Betty Grable taking a bath; I had
stumbled into a luxury suite.
A short time later in the dark of night I was unloading
Churchill Tanks from an LCT during shell fire from a 200mm railway cannon at Le
Havre. I became trapped in the grates of the loading ramp injuring both legs and was taken to a nearby Mobile Army
Surgical Hospital (MASH) station with a makeshift airfield and flown to a hospital in England. On
recovering well enough to walk with a crutch I was sent back to Vectis and from
there over to HMS Dolphin at Gosport for transport back to Normandy on a
motor launch (ML).
Arriving off the coast at Arromanches we could see shell fire behind the beaches
so the young captain would not go in close to put me ashore. After a couple of
shots of navy rum the cook offered to row me in the 8ft skiff carried by the
launch. In the black of night we made it to the beach without being hit by a
landing craft. It was likely the only rowboat landing made during the invasion!
While making my way from Gold Beach north to Juno I was
recruited into driving a Sherman tank up to the combat lines. After two days
of that I managed to find my unit on Juno Beach. In all we had spent 6 weeks on
the beach and the operations were in good order. In addition the Mulberry
Harbours and the capture of French ports provided other routes for the movement
of men, machines and supplies and W Commando
was returned to HMS Vectis where we were officially disbanded. Shortly after
we boarded RMS Queen Elizabeth at Southampton for the voyage to New York with
three thousand American casualties and four thousand German POWs for company.
I left the unit with an everlasting deep sense of pride for having accomplished
one of the most demanding military training schedules in existence at the time
and having played a part in the difficult process of ensuring the success of the
greatest amphibious invasion in history.
There are around 300 books listed on our 'Combined Operations Books' page which can be
purchased on-line from the Advanced Book Exchange (ABE) whose search banner
checks the shelves of thousands of book shops world-wide. Type in or copy and
paste the title of your choice or use the 'keyword' box for book suggestions.
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'Books' for more information.
On Juno Beach; Canada's D-Day Heroes.
The book is available as a
paperback in English and in French from Chapters, Indigo and other bookstores
everywhere. This book is also usually available from ABE Books (see 'books' link
E G Finley's full account of 'W' Commando is available courtesy of
Estate (Catherine Rae Finley) via the good offices of
Richard V. Laughton.
and then click on the PDF link in the "View the Book" box (top left of page).
If you have any information or book recommendations
about W Commandos please contact us.
I am looking for any information regarding Canadian soldiers being recruited for
"Commando" units beginning in Canada in late 1940. After volunteering, training
continued in Scotland in early 1941.
I have a personal document outlining the presence of British Officers and NCOs
at Camp Borden, Ontario on such a recruitment drive with Canadian soldiers
volunteering (about 100) from a number of Canadian regiments and undergoing
initial Commando training in Nova Scotia (Camp Debert), Newfoundland and the
Hudson Bay area after Christmas 1940 and into early 1941 (and maybe later).
I'd also like to know how they would've been integrated into British units once
in the UK. I am following a thread of a story which "may" include Glenmore Lodge
in Aviemore or another camp nearby, as well as "another camp in Scotland"
(undetermined at this point).
Glenmore Lodge may indicate SOE involvement, but the source states "Commando"
specifically, not SOE. He also mentions 8 small raids into Norway in early 1941
and 1 in Holland (the Walcheren area) and that many/all of these small raids
were not documented and the participants "sworn to secrecy forever". Training
was completed "at the end of January 1941" and raiding began shortly thereafter.
Researching the standard Commando records reveals CLAYMORE, but no other raids
during this time period (Feb-April 1941) in any of these locations which leads
me to 1 of 3 conclusions: (1) they never happened (2) they were CDO raids never
acknowledged for very good reasons and required "plausible deniability" for
governments in exile and/or (3) they belonged to another organization....SOE or
"other"....what "other" I have no idea.
A friend of the source was killed on the 4th or 5th raid (a British soldier not
a Canadian) which leads me to the obvious conclusion it was a composite unit. I
have found no evidence of this man in CWGC records or elsewhere.
Any thoughts would be most heartily appreciated. I've been through many records
PRO Kew, Ottawa, Oslo and interviewed all sorts of folks over 15 years with only
2 tangible pieces of evidence surfacing; a letter to me regarding the details
and the results of an interview with a Norwegian Resistance member in Oslo. I've
had other small successes, but nothing I can hang my hat on definitively.
The names of the two participants mentioned above are: 1) Pte (or LCpl) James F.
Connell (parent regiment: Royal Regiment of Canada). 2) John Henderson (England)
(rank and parent regiment unknown, but likely Pte, LCpl or other junior rank).
Henderson was supposedly killed on operations in Norway during the period
mentioned above (Feb thru April 1941).
thanks in advance, Jeff O'Connell
The author of this
page, Bill Newell, sadly passed away on Monday March 5th 2012. He was an
enthusiastic contributor to this website and offered every support and
encouragement almost since the website was established over 10 years ago. He is