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Combined Operations - a Brief Overview.

Normandy, 60th Anniversary of D-Day on June 6 2004. After you've read this page, you should know why Churchill set up the Combined Operations Command, the duties and responsibilities he bestowed upon it and some of its achievements.

[Photo; Normandy, 60th Anniversary of D-Day on June 6 2004. A US veteran explains to young people the part he played in the D-Day landings.]

Beyond this page, there are over 100 individual stories from the crew members of landing craft, the troops they carried to the landing beaches, Commandos, seaborne radar specialists, pilots and many more on such diverse subjects as raids and landings, joint training exercises, Mulberry Harbours, PLUTO fuel pipelines under the English Channel, Hobart's "Funnies" tank adaptations for beach clearance work and even experiments with ice ships!


War with Germany was declared on the 3rd of September 1939, but fighting between the opposing land forces did not start, in the west, until the following May. As part of the Allied Expeditionary Force, the British Army joined forces with its French counterparts to prepare defensive positions along the French/Belgium border.

The Germans attacked on the 10th of May, 1940, using a new, aggressive form of warfare called Blitzkrieg (Lightening War). Their coordinated mobile ground forces with close quarter air support, for which the Allies were ill prepared to resist, caused them to fall back. Over the ensuing weeks, the Allies were surrounded and retreated to the French channel port of Dunkirk, in Northern France. There was no prospect of an orderly withdrawal back to the UK, so countless lorries, tanks, heavy guns, stores and ammunition were destroyed and abandoned.

Over just a few days in late May/early June, 1940, 330,000 troops were evacuated from the beaches of Dunkirk on an armada of ships and small boats and returned safely to the UK. The evacuation was miraculous and rightly hailed as a great achievement, but Churchill and his military advisers knew it would take years to recover from the debacle. The ultimate aim was to recruit, re-equip and train an invasion force of overwhelming size and strength, that could establish a number of beachheads on enemy occupied territory, through which the main invasion force could pass... and there would be no 'friendly' ports and harbours to use.

This invasion would, therefore, be amphibious - directly from the sea onto unimproved landing beaches. Thousands of shallow draft landing craft of many types would be required, but they had yet to be designed, manufactured, tested and modified and their future crews recruited and trained in seamanship, craft control and amphibious warfare. It was a daunting task on an epic scale; but that was the easy part! The Army, Navy and Air Force, had each built up their traditions over centuries in some cases. During the amphibious phase of the invasion, they would require to work together as an efficient, single, unified force for which a vast 'Combined Operations' amphibious training programme was established for hundreds of thousands of personnel from the three services.


The need was urgent and Churchill wasted no time. On June 4th 1940, just hours after the evacuation at Dunkirk came to an end, he ordered the Chiefs of Staff (Army, Navy and Air Force) to set up what became the Combined Operations Command. The Command would concentrate solely on offensive operations against the enemy to avoid the inevitable distractions of competing defence considerations.

These were anxious times since the country was very vulnerable to invasion. The defence of the country fell to the Royal Navy, RAF, Bomber Command, Coastal Command, the Observer Corps, the Home Guard or Local Defence Volunteers, Civil Defence etc., leaving the Combined Operations Command, as Churchill had ordered, to focus on offensive operations.

From the outset, senior ranks recruited to the Combined Operations Command realised the Command's ethos was a unique blend of best practices from the Army, Navy and RAF. This avoided endless arguments about protocols and procedures and paved the way for blue sky thinking unencumbered by the "we do it this way" mentality.

However, it wasn’t all sweetness and light. The Chiefs of Staff of the traditional mainstream services did not like "the new boy on the block", particularly its Commander, Admiral Sir Roger Keyes, and for a good year tensions ran high. To restore harmony, Churchill replaced Keyes with a younger naval officer with a highly developed sense of diplomacy. Lord Louis Mountbatten took over from Admiral of the Fleet, Sir Roger Keyes, in October 1941.

CCombined Operations 1940-1942  Ministry of Information booklet.ommandos

It would take years to equip and train a full scale invasion force so Churchill ordered the Command to establish a lightly equipped, fast reaction force to undertake small raids along the coasts of enemy occupied countries with friendly populations. The early raids were undertaken by the Small Scale Raiding Force and later by the newly formed Commando units, most of which comprised around 500 officers and men. Admiral of the Fleet, Sir Roger Keyes, played a vital role in the formation of the Commandos and his son, Geoffrey, was killed on a Commando raid to capture Rommel.

The first of these raids took place on the Channel Islands and Norway, followed by others in France as far south as Bordeaux. The enemy never knew where, or when, attacks would happen, forcing them to commit far more troops to vulnerable coastal areas than would otherwise have been necessary. This took a little pressure off the Russians, who were, by June 1941, fighting the Germans on the Eastern Front. Successful raids also provided morale boosting stories for the armed services and the country at large at a time when the tide of war was with the enemy. The Ministry of Information's 144 page booklet 'Combined Operations 1940 -1942' published by HMSO, is a good example of this.

[Copies may be available on line from the Advance Book Exchange (ABE) for a few pounds including postage. Click here for ABE link.]

Dozens of Commando raids were undertaken in the ensuing years (see Raids and Landings Index), but throughout this period the Combined Operations Command's main effort was to train the 3 services to work together for large scale amphibious invasions of occupied North Africa and Europe.


The Command ran a vast training programme in the use of landing craft for major landings in North Africa, Sicily, Italy, Normandy (D-Day), Southern France and Walcheren in Holland. In each case there were no friendly ports to disembark the many thousands of troops, their transport, tanks, big mobile guns, ammunition, food, medical services, fuel, reinforcements and general supplies. All ports suitable for Allied use were heavily garrisoned by the enemy and set to be blown up in the event of the Allies taking control. Everything required to supply and equip the invading force had, therefore, to be landed on beaches in specially designed shallow draft, flat bottomed boats, of which there were around 40 types to meet all requirements. Thousands of Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve personnel were recruited and trained to operate the craft and to learn seamanship. Not surprisingly, the flat bottomed craft proved to be more difficult to manoeuvre than conventional keeled craft.

Throughout the four years from June 1940 to June 1944, each of the three services undertook their own training programmes to keep their personnel fit and skilled in their particular aspect of warfare. The Combined Operations Command added another layer of training, where these respective skills were brought together to form a unified fighting force. A good football team does not only need eleven fit and skilled players but players who work together as a team to defeat the opposition. The Combined Operations motto "United We Conquer" applies in any team activity.

When the RNVR crews reached an acceptable standard in seamanship and craft control, they undertook joint training exercises with Army units in places like Loch Fyne in the west of Scotland. Here, the Army and Navy learned to work together, embarking troops, sailing in convoy in open waters and landing on "enemy" beaches… procedures repeated over and over until they became second nature. In a similar fashion, larger landing craft embarked and disembarked lorries, tanks, fuel, munitions and stores, while specialist craft, such as those designed for firing rocket bombs, spigot bombs and anti-aircraft shells, honed their skills in less busy waters.

Near the end of each 6 week training course, 516 Squadron from RAF Dundonald in Ayrshire, provided smoke cover, dropped small bombs on the landing beaches and strafed the beaches with machine gun fire. On the ground, mortars were fired onto the beaches, all to provide the landing craft crews and the assault troops they carried, with a good sense of what to expect when they landed on enemy held beaches. Deaths and serious injury did occur occasionally during these realistic training exercises.

The Combined Training Centre’s administrative and training staff formed the core of the training operation but amongst the landing craft crews and the troops they carried, there was a constant turnover as one group completed their training another group arrived. Further training then continued in many different locations throughout the UK, and by this means, our armed forces became ready to embark upon the largest amphibious invasion in history – D-Day, June 6th 1944.

Raids & Landings

All the training for the Commandos and regular service personnel, was to prepare them to undertake amphibious landings on enemy occupied territory. These might be small scale "hit and run" Commando raids such as Vaagso & Maaloy in Norway and St Nazaire in France or full scale invasions in North Africa, Sicily, Italy and, of course, the biggest of them all, the Normandy beaches of France on D Day, June 6th, 1944.

The map below of the D Day bombardment of the Normandy beaches, conveys a sense of the enormous scale of Operation Neptune, the Amphibious phase of Operation Overlord. In just 5 days 326,000 troops and 104,000 tons of supplies had been landed involving over 6000 vessels with hundreds of aircraft providing support and air cover.

Google map showing disposition of land sea and paratroops on D Day.

There's additional information below for those wishing to know more about the history, development and guiding principles of Combined Operations.

Developments and Principles

History is littered with stories of amphibious campaigns arguably going back to the Phoenicians and earlier. All had one thing in common - the need for seamen to transport soldiers to battle. In more modern times, aircrew were added to the mix in support of ground operations by dropping parachutists, smoke screens and bombs and in providing general air cover for land and sea forces. It's a common sense idea that these disparate forces should work closely together. But how?

By the time of Wolfe's amphibious assault against the French at Quebec in 1759, it was becoming clear that certain rules and principles might be applied to ensure a reasonable chance of success of an amphibious assault against entrenched enemy forces. Hitler found to his cost that his forces were not ready for an amphibious invasion of the British Isles and halted his advance at the English channel, even although there were compelling reasons to continue his push from mainland Europe. His forces were simply not geared up for an amphibious invasion and he had failed to gain supremacy in the air.

In between the two world wars, Combined Operations took a back seat. The ill fated WWI Dardanelles amphibious landings no doubt acting as a damper on ideas and initiatives. Politicians and planners alike had other priorities and money was so tight that spending anything on the development of Combined Operations was not a priority. Nevertheless, on the 22nd of February 1936 a document, prepared by the Royal Naval Staff College in Greenwich, was to have a profound effect on the future development of Combined Operations. Its author, Captain (later Vice Admiral) Bertram Watson, swept aside all the negative and backward looking thoughts and ideas and set out a vision for the future. The principles he laid down were to;

  •  train in all methods for the seizure of defended beaches,

  •  develop the materiel necessary for such methods with special regard to the protection of troops, speed of landing and the attainment of surprise,

  •  develop methods and materiel for the destruction or neutralisation of enemy defences, including bombardment and aircraft co-operation,

  •  employ the whole Combined Operations force for carrying out minor operations by itself or, in conjunction with regular military forces, to act as the covering force to seize and hold beaches for the main landing.

Two years later a second well argued paper, this time written by Sir Ronald Adam, Deputy Chief of the General Staff, was presented to the decision makers. From this the Inter-Services Training and Development Centre (ISTDC) was born. Situated at Fort Cumberland near Portsmouth, it comprised four officers, a small clerical staff, a free hand, a lot of encouragement, direct access to the Deputy Chiefs of Staff and thirty thousand pounds! From little acorns mighty oak trees grow!!

'A Normandy Beachhead'The Emergence of Combined Operations

During the first six months of the war, very little happened on the western front. The British Expeditionary Force (BEF) and the French forces had great faith in the Maginot defensive line, which ran along the French/German border. However, the main German attack, when it came on the 10th of May 1940, was through the Benelux countries to the north and by May 27 the BEF had been pushed into an enclave around the Channel ports, which ended in the evacuation of 330,000 men from the beaches of Dunkirk. 

There had been virtually no Combined Operations up to this point but Dunkirk changed all that. A new approach was needed to harass the enemy and tie up his forces of occupation from northern Norway to southern France. On June 14, 1940, Lieutenant General Alan Bourne was appointed "Commander of Raiding Operations on coasts in enemy occupation and Advisor to the Chiefs of Staff on Combined Operations."

Bourne was a Royal Marine Commander with experience of both land and sea operations but Churchill felt he lacked the experience to deal effectively with interference from the Admiralty. On the 17th of July. 1940, Roger Keyes was appointed Director of Combined Operations and shortly thereafter Irregular Commando Units were raised. They were, initially, ineffective as raids on Boulogne and the Channel Islands testify. Churchill was not impressed with these pin-prick raids and for 8 months there was a lull in activity. However, during this time a clearer vision of the role of the Commandos working together with the RN and RAF was formed and training honed accordingly.

In time, a vast training programme was set up to ensure regulars from the three services also worked closely together on amphibious landings. The No 1 Combined Training Centre was located at Inveraray on Loch Fyne, where around 250,000 servicemen and women from the 3 services (mainly the Army and Navy) practiced amphibious landings through daily embarkations and disembarkations onto beaches. The final practice landings included live ammunition, mortars and smoke bombs to provide a taste of the reality they would encounter.

Lord Louis Mountbatten replaced Roger Keyes in October 1941.

The Principles

It would be arrogant to suggest that the complexities of  WW2 amphibious combined operations could be distilled into a few simple rules as might be found in a "Dummy's Guide to Combined Ops."  However, that said, a number of important prerequisites do appear to apply to all major amphibious campaigns and these are summarised below.

To secure the best possible result, with the resources available, a combined operation should ideally have;

  •  unity of purpose, mutual trust and confidence at the highest political and military levels. The political leadership (The War Cabinet), the Chiefs of Staff for the participating services and the Supreme (Field) Commander should be involved, together in discussion, in the development of the strategic plan.

  •  similar unity of purpose, mutual trust and confidence at field commander level. The Supreme Commander and his Commanders in Chief (C in C) from the various participating services should consider and discuss the strategic plans and agree the best course of action. They should be of one mind on the subject.

  •  accurate and up to date intelligence on the chosen landing beaches including hidden obstacles, the water gap, slope of beach, currents and the condition of the sand and gravel.

  •  accurate and up to date intelligence on the enemy's coastal defences.

  •  overwhelming superior firepower (rockets, shells and bombs) to weaken, confuse, disrupt and dislodge opposing forces prior to landings.

  •  a large element of strategic and/or tactical surprise arising from the circulation of mis-information, spoofing and feints (not always possible).

  •  command and control or HQ ship to provide a communication hub, to monitor progress and to direct operations in the light of intelligence received during the action or campaign.

To these could be added rules concerning training, weather forecasting, beach head logistics, supply chain (food, fuel, munitions, spares etc), maintenance, medical support etc.


In the confusion of war and with many conflicting exigencies in the allocation of scarce resources, seldom, if ever, were all these conditions complied with. Additionally, as is in the nature of human relationships,  the "unity of purpose, mutual trust and confidence" requirement was often unattainable in full measure. When they were not present, there was usually a price to pay without the welcome intervention of lady luck.

This Combined Operations Staff Notebook for operations in the Far East, illustrates the depth and complexity of the planning process necessary to ensure that the 3 services worked together as a unified force.

Further Reading

There are around 300 books listed on our 'Combined Operations Books' page. They, or any other books you know about, can be purchased on-line from the Advanced Book Exchange (ABE). Their search banner link, on our 'Books' page, checks the shelves of thousands of book shops world-wide. Just type in, or copy and paste the title of your choice, or use the 'keyword' box for book suggestions. There's no obligation to buy, no registration and no passwords.

News & Information

Photo of single poppy.About Us

Background to the website and memorial project and a look to the future; plus other small print stuff and website accounts etc. Click here for information.

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Featured Links; Combined Ops Heritage; 40 D Day Stories & Combined Operations Jigsaw Challenge


Photo of single poppy.Remember a Veteran

Pay a personal tribute to veterans who served in, or alongside, the Combined Operations Command in WW2 by adding their details and optional photo to our Roll of Honour or They Also Served pages on this website, which include the Combined Operations prayer.

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Photo of single poppy.Events and Places to Visit

Organisers: Reach the people who will be interested to know about your Combined Operations or war related event by adding it to our  webpage free of charge. Everyone else: Visit our webpage for information on events and places to visit. If you know of an event or place of interest, that is not listed, please let us know. To notify an event or place of interest, click here. To visit the webpage click here.

Photo of single poppy.Find Books of Interest 

Search for Books direct from our Books page. Don't have the name of a book in mind? Just type in a keyword to get a list of possibilities... and if you want to purchase you can do so on line through the Advanced Book Exchange (ABE).

Photo of single poppy.Combined Operations Handbook (Far East)

The handbook was prepared for Combined Operations in the Far East. It illustrates the depth and complexity of the planning process necessary to ensure that the 3 services worked together as a unified force.

Photo of single poppy.New to Combined Ops?

Visit Combined Operations Explained for an easy introduction to this complex subject.

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