~ COMBINED OPERATIONS ~

WW2 land, sea and air forces of the Allied Nations planning, training and operating together as a unified force on amphibious raids and landings against the enemy.

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Hundreds of thousands of visits each year to 200  web pages & 4000 photos. The Website has been published & hosted by Geoff Slee since 2000.

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~ THE ROYAL NAVAL COMMANDOS ~

The Beachhead Commandos

Background

The Royal Naval Commandos were informally known as the Beachhead Commandos. Their primary task was to control the movement of men, vehicles and supplies through the landing beaches during amphibious landings. The avoidance of bottlenecks and delays was vital to maintain the flow of reinforcements, transport, armaments and supplies, which gave the Beach Commandos a pivotal role in the supply chain. This account was written by S H Kipling.

The earliest attempts to exercise control over the landing beaches were undertaken by the Royal Navy crews of landing craft, but these proved to be inadequate. As a result, specialized 'beach parties' were formed, trained and first used on Operation Ironclad to capture the port of Diego Suarez at the northern tip of Madagascar between 5th and 7th May, l942. This proved so successful that the Royal Naval Commandos (RNC), sometimes known as 'Beachhead Commandos,' were formed.

Their duties included: landing in or ahead of the first wave of assault troops to clear the beaches, to mark the limits of the beachhead and to consolidate the beachhead, clearing Allied personnel and equipment from the beachhead expeditiously, helping to moor landing craft correctly, removing mines and underwater obstructions and taping the safe passage routes off the beaches for the wounded, informing subsequent waves of important intelligence about the defences and strengths of the enemy and advising how to exploit the enemy's weaknesses, setting up important ammunition and supply dumps, supporting a wide variety of troops with any initial advance inland, supervising enemy prisoners of war and generally being available to tackle any task and to act as a rearguard during any withdrawals.

The first RNCs were formed during the spring of l942 from general service, reservists and 'hostilities only' officers and ratings. Each Commando unit came under the command of a Lieutenant-Commander or Commander and comprised three sections e.g. K1, K2, and K3. Each section comprised two officers, a Beach Master (BM) and Assistant Beach Master (ABM), a Petty Officer and seventeen other ratings of varying rank. Acting rank could be found from time to time. Later, in the light of experience,  the structure of the Commandos was changed to ten officers and sixty-five other ranks divided into three parties of twenty-five men each  - one BM, three ABMs and twenty-two other ranks. They were responsible for a particular section of beach on a large invasion. Each RN Commando unit could, occasionally, come under the command of a Principal Beach Master (PBM) with the rank of Captain but this usually only occurred on larger invasions, where each unit was spread over many miles.

[Photo; Vice Admiral Lord Louis Mountbatten inspecting the battledress of a rating in a Naval Beach Commando. IWM (A 15105).]

Dieppe

In August, l942, members of the RNCs (C and D) took part in Operation Jubilee, the Dieppe raid, with a BM and beach party assigned to each of the beaches. Some could not reach their assigned beach due to heavy gunfire and they suffered very heavy casualties, with many others becoming prisoners of war. However, they would go on to play other roles within the heart of Germany itself, one such being the famous account of 'Albert RN'... but that's another story.

The beach landings at Dieppe were chaotic and adversely affected by poor intelligence, unsuitable beach conditions for landing tanks and a well prepared and equipped enemy. Under these circumstances there was little opportunity to properly implement the principles and practices of beach control but the need for Combined Operations and within that the vital role of the RN Beach Parties in any future amphibious landings, large and small, was self evident. The specialized training needed by the Beach Parties would in future be provided at a school established at Ardentinny in the Clyde estuary in Scotland.

Training

The school at Ardentinny was a shore based establishment called HMS Armadillo, which accommodated between 500 and 600 men. It was located on the shores of Loch Long, which was as close to a Norwegian Fjord as Scotland could provide. By road it was a very remote location but by ferry from nearby Dunoon, it was much more accessible to Glasgow via Greenock.

[Map courtesy of Google.]

Officers and ratings attended many of the courses together, which was a most unusual arrangement for the times. Good use was made of Loch Long for amphibious landing drills, reconnaissance and specialised beach skills. Other training included weapons usage, rock climbing, assault courses, embarkation and debarkation using various types of landing craft under battle conditions, route marches and field survival.

Many of these skills were honed at the Commando training school at Achnacarry, nearly 100 miles to the north near the famous Commando Memorial, which has stood at Spean Bridge since the early 1950s. The training was organised by the famous Army Commando Officer, Colonel Vaughan. Despite its arduous nature, very few men were RTU'd (returned to unit) because they couldn't complete the course.... nobody wanted their service record noted with such an entry. The RNCs were expected to pass the Commando training course and receive their much coveted green beret along with the famous Fairbairn-Sykes (F-S) dagger from Colonel Vaughan at special parades. It is said that their time spent at Achnacarry was responsible for their new motto, IN PRIMO EXULTO  - first in last out.

There was additional training for those selected for overseas operations and other specialised duties such as;

  •  training at The Middle East Combined Training Centre  at Kabret, near the Suez Canal, for service in the Middle East,

  •  training at the Jungle Battle School at Chittagong for service in South East Asia,

  •  parachute training (many would later wear the SAS/SBS wings),

  •  underwater swimming to qualify as 'frogmen'.

All of the skills acquired during the extensive training period were to prove invaluable in subsequent operations. The experience gained at Dieppe was instrumental in shaping the then future expanded role of the RNC.

North Africa

Once formed, RNC units were assigned letters rather than numbers and by the end of l943, twenty-two units had been formed. During Operation Torch in late l942, four hundred and ten RNCs proved themselves in the first major Anglo-American amphibious operation of the war. Four augmented units took part - C (reformed after the heavy losses incurred at Dieppe), E, F, G and parts of H and J, under the auspices of the three task forces: the Western Task Force, Casablanca; the Central Task Force, Oran and the Eastern Task Force.

[Photos; Christmas card sent home from the Mediterranean by Ken Oakley of Fox Group to his mother in 1943.]

The RNCs landed with the first assault elements and took immediate charge of the beaches. After first eliminating snipers, they dug slit trenches for protection and set up Lewis guns for use against low flying enemy aircraft. The Commandos' major task was to guide ashore 29,000 troops, 2,400 vehicles and l4,000 tons of supplies on three different beaches. Those RNCs working with the American assault troops wore American uniforms since the Vichy French Troops in French occupied territories in North Africa were very suspicious of the British. Overall the RNCs performed well during Operation Torch, despite some difficulties in controlling incoming landing craft.

Sicily & Italy

The next major assignment for the RNCs was Operation Husky, the invasion of Sicily. This involved more than 2,000 ships and landing craft. The units involved were C, E, F, G, K, M and N assigned to the Eastern Task Force (British) to cover twenty-seven landing beaches. Getting the Assault troops ashore with their equipment and supplies was just the beginning for the RNCs. They usually had to work the beaches for weeks beyond the initial landings, directing in the supplies and reinforcements and guiding out the wounded and prisoners of war. As a distraction from their normal routine, the RNCs took the Island of Monte Cristo, on which an enemy radio station was located. It was capable of plotting Allied shipping in the area and reporting back to the mainland. Also, D party took part in the capture of the Island of Pantelleria in June l943.

In September of l943, RNCs (C, G, H, K, M, N and O parties) accompanied the Army assault troops and Royal Marine Commandos when the Allies landed in Italy. Later during the advance up the Italian coast they helped open up anchorages. At both the Salerno and Anzio landings, the RNCs neutralised minefields prior to the arrival of waiting landing craft.

[Photo of No 14 Beach Group in 1942 and kit list for "C" Commando courtesy of Ron Giles whose father Ronald Victor Giles is top right. Other names available are: 2nd row from front - Sgt. G C Hillman, BG; Petty Officer H G Ord, RNVR; Sgt A Bagnall BG; Lieut J Palmer, RNVR, Beach Master; Capt T A Lines, Queens, Commanding; Lieut D Durham, RNVR, Beach Master; Sgt E O Strefford, BG; Petty Officer A E Burton, RNVR; Front Row; Lieut A G Dunbar, RA, AMLO; Sgt G Kidd, BG; Lieut R I Walton, P C, AMLO.]

At Anzio, they used their F-S daggers to probe for wood encased mines, which could not be located by the Royal Engineers' metal detectors. Sand bars offshore also created great difficulty during this landing but the RNC kept the beachhead functioning throughout the initial landings and for months afterwards, despite almost constant German shelling. As the advance moved further up the Italian mainland, they were given two additional roles - the recovery of escaped Allied prisoners of war along the Adriatic coastline and protecting suspected war criminals from the retribution of local inhabitants. This was necessary in order to hand them over for Allied interrogation and preparation for war crime trials once the war was over.

In early June l944, tragedy struck the RNC while engaged in Operation Brassard, the invasion and capture of the Island of Elba, involving A and O parties. Two sub-sections from each had undertaken special rehearsals to carry out their assigned tasks in this important landing. However, no amount of training and preparations could have overcome the enemy's coastal defences, inland batteries and gun sites.

It was not until June 19, l944, that the island's garrison finally surrendered and Elba passed into Allied hands. The casualties sustained by the RNC were heavy and the operation was nicknamed 'bloody little sideshow'. The parties making up A and O suffered the greatest casualties but O (3) was practically wiped out, losing 2 officers, 2 petty officers, l leading seaman and l3 ratings, while A party lost 2 officers and l8 men. The remnants of these parties were eventually returned to the United Kingdom.

Yugoslavia and Greece

Some of the RNCs crossed into Yugoslavia or down to the Greek Islands to assist operations to force the Germans to withdraw from these areas. Those who remained in Italy found themselves up against a new enemy -  those unfortunates who were conscripted from the German occupied countries. They were tough fighters and at times suicidal because they had nothing to lose. If they did not fight they, or their families, would be shot. Even if they were captured, on return to their homelands after the war they could have been shot as traitors. The Germans used them mainly against Allied Special Forces, who were also known for their toughness. The RNCs reached northern Italy at the end of the war just as the Allies were about to launch the invasion of Austria. Instead, as the war came to an end in May 1945, they returned to southern Italy and back to England by sea.

Far East

RNCs who specialised in jungle warfare at the training school at Chittagong included H party, which took part in the landings on the Arakan coast. These operations commenced with Operation Screwdriver in February 1944, followed by Srewdriver II. C and E parties were active in Malaya in 1945 and helped prevent the Japanese carrying the war into India.

Normandy

The largest RNC operation of the war was Neptune, the naval portion of Operation Overlord. Eight parties F, J, L, P, Q, R, S, T and W (W mostly Canadians) were assigned and trained for what would be the largest amphibious invasion force in human history. RNCs were, as usual, in the first wave to assist with thousands of landing craft repeatedly ferrying troops, equipment and supplies to the landing beaches over many weeks.

[Photo; RN Commando from FOX group prior to D-Day.]

They suffered heavy casualties in Normandy. On some beaches they dug in to fight off counter attacks and their Commando training proved very effective in overpowering the German troops especially in close combat... a task many found less difficult than dealing with the congestion on the beaches! Wrecked landing craft and vehicles blocking beach exits were a constant problem, while the Germans were still active in the beach areas. Despite these difficulties they kept the beaches clear of obstacles and organised the exits to keep the supply lines moving. Most RNCs were present in Normandy for at least six weeks, when some helped to salvage sunken landing craft and secure Mulberry Harbours and Phoenix Piers in position.

Walcheren and the Rhine

The Normandy invasion was the high point of RNC operations but hostilities for them were not yet over. In early November 1944, they took part in the capture of the Dutch island of Walcheren, whose garrison of 10,000 men and heavy guns was preventing the Allies from using the inland port of Antwerp to supply the Allied armies as they moved towards Berlin.

L & M parties  also took part in the crossing of the Rhine at Arnhem, although the were not part of the ill-fated airborne assault. It was later decided to send the RNCs to the Pacific to take part in the invasion of the Japanese home islands. C, E, H, J, M, N, R and V parties were selected for this task. They were to join Force X and Y from the South East Asia Command (SEAC) but  the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki brought a speedy conclusion to hostilities and the RN Commandos were not needed.

The End of the War

The RNCs went through the same rigorous training as the Army and Marine Commandos with the addition of training for their beach management role. The early stages of an assault was extremely hazardous until the enemy troops, defending the beach area, had been subdued. At the end of WW2 the Beachhead Commandos ceased to exist but the lessons learned did not go unnoticed as their roles were later revived and modernised for post WW2 operations.

[Photo; the Commando Memorial, Spean Bridge, Scotland, courtesy of Stephen Eblet.]

Honours and awards given to members of the Royal Naval Commando, both during and after the war, are difficult to identify. The London Gazette entries do not normally identify the recipients as serving in the RNC, only doing so when an individual citation comes to light. However, every member who served knows of his own courage, humour and tragedy in those dark war years. To many today it is history but to those who took part at the time it was everyday life, which was written in the best traditions of the ROYAL NAVY.

Postscript

Other specialist R N Assault Landing Parties also served in every assault landing from Dieppe to the crossing of the Rhine and they deserve mention here. These units were the Beach Signal Sections; Landing Craft Obstacle Clearance Units; Combined Operations Pilotage Parties; the Special Boat Squadron; the Forward Observation Bombardment units and, not least, members of the WRNS, who served in support of them.

On 23 May, l987 a Memorial Plaque was dedicated at Ardentinny

''In memory of the Officers and Men of the Beach Parties and Royal Navy Commandos who gave their lives for their country during the Second World War l939-45.'

'Then they are glad, because they are at rest and so he bringeth them unto the haven where they should be.'

Details of the Author's unit RNBC 'NAN'

The author's unit was formed at HMS Armadillo in February, l943 under the command of Lieutenant Commander MV Redshaw, RNVR. On completion of training the unit proceeded to Foliot (camp at Plymouth, now Marine Commando Barracks) and Achnacarry, the Army Commando Training Centre, before being attached to Force V, with whom the unit sailed for Sicily on 29 June, l943.

After Operation Husky, 'Nan' was stationed at Bougie before returning to Sicily to take part at the crossing from Messina to Reggio. In October, l943 the unit moved to HMS Saunders at Kabret, where it remained until it returned in the cruiser HMS Phoebe to Italy in time for the Anzio Landings, operation Shingle, on 22 January l944, at which 'Nan' company sustained several casualties. After a period in Corsica and Naples, the unit moved to the Adriatic in May, l944, where it saw extensive service in the forward port areas with the 8th Army. 'Nan' unit was disbanded at HMS Dundonald in November l945.

The Principle Beach Masters RNBC 'NAN' were; Act. Commander PWF Stubbs, DSC, RN, April-September l943; Lieutenant J Russell, DSC, RN September l943-February l944; Lieutenant-Commander TJ Turton RNVR May-June l945; Lieutenant A Varley, RNVR June-November l945.

Other Information

Subject. RN (Beach) Commandos. No.3 R.N. Commandos were billeted in the town of Hythe prior to embarkation for Normandy from Hythe Pier.

Location. The Memorial Stone is situated in a small park close to Hythe Pier.

Other Info. The stone was erected by the town's folk to commemorate the event.

Subject. RN (Beach) Commandos.

Location. The memorial plaques on the left are situated in Ardentinny Church on Loch Long in Scotland close to where the RN Commandos training base at HMS Armadillo was located.

Other Information. The primary task of the RN Commandos was to control the movement of men, vehicles and supplies through the landing beaches during major amphibious landings. The avoidance of bottlenecks and delays gave them a pivotal role in the supply chain.

Subject. RN (Beach) Commandos.

Location. The memorial cairn is near the village of Ardentinny on the shore of Loch Long in Scotland, where the RN Commandos training base at HMS Armadillo was located. [Photo 1st right.]

Other Information. On the 15th of February, 2001, Ken Oakley, Chairman of the RN Commando Association, wrote to Tommy Hamilton "Ted Hinchcliffe made the memorial stone (crossed the bar Jan 01). He was very proud of making it out of Yorkshire stone". In the same letter, Ken asked Tommy if he would paint in the letters, which he did. His son, David, subsequently refreshed the lettering.

 
The memorial stone was originally placed outside the front door of the old Forestry Commission (FC) office. When the building was demolished, Ian Adams of the FC moved the stone to a safe location about 30 metres away. The cairn, seen in the photos above, was built by FC workers Stephen Cooper and Ben Blowers in time for Remembrance Sunday, 2013.
 
The people of Ardentinny have always kept the area around the memorial stone tidy. Flowers and bulbs in pots are often placed near the stone as an act of remembrance. [Photos courtesy of Tony Rodaway.]

Further Reading

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. There's no obligation to buy, no registration and no passwords. Click 'Books' for more information.

Beachhead  Assault by David Lee. The Story of the Royal Naval Commandos in WW2.  Foreword by Tony Parsons. Published By Greenhill Books in October 2004.

The Beachhead Commandos by a Cecil Hampshire. Published by William Kimber & Co Ltd in 1983

Correspondence

Royal Naval Commando Uniforms. I've just joined Combinedops by paypal and already I have some questions which you might be able to help me with. All are about Royal Naval Commando uniforms. Firstly were green berets worn by ranks and ratings and if so what sort of cap badge was worn by other ranks? Secondly, did Royal Naval Commandos wear the yellow thread tombstone Combined Operations insignia on their battledress or was it for dress uniform? For those Commandos trained as parachutists, were the wings worn above or below the combined operations insignia on the right arm?... and finally what colours of lanyards did each Naval Commando wear as I believe each "letter" wore a different colour.

Many thanks for any help you can give. Simon Moore.

News & Information

Memorial Maintenance

We have a small band of volunteers who take turns to visit the memorial each month, particularly during the growing season, to undertake routine maintenance such as weeding keeping the stones and slabs clear of bird dropping, lichen etc. and reporting on any issues. If you live near the National Memorial Arboretum and would like to find out more, please contact us.

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WW2 Combined Operations Handbook

This 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.

New to Combined Ops?

Visit Combined Operations Explained for an easy introduction to the subject.

 

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Legasee Film Archive

As part of an exciting social history project, the film company Legasee has recorded interviews with veterans from any conflicts. These  films are now available on line. www.legasee.org.uk

 

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