W Commando - Canada's
Beachhead Commandos ~
W Commando were Canada's Beachhead Commandos. They were specially trained to create and maintain order on Normandy's Juno Beach during the
D-Day landings. What would confront them was uncertain, so they were broadly
trained, including protection against chemical warfare, clearing obstacles with
explosives and driving Sherman tanks! However, their main task was to keep the
traffic of men, machines and supplies flowing through the beach area without
delay. If the supply chain to the advancing Allied armies was interrupted it
would provide the Germans with an opportunity to mount a counter attack.
[Book cover reproduced
courtesy of Scholastic of Toronto, Canada.]
Members of W Commando were volunteers
from the Royal
Canadian Navy. In August of 1943, they were assigned overseas duty to
HMS Armadillo on Loch Long in the
Clyde estuary of Scotland. W Commando comprised 3 sub-units, W 1, W 2 and W 3, each with 25 ratings
/ leading seamen
and 3 officers all under the combined leadership of an Assistant Beach Master
and a Commanding Beach Master.
The Commando would remain on the
landing beach until the supply chain was better served through the Mulberry
Harbours or functioning captured ports. For information on the Royal Navy
equivalent beachhead Commandos
visit RN Beach Commandos.
was a relatively small, rugged Royal Navy Combined Operations base specializing
in beach commando training. Our induction included a code of requirements for
trainees and the issue of British Army uniforms and fatigues with badges to be
attached later. We were allocated sleeping quarters in Nissan huts and left to locate the heads (toilets) and
mess hall. Unfortunately, we arrived late for supper and went without!
Our six month training period during the winter
of 1943/44 was very
arduous, without accounting for frequent wet weather and temperatures hovering
around freezing with snow on the hill tops. The general tenor of the training was
epitomised by the trainers' oft quoted mantra, '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.’
Live ammunition was often used
during training exercises, including a crawl under barbed wire while rapid machine-gun
fire encouraged us to keep our heads down. On another occasion we had to pass
through a detonating mine field on the long assault course. To describe these
exercises as stimulating understates its effect on the trainees. In my case I finished one exercise
with a bullet hole through my backpack! There were many sessions of unarmed
combat between field training exercises.
included regular three-day exercises in the rugged hills around Ardentinney
designed to toughen us up and instil in us a strong sense of survival. They
were gruelling and took us well beyond our comfort zone in all weather
conditions but we didn't lose focus on the purpose behind them. At night we
erected our one man tents and ground sheets but sleeping did not come easy. The
meagre supply of food comprised one K ration* for each day with a small block
each of sugar
and chocolate, which was inadequate considering the physical
exertions involved. However, these exercises no doubt improved our resilience
and fitness and they certainly made us appreciate the 'comforts' of
our basic camp accommodation. We were always delighted on our return 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
used in the training had seen better days. There were
frequent accidents resulting in casualties, which the instructors seemed to
anticipate. We made many practice night landings from a well-used Landing Craft
and not once did the landing ramp deliver us on to the landing beach. For us it was over the top and into
several feet of frigid water. Many items of equipment and weapons dropped in the
water were left on the bottom in the interest of survival. After these exercises our sleeping hut was
continually cluttered with clothes lines loaded with wet clothes.
We completed the course at Ardentinney
in February, 1944 and were posted 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 specialised training. In the Hazelmere area
we drove Sherman tanks and other mechanized equipment, practiced dispatch riding on Harley-Davidsons
(on the road) and Nortons off the road. Elsewhere we trained in sniping,
chemical warfare, flame-throwing, detecting and disarming mines and booby traps, demolition
using explosives and even aircraft recognition to
study at night.
[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
was a motorcycle course with jumps in an
area known as the ‘Devil’s Punchbowl.’ As the name suggests there were many
accidents and minor injuries but the instructors showed more concern for the
bikes than the riders! The tank driver training was undertaken with
enthusiasm and, as it turned out during the Normandy landings, it paid off
handsomely by keeping the armoured traffic moving through the beachhead. Any
serious congestion on the beaches would have had serious consequences in
breaking the supply chain.
The soldiers of the Canadian Army regiments stationed at the
bases, where we received training, were concerned that our higher levels of
discipline and fitness might be adopted by their own commanding officers. One
such was the requirement for us to
'double-up' anywhere outside our living quarters, the only exception being if we were on leave.
Also, our attitude to food differed greatly from theirs. They tended to discard much of their mess hall food with complaints,
while we would often return for seconds, remembering the meagre rations
we received on the British bases we'd been to.
underwent a 10 day chemical warfare and flame-throwing course at an army base in the Hindhead
area. After the cold winter months spent in Scotland, the weather in the late
spring of southern England was balmy in comparison. We lived in four-man bell tents in a valley below
the main camp. It had outhouses and water troughs for washing.
Around the area there were
45 gallon drums with classified contents and Bren-gun carriers for flame
throwing exercises against mock pillboxes, which
we were expected to encounter along the beaches of France. The fluid used was a
recent development, which later became known as napalm. It would stick to whatever
it hit up to a hundred yards distant and continue burning with a very hot flame.
Training with 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, resulting in several of us
receiving painful burns to our feet as the gas
penetrated through the soles of our jack boots.
We also discovered that exposure to the
gas desensitised 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, so we ran back to our camp to wash it off.
It was late in the day so we
visited the canteen to have a beer before supper. The canteen was very busy and
the warm atmosphere was thick with smoke. On leaving the bar for a table in a
far corner we were oblivious to all of the coughing and
spluttering going on around us. There was a sudden exodus and we had the entire canteen to ourselves!
However, shortly afterwards, an MP wearing a respirator entered and ordered us to
vacate the premises. Outside we met the patrons in resentful mood at having had
their free time so rudely interrupted... and the incident did not endear us to our Canadian army
On returning to HMS Lizard we were relocated to
HMS Mastodon at Exbury, Hampshire to provide security on what once was a
Rothschild estate. It had been requisitioned by the RN for planning Operation
Neptune - the amphibious part of Operation Overlord. There were many
high-ranking personnel and visitors during this period and all activity was strictly
classified. While not engaged on security patrols, we continued training in the
use of small arms and on the nearby Beaulieu River others were
engaged in training crews for landing craft for the forthcoming
Many night hours were spent here watching for low flying
German aircraft, which were known to be dropping spies in the area.
One Junkers 188 was shot down and crashed on the front lawn of the estate. Seven bodies
were pulled from the wreckage when its crew was 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, an
ex holiday camp
near Cowes on the Isle of Wight. It was a
landing craft base and HQ of SO Force J (Juno).
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 low flying aircraft.
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, so 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 was keen to demonstrate how to fire 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
of the barrage balloons succumbed to his uncontrollable fusillade as it deflated
and fell on to the ship's deck with all of its
cables. Much to his discomfort and our pleasure he handed back the gun and left
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. Two waiting trucks
transported us from the railway station over a short distance to a mansion
house, which was similar to HMS Mastodon but considerably smaller.
[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, while the officers had accommodation in the mansion. There
was a small mess hall nearby, which provided meals typical of most British
bases, but still an improvement over
HMS Armadillo in Scotland during the winter.
After breakfast we were mustered on the small parade square
and briefed on the day's training. With our weapons we marched at the double down about a half mile
lane to a
beach for explosives training. The beach was cordoned off and three instructors
were waiting for us. We were broken into three groups of
nine and introduced to various types of explosives
such as forcite, cortex and cordite. We were instructed in their use for
various purposes, including the amount applied in each application.
There were 6 inch diameter wooden poles driven deep underwater
at an angle towards the sea with about two feet above the surface at low tide. We were taught how to cut these off
underwater using a triple cord of cordtex and a blasting cap. Many of these
posts were armed with an explosive device or mine to replicate the Germans
coastal defences. We were taught how to disarm these prior to
cutting the pole off but, thankfully, dummy explosives were
In long grass directly behind
the beach we were shown how to recognize the vicious anti-personnel ’S’ mines. They were
hard to spot and easily triggered devices. If any of their protruding wires
was jarred by a boot, a ball bearing dropped down
through a canister and detonated a firing pin, similar to a shot gun shell.
This 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 let the 'S' mine eject into the air and then lie
down over the hole it had created, since the pellets sprayed
outwards leaving an untouched circle about six feet in diameter in the
centre... easier said than done!
There were various simulated concrete German defence
structures 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 its core. The objective was to fasten the device
to the concrete wall by cord, if possible, light the fuse and retire to a safe
distance. In about
twenty seconds the fuse detonated and a charge fired a white-hot nickel ball
through two feet of concrete and then
for it to ricochet inside the bunker disabling or killing the gun crew.
Back at HMS Volcano in an
isolated wooden building we were trained in the detection of booby traps. Such
devices were hidden under simulated casualties lying on the floor, attached to
furniture, doors and anything else that could be moved. These were small hidden explosives,
which detonated at the slightest movement. In the event, we occupied any facility previously
occupied by the enemy, we were strongly advised not move anything until the area had been
checked and cleared.
weeks later we moved to Ryde on the
Isle of Wight, where we boarded
an LCI(L) for the journey across the channel to Juno Beach in Normandy.
We 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 the enemy
was still shelling and dive-bombing the landing area, the ground combat action had moved
some miles inland. There were increasing numbers of German
prisoners gathered on the beach and many of them with soiled field
dressings on their wounds.
we were busy night and day guiding in landing craft and directing the steady
flow of incoming troops, tanks,
other armoured equipment and supplies across the
lading beach. We also
wounded and 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. 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. The
accommodation comprised a bed made up of twelve German army blankets and a large picture of Betty Grable taking a
milk bath; I had stumbled into a luxury suite!
One night when unloading
Churchill Tanks from an LCT, we
came under 200mm railway cannon fire from Le
Havre. My legs became trapped in the grates of the loading ramp and
I was taken to a nearby Mobile Army Surgical Hospital
(MASH) station with a makeshift airfield, from which I was
flown to a hospital in England. When I could walk with
a crutch I returned to Vectis and
then to HMS Dolphin at Gosport for transport
back to Normandy on a motor launch (ML). We could see shell fire behind the beaches
as we arrived off the coast at Arromanches
and the young captain decided it
was unsafe to approach the beach. However, fortified
by a couple of
shots of navy rum, the cook offered to row me in the
ML's 8ft skiff. There was more danger from landing craft
manoeuvering in the area than from shellfire and we made it safely.
This was possibly the only rowboat landing made during the
While making my way from Gold Beach north to Juno, I was
recruited to drive a Sherman tank up to the combat lines. After two days
I returned to my unit on Juno Beach
and, in all, W1 Commando
spent 6 weeks on the beach and kept operations in good order.
Harbours and the capture of French ports provided other more
convenient supply routes and the volume of traffic
across the landing beaches declined. W Commando
returned to HMS Vectis, where we were officially disbanded. Shortly after,
we boarded RMS Queen Elizabeth at Southampton bound for
New York with three thousand American
casualties and four thousand German POWs for company.
I have had an everlasting deep sense of pride
over successfully completing a most
arduous military training schedule in the mountains of
Scotland and ensuring the supply chain over Juno beach
was kept open for 6 weeks following D-Day; the
greatest amphibious invasion force 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.
There's no obligation to buy, no registration and no passwords. Click
'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).
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 nearly 20 years ago. He is