As the last survivors from Dunkirk were coming home and three weeks before France bowed out of the struggle – leaving her entire coastline in German hands – the vital spark of aggression, motivated by the political as well as military need to maintain an initiative, however slight, had been struck by certain unorthodox people scattered around Whitehall. Their existence sprang from a move in 1938 to examine means to influence German opinion by ‘attacking potential enemies by means other than operations of military forces’, and this led, among other avenues of approach, to the General Staff at the War Office forming a research section called GS(R) and consisting of one General Staff Officer Grade 2 and a typist, to study subversion and sabotage. Under Major J. C. F. Holland in the months preceding the outbreak of war in September 1939, GS(R) began to expand rapidly both in size, influence and activity. Holland had experience of guerrilla warfare in Ireland and attracted others with enthusiasm for explosives, unorthodox weapons and irregular methods – men such as Major C. McVean Gubbins who had also seen service in Ireland and in Russia during the Revolutionary War in 1919. It was in his first pamphlet, called The Art of Guerrilla Warfare, that Gubbins pronounced the vital doctrine of this kind of subversive combat: ‘Guerrilla actions will usually take place at point blank range as the result of an ambush or raid… Undoubtedly, therefore, the most effective weapon for the guerrilla is the sub-machine-gun.’
But it was Holland who provided the driving force at GS(R), which was re-named MI(R) in 1939. As Professor M. R. D. Foot wrote in SOE in France,
Holland was both brilliant and practical; he was also quite unselfish. He saw MI(R) as a factory for ideas: when the ideas had been worked up to the stage of practicality, his aim was to hive off a new branch to handle them… Early in the war he and his lively and enterprising staff launched interesting and secret organizations.
These included escape lines, ‘mosquito’ sabotage parties and much larger fighting forces known as Independent Companies – a typically British last-minute improvisation to cope with circumstances for which the nation, having neglected the armed forces in peacetime, had done nothing to prepare. The Independent Companies were intended to stage amphibious guerrilla attacks against the Germans invading Norway in April – a task which the War Office was compelled to undertake because, as Lieutenant-General A. G. B. Bourne, the Adjutant-General of the Royal Marines, wrote,
There were no Royal Marines available at that time. The strength of the Corps at the outbreak of war was roughly 10,000, the sea commitments for the war roughly 11,000… Actually, when I took over, apart from 260 officers and men sitting on sandbags waiting for anti-aircraft guns in the Middle East, I had 95 officers and men on which to raise the Mobile Naval Base Organisation of 250 officers and 5,000 men, and 50 of the 95 were mounting guns for the Army on the coast of England.
Ten Independent Companies were recruited from volunteers drawn mainly from Territorial Army infantry divisions stationed in the United Kingdom.
Each Brigade found a Platoon and each Battalion a Section. The Sections were led by officers… There was no ‘Q’ side proper, but between 50 and 60 tons of stores of all description were allocated and administered by Headquarters. The idea was that each Independent Company should be organized as a ship-borne unit. The ship was to be their floating base and to take them to and from operations. For this reason they were not provided with any transport. The Force became operational very soon after formation and was called ‘the Gubbins Force’ after the name of its commander, Brigadier Gubbins.
Gubbins Force, consisting of six companies, landed at Bodö, south of Narvik, and was almost at once involved in a rearguard action under heavy air attack and much skilful enemy pressure by Alpine troops. Yet the action at first went in Gubbins Force’s favour, ‘so much so that we disputed the order to retire when it came’. There was indeed a remarkable spirit of individual gallantry bordering upon a bravado which some might have called amateurish. ‘The trouble with the Independent Companies,’ as one of the founders of the Commando Force who was present was soon to minute, ‘was the low quality of their personnel, as no Regulars were included.’ The officer concerned was, of course, reflecting the ingrained scepticism of nearly all Regulars for irregulars at that time. There were failures at all levels, and the men of the Independent Companies were just as scathing in their criticism of the Regulars they fought alongside – but even at this early stage there emerged a spirit of sacrifice which was to become typical of the Commandos, as the Independent Companies would soon be known. Take, for example, the report on a platoon commander of No. 1 Company when under attack by three or four hundred Germans:
He caused a lot of casualties to the Germans, but suffered severe losses himself and when he realized that it would only be a question of time before he was wiped out, he gave the order to withdraw to the northern shore of the peninsula on which Hemnesberget stands. Before leaving, he ordered Private Howie, a Signaller, to destroy the local telephone exchange… Howie ran up the hill towards it and was at once pursued by two Germans who opened fire on him and ordered him to stop. By this time he had reached the telephone exchange. He made no attempt to return their fire, but instead turned his back upon them and emptied his revolver into the telephone apparatus. He was shot and killed.
The campaign in Norway was not the most meritorious of those conducted by British forces, severely damaging though it was to the German naval forces involved. But by the time the remnants of the six Independent Companies returned to Scotland at the end of May, this setback had merged into the pall of disaster which had overcome the Allied armies in Europe. Yet already Holland, at the request of the Chiefs of Staff, was casting around for ways of sticking pins into an enemy who was all too obviously armed and armoured with such strength as to make him almost invulnerable.
No sooner had the Germans reached the Channel coast west of Abbeville on the evening of 20 May and begun to advance northwards toward Boulogne than, by the quite illegal employment of prisoners of war, they began to erect defences and mount batteries to fend off the raiders from the sea whom they expected at any time. They had but a short time to wait. As the rearguard was sailing away from Dunkirk on 2/3 June a trawler commanded by Lieutenant-Commander J. F. W. Milner-Gibson was going in the opposite direction, bound for Boulogne, to drop off three officers in a rowing boat to spy out the land ashore. It was a pity that two of the party were lost and a stroke of luck that the third, after rowing hard for 13 hours, was picked up in mid-Channel on the 10th. But it was contradictory as well as churlish for the Prime Minister to call this escape a ‘silly fiasco’, for already Winston Churchill was looking forward to the day when a great Allied armada would place vast armies ashore in France. A start had to be made somewhere, sometime, and, to begin with, by a few courageous individuals.
One such was Lieutenant-Colonel Dudley Clarke, the Military Assistant to General Sir John Dill, Chief of the Imperial General Staff. How much assistance he ever gave to Dill during this period is hard to gauge. As Bourne wrote:
He was, I am told, detailed from the War Office to give instructions to the Army Officer going to Andalsnes. This he was supposed to do in the train going to Scotland. He decided that … he had not given sufficient instructions so he sailed for Norway. After a short time there he was recalled to the War Office. A few days later a Marine Officer at Andalsnes was told that an individual was floating about in the fjord in a rubber boat. He was brought ashore and turned out to be Col. Clarke who had been apparently deposited by seaplane. When asked why he had come back, he remarked, ‘I left my sponge behind,’ which was a fact but a poor excuse for getting into the front line.
In London on 4 June Clarke reflected upon the disastrous situation in which Britain and her armed forces found themselves, and recalled his own experiences from the Middle East in 1936 when ‘a handful of ill-armed fanatics’ had been able to ‘dissipate the strength of more than an Army Corps of regular troops’. That night he jotted down a plan for small forces raiding across the Channel and presented it to the CIGS the next morning, who in turn mentioned it to the Prime Minister. Permission was instantly granted ‘and Clarke was given a free hand provided … that no unit should be diverted from its essential task, the defence of Britain … and secondly that forces of amphibious guerrillas would have to make do with minimum arms’. Attached to this permit came two orders: first to mount a raid across the Channel at the earliest opportunity; second to set up a new branch in the War Office called MO9 to control ‘uniformed raids’. One suspects that the CIGS was slightly relieved to see the back of his belligerent MA and there is, indeed, ample evidence that he was opposed to the specialized ‘shock troops’ which Clarke now strove to form and launch prematurely into action.
It was to Nos. 8 and 9 Independent Companies – which had not gone to Norway – that he turned for volunteers. Within a week those volunteers had been formed into a new No. 11 Company. As one member recalled.
We moved to Southampton and spent some ten days firing on ranges and practising embarking and disembarking from Royal Air Force high speed launches. These were very fast and did not hold more than six to eight men. One day we were told to bring haversack rations as we were going to be all day on the ranges. We were taken there in buses, but they did not stop and the next thing we knew was that three parties of us were at Dover, Hastings and Ramsgate.
Strictly in line with the CIGS’s restraining conditions, the army gave minimum support, the 20 Thompson sub-machine-guns supplied being ‘on loan’ only from a central pool of these weapons which consisted at that moment of only 40. But the Second Sea Lord welcomed an opportunity to strike back at the enemy at a time when all else was defeat, and the Royal Navy rose to the occasion. Without delay a strange collection of craft, mostly private motor boats of dubious sea-going qualities, were assembled under Captain G. A. Garnons-Williams to join the trawler which was going across the Channel every other night under Milner-Gibson’s command. The RAF ‘crash’ speed boats were pressed into service because the rest of the motley fleet were too slow. In the same way in which the Independent Companies were recruited from part-time soldiers, the naval crews were mainly made up of part-timers, some from the RNR, most from the RNVR, among them a number of capable small-boat men with knowledge of inshore waters. In order to control a force which, from the outset, had to be Joint Service, a new organization had to be created under General Bourne.
I was told on 12 June that the Chief of Staff had decided that I should be in command of Offensive Operations, as it was called at that stage… I got, as being the quickest method of starting, an allotment of four rooms in the Admiralty and Captain L. E. H. Maund RN and Captain Garnons-Williams appointed… Next morning I arranged for Major A. H. Hornby, RA to be put on my staff … and later the Senior Air Officer became S/Ldr. Knocker.
On 17 June Bourne received the directive which was to carry him and his successor through the formative months of what was already becoming known as the Combined Operations Directorate:
1.You are appointed Commander of Raiding Operations on coasts of enemy occupation and Adviser to the Chiefs of Staff on Combined Operations.
2.The object of raiding operations will be to harass the enemy and cause him to disperse his forces, and to create material damage, particularly on the coastline from Northern Norway to the western limit of German-occupied France…
4.Six Independent Companies and a School of Training in Irregular Operations have already been raised by the War Office. These and irregular Commandos now being raised will come under your operational command… In addition the War Office has taken preliminary steps to raise parachutist volunteers of whom a number will be placed under your command…
6.Certain raids by the independent companies have already been planned…
7.Irregular actions of various types are undertaken from time to time by the Service Intelligence Departments. There must therefore be close touch between your staff and those departments in order that your several activities shall not interfere with each other and that, on occasions, co-operation may be possible.
MI(R) had already struck; one of its agents, with the aid of half a dozen British soldiers and a Verey pistol, had put the torch to 200,000 tons of oil at Gonfreville, near Harfleur, on 9 June, and Operation Collar, Clarke’s first strike using 11 Indep Coy, was well advanced in preparation. The idea was to land fighting patrols between Étaples and Boulogne on the night 23/24 June on terrain already spied out by Milner-Gibson, who was placed in command of the six RAF crash boats, intended to save airmen shot down at sea and manned by civilians. The Commandos (as No. 11 Indep Coy already liked to be known) were under the command of Major R. J. F. Tod, but, needless to say, Clarke would not be left out and was allowed to go, providing he did not set foot ashore. Lieutenant Evill wrote,
I chose the roughest and toughest men possible. Three of them were Scotsmen. The plan was that we should land at three different places on the coast and carry out a reconnaissance of the German defences. We were armed with Tommy-guns and grenades and there was a Bren mounted on the motor boat as anti-aircraft protection… We eventually got in sight of the French coast at 2 a.m., but we did not land because we did not know where we were. As we were arguing in low tones about our whereabouts there was a terrific roar and a German seaplane took off almost beside us. With difficulty we prevented one of the Scotsmen from shooting it up with the Bren gun which would have betrayed our presence.
After trying without success to get ashore in a rubber dinghy, Evill and his party returned home. Company Sergeant-Major Parker’s party, on the other hand, did get ashore, shuttled there three at a time in a little wooden dinghy. One of his party wrote, ‘We ran across 250 yards of beach and formed a bridgehead. We sent out two patrols, one of which ran into a Jerry patrol on bicycles. Neither the Germans nor ourselves opened fire and the only enemy I saw that trip was a huge rat.’
Lieutenant Swain’s party also got ashore, but at Hardelot, which was not his proper destination. It was recalled that,
He had some tough men with him, three of them gaol birds. They got into Hardelot and saw one or two trucks… Then they ran into a Jerry patrol of two men on the beach. Swain called on them to halt; they opened fire. Swain’s pistol jammed. Two of his gaol birds fought the Jerries on the beach and killed them both. On the way back the engines of the launch failed and they got stuck on the sandbank and had to swim for it. Eventually they got off the sandbank and returned to Folkestone on one engine. There they were refused permission to enter harbour and lay off the boom covered by the guns on shore, wet through and slightly tight, having drunk the contents of two jars of rum. When they did get ashore they were arrested by the Military Police.
Near Boulogne a party under Major Tod had also been fired on and Dudley Clarke, standing up in the bows of the boat, had his ear nicked by a bullet, making him the only British casualty of the night. But at Plage de Merlimont, south of Le Touquet, the Germans suffered quite heavily, two sentries being killed outside a heavily wired house near the beach and many more hit when grenades were thrown through the windows of what was taken to be a headquarters but seems to have been a dance hall with French civilians present.
The boats which returned to Dover, unlike the ones at Folkestone, were cheered by those ashore who knew what was afoot, and who, like everybody else in Britain, were desperately in need of something to cheer about. Bourne, who was there to meet them, gave a euphoric, impromptu press conference which was blazoned across the newspapers to the disgust of the Prime Minister, the approval of the Minister of War, Mr Anthony Eden (who defended Bourne in the Cabinet) and the delight of the populace for whom Commandos, like RAF fighter pilots, had become a symbol of hope.
The Prime Minister’s initial enthusiasm for small raids was already on the ebb. It was, he said, ‘unworthy of the British Empire to send over a few such cut-throats’, and he began to seek fresh means of control and execution. Meanwhile Bourne did the best he could with the improvisations he and his staff were compelled to adopt while still working part-time for the Royal Marines and rarely getting anything like a full night’s sleep. Quite apart from shortages of weapons and craft, there were such minor deficiencies as camouflage face-cream (solved by using grease-paint supplied by a ‘Wardour Street costumier’) and escape maps, which to begin with were made up and sewn into the men’s uniforms by the ladies of DCO’s Admiralty office.
It could not go on for long like that. Even as Clarke was preparing another foray, crucial decisions for change were impending – and not all for the good of raiding.