Within hours of having delivered himself of the British determination to stand by all who opposed Hitler, regardless of race or creed, Churchill addressed his mind to practical means of diverting German forces from their Eastern enterprise. A minute to the Chiefs of Staff on 23 June urged upon them the need to step up air attacks by day as well as by night and also to concentrate attention upon surface raids:
I have in mind something on the scale of 25,000–30,000 men – perhaps the Commandos plus one of the Canadian divisions… As long as we can keep air domination over the Channel and the Pas de Calais it ought to be possible to achieve a considerable result.
Among the other objectives, the destruction of the guns and batteries, of all shipping, of all stores, and the killing and capturing of a large number of Germans present themselves. The blocking of the harbours of Calais and Boulogne might also be attempted… Now the enemy is busy in Russia is the time to ‘Make hell while the sun shines’.
Coming after the cancellation of Barbaric these contradictions were confusing and so the Chiefs of Staff took them with a pinch of salt and told the planners to concentrate their energies on small raids across the narrow waters. Captain G. A. French, RN, who chaired an important meeting of the Executive Planning Staff to consider the ‘runners’ a few days later, said in an interview that they usually had before them scores of ideas from which to select a manageable handful.
First choice fell on a reconnaissance patrol named Chess which the War Cabinet Defence Committee adopted on 7 July and Keyes passed to Vice-Admiral Dover for action against Ambleteuse. Another small operation, Acid Drop, was to follow in August, followed by a third, Chopper, in September. Representing the Naval Intelligence Department at that meeting was Lieutenant-Commander G. Gonin, who took the opportunity of a lull in the formal discussions to mention to French an idea he and his colleagues had had for a raid on the very large dry dock at St Nazaire, for which the German battleship Bismarck had been making before she had been caught and sunk the previous month and which, any day, might be the destination of Bismarck’s sister ship, Tirpitz. It is not often one can identify exactly who generated an operational scheme but this one was of particular importance, and for a great many reasons which will appear in due course. For now it was merely referred for consideration and found a place in DCO’s diary later in July under the name Operation Chariot.
The idea, however, so stimulated Churchill’s imagination that he expanded it at once into a concept aimed at ‘nipping out the Brest peninsula’. This unrealistic scheme led the Chiefs of Staff into a desperate rearguard action to convince the Prime Minister that a project that would demand six divisions and which, from shortage of shipping, let alone of trained troops, would stretch their resources to the limit, was impossible. One fancies here that, however impractical Churchill seemed (and it is worth recalling that he avoided mention of these follies in his Memoirs), his goadings were the products of political expediency as well as sticks to whip the Chiefs and planners, whose caution he saw as obstructiveness. Already Communist voices which, prior to 22 June, had stood against the ‘capitalist and imperialist war’, were beginning to agitate for a Second Front now, and were painting the demand on walls and publishing it in the papers. Churchill may have later written that ‘we did not allow these sorry and ignominious facts to disturb our thoughts’, and he did, on 20 July, answer Stalin’s demand for a major diversion of Lend Lease Aid from Britain to Russia and his request for vigorous action across the Channel with a well-reasoned paper pointing out how impossible it was, due to lack of shipping and almost everything else.
The fact remains that serious study was made of several ambitious projects in the medium-to-large-raid category in order to satisfy Stalin:
1. Operation Ransack – a tip-and-run raid of Brigade strength ‘to kill Germans and do as much damage as possible’ (preferably against a German Security HQ at Le Touquet) without interfering with Pilgrim. The JPS rejected it because only six LTCs (enough to land a single squadron of tanks) were available, and only 600 semi-equipped parachutists. Remorselessly the tyranny of chronic shortages trimmed down the force to a couple of troops from 5 Commando and a company of line infantry, carried in eight Eurekas, tasked to raid an undisclosed airfield in the Pas de Calais. Like similar designs, including one called Irrigate, it was squashed by the Prime Minister for the same reason he had squashed Barbaric – lack of effect for too much risk.
2. A joint operation suggested by the Russians, which, Churchill reasoned, had to be taken very seriously – an invasion of Northern Norway to clear the country southward and free the sea route to Murmansk along which convoys would soon be taking supplies from the West to the Russians. This was discarded by the planners as being beyond the means available, but it stimulated Churchill’s insistent and very unpopular proposals to raid Trondheim or Stavanger in the autumn when the nights were longer.
3. Operation Gauntlet, again at Russia’s suggestion, to seize Bear Island and Spitzbergen with a view to liberating the Norwegians and Russians there, destroying the mines and the coal stocks upon which the Germans were drawing, and eliminating German weather stations which were being secretly inserted.
Of the three only Gauntlet was adopted as a joint British, Canadian and Norwegian venture with the Russians collaborating for the evacuation of their civilians. A force, originally set at two infantry battalions, was whittled down to one (Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry) supplemented by 17 British officers and 101 men from the Sappers and several different Commandos. Hit-and-run raid that it was in military terms, the whole thing had about it the air of a peacetime policing operation, with the troops sailing in the comparative luxury of the liner Empress of Canada and the escort of two cruisers and three destroyers not being called upon to take offensive action. ‘So for better or worse ran Gauntlet’, wrote the Force Commander, Rear-Admiral P. Vian, as the soldiers went ashore on 25 August and began the work of assembling the Norwegian and Russian civilians for evacuation, preparing the Russian-run mines for demolition and the burning of 450,000 tons of coal and 275,000 gallons of fuel, and arguing hotly with the mine manager who resisted as staunchly as he could the destruction of his life’s work and the future economic well-being of the island. It was a model exercise in peripheral raiding against an undefended target in the absence of enemy detection, a security which was assured by the local Norwegian radio operators who continued to broadcast as if nothing was happening, and totally fooled the Germans as to what was going on.
But not by any stretch of imagination could Gauntlet be rated as a substitute for a Second Front, even if it did help Russia and harm the German economy. Nor were the pinprick raids of July and the months to come any substitute. What impact could a few dozen men, spending a few minutes ashore, have on the 30 German divisions in France which were not in the least stretched by occupation of a secure coast line and controlling a population 99 per cent of whom were peaceful, even if secretly hostile? Of course the ineffectuality of very small raids was well understood. Indeed, on 1 July, Keyes had tried to revive the Barbaric scheme with parachutists and added a few tanks, but this foundered on the same rocks that Ransack would strike.
So, after all the puff and blow, there emerged Operation Chess, a raid by 16 men from 12 Commando, led by an officer who was to become one of the stars of raiding – 2nd Lieutenant P. Pinckney of the Berkshire Yeomanry. Chess was important, not because of what was achieved by a landing at Ambleteuse on the night 27/28 July, but for the precedent it set. For the Prime Minister, having, for the moment, been convinced that the large raids he preferred were impossible, reluctantly agreed to small ones ‘of the order of ten men’, and this, having been formally adopted, became the model for many such to come.
Chess, like all of its kind, was inhibited by weather, by the phases of the moon and the tide quite as much as by enemy resistance. Wind and surf could arise unexpectedly at any time and hamper landing and re-embarkation; tides and moon tended to restrict raiding to one short, dark period of only a few days each month – and in summer a mere four hours’ darkness increased the risks of detection on approach and withdrawal and limited the time which could be spent ashore. Putting a raid together also caused complex problems and included the training and rehearsal of the sailors and troops, the provision and briefing by the Royal Navy of an escort and of motor launchers (MLs) to tow the LCAs to the cast-off point, the arrangement of communications and the notification, without breaching security, of all those who needed to know, to prevent, for example, attack by friendly ships or aircraft. Generals who, by the existing rules, held ‘the licence to raid enemy sectors opposite their piece of coast’ tended to think of each foray as ‘trench raiding across a watery no-man’s land’, and often had no conception of all that was entailed, which was why Admirals attempted to exclude them from the planning process.
There was a sense of occasion on the evening Pinckney’s force embarked in the MLs at Dover. Conditions were good and the approach to the cast-off point and transfer to the LCAs went without a hitch. However, the noise of engines alerted the Germans, and when 250 yards offshore they must have been seen as whistles were heard from various places ashore. A lesser man than Pinckney might have abandoned Chess there and then, but he was determined to capture a prisoner and was never the sort to give in.
The LCA’s ramp was lowered before beaching was made successfully despite the surf… Some 200 yards down the beach a spot to climb the cliff was discovered. Men and myself climbed up with difficulty and found wire. At this moment a star shell was fired and firing broke out. There was no time to get the others up. An MG was firing from the cliff directly above the boat. We got beneath this and threw up grenades. This silenced the MG. I then re-embarked my party.
Pinckney made it sound all very simple, but the enemy had scored hits on the other LCA, the tracer snaking across the water to the light of the star shells and killing a naval officer and rating. It was touch and go that they managed to escape and Pinckney was to return with a profound respect for the alertness and competence of the enemy whose reception certainly bore out the Prime Minister’s ingrained fear of beach assaults.
Nevertheless Chess was considered encouraging enough to warrant staging a double event a month later – that being the length of time needed to ‘lay on’ such raids. Acid Drop and Cartoon were also to be cautious ventures, confined to reconnaissance with no attempt at combat. In the event Cartoon was abandoned at a later stage, leaving Acid Drop to go it alone in two parties of 30 and 20 men to tackle, respectively, beaches at Hardelot and Merlimont on either side of Le Touquet. Acid Drop turned sour from the start. To the men of 5 Commando the LCA crews appeared slap-happy and deficient in training. Officers in white flannels may look engaging on a yacht but do not inspire confidence on a night operation. Then a misinformed naval officer condemned the soldiers to a voyage in the LCAs, squatting in water instead of in the dry of the MLs. In any case they were destined to land wet since the LCAs stayed too far out for fear of stranding and the Commandos were compelled to wade ashore. Fortunately the enemy here were not as aggressive as those at Ambleteuse. There were no obstacles, no mines and no opposition, despite indications that the Germans were aware of a hostile presence when they began whistling warnings to each other among the dunes. But there was no contact, and so no prisoners. It all went to show how easy Barbaric might have been.
Operation Chopper on 27 September was quite another story. The Royal Navy had taken the lessons of Acid Drop to heart. Not only were the LCA crews well trained but everybody, from top to bottom in the chain of command, was keen to go. One RN officer asked, ‘Why can’t we increase the frequency of these things?’ – a very reasonable request which pointed to indifferent organization and lack of enthusiasm in higher places. No lack of aggression infected 1 Commando on this occasion, although a mistake in navigation took the two LCAs in Force B 3 miles off-course from the objective of Courseulles and landed them in front of alerted defences, illuminated by flares and raked by fire. Two men were killed, one badly wounded and an LCA holed so badly that the men had to bail out to stay afloat. The Commandos were filled with praise for the sailors on this occasion – their determination to get them out under fire, the way they made their way home despite losing contact with the supporting motor gun boats (MGBs) and the care they took with the wounded; in his report, the skipper of LCA 26 said he was ‘regretting having to chop up my centre seat to provide splints for a severely wounded man’.
Force A fared better after it landed correctly at Point de Saire on the Cherbourg peninsula. A party from 5 Troop under Captain G. A. Scaramanga penetrated inland, got no answer when they knocked on the door of a shuttered house and then, as their scouts reached a bend in the road:
A German cyclists’ patrol came round the bend going a good speed on low handle-bar bicycles. There were three in a row in front and one behind. Our leading tommy gunners opened fire immediately. I saw the two leading cyclists on my side of the road crumple up and fall on the road. I ordered the bodies of the two Germans to be taken to the LCA; the other carrying party was slow in coming to the fact that one of the men detailed to carry it had been slightly wounded. Time was pressing, being already 35 minutes after the scheduled time of departure. As the two Germans appeared identical, I ordered one body to be left, and everybody embarked. Two men were slightly wounded, possibly by ricochets from our own tommy guns. Afterward one of my men told me that he had seen the body of a third German dead in the hedge. After re-embarking … fire was opened upon us with one MG firing tracer… No beach obstacles or wire were encountered. No searchlights or Verey lights were seen. No enemy aircraft were seen.
It was only a pin-prick to the Germans who at that moment seemed well on the way to overrunning Russia and then planned to be able to turn back on Britain in 1942. The raids did not receive strong publicity in Britain and only passing mention by the German Propaganda Ministry, which had its attention held elsewhere. But changes were on the way, and the time was not far removed when the Germans would be compelled to take a lot more notice. Before then, however, the Combined Operations organization in Britain had to be taken in hand.