By 1942 Britain’s ‘Special Forces’, mainly the Commandos, were beginning to become established and were mounting an increasing number of raids on occupied Europe and behind enemy lines in the desert. Some raids were spectacular successes such as at St Nazaire, whilst others such as Dieppe are now largely viewed as disasters. At the time they provided much needed demonstrations that Britain was capable of hitting back and attracted considerable publicity.
They also attracted the personal attention of Hitler who was enraged by some of them. He did not distinguish between those raids undertaken by men belonging to the ‘Commandos’ or other units such as the the Parachute Regiment.
On 18th October 1942 Hitler issued his notorious ‘Commando Order’. In the reasons given for the order a number of false statements were made about the orders given to Commandos:
For some time our enemies have been using in their warfare methods which are outside the international Geneva Conventions. Especially brutal and treacherous is the behavior of the so-called commandos, who, as is established, are partially recruited even from freed criminals in enemy countries.
From captured orders it is divulged that they are directed not only to shackle prisoners, but also to kill defenseless prisoners on the spot at the moment in which they believe that the latter, as prisoners, represent a burden in the further pursuit of their purpose or could otherwise be a hindrance. Finally, orders have been found in which the killing of prisoners has been demanded in principle.
I therefore order: From now on all enemies on so-called commando missions in Europe or Africa, challenged by German troops, even if they are to all appearances soldiers in uniform or demolition troops, whether armed or unarmed, in battle or in flight, are to be slaughtered to the last man.
It does not make any difference whether they are landed from ships and airplanes for their actions, or whether they are dropped by parachute. Even if these individuals, when found, should apparently be prepared to give themselves up, no pardon is to be granted them on principle.
At his trial at Nuremberg after the war Wilhelm Keitel, Supreme Commander of the German Armed Forces, was to explain the context of this order:
In Norway, for instance, I recall that they had the task of blowing up the only aluminum works. It may sound strange, but during this period half to three-quarters of an hour of the daily discussion on the situation was devoted to the problem of how to handle these incidents.
These incidents in all sectors caused the Fuehrer to demand other methods, vigorous measures, to combat this activity, which he characterized as “terrorism” and said that the only method that could be used to combat it was severe countermeasures.
I recall that in reply to our objections as soldiers the following words were spoken: “As long as the paratrooper or saboteur runs the danger only of being taken captive, he incurs no risk; in normal circumstances he risks nothing; we must take action against this.” These were the reasons behind his thoughts.
I might add that many times the commanders who received these orders asked questions about how they were to be applied, particularly in connection with the threat that they would be punished if they did not carry them out.
The only reply we could make was, “You know what is in the orders,” for we were not in a position to change these signed orders. … neither General Jodl nor I thought that we were in a position, or considered it possible, to draft or submit such a written order. We did not do it because we could not justify it or give reasons for it.
See Avalon Project