No 4 Commando finally rest out of the line

Troops, including men from No 4 Commando, returning from shore in landing craft after raiding the Lofoten islands, Norway, 4 March 1941.

Troops, including men from No 4 Commando, returning from shore in landing craft after raiding the Lofoten islands, Norway, 4 March 1941.

Men of No. 4 Commando after returning from a raid on the French coast near Boulogne, 22 April 1942.

Men of No. 4 Commando after returning from a raid on the French coast near Boulogne, 22 April 1942.

A German prisoner, Unteroffizier Leo Marsiniak, being escorted at Newhaven. He was captured at the gun battery at Varengeville by No. 4 Commando. The Dieppe Raid, 19 August 1942

A German prisoner, Unteroffizier Leo Marsiniak, being escorted at Newhaven. He was captured at the gun battery at Varengeville by No. 4 Commando. The Dieppe Raid, 19 August 1942

Sherman DD tanks of 'B' Squadron, 13th/18th Royal Hussars support commandos of No. 4 Commando, 1st Special Service Brigade, as they advance into Ouistreham, Sword area, 6 June 1944.

Sherman DD tanks of ‘B’ Squadron, 13th/18th Royal Hussars support commandos of No. 4 Commando, 1st Special Service Brigade, as they advance into Ouistreham, Sword area, 6 June 1944.

It had ben a long war for some of the men of No 4 Commando, formed in 1940, when the notion of specialist assault troops had been a novelty in Britain. Since the spring of 1944 they had included two troops of French soldiers who had volunteered for the Commandos. The Commando had been a relatively experienced unit when they landed at Sword beach on D-Day and they had been in action continuously ever since.

Now the war was outrunning them and Lieutenant Murdoch C. McDougall had time to take in the sights of the liberation of France before they paused to rest:

It was by now fairly obvious to us all that the war was moving much too fast for us to keep up with it for long. Next day we marched in brilliant sunshine through the town of Beuzeville, where the people crowded out into the streets, cheering and waving, and thrusting bottles into the ready hands of the marching men.

Most of these folk were genuinely delighted to see us, particularly the older generation, many of whom stood, with tears of joy coursing down furrowed cheeks, saluting as we passed. They were saluting not us as men, but the return of their self-respect.

In a side-street a slatternly-looking young woman was screaming and struggling as a group of men with tricolour armbands sheared and shaved the hair off her head. Two or three other young women, already shorn, stood weeping by the roadside, as they helped one another to wrap a scarf or a kerchief around their baldness. They looked repulsively sexless with their white domes above the heightened colour of their faces.

The original version of the famous image by Robert Capa, "Collaborationist is Scorned by the People, Chartres, France", August 18 ,1944 © ICP / Magnum Fotos / Agentur Focus Courtesy: Galerie Daniel Blau Munich/London

The original version of the famous image by Robert Capa, “Collaborationist is Scorned by the People, Chartres, France”, August 18 ,1944 © ICP / Magnum Fotos / Agentur Focus Courtesy: Galerie Daniel Blau Munich/London

About three miles beyond the town we marched along dusty lanes, the hedges of which were already full of ripe hazel-nuts. On either side were orchards in which rosy apples hung heavy on the trees. Here we halted. Each troop was given an area, an orchard with a barn filled with sweet-smelling straw. It was just like heaven. The date was 26 August.

For the first three days we slept for about fifteen hours of the twenty-four. Most of the waking hours were spent lying in the sun, stretching out a lazy hand for another apple, soaking in the warmth of the sun which shone steadily down from a cloudless sky.

Up to the time we reached this haven, we had been in action continuously over a period of eighty-two days and eighty-two long nights, in which time we had not once been relieved. Our casualties in this stretch were more than one hundred per cent of our original strength, for as fast as replacements had arrived, they were hit. In “F” troop we still had about nine of the original sixty-three.

As we lay basking in the sunshine in our Elysian orchards, the war for us was very remote, but for the French troops it was as real as ever. Most of them were frantic for news of their homes and families, which were being liberated daily, as the tide of battle swept past them. The news of the liberation of Paris sent a surge of joy through them all. Several of them obtained leave to go there and find their relations.

See Murdoch C. McDougall: Swiftly They Struck: The Story of Number Four Commando. One of the French officers reached Paris to see his family for the first time in three and a half years, only to discover that his brother had recently been killed fighting for the FFI.

A Humber scout car crew watch for the enemy in Cormeilles as a Churchill tank burns in the town square, 26 August 1944

A Humber scout car crew watch for the enemy in Cormeilles as a Churchill tank burns in the town square, 26 August 1944

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