The Commandos receive their orders

Commandos cross a river on a 'toggle bridge' under simulated artillery fire, at the Commando training depot at Achnacarry, Inverness-shire, Scotland, January 1943.

Commandos cross a river on a ‘toggle bridge’ under simulated artillery fire, at the Commando training depot at Achnacarry, Inverness-shire, Scotland, January 1943.

After months of training in the wild outer reaches of the highlands of Scotland the Commandos were on their way to battle. They knew they would probably be involved in an amphibious assault, because that is what they had trained for. It was a big operation because they could see the number of other troops also en route. But where they would go into battle remained a complete mystery.

Far out in the Atlantic on his troopship was Commando officer Douglas Grant:

I noticed during the next two days that the Intelligence Officer adopted a close manner which clearly announced his familiarity with the purpose of our voyage. He was not to be seen for long hours and when he did come into the mess to drink lemonade (the ship had gone dry immediately we had sailed for the second time) he warily disregarded our questions.

The mystery was at last revealed. An officers’ conference was held in the ante-room off the mess and as we filed through the blanketed door we saw that the panelled walls had been hung with maps and photographs. The Colonel, bland and self-sufficient, with the Adjutant on his right hand and the Intelligence Officer on his left, was seated at a small table facing down the room, and his attitude resembled that of a priest about to perform a strange religious rite.

When we had taken our places and his gaze had enforced silence, he began to speak. He was too aware that this was an historic incident in his career to be in full command of his voice, and his opening remarks issued out pompously, like fat thrushes settling on a lawn.

He emphasized that this was the moment for which we all had been eagerly waiting;
the chance had at last arrived for us to prove our mettle; the opportunity was now offered to us which had been denied to other troops clamouring for action; and – he had to loose this fat thrush because he was a professional soldier — we could soon fulfil our ambition to kill the enemy.

He paused to tug at his moustache. He resumed his usual voice and began a competent summary of the operation. We would land somewhere on the coast of southern Europe. We would assault shortly after midnight and by dawn consolidate a beachhead sufficiently large to allow the main forces to disembark safely.

We might expect to encounter opposition from coastal troops entrenched in strongly protected dug-outs behind wire entanglements. There would be no preliminary aerial or naval bombardment and our success would depend entirely upon surprise and pugnacity. It was unlikely that we could approach the shores without coming under observation from the air, and we must therefore expect the defences to be in a state of readiness.

These were the bare bones of the plan and the skeletal sentences seemed to rattle in a dance. He had nothing further to tell us at the moment, he concluded, but we should study the maps and photographs to familiarize ourselves with the general appearance of the terrain before the plan was particularly announced and a role assigned to each troop.

The announcement gave a keener edge to our sensibility. We knew the worst at last. This expedition was not the gigantic hoax which we had been almost tempted to believe it; it was not a fantasy but a reality, that rose upright through the spume of fear and expectation like a gaunt rock from the ocean bed.

We pushed back our chairs and moved over to the maps. The coastline was indented, roads ran in all directions from the beaches, towns and villages were dotted about the hinterland, and orchards and marshes encroached on each other. The names of every place and feature were in code and any evidence to show in what country this region lay had been carefully suppressed. It might have been a map of Yorkshire, or of the moon.

What was this country, we asked? Crete, Corsica, Yugoslavia, Sicily, Greece, Italy, France, and Spain were suggested in turn, but there was nothing to disprove or to confirm any suggestion. It was simpler to think of it as the Objective, a piece of ground singled out for bloody conflict.

Douglas Grant was with 41st Royal Marine Commando. See Douglas Grant: The fuel of the fire

Commandos practise close-quarter combat in Scotland, 9 January 1943.

Commandos practise close-quarter combat in Scotland, 9 January 1943.

Commandos use fighting knives during close-quarter combat practice in Scotland, 9 January 1943.

Commandos use fighting knives during close-quarter combat practice in Scotland, 9 January 1943.

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R.E. Carsch August 6, 2013 at 5:23 am

You write of British Commandos, have you written anything about the British Pioneer Corps? They were a sort of advance group comprised mainly of young, “Aryan” -looking European Jews.

I believe some fought at St. Lo and the Battle of the Bulge, leaving France via boat off the Normandy Beaches. Apparently, they piled their guns, clothes and belongings on the beach and swam to the rescue boats.

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