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.
When they learnt that the Nazis had embarked on an atomic weapons programme the British were prepared to take considerable risks to disrupt it. The main target was the Norwegian hydro electric plant which was producing ‘heavy water’ essential for the Nazis to progress with their programme.
In late 1942 they dispatched Operation Freshman. This attempt to mount an armed raid on the facility at Vemork had ended in disaster when one plane and two gliders carrying Airborne Division troops had crashed in Norway. Those troops, mainly Royal Engineers, who survived the crashes were subsequently executed under Hitler’s Commando Order. For further details see the Assault Glider Trust.
Now the British Special Operations Executive tried again. The advance team for Operation Freshman, four Norwegians who had parachuted into the country before the gliders, had survived the winter by living off reindeer and moss. It was a notable feat of survival. Now they were joined by further Norwegian parachutists for a covert raid on the plant, rather than a military assault
Joachim Ronneberg was one of the men who now arrived by parachute and who now made an attack on the plant:
The main building was 25 by 100 metres in seven stories. The production started in the top storey and continued in circles until it ended as heavy water down in the bottom. And that was our target: a battery of 18 cells, the last stage in the production.
Two of us managed to get in and we started laying the charges. The order was that if anything happened that could endanger the result, you had to act on your own. The three other chaps in the demolition party, one of them carrying a set of charges, decided to break the window to get inside because they did not know that we were busy inside. When the window broke, both goups were equally surprised.
I helped one of my friends to get in, and we finished laying the charges. They were not big charges. They weighed about 4.5 kilos, and had been chained up by the British before we left. Two-minute fuses, four of them.
There was a Norwegian workman inside the factory reading the instruments and filling out the logbook. He heard us talking Norwegian, discussing whether we should put on a 30-second fuse just to be sure that we heard the bang as soon as possible.
That was when he asked for his glasses. It was difficult to get glasses in Norway, so he wanted to have them before we lit the charges. I remember I threw away what I was doing and searched for the glasses and found the case and handed it to him.
He was very pleased and I started getting the ignition sets ready when he suddenly said that the glasses were not in the case. I said “Where the hell are they then?” And he said “Well, they were there when you came in.” In the end I found them being used as a bookmark in his logbook, and gave them to him.
Then we ordered him to give us the key for the cellar door so that we could go out through the door like other human beings. We opened the door and I remember Major Tronstad saying that in case we needed to lock up the guard, the key for the lavatory was on the left-hand side of the door. I remember just after we had lit these 30-second fuses, I saw the key, but we did not need it.
We said to the man, “You just run around the corner, up the staircase, lie down and keep your mouth open, until you hear the bang. There will be only one bang, so when it is over you can go down and watch the result”. I do not know if he did. But I know that he kept his mouth open, because he could hear when I met him two years later. Otherwise, if he had had his mouth closed he would have blown out his eardrums.
We had planned to meet the covering party down by the river. They expected to be there a while after they heard the bang, not knowing that we had used only 30-second fuses, so we met them just outside the gate.
What astonished us was that the Germans did not understand what had happened at all. The covering party told us that one man came out of the doorway of the guard house with a torch, and made a sort of search around the house and went in again. When we got back across the river, we took a parallel road to the main road leading down to Rjukan centre. At the place where the funicular starts down in the valley, we began climbing a zigzag road leading up to the top. It was a rise of about six or seven hundred metres, and it took us, I would say, three hours from the explosion until we could put on our skis up on the mountainside.
Based on a presentation by Joachim Ronneberg at the International Conference on Nuclear Technology and Politics, Rjukan 16 – 18 June 1993. Read the full account at Brage.
The 60th anniversary BBC Radio programme is still available online
Of the six two man canoes that had been brought to the French coast by [permalink id=25495 text=”HMS Tuna on the 7th December”], only five had been launched because one canoe was damaged getting off the submarine. Two canoes were lost during the first phase when making their way to the river mouth – they encountered unexpectedly heavy seas and a strong tidal race. The three remaining canoes made their way up the Gironde estuary to the harbour basin of Bordeaux. As they lay up in hiding during the first day one pair of crew were discovered and captured by the Germans.
The remaining two crews continued in their journey upstream for the following four nights, making slower progress than expected because of a strong ebb tide. Each day they hid up in the undergrowth beside the river as the Germans mounted a search for them. The attack was postponed until the night of 11th/12th December. On that night Major Hasler and Marine Bill Sparks in canoe ‘Catfish’ and Corporal A. F. Laver and Marine W. H. Mills in canoe ‘Crayfish’ made the attack they had been planning for the past few months. Bill Sparks later described the events:
We approached the basin of Bordeaux. Lights shone from the jetties; so much illumination alarmed us. We paddled up the middle of the stream, inspecting the targets as we passed silently by. There were several ships moored in a row, which was very thoughtful of the Germans, making our targets so readily accessible.
The first was a tanker. Next we found a cargo-liner. Then another cargo ship but with a tanker moored alongside. Then another cargo ship, just beyond that we saw another ship which was impossible to identify because, lying alongside and obscuring our view, was a sperrbrecher, a smaller craft, no bigger than a frigate.
We were lucky. We could have arrived to discover that the harbour was empty; there had been no way to knowing how many ships we would find until this moment, and we were satisfied. We chose four targets.
We turned back towards the cargo ship and pulled up alongside. Her hull shrouded us in darkness. We could hear the crew singing. I wondered what they’d be singing in a few hours’ time. It proved an easy target. I attached my magnet-holder to the hull to prevent the tide from carrying us away.
The Major placed the first mine on the six-foot rod and lowered it into the water, placing the mine on her stern. He detached the rod, having felt the limpet mine clamp itself to the hull. I released my magnetic holder and the tide slowly swept us along, so we could place another mine amidships and a third on her bows.
Then we came to the ship with the sperrbrecher moored to it. I clamped the holder to the hull and Blondie planted a mine.
Suddenly we were bathed in light. I looked up and saw the silhouette of a German sentry leaning over the side, shining his torch on us. We froze, hardly daring to breathe. A succession of split-second thoughts raced through my mind; what do we do if he challenges us? Do we answer? Just ignore him? If we ignore him, will he sound the alarm?
I quickly realized the best course of action was to hang onto the side of the ship. We were still well camouflaged, but the cockpit cover was open so I could hand Blondie the limpets.
I cautiously leant forward, bending right across the cockpit so that my camouflaged back would conceal it. It may have been only seconds – it seemed like minutes – that we waited, but I began to think that we could sit there no longer. I gently eased the magnetic holder off, allowing the tide to carry us along the side of the ship.
The Germans appeared to be taken in by their camouflage and they went on to attach their limpet mines. Six ships were badly damaged as consequence of their attack. The four men then made their some way down river before sinking their canoes. They then set off on foot across occupied France in separate pairs. Laver and Mills were caught by the Germans two days later.
Hasler and Sparks eventually met up with the French Resistance whose members helped them to escape to Spain, where they arrived after walking over the Pyrrenees in February 1943. They arrived back in Britain in April.
All the surviving members of the crews who had been captured by the Germans were executed by them under the Commando Order.
At 7.17 pm on December 7, 1942, His Majesty’s Submarine Tuna surfaced off the coast of Occupied France near the mouth of the River Gironde. The forerunners of the Special Boat Service were on their first mission. The plan was to launch two-man canoes that would travel up river and plant limpet mines on shipping in Bordeaux harbour.
The group of men who would become known as the ‘Cockleshell Heroes’ had prepared for their mission in great secrecy with some very demanding training. Operation Frankton did not begin well. Of the six canoes planned to launch one was damaged getting off the submarine and could not take part. Of the five double man crews that set off one was lost very soon in the unexpectedly rough seas. Then another canoe went missing.
Royal Marine William Sparks was in a canoe with Major Herbert ‘Blondie’ Hasler, the commander of the operation, they went back to look for the missing canoe. They found the boat, which had capsized, with its crew Sheard and Moffat clinging to it. Sparks describes subsequent events:
The men in the water grabbed at our canoes, blue lips trembling.
I tried to turn the canoe over, as Blondie told me, but it was full of water and impossible to refloat. ‘Very well,’ he said grimly, ‘you’ll have to scuttle her.’
We managed to retrieve some of the mines and shared them out between the two other crews. Then I took my clasp-knife and began to slash open the sides of canoe. Within seconds Conger had sunk.
It was around two in the morning and we were falling behind schedule. The orders had been plain; no man’s jeopardy should put the mission in peril. The Major was having to make swift decisions, and I could see that he was tormented. He could not just leave the two men there to fend for themselves in the freezing water. They would die for sure.
The beach, we knew, would be infested with the enemy and to try to reach it in order to save Sheard and Moffat would result in almost certain capture or death.
He decided to tow the two men in as close to the beach as possible. ‘Hang on,’ he told them.
The weight of the men in tow made the going slow, but at last we were approaching the mouth of the estuary. The revolving beams from the lighthouse swept over us, illuminating us with each revolution. At any moment we might be sighted and fired upon. But no shots came. Now the tide gave us a helping hand, carrying us round the Pointe de Grave and into the Gironde. Only twenty minutes had passed since we had found Sheard and Moffat – it seemed like hours – and both men were weak with exhaustion and shivering with cold.
Time was against us. The tide would soon be turning and we would be swept back into the bay. The Major had to make a terrible decision. He ordered us to raft up.
‘I’m sorry, but this is as close to the beach as we dare go,’ he told Sheard and Moffat. ‘From here you will have to swim the rest of the way.’
He knew that they would be lucky just to make it to the beach in that cold sea; they were already frozen through. But he tried to sound optimistic. ‘I wish we could take you further, but if we’re all caught the operation will be at an end, and none of us want that. Get yourselves ashore, make your escape overland as best you can.’
‘It’s all right, sir,’ said Sheard. ‘We understand.’
The two lads reached up to shake hands with us and wish us luck.
Corporal C. J. Sheard and Marine D. Moffatt from the capsized canoe Conger are believed to have reached the beach, they did not drown but died of hypothermia. The other men would press on with their ill fated mission.
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 [permalink id=21068 text=”behind enemy lines”] in the desert. Some raids were spectacular successes such as at [permalink id=18234 text=”St Nazaire”], whilst others such as [permalink id=21997 text=”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 [permalink id=17421 text=”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 [permalink id=23087 text=”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.
The men who had landed from the Free French submarine [permalink id=22968 text=”Junon on the 15th September”] now struck. They successfully entered the lightly guarded Glomfjord power station and blew up enough essential machinery to put it out of action for the remainder of the war. German Aluminium production from the associated plant was halted:
We left our home port on 11th September 1942 and disembarked four days later. After the operation, which took place successfully on the night of 20th September, we climbed up to the huts behind Glomfjord power station. Captain Black then told the rest of us to climb the hill as best we could and get away. We divided into two parties, Smith, O’Brien, Christiansen (Granlund), Fairclough and Trigg going up to the right and the others to the left. However Captain Black called Smith back to administer morphia to a man who had been wounded.
The four of us carried on for four hours up the mountain till 0600 hours 21st September when we reached the south side of a valley leading to Storglomvatnet Lake, We had abandoned our haversacks and everything but two Colts and our emergency rations. We had two compasses apart from the small compasses in the aid boxes. Christiansen had a large-scale map.
The river was deep and rapid and we were on the wrong side of it as the Storglomvatnet Lake blocked our way east. Christiansen managed to cross with difficulty but shouted to us not to follow him. He was in much stronger form than we were, he was as agile as a goat and was going strong when last we saw him. He still had the map. We now had a compass between three of us, Chrisriansen having taken one with him.
We were very tired and hungry and ate all our emergency rations in twenty minutes. We went on down the south side of a valley and during the afternoon had to lie low because four Messerschmitts and a Heinkel came to look for us. In the evening we were able to cross the river where it reaches the lake and skirted round the north of the lake.
Part of the account of Operation Musketoon which appeared in the London Gazette, 7th January 1943. This party of men war were quite lucky despite their arduous journey across Norway to Sweden, accomplished with the help of friendly Norwegians. This entailed crossing swollen rivers, scaling mountains and sleeping in the snow amongst other privations, not least hunger. Sergeant O’Brien and was awarded the DCM and Corporal Fairclough and Private Trigg both the MM:
Sergeant O’Brien was one of the detachment of 2 Commando on Operation Musketoon. This highly successful operation resulted in the destruction of the important electric power plant at Glomfjord in Norway on the night of 20th September 1942. Sergeant O’Brien throughout showed great skill and resolution He helped reconnoitre the difficult mountain crossing from the landing place to the objective and personally laid the charge which destroyed the pipeline. He then made his escape, spending, in all, twelve days in enemy-occupied country. When suffering from sickness, privation and exhaustion he showed remarkable endurance and determination.
Unfortunately the outcome for the remaining men led by Captain Black, a veteran of the [permalink id=15567 text=”Vaasgo Raid”], was less happy. They were found by the Germans, surrounded and forced to surrender. They were all in uniform and should have been treated as Prisoners of War. However Hitler had been incensed by this raid and others. His infamous Commando Order was issued on the 18th October 1942. As a direct consequence the seven surviving members of the raiding party were executed at Sachsenhausen Concentration camp on 23rd October 1942.
Of the two Norwegian Resistance men accompanying the raid Corporal E Djupdraet died of wounds sustained before they were capturedand Corporal E Granlund successfully made his way back to Britain.
On the 19th August 1942 the British Combined Operations launched a cross channel raid on the French port of Dieppe. The main force of Canadian troops sought to capture the port facilities. It was allegedly an exercise in discovering how difficult such an operation would be, and a means of developing inter service co-operation for amphibious operations.
The raid is generally considered to have been an unmitigated disaster, with no major objectives accomplished and 4,384 of the 6,086 men who made it ashore killed, wounded, or captured, whilst the Royal Navy suffered 555 casualties.
For the men involved there was some desperate fighting, some indication of which can be gained from the citations of the three Victoria Crosses that were awarded for action that day:
At Dieppe on the 19th August 1942, Major Porteous was detailed to act as Liaison Officer between the two detachments whose task was to assault the heavy coast defence guns.
In the initial assault Major Porteous, working with the smaller of the two detachments, was shot at close range through the hand, the bullet passing through his palm and entering his upper arm. Undaunted, Major Porteous closed with his assailant, succeeded in disarming him and killed him with his own bayonet thereby saving the life of a British Sergeant on whom the German had turned his aim.
In the meantime the larger detachment was held up, and the officer leading this detachment was killed and the Troop Sergeant-Major fell seriously wounded. Almost immediately afterwards the only other officer of the detachment was also killed. Major Porteous, without hesitation and in the face of a withering fire, dashed across the open ground to take over the command of this detachment.
Rallying them, he led them in a charge which carried the German position at the point of the bayonet, and was severely wounded for the second time. Though shot through the thigh he continued to the final objective where he eventually collapsed from loss of blood after the last of the guns had been destroyed.
Major Porteous’s most gallant conduct, his brilliant leadership and tenacious devotion to a duty which was supplementary to the role originally assigned to him, was an inspiration to the whole detachment.
For matchless gallantry and inspiring leadership whilst commanding his battalion during the Dieppe raid on the 19th August 1942. From the point of landing his unit’s advance had to be made across a bridge in Pouville which was swept by very heavy machine-gun, motar and artillery fire, the first parties were mostly destroyed and the bridge thickly covered by their bodies. A daring lead was required: waving his helmet, Lieutenant Colonel Merritt rushed forward shouting “Come on over! There’s nothing to worry about here”. He thus personally led the survivors of at least four parties in turn across the bridge.
Quickly organizing these, he led them forward and when held up by enemy pillboxes he again headed rushes which succeeded in clearing them. In one case he himself destroyed the occupants of the post by throwing grenades into it. After several of his runner became casualties, he himself kept contact with his different positions.
Although twice wounded Lieutenant Colonel Merritt continued to direct the unit’s operations with great vigour and determination and while organizing the withdrawal he stalked a sniper with a Bren gun and silenced him. He then coolly gave orders for the departure and announced his intention to hold off and “get even with” the enemy. When last seen he was collecting Bren and Tommy guns and preparing a defensive position which successfully covered the withdrawal from the beach.
Lieutenant Colonel Merritt is now reported to be a Prisoner of War. To this Commanding Officer’s personal daring, the success of his unit’s operations and the safe re-embarkation of a large portion of it were chiefly due.
Upon landing on the beach under heavy fire he attached himself to the Regimental Aid Post which had been set up in a slight depression on the beach, but which was only sufficient to give cover to men lying down. During the subsequent period of approximately eight hours, while the action continued, this officer not only assisted the Regimental Medical Officer in ministering to the wounded in the Regimental Aid Post, but time and again left this shelter to inject morphine, give first-aid and carry wounded personnel from the open beach to the Regimental Aid Post. On these occasions, with utter disregard for his personal safety, Honorary Captain Foote exposed himself to an inferno of fire and saved many lives by his gallant efforts.
During the action, as the tide went out, the Regimental Aid Post was moved to the shelter of a stranded landing craft. Honorary Captain Foote continued tirelessly and courageously to carry wounded men from the exposed beach to the cover of the landing craft. He also removed wounded from inside the landing craft when ammunition had been set on fire by enemy shells. When landing craft appeared he carried wounded from the Regimental Aid Post to the landing craft through heavy fire. On several occasions this officer had the opportunity to embark but returned to the beach as his chief concern was the care and evacuation of the wounded. He refused a final opportunity to leave the shore, choosing to suffer the fate of the men he had ministered to for over three years.
Honorary Captain Foote personally saved many lives by his efforts and his example inspired all around him. Those who observed him state that the calmness of this heroic officer as he walked about, collecting the wounded on the fire-swept beach will never be forgotten.
It was later claimed that for every man lost at Dieppe more lives were saved in the eventual invasion of Europe, at Normandy in 1944. As the German Field Marshal von Runstedt observed:
Just as we are going to evaluate these experiences for the future so is the assaulting force … perhaps even more so as it has gained the experience dearly. He will not do it like this a second time!
In April 1918 the Royal Navy had launched the Zeebrugge Raid when ships packed with explosive had been forced into the Belgium port being used as a U-Boat base. Despite very high casualties on that occasion it was decided that a similar method might be used to disable the French base of St Nazaire, a potential home base for the Tirpitz if she ventured into the Atlantic.
This time it was a joint Royal Navy – Commando raid. On the [permalink id=18220 text=”23rd March Hitler”] had himself warned of the probability of ‘English’ raids on the European coast – some said he had an uncanny ability to foresee these things. Nevertheless the raid achieved considerable surprise.
Captain Robert Ryder was in command of the Naval force and was to describe the progress of the force up the Loire river, which they edged up as far as possible before they were challenged and came under gunfire – to which they responded vigorously.
At the moment of opening fire, we in MGB 314 were just coming up to a guard ship anchored in the river abreast the south entrance. In the glare of the searchlights we could see her clearly and her guns. At about 300 yards three well-aimed bursts of fire from our pom-pom silenced her. It was indeed an unfortunate day for that vessel, as she not only received bursts of fire from each craft in turn as they passed but finally provided an excellent target for their own shore batteries, who fired on her until she scuttled herself.
After about three or four minutes of this brisk action there was a perceptible slackening in the enemy’s fire. This was a triumph for the many gun-layers in the coastal craft and in the Campbeltown. It was, at this stage, a straight fight between the carefully sited enemy flak emplacements ashore, enjoying all the protection which concrete could afford, and the gun-layers, handling the short-range weapons on the exposed decks of their small and lively craft.
Only in the Campbeltown had it been possible to provide a reasonable amount of steel protection, and this was largely offset by her being the most conspicuous target in our force. To our advantage, on the other hand, we were the attackers and, by evading the batteries guarding the approaches, we had arrived off our objective, with a force mounting forty or more close-range cannon.
With our craft steaming past the southern entrance to the port a big percentage of our armament could concentrate on each ofthe enemy emplacements in turn as they passed them, and, finally, on arrival at our selected points of attack, we could reasonably expect to outnumber them locally. For all this the enemy, with their heavily protected emplacements and heavier-calibre guns (20 mm, 40 mm, and 88 mm) had the advantage.
Our triumph, therefore, although it was short-lived, was a fine feat of arms for our guncrews and for those officers and gunners’ mates who in many cases stood beside the guns to assist in directing the fire. The slackening in the enemy’s fire, moreover, came at the precise moment when the Campbeltown had to aim for the lock gate.
MGB 314, increasing speed to keep ahead of Campbeltown, passed about 200 yards off the Old Mole and then sheered off to starboard while Campbeltown continued on round and in to her objective. She had increased to nineteen knots; there was a slight check as she cut the torpedo net and she hit the caisson of the lock with a crash. The exact time of impact was 1.34 am, four minutes after the intended time.
Captain Robert Ryder was one of five men awarded Victoria Crosses for his part in the raid. Lieutenant-Commander Stephen Halden Beattie who was responsible for captaining HMS Campbeltown and driving her into the dock, and Lieutenant-Colonel Charles Newman, in overall command of the raid were similarly decorated.
One of five Victoria Crosses awarded for action during the raid. Able Seaman Savage who was a gun-layer of a pom-pom in MGB 314, engaged enemy positions ashore, shooting with great accuracy. Although he had no gun-shield and was in a most exposed position, he continued firing with great coolness until at last he was killed at his gun.
Motor Launch 306 came under heavy fire while proceeding up the River Loire towards the port. Sergeant Durrant, in his position abaft the bridge, where he had no cover or protection, engaged enemy gun positions and searchlights ashore. During this engagement he was severely wounded in the arm but refused to leave his gun.
The Motor Launch subsequently went down the river and was attacked by a German destroyer at 50 to 60 yards range, and often closer. In this action Sergeant Durrant continued to fire at the destroyer’s bridge with the greatest of coolness and with complete disregard of the enemy’s fire. The Motor Launch was illuminated by the enemy searchlight, and Sergeant Durrant drew on himself the individual attention of the enemy guns, and was again wounded in many places. Despite these further wounds he stayed in his exposed position, still firing his gun, although after a time only able to support himself by holding on to the gun mounting.
After a running fight, the Commander of the German destroyer called on the Motor Launch to surrender. Sergeant Durrant’s answer was a further burst of fire at the destroyer’s bridge. Although now very weak, he went on firing, using drums of ammunition as fast as they could be replaced.
A renewed attack by the enemy vessel eventually silenced the fire of the Motor Launch, but Sergeant Durrant refused to give up until the destroyer came alongside, grappled the Motor Launch and took prisoner those who remained alive.
Sergeant Durrant’s gallant fight was commended by the German officers on boarding the Motor Launch. This very gallant non-commissioned officer later died of the many wounds received in action.
The Commando Veterans Association has an online collection of original documents relating to Sergeant Durrant and his family, including the letters written from Prisoner of War camp by which they learnt of his death.
Michael Burn was one of the officers from No. 2 Commando who found themselves left on the dockside among a number of men who had completed their task of blowing up various military installations. They discovered that all the boats had left and there was no possibility of them getting away. ” Well, the transports let us down again”.
The order was given to make for Spain, a thousand miles away. All the men had memorised the Spanish phrase ‘I am an escaped British prisoner’ with which they were supposed to greet the Spanish authorities. Five men actually made it to Spain. The remainder were picked up by the Germans, hiding in various buildings and ships along the harbourside, during the course of the morning. The officers were interrogated in turn:
Beattie himself was interrogated by a senior naval officer who, after praising his seamanship, asked him how the British could be so stupid as to imagine that so huge a dock could be put out of action by a flimsy destroyer which the Germans would soon haul away; at which moment there was a violent explosion, the windows in the interrogation-room were blown in, and, rushing out, the naval officer got the answer to his gibe.
Not only had she exploded, but taken with her scores of German investigators, sightseers and souvenir-hunters. We heard the explosion in the guard-room and gave a big cheer. So that was that. The ‘paramount purpose’ had been achieved in full. The Tirpitz never did venture out into the Atlantic. The dock was not repaired till after the War.
On the 26th Commando’s had returned to the Lofoten Islands after the raid earlier in the year, in [permalink id=10531 text=”March 1941″]. It had been a diversion for the main raid taking place at Vaasgo, Norway. This time it would be a rather bloodier affair.
Lieutenant Colonel Durnford-Slater was leading the raid:
About a hundred yards from our landing-place, I fired ten red Very light signals. This told the ships to stop firing and the aircraft to come in with their smoke bombs. As I leaped from the leading landing craft three Hampden bombers passed over me at zero feet with a roar. As they did so they loosed their bombs, which seemed to flash and then mushroom like miniature atom explosions. Some of the phosphorus came back in a great flaming sheet.
Next thing I knew both my sleeves were on fire. Fortunately I wore leather gloves and beat the flames out before they could eat through my four layers of clothing to the skin. The beaching had been made, dry, against snow-covered rocks which rose thirty or forty feet in an almost sheer wall. For the moment, we were unopposed and hidden from the enemy by smoke.
Unfortunately, however, one of the Hampdens was hit by anti-aircraft fire as she came in. Out of control, she dropped a bomb on an incoming landing craft. Bursting, the phosphorus inflicted terrible burns amongst the men. The craft, too, burst into flames. Grenades, explosives, and small arms ammunition were detonated in a mad mixture of battle noises.
We pushed the emptied craft out to sea where it could do us no harm, and Sam Corry, our big, efficiently calm Irish doctor, taking charge of the casualties, sent them back to the Prince Charles. The rest of us turned to the battle.
The Australian 7th Division had invaded Syria from the south on the 8th June and were pushing north along the coast road. It was known that there was a strong defensive position on the Litani River. A Commando raid from the sea was launched on the 8th June to attack the French positions north and south of the river and attempt to capture the important Qasmiye bridge over the river – and so assist the general advance.
The 11th Scottish Commando was to lead the raid. Lt. Gerald Bryan had successfully crossed the beach and had just destroyed a battery of French guns when he was recalled to the Commando HQ to confer with Colonel Pedder:
We had to cross about 300 yards of open ground to reach the Colonel so we just ran like hell, and although there were a few bullets flying around, I don’t think we had a single casualty. I arrived at Commando HQ and reported to the Colonel. He explained that he was pushing in some men and wanted our section to support them and pick off snipers. We took up what positions we could but there wasn’t much cover.
I left the Colonel and went over to a Bren-gun post about fifty yards away but it took me a good ten minutes to get there as I had to crawl the whole way. The French had spotted us and were putting down a lot of small arms fire – very accurate. The whole time bullets spat past my head and sounded very close. It was very unpleasant and hard to think correctly.
When I reached the Bren posts, they were stuck. Every time they tried to fire, a MG opened up and they couldn’t spot it. Suddenly the B section officer said he had spotted it and grabbed a rifle, but as he was taking aim he was shot in the chest and went down, coughing blood. Then the Sergeant was shot in the shoulder, from a different direction, which meant we were being fired on from two fronts.
I crawled back to Commando HQ but when I was about ten yards away, I heard someone shout, ‘The Colonel’s hit. Get the medical orderly.’ I shouted to the Adjutant and he replied that the Colonel was dead and that he was going to withdraw the attack and try his luck elsewhere. So I shouted to my men to make for some scrub about a hundred yards away and started crawling towards it.
All the time bullets were fizzing past much too close for comfort and we kept very low. The Sergeant, who had been wounded, decided to run for it, to catch us up, but a machine gun got him and he fell with his face covered with blood.
As I was crawling I suddenly felt a tremendous bang on the head and I knew I had been hit. However, when I opened my eyes I saw that it was in the legs and decided not to die. I dragged myself into a bit of a dip and tried to get fairly comfortable, but every time I moved, they opened up on us.
I could hear an NCO yelling to me to keep down or I would be killed. I kept down. After a time (when the initial shock had worn off) the pain in my legs became hellish. My right calf was shot off and was bleeding, but I could do nothing about it, and the left leg had gone rigid.
By now the sun was well up and it was very hot lying there. I was damned thirsty but could not get a drink as I had to expose myself to get my water bottle, and each time I tried I got about twenty rounds all to myself, so I put up with the thirst and lay there, hoping I would lose consciousness.
After about two hours, a lot of fire came down and the next thing was twenty-five French advancing out of the scrub with fixed bayonets. The four men left from my section were captured.
I raised my arm and one of the French came over and gave me a nasty look. I was carrying a French automatic pistol that my Sergeant had given me in exchange for my rifle. It had jammed at the first shot but like a fool I had held on to it. Anyway, he just looked at me for a while and away he went and I was left alone. I had one hell of a drink and felt better.
About half and hour later my four men were back with a stretcher, under a French guard. Both the Colonel and B Section officer were dead, so they got me onto the stretcher and carried me down to a dressing station, where a British medical orderly gave me a shot of morphia.
While we were lying there, a machine gun opened up and the French medical fellows dived into a cave, but the bullets were right above our heads and they were obviously firing over us at something else.
Some time later an ambulance turned up, and we were taken to a hospital in Beirut. In the ambulance were two wounded French, two Sergeants from our side, and myself. We remained as prisoners of war in Beirut until the British entered the town six weeks later.
The full account and other stories from 11 Commando at the Battle of the Litani River can be read at Combined Ops. Ian McHarg’s book ‘Litani River’ contains many more accounts of the battle – see the [permalink id=12855 text=”Litani River Feature”].