Did Britain's Commando heroes die in vain?


Bedraggled, beaten, starved and manacled, the seven British soldiers captured on an undercover sabotage mission in occupied Europe were hauled from their cells at the Sachsenhausen concentration camp in Nazi Germany.

Their private war was over. Forced to their knees beside an open trench, they were shot in the back of the neck by SS troops. Their summary execution 70 years ago on October 18, 1942, was a landmark. They were the first to die as a result of Adolf Hitler’s notorious (and illegal) Kommandobefehl or Commando Order, his revenge instruction for dealing with members of the elite Commando force who fell into German hands.

The Commandos were the poster boys of the British military in World War II, the toughest and the bravest, cherry-picked from every regiment, ruthlessly trained and then let loose on clandestine missions in German-occupied Europe.

Hundreds of them died on what in many cases were suicide missions, operations so daring and dangerous that the commanders who sent them were grateful if any got back alive. But what was the point of their sacrifice? A fascinating new book by military historian James Owen concludes that what these men of iron actually achieved was precious little.

It was Winston Churchill who set up the Commando units, in the aftermath of Dunkirk. Britain stood alone and under siege, and until the country recovered the strength to fight back in numbers, the Commandos would be the ones to take the battle into the enemy’s backyard.

They would be the inspirational daredevils who would defiantly bat on for Britain and pave the way to eventual victory.

The Rambos of their day, they dashed across the Channel to cause mayhem in French ports, infiltrated enemy positions in the North African desert, blew up power plants, lighthouses, gun emplacements, anything whose loss would inflict damage on the enemy.

They were trained to march, run, climb, swim, canoe, shoot and brawl better than anyone else. And to kill without compunction — a strong arm round a sentry’s neck from behind, a quick jab with a knife in the neck, another enemy down.

The British public loved their exploits, graphically retold in newspaper articles and radio broadcasts. A man in a green beret was guaranteed to be stood drinks all night in any pub by a grateful, doting public.

But Hitler came to loathe them as they stormed the walls of Fortress Europe and opened up chinks in his armour. Hence his secret order, issued after 18 months of incursions, to execute each and every one of them.

Even if they were in uniform and even if they had surrendered, he fulminated, they were not to be treated as prisoners-of-war. They were ‘bandits’ and ‘criminals, to be ‘eliminated’, no questions asked.

A month later, 34 more commandos were dead when the gliders taking them on a secret mission behind enemy lines crashed. Those who didn’t die in the wreckage were summarily shot.

And the carnage went on as Hitler pursued his vendetta against an elite force who so dramatically mocked his mastery of the Continent. That the Fuhrer felt compelled to respond so ruthlessly was, bizarrely, a back-handed compliment, a badge of honour for his tormentors.

The very first Commando raid in March 1941 had set the tone. It had been sent to destroy fish oil factories on the Lofoten Islands, off the coast of Norway, and met with such little opposition that one officer went to the post office and sent a telegram.

‘To A Hitler Berlin,’ it read. ‘You said in your last speech German troops would meet the English wherever they landed Stop So where were they?’ The taunting had gone on ever since.

Like wasps, the Commandos were clearly getting under the enemy’s skin. The mission for which those seven brave men paid with their lives that day in Sachsenhausen was typical of the damage and the irritation they were causing.

Twelve men set out on what was designated Operation Musketoon, led by the dashing 33-year-old Captain Graeme Black — whose pre-war occupation, improbable for a hardened warrior, had been making handbags for the couturier Norman Hartnell.

Their mission was to penetrate deep into enemy-occupied Norway and wreck a smelting plant producing much-needed aluminium for the German army. They spent four days crammed in the hull of an ageing submarine in the North Atlantic before being infiltrated into the coastal waters of enemy-occupied Norway in rubber dinghies.

Then they paddled four miles to the shore, hiked up a mountain carrying 60lb of gelignite apiece and hauled themselves across a glacier on ropes. Their target was not the plant itself but a hydro-electric station that powered it. The team split in two, with Black leading the main force to the generator building, creeping in the dark past the barracks where 100 German soldiers were sleeping.

Once inside, they worked feverishly to pack explosives around the turbines and attach delayed-action fuses. It was all done in the dark in 15 frantic minutes, then they were out and on their way, heading back up the mountain.

They had gone just a few hundred yards away when there was a tremendous explosion behind them and they stopped to gaze back with satisfaction. Job done.

Meanwhile, the other team had climbed high above the building to plant collars of gelignite around huge iron pipes feeding water to the plant. A second explosion sent millions of gallons of water and ton after ton of mud and gravel cascading down into the remains of the turbine room.

Soon the machinery was under 15ft of silt and sand. Job doubly done.

But now the saboteurs faced the hardest part of their mission — getting away. Ahead lay a 40-mile trek to neutral Sweden across tough mountainous terrain, with what seemed like the entire German army now on their tails.

They paused on a ridge, taking pot shots at their pursuers, hoping to hold them off. Salvoes of German bullets sent them scurrying on. There was a life-and-death struggle with an enemy patrol in a hut where they sought shelter and one Commando was fatally wounded.

The rest split up but for the seven there was no escape. They emerged into an open bowl to see field-grey uniforms lining the rim on all sides. Black crouched behind a rock, but when a couple of grenades were tossed towards them, they stepped out with their hands up. It was all over.

Of the others, three battled through blizzards and snow drifts, waded rivers and hid from tracker aircraft buzzing overhead for a week before making it to safety. The other went half-mad with hunger and cold but was helped by locals until, after 13 days on the run, he crossed into Sweden.

Back home — with the fate of Black and the six captured with him unknown, as it would be until the end of the war — the mission was trumpeted as a great victory.

Once again Britain’s shock troops had made their mark, as they had done in dozens of daring raids on the coast of France, in Italy and North Africa, inflicting pain and retribution on the enemy and hampering his war effort.

But the truth was not quite so rosy. The aluminium plant for which Black and his six comrades-in-arms took bullets in the neck at Sachsenhausen was not made inoperable for the rest of the war, as had been intended. It was back up and running within three months.

The same missed opportunity went for many other do-or-die Commando missions. The most famous raid of all was the one by men in canoes — the so-called Cockleshell Heroes — to destroy ships in the Garonne estuary in France with limpet mines and cut off Germany’s vital supplies of rubber from the Far East.

A dozen men set off, only two returned, but, according to Winston Churchill, their efforts shortened the war by six months. In reality, says author Owen, it is doubtful it did so by six minutes. The ships attacked were sunk in shallow water and were soon refloated, repaired and back at sea.

In his honest appraisal of the Commandos, Owen doesn’t doubt the verve and dash of heroes like ‘Mad Jack’ Churchill who went into battle with a longbow, a sword and his skirling bagpipes. Or the 5ft-tall ‘Tich’ Cowan, a former admiral, who was allowed to join the Commandos at the ripe old age of 73.

He was captured on a behind-the-lines mission to Tobruk as he took on advancing German tanks with his revolver. He only surrendered when he ran out of bullets.

Nor does he downplay the mind-boggling bravery of the likes of Lieutenant George Knowland, a bank clerk in civilian life, who was awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross for holding a hill in Burma virtually single-handed against 300 Japanese soldiers. Nor does he underestimate the daring of the teams who slipped across the Channel in the run-up to D-Day.

Under the noses of the Germans, they checked out beach and cliff defences or left false trails that the Calais coast rather than Normandy was the planned invasion point.

But lives were thrown away needlessly. Just three out of 34 came back from an attempt to assassinate Rommel, Germany’s best general, at his headquarters in the African desert. It turned out he hadn’t been there for months. The whole plan had been misconceived.

Of 265 commandos who attacked the French port of St Nazaire, more than 200 were killed or captured, but their success was only partial. They put the dry-dock permanently out of action, depriving the German navy of a base to service its battleships.

But the raid failed to wreck the submarine pens, from which a much greater danger to Allied shipping would emerge.
Commandos may have won lots of medals for bravery but far too many were awarded posthumously. They went on missions fully aware that they would probably not return.

‘You know a lot of you aren’t coming back but you push it to the back of your mind,’ recalled one survivor of a raid in which hundreds were to die. ‘I just hoped that if I got a bullet it’s a quick one and I’m finished, not wounded.’

The Commando fatally wounded on Operation Musketoon was stoical as his comrades were forced to leave him behind. ‘If a nation is to live, some must be willing to die,’ he told them. It was a noble sentiment that could have been the Commandos’ motto.

Yet in the end, says Owen, for all the effort invested in the Commandos’ missions, and for all the courage they required, none proved to be essential to victory. In reality, it was the ordinary, rank-and-file conscript army that won the key battles to defeat Hitler — Alamein, D-Day, Normandy and so on.

Some argue that the Commandos may even have hindered the success of the conventional forces. There were many in that Army who felt that they would have won the war sooner had the Commandos not creamed off the best of their fighting men.

Battles were won by a hard-core of soldiers, the anti-Commando brigade argued. If the ones with backbone were hived off to go on jaunts of dubious worth, then it was inevitable the main forces would suffer. They had a point.

So, if their missions were often failures and their existence posed problems for the regular army, was there any point at all to the Commandos? The answer is that their buccaneering image — skilfully enhanced by propaganda — raised morale at home at a time when the prospects for Britain looked bleak.

Myth has a powerful part to play in winning wars. Poland, Belgium, Holland, France, the Mediterranean, North Africa and much more besides had been overrun by Hitler’s hordes.

The image of the invincible British Commando, dagger between his teeth, striking night after night in a carefully co-ordinated campaign of sabotage and raiding, was a symbol of defiance against all the odds. No wonder Hitler wanted to crush it.

The Commandos were a magnificent exercise in bravado and guts at a time when Britain’s very survival was in doubt. Those seven brave Britons who went to their gruesome death in a Nazi concentration camp 70 years ago might have taken some final comfort from knowing that.

Read more: Did Britain's Commando heroes die in vain? Their daring raids drove Hitler to order them shot on sight, but a new book argues the soldiers, who died in their hundreds, did little to change the course of the war | Mail Online

Interesting take on how Commando's were used!
No account taken on the drain of manpower sent to guard Fortress Europa rather than the Eastern Front or the fear induced into German sentries of recieving a Sykes Fairbain to the throat in the dark of night. :wink:
A relatively small band of men or the threat thereof held back useful troops, after all France could have been held by 2nd raters, Police Battalions etc.
Judging the effectiveness of Commandos Forces purely on the results of raids is a blinkered approach.
Churchill had to do something to prove to both the British public and the US and later the USSR that UK PLC was capable and willing to hit back in as many ways as possible.
Raids were also used to prove techniques for beach recces, control of beachheads and equipment. Sure this ended in disasters such as Dieppe, but lessons were learned and used to great effect later.
Regular forces landed on beaches without the knowledge gained from earlier Army and RM Commando raids would have had found their job much harder.
No individulal 'changed the course of the war' not even Churchill.

It was a team event.

The fact that Hitler decided that Commandos should be shot on sight tells teh tale here. That is how 'insignificant' they were... that the Germans were sh1t scared of them.

There operations tied up 1,000s of German troops in the Rear Echelons, just like POW escapes.

People say the Dambusters raid was pointless too. Easy to say when you are sat in an armchair of a secure country and not facing the most powerful war machine in Europe, not knowing if you too will be crushed under the heel of the jackboot.... and these cnuts NEVER put forward better solutions.

One can only ssume we should have fought the war with some strongly worded letters sent from our starving Isle.
What a load of rubbish.

Telemark... Enough said on the "was it worth it" argument.

Op Franklin (Cockleshell Heroes) was carried out by Royal Marines who weren't Commando forces, bit pedantic as they are kind of the forefathers of the SBS but, history's history.
What a load of rubbish.

Telemark... Enough said on the "was it worth it" argument.

Op Franklin (Cockleshell Heroes) was carried out by Royal Marines who weren't Commando forces, bit pedantic as they are kind of the forefathers of the SBS but, history's history.
Huzzah, Blondie Hasler's love child speaks!
Compare the 'special' attacks on Tirpitz with the fcukng carnage wreaked upon the Royal Navy by Bismarck...


Kit Reviewer
Interesting viewpoint but flawed, the losses incurred by the commando raid were relatively few (especially if discount Dieppe, which was slightly larger than your average raid). Proportionally they might hae been large on those involved but the fact that there were survivors proves they were not a suicide missions as such as highly risky ones.
Given the fact that it wa always an away game aganist a stronger and larger opponent it was always likely to be thus.

The impact depended on the raid itself, the destruction of the dry docks at St. Nazaire was definitely high impact, Telemark again, the raid to capture radar part at Brunville ( or something close to that in spelling), Loftus Islands were all highly successful.

Others as mentioned tied down thousands of Germans and had a disproportionate effect on morale at home.
they tied up and worried the germans keeping units back when they could have gone east, just like the bombing raids kept back 10,000 odd guns, some of the best lufwaffe fighters, pilots and hundreds of thousands of men.

men which could have over run the middle east and really spoilt things.

commando raids are like the arguaments about dieppe - yep it failed but it taught enough lessons that overlord succeeded.
If the Commandos hadn't have been formed the Para's wouldn't have been sporn and the word "Hat" would still mean something that is worn on the head and not scraped off a shoe.
The argument of Regular Force Commanders that the creation of the Commandos robbed their Units of the best and brightest is of course true to this day. :wink:
If the Commandos hadn't have been formed the Para's wouldn't have been sporn and the word "Hat" would still mean something that is worn on the head and not scraped off a shoe.

the para course was totally different though, as far as I was aware it was due to the fact that both the russians and germans had para units the latter using them rather well if with a high casualty rate due to crap shutes


No individulal 'changed the course of the war' not even Churchill.

I think its "no individual won the war", as certain individuals most certainly did affect the course of the war - not least Churchill, Hitler, Stalin and Roosevelt each individually at different points.

The original article seems like the usual revisionist rowlocks. It never ceases to amaze me how some present day writer imagines how he can identify the correct decision(s) that should have been taken in WW2, rather than the hundreds/thousands of best and brightest minds of their generation who were in charge at the time....
I had the Honour & Privilage to have a chat & a coffee with some Dieppe Survivors in the Automat in CTCRM Lymstone, when I was a nod....they were having a reunion, they looked like little old men who couldnt harm a fly....I only seen them as Giants....You don't realize when you go through such training that you have some Big Boots to fill...until you talk to guy's like that!
My neighbour John, lovely old chap, was a Commando during WWIi.
He'll happily talk about his time in the Commandoes, he'll also tell you he regarded the war as a 'bloody waste', however, he makes no bones about it they were nasty little buggers when on their cross channel jollies.
The only Germans left alive after one of the raids would be the one they grabbed to take back for interrogation.
They fought a very vicious and nasty little war and neither gave nor expected any quarter.
The argument of Regular Force Commanders that the creation of the Commandos robbed their Units of the best and brightest is of course true to this day. :wink:

An example Slim makes in Defeat into Victory. He argued that there was a clear justification for some specialist units but that empire building caused them to increase above the size justified by their military effectiveness. Slim's alternative was to take a platoon or two in each unit and make them elite, thus having a nucleus of above average skills in each and every unit.

What is certain is that the commandos, paratroops and other special forces punched above their weight in WW2. The consequence of that was they were used as infantry at points in the line where the tasks were particularly demanding. As a consequence, they often took heavy casualties in a purely infantry role. Think of the immediate aftermath of D Day, holding ground (rather than just capturing it) in Market Garden and plugging the gaps in the Battle of the Bulge.

The UK and US were always short of line infantry that had the capability to attack using aggressive infiltration tactics. Maybe they would have been better to form slightly fewer elite units and to have followed Slim's philosophy of having cadres in every line unit. Think of the commandos and the raids they made in full commando strength - they were few and far between. Most of the 'iconic' actions we think of were carried out by far smaller detachments.

My Grandfather was an Army Commando. He was not a fan of the war, but he solidly believed that the Cdo actions shortened the war and prepared the ground for conventional/mass success.
New book to plug ......

Nothing new to say so has to be controversial in order to sell copies ........

"Rambo's of their day" ........ WTF !

Says it all really. No debate necessary. Don't buy the book.


Book Reviewer
Its another great piece of military history. Take a controversial viewpoint and play fast and loose with the facts to promote a book.

Pro Commandos:=

1. It was the only way for the British Army to be seen to be hitting back at the Germans . Good politics in 1940-42, giving encouragement to Britain and occupied Europe and a way to keep the army motivated and imbued with offensive spirit.

2. The various raids on the mainland of Europe had a massive impact on the Germans. The arguments that "raids didn't achieve the stated missions" ignores the realities of war. Few plans survive contact with the enemy and the true results can only be judged after seeing what they do to the enemy. This is the same logic as the people who want to argue that D Day was a failure . They want to sell popular history to people who want to read about scandalous failures.

a. Two weeks after Hitler gives the order for the Atlantic wall, the British sail right into the middle of St Nazaire, one of the major ports, and cause mayhem for several hours. They then leave a massive bomb in the middle of the dry dock. The Germans reacted the same way our security forces have to terrorist spectaculars and bolted the stable door afterwards. The result of this was to ensure that the Germans gave disproportionate weight to defending the major ports. One direct result was that many of the defences on the D Day beaches were only half finished.

b. The raids in Norway encouraged Hitler to keep a disproportionate force in an area that could never be a serious theatre for the Western Allies.

c. The preparations for the raid on Dieppe led to the Germans switching the SS Panzer Corps, a parachute division and four bomber groups to the West in the Summer Of 1942, when they might have been decisive near Stalingrad.

d. The experience of Commando raids allowed the allies to develop the techniques essential for the combined operations needed to launch the Allied Armies back into Europe. Without Op Jubilee, the trial large scale landing at Dieppe it is quite possible that the Allies would have attempted D Day with inadequate fire support and failed.

3. The Commando (and Airborne) forces played a significant part in the land battles of 1943-45, Tunisia, Italy and NW Europe. 6 AB Division and the two command brigades served throughout the Normandy campaign.


Every one of the C30k British Commando or para trained troops in the British army had the initiative and aggression that would have made them Junior officers and NCOs in the teeth arms. Concentrating these chaps in raiding units where they would be only doing the exciting operations and home in time for tea and medals deprived the army of its most aggressive leaders and lowered the quality of the infantry and armour units who would bear the brunt of fighting.

The main issue isn't developing raiding forces, but allowing this talent to become concentrated in separate institutions and lost to the rest of the army. Once this talent had been lost to units wh specialised in daring raids then home for tea and medals it wasn't easy to get them out, even when their talents would of more use sharpening the edge to the teeth arms. It wasn't just the Commandos. WW2 offered a chance for entrepreneurial British leaders to do their own thing in a way rarely seen at any other time in history or in other armies. There is an alphabet soup of private armies and special forces. http://www.arrse.co.uk/military-history-militaria/3475-ww2-special-forces-interesting-units.html

That was known at the time. Alanbrooke annotated his diary entry for 25 September 1941 to say that "The commandos should never have been divorced from the Army in the way that they were. Each Division should have maintained a battle patrol capable of carrying out raiding work."

Arguably this is still a problem for the British Army. Training for the Parachute Regiment and the Royal Marine Commandos is longer and more demanding than for other infantry. Those who fail either course remain in the forces, even though they would meet the less demanding standards needed for other arms. This is a massive loss of resources, we are turned back into civvy street after a huge expense - £25-40k per solider.

Its not too late for the government seeking to economise to reverse this. Keep the Commandos and Paras, but only allow soldiers to join them after a minimum of one year's service. In fact lets go back to Alan Brooke's idea of a Raiding company per division. The army is far too small to have three of four levels of institutional elites.

Rather than disband yet more Regiments with a territorial links to recruiting regions, disband the Parachute Regiment and the Royal Marines. The paras haven't been around long enough to have traditions - they just have bad habits. The Royal marines are an Anachronism - or allow them to be the Regional Regiments for the South West, all now lost in the Rifles. Allow each Infantry Division to support a "Commando" or "para" battalion - like 1st Bn Rifles. That would make for a more efficient use of recruits as well and manage the talent pool.
New book to plug ......

Nothing new to say so has to be controversial in order to sell copies ........

"Rambo's of their day" ........ WTF !

Says it all really. No debate necessary. Don't buy the book.
The 'Rambos of their day' balls is from the review on the Daily Mail online edition...Nuff said. A lot of the article is the usual Mail make a story out of nothing as long as it suits the Editors Outrage Bus conductor agenda.
I'm surprised there weren't a few "Achtung Spitfires", Schwinehunde" "Banzai!!" etc Commando comics type quotes in the article, as a lot of it reads like the intro to the 'Training manuals' of my youth!
The book maybe a good read....I'd be willing to review a copy if the publishers pay the cost of sending one to NZ.

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