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 Hitlers 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 enemys 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 sentrys 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 didnt 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 enemys 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 Britains 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 Germanys 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 doesnt 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, Germanys best general, at his headquarters in the African desert. It turned out he hadnt 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 arent 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 its a quick one and Im 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 Hitlers 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 Britains 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!