Earliest British Commando Units, 1940

From Irregular Regular: Recollections of Conflict Across the Globe (The Extraordinary Life of Colonel David Smiley Book 3, Sapere Books, 2020), Kindle pp. 30-31:

At Geneifa I joined my new unit — No 52 (Middle East) Commando. All the officers arrived first; the men were due ten days later. Before their arrival we had to learn as much as possible from specialist instructors, most of whom had come from England, in order to pass our training on to our men. I was appointed a company commander, which meant promotion to captain.

Intensive training, interesting and wide-ranging, started at once. I was already proficient at compass work and map reading, and had some knowledge of explosives and demolition, but new subjects for me were boat work, weapon training with the new Thompson submachine gun, unarmed combat and less orthodox subjects such as camel riding and camel mastership, first aid, and scientific roughhousing.

When the men arrived it was obvious that with a few exceptions — notably the Brigade of Guards and the cavalry regiments — their commanding officers had seized a golden opportunity to get rid of their most undesirable characters. Twelve men came from every unit in the Middle East, some of whom had conduct sheets with up to eight pages of crimes. By the time the last stragglers had arrived under military police escort from Cairo, where they had already been arrested for a variety of crimes, the commando numbered about 600 men.

Some of these were criminal types, but GHQ in Cairo refused to allow us to return them to their units unless they were physically unfit. After a week I took my company on a forced march in full kit, during which we covered thirty-three miles in eleven hours in blazing sun in the desert. Many of the men fell out, and as a result I was able to return some thirty per cent of my undesirables as unfit. Only my orderly knew that I had no skin left on my heels and was almost a casualty myself; but the exercise paid off.

Our commando, being a new type of unit, was used as a guinea-pig for every sort of unorthodox idea. The private soldier was given the rank of ‘raider’, which was well thought out as it avoided calling men by their branch of service such as ‘private’, ‘trooper’, ‘guardsman’, ‘gunner’ or ‘sapper’. It also fostered an esprit de corps which would otherwise have been lacking. For the same reason all identities with former units were dropped, and everyone wore the same uniform and insignia. The majority of men chosen for the Commandos were bachelors, on the theory that a bachelor was more likely to take risks than a married man.

Drill and inspections were out, because they were alleged to destroy initiative. We were not allowed to shout orders on parade, but had to give them by hand signal — the object was to ensure silence and keep the men alert. We marched out of step, which was supposed to be less tiring and quieter. Officers were not saluted, to prevent the enemy identifying them. No welfare comforts were allowed, for fear they might make the men soft. On night guards the entire guard stayed awake all night instead of the normal change at regular intervals, though I was never quite clear as to what was the advantage of this method. Even the eating of raw food was encouraged in order to increase mobility; this may indeed have helped those who were taken prisoner and later escaped to the mountains in Crete. In tactics other experiments were carried out such as making an attack without previous reconnaissance in order to achieve surprise. This was a complete failure.

Very early in our training many of the ideas were discarded, particularly since the ill-disciplined men who had been sent to join the commando took every opportunity to abuse them. Parades and marches rapidly became a shambles; even marching out of step proved not only more difficult but more tiring. Gym shoes worn for comfort, silence and speed very soon wore out. It was some months before we were equipped with a rubber-soled commando boot.

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Filed under Britain, education, Middle East, military, war

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