You may have read several books about the Special Air Service, but what about the soldiers that are instantly recognized worldwide by a single word, commando? Leaving aside the Boer origin, it was the British WWII adoption of the term that eventually led to global recognition of the word. A great place to start reading up on the early Commandos is a book from 1953 (!) that is now again available.
The first reason to pick up this book is its charming personal style, secondly because it provides good details of events like the raids on Guernsey and the Lofoten Islands. The name of the book is simply Commando and it was written by Brigadier John Durnford-Slater DSO and bar, the man credited with establishing the first British Army Commando unit.
I just loved reading how Durnford-Slater went about to find his “troops of the hunter class” to create a “self-contained, thoroughly equipped raiding unit” (quoting Winston Churchill). Here is an excerpt from the author: “I wanted cheerful officers, not groaners. A good physique was important, but size was not. I looked for intelligence and keenness.” You may have read something similar to that before, but then he goes on to describe accommodations and I was surprised to learn how, according to the first “Commando system”, there simply were no barracks. Instead, Durnford-Slater gave every officer and man of No. 3 Commando, established on 5 July 1940, a subsistence allowance and the man was then required to find his own accommodation and food. To directly quote the author about this idea: “It increased a man´s self-reliance and self-respect, developed his initiative and made him available for training at any time of the day or night.”
There was only one punishment, the order “RTU” meaning a man had to Return To his (previous) Unit. But as the selected personnel were all keen volunteers this was a very dreaded punishment. Reading about the characters that passed through the training is in itself a pleasure and then we get to the first operation, Guernsey. As I do not wish to spoil your reading, suffice to say that Guernsey was a lesson how not to do things.
The Lofoten Islands chapter provides what none of the previous books I have read on the subject have been able to do. It very clearly explains the motives for the raid and then paints a lively portrait of it. Of special interest for us Scandinavians is how Martin Linge, founder of the Norwegian Linge (SOE) Company, comes to life thanks to John Durnford-Slater. Also splendid to get confirmation from the author that one of his officers while on Lofoten visited a post office and sent off a telegram addressed to A. Hitler. However, I still have read no report of how it was received at the highest level. I suppose it was never delivered to him.
It was just after Lofoten that the American Embassy in London sent forty US Marines to live and train with the Commandos. I had heard of this episode before but not read any details. Good to get some from Durnford-Slater, as well as his memories of Vaagso (the actual name is Vågsøy). I learnt that the Germans even had a tank there, an older type but it could still have wreaked havoc among the Commandos. It was blown up while still in its garage. Perhaps some Norwegian reader of this blog could inform what type it was and exactly what became of it. This incident is pretty unusual plus, being a former tanker, I am extremely interested in tank-related actions here in Scandinavia.
For me the 1942 Dieppe raid chapter provided another insight into early, and largely unknown, US involvement in European WWII combat. A party from the 1stUS Rangers were made an integral part of No. 3 Commando for the period of the Dieppe operation. Three of these Americans were killed during the raid.
Simply put, this book is both a nice read and an important source for understanding the early Commandos and their fighting methods. It was great idea of Greenhill Books to again print Commando. I only wish the final operations in Germany had been covered a bit more.