Key Point: For what amounted to negligible losses, the British had struck a startling blow at a confident Nazi Germany.
They came out of the sea, out of the darkness, and they brought death, terror, and destruction with them. Leaving behind towering pyres of oily smoke, they were gone before their foe could react. Every German soldier would hear about these raiders and remember them. They would fear the name Commando.
The Special Service Brigade, formal designation of the Commando forces, attracted quite a collection of daring, aggressive officers, a few of them a bit on the eccentric side, but all ready to take on any job that would get them into the war. An example was Second Lt. Peter Young, a young officer of the Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire Regiment.
Young rode a motorcycle through vile weather to appear at an interview for the brigade, and by the time he arrived, he “was in a desperate mood and ready to volunteer for anything, particularly if it did not involve motor-bicycles. I was an hour late. The interviewing officer, happily, was two hours late. Eventually, I was ushered into the presence of a captain who bore, I thought, a superficial resemblance to Mr. Pickwick and certainly looked benevolent. This, I said to myself, will be some staff officer from the War Office…. He asked next if I knew anything about small boats; much experience of canoeing on the River Isis justified me in assuring him that my knowledge was extensive. I was in.”
Only later would the youngster realize that the benevolent captain was his commander, Lt. Col. John Durnford-Slater.
Special Service Brigade was a different sort of outfit. Each of its Commandos was stationed in some small town. There was a headquarters, but individual soldiers lived and ate in private homes and received an allowance to cover expenses. In such an elite outfit, there was little need for conventional disciplinary measures: the ultimate, dreaded punishment was RTU, “returned to unit,” banishing a soldier from the Commandos. Once the ranks were filled in 3 Commando, new men entered at the lowest officer or enlisted grade and competed with their comrades for promotion.
“Men of Character Beyond the Normal.”
A good many first-class NCOs gave up their precious stripes to serve as Commandos and won them back by demonstrated excellence in the unit. Among them were characters like Corporal Lofty King of the Rifle Brigade, tall and hard-nosed, very tough on his men. “It’s good for them, Colonel,” he told Durnford-Slater. “It won’t do them any harm.” Lofty King was one of those happy warriors who actually love combat; in action he was a lion, but he was kind to his men. He and his fellows were Durnford-Slater’s kind of men: in the colonel’s words, “men of character beyond the normal.”
Combat training was very tough indeed, almost brutal, with much use of live ammunition. Physical training was equally tough; when the Commandos were not running cross-country with full gear, they were bashing each other on the rugby field. Three Commando was stationed at Largs, on the River Clyde in Scotland. There its men trained in the rocky hills and barren uplands above the river and practiced landing operations on the beaches along the Clyde itself.
Durnford-Slater drove his men hard: Every morning they did 20 to 30 landings, pouring out of landing craft, sprinting for cover with all their gear and weapons. Before they were through, 30 men could exit a landing craft, reach cover 25 yards away, and do it all in 10 seconds. The days began early and did not end until dark; on top of that, the Commandos were out on night operations at least three nights a week.
Billeted in and around the town, the young soldiers of the Commando seem to have gotten on well with most of the local population, a happy relationship that produced more than a few marriages. Occasionally, however, high spirits and too much beer required the intervention of the Commando’s own police force, led by an ex-boxer and ex-cop, Sergeant Bill Chitty. Chitty’s hardcases normally took care of minor disciplinary situations themselves, with what their commanding officer called “a good handling,” to the satisfaction of both their commander and the local police. On one occasion, in fact, Chitty’s heroes took on a whole camp of troublesome imported Irish laborers and whipped the lot, to the intense satisfaction of the local constabulary.
Still, in spite of hard training and simple off-duty pleasures, the men of 3 Commando ached for a chance at the enemy. They were about to get their chance, for in November 1941, 3 Commando’s commanding officer, John Durnford-Slater, was called to London to report to Lord Louis Mountbatten, chief of Combined Operations. Mountbatten asked his young commander a straightforward question: Could 3 Commando successfully raid a town in central Norway defended by a garrison and a battery of guns covering the approaches to the town? They could, said Durnford-Slater, if escorting warships could close in and hammer the battery. “You can rely on our men to look after the German garrison.” Mountbatten nodded, and the show was on.
Adolf Hitler set great store by the German occupation of Norway. He had therefore been furious when the Commandos struck the Norwegian Lofoten Islands in March 1941, inflicting a humiliating defeat on the master race. The Lofotens squatted in the frigid gloom of the North Sea off the Norwegian coast, about due west of Narvik, and on these islands factories produced about 50 percent of Norway’s enormous output of fish oil. This product was used by Germany in vitamin tablets for the Army and to make glycerine, a critical ingredient in the manufacture of explosives. The Lofoten operation—dubbed “Claymore”—aimed to destroy these factories and to hurt the occupying Germans in any other way that seemed good to the raiders.
A Dominating Victory for the Commandos
The darkness of mid-winter was the perfect time for the Lofoten raid, in spite of the bitter cold. Most German aircraft were grounded on the north Norwegian airfields—without ski-landing gear. No plane could take off to interfere with the raid. Armed German trawlers worked the area, but no heavier naval units were reported. And so, when the Commandos appeared out of a murky dawn, they were unopposed. A single German armed trawler was quickly battered into surrender by the destroyer HMS Somali. Most of the German crew died or were wounded. The only British casualty in the whole operation was an embarrassed officer who managed to shoot himself in the leg with his own pistol.
The raiders fired the oil factories, destroyed 11 ships and some 800,000 gallons of oil, and returned to Britain unchallenged, taking with them more than 300 volunteers for the forces of Free Norway. They also took home more than 200 German prisoners, including the head of the local Gestapo, some 60 Quislings (Nazi collaborators), and a captured trawler. And before they left, Durnford-Slater addressed another group of suspected Quislings with some terse and ominous advice for the future: “Yeah, well, I don’t want to hear any more of this bloody Quisling business. It’s no bloody good, I’m telling you. If I hear there’s been any more of it, I’ll be back again and next time I’ll take the whole bloody lot of you. Now clear off!”
To add further insult to the injury inflicted on the Germans, one Lieutenant Wills found the local post office and sent a wire addressed to “A. Hitler, Berlin.” It is worth quoting: “You said your last speech German troops would meet the English wherever they landed stop where are your troops? Wills 2-lieut.”
In September, a British-Canadian force struck isolated Spitzbergen, some 350 icy miles north of the tip of Norway. Again the raiders hit without warning and got away clean. Behind them they left towering fires consuming almost half a million tons of coal and some 275,000 gallons of petroleum products, vital resources Germany would never see. More loyalist Norwegians went home with the raiders. For the master race, there was still more trouble to come.
For toward the end of October, leadership of British Combined Operations had been taken over by Lord Mountbatten, cousin to the king, a dashing Royal Navy officer of daring, keen intelligence, and great energy. Within two months of assuming command, Mountbatten staged the most damaging raid yet, and mightily got Hitler’s goat in the process.
As Durnford-Slater learned to his delight, the target was again Norwegian: the little port of South Vaagso, some 350 miles north of Norway’s southern tip and about halfway between Bergen and Trondheim. Like the Lofotens, this area also produced substantial quantities of vital fish oil for the German war machine. The sheltered waters around the town provided a staging area for German coastal convoys traveling up and down the Indreled, the Inner Passage, sheltered by Norway’s hundreds of offshore islands. Vaagso lies on spectacular Nordfjord, stretching 70 miles deep into the hinterland of Norway. It is ice-free throughout the year, thanks to the waters of the Gulf Stream.