The years 1939–1942 saw the cruel hand of war grasp much of the world. The Nazi war machine had swallowed up most of Europe; Czechoslovakia was absorbed, Poland crushed, and Belgium, Holland, and France lay prostrate under the German boot. The swastika flew over Norway, and the British had been driven back to their isolated little isle, losing most of their weapons and equipment and barely saving 338,226 Allied soldiers in the desperate evacuation of Dunkirk. By sending troops to Greece, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill had tried to save what he would call the “soft underbelly of Europe,” but the resourceful Germans moved swiftly to crush his plans. Coming to the rescue of their posturing Italian ally, Benito Mussolini, they thrashed the nations of their southeastern flank and conquered Yugoslavia and Greece.
In search of lebensraum (living space), the Germans then turned hungry eyes eastward. The Soviet Union had taken advantage of German victories, using the pact between Hitler and Stalin to seize Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and parts of Poland and Romania. When it suited their purpose, the Nazis disregarded this pact of conquest and turned the might of Germany on Russia. Though Napoleon had failed to defeat the Russians, Hitler was certain he could succeed. As time would prove, the Soviet Union was a long way from being finished, but in the summer of 1942, the tracks of Hitler’s panzers and the tramp of German hobnailed boots sounded at the gates of Moscow and deep into the Black Sea region.
The Japanese, seeking dominion under the guise of the title “Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere,” had seized Manchuria and invaded China. Puffed up by success, the Japanese then engaged themselves in one of the greatest tactical victories and simultaneously one of the most ill-advised strategic military moves of all time. On December 7, 1941, they attacked United States air, land, and naval forces at Pearl Harbor on the island of Oahu in the Hawaiian island chain.
Overnight, the United States was transformed from a squabbling divided citizenry, where many wanted no part of any war, to an angry, unified nation, totally committed to the support of its allies and the destruction of its enemies. Though raw, unprepared, and unaccustomed to the role thrust upon it, the United States was the most powerful nation in the world. In the times to come, the United States would play a major role in the defeat of Italy and Germany and carry by far the greatest burden in the victory over Japan. But the power of the United States needed time to develop. Much British Commonwealth, Russian, and American blood would be shed due to the American and British prewar, shortsighted, penny-pinching approach to military matters. Bataan, Guam, Wake, and Corregidor fell to the Japanese; Malaya was taken and Australia threatened, but from the moment America entered the war, the Axis was doomed.
Victory was far in the future, however, on a day in April 1942 when Col. Lucian King Truscott reported to the army chief of staff, Gen. George Marshall in Washington, D.C.
Truscott was a soldier’s soldier. It was World War I that led the young teacher from Chatfield, Texas, to seek an army commission, and once in the army, he found it a home. Nineteen years a company-grade officer, Truscott was a fighting intellectual, well grounded in military basics, having spent years teaching military subjects. He was also keenly aware that he was a forty-seven-year-old soldier without combat experience.
Prior to his meeting with Marshall, Truscott passed before the scrutiny of Gen. Mark W. Clark of Headquarters Army Ground Forces and Gen. Dwight Eisenhower, chief of the War Department Operations Division. He knew that he was being selected to lead a group of American officers who would go to England to become a member of the staff of Lord Louis Mountbatten, head of Combined Operations. Mountbatten had charge of the Commandos, the daring hit-and-run raiders, who despite their small numbers, were giving the Germans migraine headaches and serving in the equally important role of providing the civilian populace of the United Kingdom with something to feel good about.
Truscott was thrilled that he would have the opportunity to serve with this highly trained fighting force, and his curiosity as to why he would be sent was quickly answered. General Marshall saw Germany as the greater threat and the Russian continuance in the war as vital.
Marshall believed it would be necessary for the Americans and British to make a cross-channel invasion, hopefully in 1943. To do this, American forces would be concentrated in England. Marshall had confidence in American training but recognized there was no substitute for battle experience. If some Americans had the opportunity to go into action with the Commandos, they could then be spread among the American units selected to lead the invasion and, as teachers and leaders, upgrade American capability.
On a trip to England from April 4 to April 19, 1942, Marshall discussed his views with Mountbatten and received agreement. The staff went to work. At an April 15 London meeting, British Maj. Gen. J. C. Haydon of Combined Operations Headquarters, the American Cols. A. C. Wedemeyer and J. E. Hull, and a Major Wilson worked out two tentative proposals.
The first was that a number of American officers, noncommissioned officers, and privates should be selected and trained with the British Commandos to form the nucleus or framework around which an American commando unit could be built up. The figure of twelve officers, twenty NCOs and forty enlisted men was suggested.
It was also decided that concurrently with the training of that group twenty other officers and forty NCOs should be trained with the intention of sending them back to the United States as instructors in commando methods.
Also on April 15, Mountbatten put forth his proposal for an American staff to work with his headquarters—eight officers from the U.S. Army, Navy, and Marines. One of the officers was to be an aviator, another a communications officer, and a third from intelligence. This team was to be headed by a senior officer with the suggested title of U.S. Adviser on Combined Operations. Mountbatten also passed on a document showing the composition of a British Commando unit (headquarters, seven officers and seventy-one other ranks, and six fighting troops each of three officers and sixty-two other ranks) as a guide for the formation of an American commando unit.
George Marshall selected Truscott to head the American effort. Joining Mountbatten’s staff, Truscott would concentrate on American participation in commando training and operations and would spread the combat-experienced Americans among the units which were to conduct the cross-channel invasion.
After reporting to Marshall, Truscott received his detailed orders from Eisenhower. He was cautioned about keeping the formation of new organizations to a minimum. “If you do find it necessary to organize such units,” Eisenhower further told Truscott, “I hope that you will find some other name than ‘commandos,’ for the glamor of that name will always remain—and properly so—British.”
A week after leaving the United States, Truscott was in London. The American commanders and staff on the scene were not happy with his mission or his latitude, but there was little they could do but grumble. Truscott and his small team of American land, air, and naval officers got a friendlier reception at Combined Operations Headquarters where Lord Louis Mountbatten and his staff gathered to welcome the Americans.
Combined Operations Headquarters was born of the necessity to have a single headquarters combining air, ground, and naval forces to plan and conduct raiding operations.
The British, with their long experience in naval warfare, had established a combined operations development center at Portsmouth in 1936. The idea of combined operations to land raiding parties was put forth by several men, but the voice with power was that of soldier/writer/politician Prime Minister Winston S. Churchill. His support was based upon his personal experience and long study of war. Churchill was to prove a champion of the small, elite, and aggressive unit.
In the Norway campaign of April 1940, the British were employing “independent companies,” and though trained for raiding, the necessities of combat required they fight more in the manner of line infantry. Nonetheless, these companies would be the forerunner of the Commandos.
In June 1940, Britain’s feisty prime minister was looking at the German success using elite units called “storm troops.” Churchill had to give considerable attention to defense during this stage of the war and was seeking twenty thousand storm troops, or “Leopards” as he called them, to form rapid-reaction forces that would “spring at the throat of any small landings or descents.”
On June 6, 1940, Churchill was writing to British chief of staff Lord Ismay about organizing newly arriving Australian units in such manner that their missions could include the capability of “landing on the friendly coasts now held by the enemy.” Churchill wanted highly trained troops of what he called the “hunter class” to spread terror up and down the German-occupied coasts of Europe. He referred to this tactic as “butcher and bolt,” but saw it leading to the day when major coastal cities could be surprised and taken. The more territory the Germans occupied, the more spread out and vulnerable their forces became. Churchill was adamant about the need for offensive action and continued to press for “Striking Companies.”
Lt. Col. D. W. Clarke of the British General Staff (who is credited with being the inspiration of the idea for the Commandos) had sent an early memorandum on the subject of raiding forces up the chain of command. He was now assigned the mission of preparing plans for such a force. Clarke’s personal experience included service against Arab guerrillas in Palestine, and he had studied the history of small mobile and hard-hitting raiding forces in various wars. A prime example was the Boer War in South Africa (1899–1902) in which small bands of farmers of Dutch/German extraction organized into “commandos” had raised havoc with the mighty British Army. Clarke knew his subject and believed in his mission. He would be the first Commando wounded in action.
In the early stages of the war in 1940, British resources were strained to the limit. Every available army battalion was needed for the defense of the home island and the overseas empire. The sea duties of the Royal Navy absorbed the strength of the Royal Marines. Thus, starting with the Independent Companies, through the Special Services Battalions that followed, and on into the Commandos, there was a need to form new units, a need to take highly trained men who were skilled in amphibious operations, put them in self-contained and self-supporting units and organize them so that these units would fit in existing amphibious transport and landing craft.
Lieutenant Colonel Clarke prepared his plan and suggested the units be called “commandos.” The word is widely credited to have originated with the Boers of South Africa, but it was used by British Gen. John Forbes in writing to Col. Henry Bouquet during the campaign against Fort Duquesne (present-day Pittsburgh) as early as June of 1758. Originally the word “commando” meant only the organization, but it has since come to encompass the men who served in it. In selecting the name Commando, Clarke must have been aware that Winston Churchill had gained national fame as an escaped prisoner during the Boer War. The name Commando was certain to touch memories of youth and glory in the prime minister.
The volunteers for the new Commandos came from every unit in the British Army and all walks of life and experience.
Combined operations training centers were established based on the “Jack-and-John” or “me-and-my-pal” teamwork principle of two men looking out for and assisting each other through the difficult training. Much emphasis was placed on individual initiative. The men were given funds but were responsible for their own billeting. When the men were dismissed after a long grueling day of training, they might be told that their next formation would be at a given point and time fifty miles away. They were not told how to get there.
Small raids began in June 1940 and spread from near Boulogne on the French coast to Guernsey in the Channel Islands to the Lofoten Islands near the Arctic Circle, then to the island of Vaagso in Norway and another raid on the Lofotens. The greatest success was the raid on Saint-Nazaire where Commandos put out of commission the world’s largest drydock, an 1100-foot-long facility critical to the battleships of the German Navy. To a nation as dependent on its sea-lanes as Britain, this raid was of enormous importance. These were followed by attacks at Dieppe, Madagascar, North Africa, Sicily, and Walcheren. The targets of the raids varied from the destruction of lighthouses, pipelines, mining equipment, shipping, and aircraft to shore reconnaissance and an unsuccessful attempt to kill or kidnap Gen. Erwin Rommel. Sometimes the Commandos failed. The raid on Guernsey was such a botched job that Churchill exploded, “Let there be no more Guernseys!”
Excerpted from Rangers in World War II by Robert W. Black. Copyright © 1992 by Robert W. Black. Excerpted by permission of Presidio Press, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.