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The Fighting Fourth
No. 4 Commando at War 1940â"45
By James Dunning
The History PressCopyright © 2013 James Dunning
All rights reserved.
It All Started in Weymouth
It was one of those glorious summers we all dream about – and hope for. Each morning ushered in a clear blue sky and the promise of yet another warm and sunny day. But – and it was a big 'But' – it was wartime. And even worse, Britain's fortunes were at their lowest ebb, as it faced an imminent enemy invasion. For within the space of just three weeks in June 1940 the armies of France, Britain and the Low Countries had been routed and defeated by Hitler's forces, who had swept on to the Channel ports and forced the withdrawal from Europe of the British Army, by way of evacuation at Dunkirk.
As a result, in July 1940 Britain stood alone, seemingly ill equipped and unprepared to face and repel a threatened invasion by the Nazis, who were now masters of Europe, dominating the western coastline from the Arctic in the north to nearly as far as the Pyrenees to the south.
Indeed, with a plan of invasion (Operation Sea Lion) prepared and in hand, the Germans had already made a start with a series of daylight air raids on targets in the south of England, thus beginning the Battle of Britain.
They were grim days. The fearsome threat of invasion occupied the thoughts and lives of everyone. Nevertheless, it was against this daunting background that the prime minister, Winston Churchill, took the bold decision to look ahead beyond the bleak, immediate future, and, appreciating the potentially vulnerable and extensive European coastline held by the enemy, proposed that an elite force be raised to take the fight to the enemy with seaborne and airborne raids.
In the immediate short term these elite forces, or Commandos, as they were soon to be called, would be available to repel enemy seaborne incursions and parachute descents, but their main purpose was to wage a campaign of 'tip and run' raids on the enemy coastline.
Churchill's audacious and adventurous plan, in the circumstances then prevailing, was soon translated into action, with the result that the Dorset seaside resort of Weymouth became the base of one such unit. By the third week of July some 500 volunteers from close on 90 different regiments and corps of the British Army arrived in the town to form this new unit – No. 4 Commando. On arrival we all quickly found out that even routine life in a Commando was going to be vastly different from what we had been accustomed to in our previous units, when we lived in barracks or wartime camps. One of the features of this new force was the prerequisite that every individual – officers and other ranks (ORs) alike – would be responsible for his own quartering and feeding.
This arrangement was an innovation in the British Army. There were many training, administrative and operational reasons for this novel and unusual arrangement; not least it meant that the Commando had no lengthy 'tail' of cooks, orderlies, fatigue men and other personnel employed on purely administrative duties, as did the rest of the Army. Those irksome and unpopular daily chores could account for as many as 20 per cent of the personnel unavailable for training, contrasting with the Commandos, who, living in civilian billets, could count on almost 100 per cent of their personnel available, all the time, for training and ready for operations. Furthermore, this system of making every man responsible for his own quartering helped to foster self-discipline and self-reliance, important factors in a force of this kind.
To make the system work was simplicity itself. All ranks were paid a daily subsistence allowance and given a ration card. The allowance was 13s 4d for officers and 6s 8d for ORs. In both cases it was a flat rate throughout: the subaltern got the same as his colonel, and likewise, the private soldier the same as his regimental sergeant-major (RSM). The ration card, exactly the same as that issued to civilians during the war, was a vital piece of paper; without it none of the basic foods could be purchased. The subsistence allowance adequately covered bed and breakfast, and two other meals per day, and was paid to the landladies on a weekly basis. This added up to 30 bob – £1 10s.
All the bases chosen for the new Commandos had to be on the coast, where, inter alia, boating and swimming facilities were at hand, and this led to the choice of Weymouth for No. 4 Commando. With so many of the traditional seaside B & B landladies unable to let their rooms because of the war and restrictive regulations applying to coastal areas, these good ladies were only too glad to offer the Commandos accommodation, and they soon became their 'lads', while some of the younger landladies were not averse to welcoming a virile young Commando to her 'bed – and breakfast' establishment!
Most of the Commandos were billeted in traditional B & Bs, and were provided with three daily meals. The ration cards enabled the landladies to buy the basic rationed foods – meat, butter, cheese, tea and sugar. Fortunately, some other foods such as bread, milk, home-grown potatoes, vegetables and fruit were not rationed, enabling the shopkeeper to sell them on a rota basis, or 'under the counter' as depicted by L/Cpl Jones in the popular TV series, Dad's Army.
It was ironic that the Commandos, about to undergo the toughest physical training, did so on 'civvy' rations, whereas the rest of the Army living in barracks, many of whom were employed in sedentary jobs, had much larger service rations. However, this didn't worry us. We were often able to supplement our landladies' larders with the odd rabbit, chicken and/or fish obtained during exercises when we were 'living off the land' or during some boating practice or river crossing, when we did a spot of fishing with the odd 36 grenade.
After the first night in their new billets, the whole unit, less one Troop, which arrived later in Weymouth, assembled for the first time. It was 22 July. Close on 100 different regiments, infantry, armoured, artillery, engineers and service corps, were all represented, with each man wearing the distinctive cap badge and flashes of his late parent unit. It presented a motley collection of forage and SD caps, tam-o' -shanters and berets, but would have provided a 'field day' for any military cap badge collector.
The assembly was held in the Weymouth Pavilion, on the sea front, which had been requisitioned as Commando Headquarters. As we waited for the 'welcome' talk from our new commanding officer, there was an unforgettable air of excitement, an exhilarating atmosphere and a babble of animated conversation, which came to an abrupt halt and hush when the newly appointed RSM, 'Jumbo' Morris of the Royal Tank Regiment, from the stage and in full view, bellowed out, 'Parade ... 'Shun', before saluting and handing over to the commanding officer.
For most of us it was the first glimpse of the CO, Lt Col C.P.D. Legard, of the 5th Inniskillin Dragoon Guards, a tall, lean and fit-looking officer with an elegant, yet dashing, appearance in his service dress uniform, shining Sam Browne belt and the distinctive green trousers of that famous cavalry regiment the history of which went back to the seventeenth century. We later learnt that he was an international sportsman, having represented Great Britain in the Olympic Games of 1932 and 1936, participating in the Modern Pentathlon, finishing eighth in his first Games, but dropping back to nineteenth four years later when they were held in Berlin. Legard apparently liked to recall that during the opening ceremonial march-past, in front of Hitler, he 'gave the bastard a V-sign salute'!
In his opening talk the colonel outlined the intended role of Commandos – 'hit and run raids' on the extended enemy coastline. He warned that the training would necessarily be tough and demanding, and accordingly some might not be able to cope with it. For those who couldn't measure up to the high standards demanded there was only one outcome – RTU. Such military action was again unique, but the subsequent records of the Commandos prove that this seemingly drastic, but obviously necessary, action was one of the major factors contributing to their success. Furthermore, he emphasised that the decision to RTU any officer or man was his, and his alone, and there would be no appeal against it. We were left in no doubt on this important issue. He also mentioned the origin of the designation 'Commando'. At that time most of us had no idea that it belonged to an old enemy, the Boer guerrillas, who had wrought some humiliating defeats on the British Army – and captured Winston Churchill – in the Boer War of 1900–2. Finally, he stressed the need to prepare for action as quickly as possible; he stated that we would have to be ready in weeks rather than months. There was no time to lose.
With high hopes of almost immediate action we left the Pavilion eager to start training and prepare for that first raid. During the next few days as we settled down to our new 'lifestyle', the priority for training was on getting fit and on individual weapon training.
Fortunately, one of the original volunteers, the late Sgt 'Tich' Garnett, later in the war was given the old F Troop Diary that covered the first three months of that Troop's existence. He kindly lent it to me for my previous book, It Had To Be Tough, which deals in detail with the origins of all the Commandos and their special training in the Second World War, but does not cover any of the actions fought, so I was able to extract pertinent details of the early days of No. 4 from the diary's pages.
In his introduction to the Troop Diary, Capt Young wrote: 'We have got off to a flying start. There are men from every walk of life, a poacher, Harris (also a reservist who had served in India), a Colonel's son, Addison, a "Wall of Death" stunt rider, Knowles, a farmer, Holgate, an International TT rider, Locke, an artist, Ingram, and many other colourful characters, all of whom have volunteered not only out of a sincere desire to serve their country, but also for fun and adventure.' It is important to add that, although there were 'colourful characters' in F Troop, throughout the whole unit such men were in the minority. Furthermore, contrary to later media reports we had no 'hard cases', men who had received their education in borstal, or who had served prison sentences for such crimes as safe-cracking.
Unfortunately, soon after the Commandos were formed and their existence and exploits made public, the press reports and coverage tended to present them as 'undisciplined thugs and homicidal maniacs'. This was unwelcome and untrue, and cast a slur on all who served in the Commandos at the time. It was even used by the Germans, who made propaganda use of it with statements such as 'England has ... opened up a non-military form of gangster war!'
Fortunately, forceful steps were quickly taken, with success, to redress the balance with a series of media reports on the background, training and types of men serving in the Commandos. None were supermen. It was their high standards of training, physical and mental stamina, discipline and determination, plus outstanding leadership from officers and NCOs, that produced the high morale and confidence that brought undeniable success in action worldwide.
The range of ages and service is highlighted by mentioning the following extremes. Among the ORs were a venerable trio of 'old sweats'. 'Chalky' Blunden had served as an under-age soldier in the First World War. He was renowned for being the first in his troop to offer to carry the unpopular Boys anti-tank rifle, but, more importantly, he was to win the Military Medal at Dieppe.
Next was 'Dusty' Maund, a rascally character, fearless, outspoken, but loyal and dependable in action. He became the batman/runner/'minder' to a young subaltern, Robert Dawson, at Weymouth, and stayed with him throughout the war, during which time Dawson advanced from Section Officer to Commanding Officer. Maund was one of the first in No. 4 to be decorated, when he was 'Mentioned in Dispatches' for his part in the Lofoten Islands Raid.
The third was 'Private' Donkin, who teamed up with his mate, McVeigh, to make a legendary and inseparable 'team' until a German bullet outside a bunker in Flushing killed the 41-year-old Donkin. But more about this couple later, especially as McVeigh was a tough, courageous, yet also outspoken soldier, who was to win the Distinguished Conduct Medal (DCM).
The RSM, 'Jumbo', Bill Morris, also stands out. A long-serving warrant officer of the Royal Tank Regiment (RTR), he was not one of those swearing, bullying, barrack-square tyrants, but a level-headed and 'firm but fair' RSM, who didn't demand obedience and respect, but earned it from all ranks in No. 4. He was no athlete: he struggled on the speed marches and hated them but never dodged or 'ducked' them. He set an example. We all saw how he kept going, nigh on 'knackered', yet refused to give in. In action, he was always calm, dependable and courageous, and deservedly won a Military Cross – a rare honour for those not commissioned officers – before a serious wound on the Flushing operation ended his Commando days.
At the other end of the age scale were two very young regular soldiers, barely off 'Boy Service', Gunners Pike and Halliday. Great pals, they steadily earned promotion as young dependable NCOs. Both saw action at Lofoten and Dieppe before being commissioned.
Prominent among the early officers of No. 4 was Robert Dawson, whose spectacular rise has already been mentioned. He ultimately won the Distinguished Service Order (DSO), the Légion d'Honneur and the Croix de Guerre. He was a great innovator in training matters and responsible for introducing 'battle drills' based on fire and movement to the Commando, plus some 'hair-raising' schemes for cliff assaults.
Gordon Webb was another 'original' who later distinguished himself in action. A gunner officer, tough, resourceful and always ready to see the funny side of a grave situation, especially in action, he took over B Troop in 1941 and commanded it for most of the rest of the war, earning a Military Cross and a bar to it. He was one of those officers whom the troops were prepared 'to follow ... anywhere'.
There were many outstanding ORs I should like to mention by name because they played prominent parts in the history of No. 4, but space precludes this. Nevertheless, it is important to record that most of the NCOs who led their sub-sections ashore on D-Day in 1944 were only privates when they originally joined No. 4 at Weymouth in 1940. They became the backbone of the Commando.
After more than sixty years their names spring to mind: Hughie Lindley, John Skerry, 'Tich' Garnett, Frank Major, Danny Holdsworth, 'Darkie' Woodward, Ernie Brooks and Frank Bend, while TSMs Portman, Heaynes, Chattaway and Edwards had likewise climbed the ladder of promotion.
In contrast to these senior NCOs, who were all 'originals' and rose up through the ranks over time, a lot of the best-known names among the officers of the Commando, namely Mills-Roberts, Porteous, Carr, McDougal, Gilchrist, Thorburn, Burt and Menday, did not join the Commando until after the Lofoten Raid and, in the case of the three last named, after the Dieppe Raid.
Now for a few details on the organisation of the Commando when it was formed in 1940 and consisted of Headquarters and ten troops. Each troop had a captain, two subalterns, four sergeants, eight corporals, twelve lance-corporals and twenty- three private soldiers, making a total of fifty all ranks. The organisation of the troop was based on just two in Troop HQ (the troop leader and his batman/runner), two sections (each commanded by a subaltern, who also had a batman/runner) and which in turn consisted of two sub-sections, each led by a sergeant, and was made up of two corporals, three lance-corporals and five private soldiers.
Commando Headquarters – consisting of the CO, second-in-command (2IC), adjutant, medical officer, administrative officer, intelligence officer, RSM, clerks, medical orderlies, intelligence staff and just two drivers – only the CO and the administrative officer had vehicles – plus a very important man, the armourer – totalled just over forty all ranks. Naturally all ranks in HQ were volunteers serving under the same conditions as those in the ten fighting troops.
Col Legard had recruited the medical officer (MO), 'Doc' Wood. It was an excellent choice. Tall, lean and already fit, Wood had been a police doctor before the war, and he took to the physical side of the training with obvious relish and was able to transmit his enthusiasm to all in his section, most of whom had served with him in France and at Dunkirk. They were a great bunch of 'medics'.
Excerpted from The Fighting Fourth by James Dunning. Copyright © 2013 James Dunning. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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Table of Contents
ContentsList of Maps,
1 It All Started in Weymouth,
2 And So to Scotland,
3 Action at Last, in the Lofoten Islands,
4 The Lovat Philosophy — 'Train Hard, Fight Easy',
5 The Dieppe Raid — 19 August 1942,
6 Post-Dieppe and the End of the Lovat Era,
7 Training, Training, and Preparations for D-Day,
8 To Normandy — 'The Longest Day',
9 The Long Stint — 7 June to 9 September,
10 Walcheren — Perfect Little Campaign,
11 It All Ended in Germany,