Tell It to the Marines
By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
The Royal Marines, Britain's “sea soldiers,” trace their heritage back to the formation of the "Admiral's Regiment" in 1664, though soldiers had served aboard ships well before then. The Marines made their mark during the siege of Gibraltar in 1704, first in the assault on The Rock, then in defending it from counter-attack. For the next two centuries they enforced discipline on Royal Navy ships, earning a reputation for blind obedience and stupidity (“tell it to the Marines” is how old sailors scoff at improbable tales only an idiot would believe). They officially became “Royal Marines” in 1802.
By the time of the First World War, Royal Marines served one main turret aboard each of the fleet's battleships and battle cruisers, as well as providing detachments to every warship of destroyer size and above. On land, the Marines formed a brigade which fought at Antwerp in 1914 and later at Gallipoli and again on the Western front as part of the 63rd Royal Naval Division.
Royal Marines compiled a good war record, but after the war, they took part in some of the British government’s dirtiest actions. The 8th Battalion, Royal Marine Light Infantry, was sent to man coastal watch stations around Ireland to watch for gun runners. These became a favorite target of Irish nationalists, and a number of platoon-sized detachments were overrun amid fierce fighting, in which the Royal Marine garrisons uniformly fought to the last man (or were not given the opportunity to surrender, as is often the case in “last man” tales). The 6th Battalion, RMLI, went to northern Russia and fought against Red Finn units before mutiny broke out; there has been no 6th Battalion since. The 9th through 13th Battalions were formed in 1921 as strike breakers and employed against British coal miners.
When the Second World War began, the Royal Marines had about 13,000 men including reservists. With many responsibilities for shipboard detachments, base defense and other tasks, they did not begin to form large units until the end of 1939. In December the Royal Marine Brigade officially took control of three battalions, but none of these were near full strength and one of them had only its cadre of officers and NCOs until April 1940. A fourth battalion, also with only a cadre, was added in January 1940 and also was not fully manned until April. Each battalion continued to induct reservists and new recruits, and by summer was conducting amphibious exercises.
In May the brigade split into the 101 and 102 Royal Marine Brigades (following Royal Marine tradition, they were never referred to as “One hundred and first” and “One hundred and second” but rather as “One-Zero-One” and “One-Zero-Two”). In June, though 101 Brigade was not fully trained and 102 Brigade had not even organized its headquarters, both were placed on six-hour alert for dispatch to Ireland to counter a German landing there or to the Azores or Cape Verde Islands should Britain choose to seize either of these Portuguese territories.
In July 101 Brigade was declared ready for operations and assigned to the Army’s 55th Division for coast defense duties west of Plymouth. In August the brigade, now at a strength of three battalions, finally went into action, landing at the French port of Dakar in Senegal. In October they returned to the U.K. and went to Scotland, where they began a series of amphibious exercises that lasted into 1942. Two of 102 Brigade’s battalions and part of its headquarters went to Dakar as well, only returning in February 1941 to train alongside 101 Brigade.
The Royal Marine Division officially began forming in August 1940, but the staff remained confined to Maj. Gen. Bob Sturgess, his personal aide and a single clerk until 102 Brigade returned from Africa. The division was to be organized on the same lines as an Army division, with three infantry brigades, an artillery brigade and engineer and machinegun battalions plus a unique “Mobile” battalion of motorcyclists. The War Office authorized formation of 103 Brigade at the same time as the division, but it never gained full strength as its recruits were constantly drawn off to provide personnel for the Royal Marines’ naval base defense forces.
When Japan joined the war in December 1941, a new mission appeared for the Royal Marine Division: the invasion of Madagascar. The division staff did much of the invasion planning, and the Army wanted to include the two combat-ready brigades in the force. But the Admiralty insisted on its division going into battle as a unit, and with the third brigade unfit for action and the divisional artillery close to non-existent, the Royal Marines had to be withdrawn from the operation.
A new mission soon appeared: Operation Jupiter, Winston Churchill’s pet project for an invasion in northern Norway. The division had trained hard for amphibious landings in northern climates, or at least its two brigades had done so. But once again the incomplete state of the division and a lack of landing craft combined with the hard reality that Churchill’s plan (like most of his ideas) bordered on insanity to scuttle the operation.
Seeing that their division would not get into combat without a full suite of support services, the Admiralty renewed its efforts to complete the unit. Divisional artillery at first was to be supplied by the Army, but the sister service had no gunners to spare and the Royal Navy agreed to take back this responsibility at the Army’s request. A battery of 3.7-inch howitzers formed in April 1940, drawing men and weapons from the MNBDO units, but no heavy weapons could be made available for others once the Royal Marines began to muster a full artillery brigade for their division. One field regiment (an artillery battalion in other armies), a light anti-aircraft regiment and an anti-tank regiment (also the size of battalions) were all that existed by October 1942. An Army division’s artillery brigade also had the anti-aircraft and anti-tank regiments, but three field regiments — 72 of the excellent 25-pounders rather than the 24 howitzers fielded by the Royal Marines. With the huge build-up taking place in North Africa for the Alamein offensive, the Admiralty knew they would not see the weapons their division needed any time soon.
Hoping to salvage the project, the Admiralty hit on a crafty political expedient — they offered the two complete Royal Marine brigades for the Alamein campaign. Apparently the Sea Lords hoped the War Office would want a full division and give the Royal Marines the guns they needed. But Eighth Army declined the reinforcement, and the days of the Royal Marine Division were numbered. Amphibious training continued into the summer of 1943, and many of the techniques worked out in these exercises would be a staple of the 1943-1944 assault landings in Sicily, Italy and France.
Those huge landings required thousands of landing craft, and those landing craft required crews. In August 1943 the decision was made to disband the division and its brigades, and for the next month Sturgess and his staff oversaw the conversion of several of the infantry battalions to Commando units while most of the division's personnel would become landing craft crews. Royal Marines would fight in all theaters where British forces participated, but not as a division.
Both Royal Marine brigades appear in our limited-edition supplement Island of Death: Return to Malta, hitting the beaches of Italian-held Malta in the wake of a successful Axis invasion.
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Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and award-winning journalist, he has published over 100 books, games and articles on historical subjects.
He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children and his dog, Leopold.