Golden Journal No. 32:
Royal Marine Commandos
By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
Having failed to find a role for the Royal Marine Division, in August 1943 the Admiralty ordered the formation disbanded. Most of the personnel would be re-trained for service as landing craft crews, but the fittest volunteers joined Commando units.
Commando units first formed in 1940, undertaking raiding operations along the coasts of Axis-occupied Europe. The Royal Marines formed their own starting in 1942, eventually totaling nine Commandos numbered 40 through 48. A Commando numbered about 400 men, divided into 65-man “troops” - about twice the size of a rifle platoon. Four Special Service Brigades, later re-named Commando Brigades, appeared in 1943 to control Commando operations.
Once it became obvious that no more major amphibious landings would occur in Europe, the Royal Marines assigned as landing craft crews returned to their infantry role. They formed two Royal Marine brigades 116th and 117th (as always, pronounced one-one-six and one-one-seven). The 116th Royal Marine Brigade saw action in the Netherlands as part of First Canadian Army; its sister brigade did not leave the United Kingdom until after the German surrender.
The end of the Second World War brought an inevitable draw-down of British forces, including the Royal Marines. Both of the infantry brigades were quickly disbanded. All of the Army Commando units were eliminated by 1946, along with six of the nine Royal Marine Commandos.
Men of E Troop, 45 Commando, in the Netherlands, 1945.
The other three came under 3 Commando Brigade, which ended the war in Hong Kong, and soon became very active enforcing the post-war world order. The three remaining Commando units would steadily increase in size to become the equivalent of battalions, but they retained the designations of “Commando” and “troop” for their platoon-sized subordinate units (companies, not present in the old organization, could be called “companies” without infringing on sacred tradition).
Their first deployment would be to Palestine, to enforce the last months of the British Mandate. Over 100,000 British troops faced both Arab and Jewish terrorism, culminating in the kidnapping and murder of two British Army sergeants by terrorists of the Jewish Irgun movement. All three Commandos went to the Mandate. Although 45 Commando stayed only a brief time, 40 Commando covered the final British withdrawal from the Haifa docks.
All three Commandos, plus the brigade headquarters, immediately shifted to Malaya to counter Communist insurgents in what was called the Malayan Emergency. The Royal Marines fought in the peninsula’s jungles for four years, losing 30 men killed and claiming 200 enemy dead. During the conflict the brigade worked out what would become standard operating procedures by many nations in later brushfire wars: insertion of forces and dropping supplies by helicopter, long-range jungle patrols, and pre-positioned supply by airdrop.
While the full brigade fought in Malaya, the Korean War broke out and the Royal Marines scoured their depots for 219 volunteers to form 41 Commando. After a secret deployment to the Far East these Royal Marines conducted raiding operations along the Korean coast before joining the U.S. 1st Marine Division on its march northward to the epic fighting around Chosin Reservoir.
After leaving Malaya the full brigade went to Egypt, to provide security during the handover of the Suez Canal Zone to the Egyptians, leaving in 1954 for Malta. Royal Marines went into action again in 1955 in Cyprus, hunting down Greek nationalist terrorists.
A year later 3 Commando Brigade spearheaded the Anglo-French invasion of the Suez Canal Zone. Two Commandos - 40 and 42 - landed near Port Said from landing craft, while 45 Commando staged history’s first heliborne assault, coming ashore in 20 helicopters from the light carriers Ocean and Theseus. The British withdrew soon afterwards under American political pressure; the Royal Marines had suffered 69 casualties but taken all of their objectives.
Men of 45 Commando, Aden 1961.
The successful heliborne landing led the Royal Navy to convert two other light carriers to Commando carriers. In 1961, 42 Commando landed from the Commando carrier Bulwark to deter an Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, and in 1962 40 Commando landed by helicopter from the Commando carrier Albion to crush a revolt in Brunei. That led to the “Confrontation” with Indonesia, as Royal Marines remained in North Borneo and Sarawak to guard these new Malaysian states from Indonesian encroachment.
Royal Marines intervened to put down a mutiny by the Tanzanian Army in 1964, and went to Aden (what would become South Yemen) that same year to suppress a nationalist uprising against British rule of the colony. That war developed into a bloody stalemate, as Egyptian forces in neighboring North Yemen sent aid across the porous border and British mercenaries led the fight for royalist insurgents fighting the Egyptian-backed Yemen Arab Republic. The British finally abandoned the colony, withdrawing in November 1967.
By this point, the Egyptian Army had encountered Royal Marines for over a decade: during the occupation of Suez, during the Suez Crisis, and during the wars in North and South Yemen. After the June 1967 Six-Day War, some Egyptian officers claimed that Royal Marines had landed in Gaza to fight against them alongside the Israelis. They’d done so in 1956, so it wasn’t a completely far-fetched claim; it simply wasn’t true.
By 1967 the Royal Marines had established themselves as an elite and highly mobile light infantry force. They had extensive experience in counter-insurgency operations, developing many of the tactics still used around the world. What they did not have was the capability of fighting on the mechanized battlefield that Sinai became in 1967. Their last use as conventional infantry had been against the Egyptians in 1956, but they had evolved away from that role over the decade that followed.
The withdrawal of British forces from “East of Suez” (actually from east of Gibraltar, but Kipling didn’t use that phrase) that began with the 1967 withdrawal from Aden caused a deeper change in the Royal Marines. As the British armed forces re-oriented themselves from projecting imperial power to their NATO role, so did the Commandos now focus on supporting the Norwegian defense of the alliance’s far northern flank. Royal Marines also took on a policing role in Northern Ireland.
Relations between Britain and Israel had deteriorated since the 1956 war, and the United Kingdom would have been highly unlikely to join Israel’s war planning (or trusted to do so). But it had happened before, and offering the excuse of facing Royal Marines probably seemed a better option to the officers of the Egyptian National Army’s 20th “Palestinian” Infantry Division than admitting the truth.
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Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and NASA Journalist in Space finalist, 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. Leopold approves of this message.