From the dawn of the nation-state until the confluence of the age of Napoleon and the industrial revolution, warfare was largely a matter of professionals duking it out with other professionals (or natives).
There were exceptions, of course; the American Revolution involved a citizen militia (initially) battling a professional army supported by Loyalist militias.
Napoleon changed all that, conquering most of Europe with an army of draftees (backstopped by his Old Guard and New Guard – like most tyrants from the Caesars to Gaddafi, he kept a special elite as his backup, jujst in case). The Civil War set the pattern for the other big wars of the following hundred years; mass armies (usually draftees or “national service” men), supported by a mobilization of an industrialized society. The Franco-Prussian War, World War I and World War II followed the same model – as, in fact, did the Cold War, although the main event of that war never got underway. Thank God.
But in 1941, Britain’s big, industrialized military was on the ropes. It had stood off Germany’s invasion attempt the previous summer – barely – but it had left almost all of its best equipment – modern artillery, virtually all of its tanks (that weren’t in North Africa), even its machine guns – on the beaches at Dunkirk the previous June. British industry was working frantically to replace it – and was buying equipment in the US to help fill the gaps, which would become a big story in coming months.
But in the interim, the gap in the Home Islands was filled by an amazing grab-bag of stopgaps – including arming “Home Guard” men (sort of the British version of the well-regulated militia – civilians who patrolled beaches and landing grounds and such) with everything from quail guns to pikes.
But Churchill wanted to start striking back. He knew that re-taking the continent in force was out of the question until the Army was re-armed (and, likely, until the US got into the war in a substantial way), so his only real means to hit back at the moment was through a bombing campaign (which was undergoing terrible teething pains), through harrying German coastal shipping with air raids, submarines and torpedo boat attacks…
…and through an idea Churchill had been nursing since his days reporting on the British Army during the Boer War, forty years before in South Africa. There, he’d been impressed by the “Boer” (literally ,Afrikaans for “Farmer”, but used to refer to all Dutch-descended South Africans at the time) troops, citizen militias full of expert marksmen on horseback, loosely organized into groups called “Kommandos” (Afrikaans for “commands”) whose pinprick, hit-and-run raiding so vexed the Brits during that dismal little war.
And so in the aftermath of Dunkirk, Churchill hatched the notion of small groups of highly-trained professionals, who would carry out devastating hit-and-run surprise attacks on German and Italian territory, and christened the new units “Commandos”.
There was no problem getting volunteers; the recruiters for the new units spent the first weeks of the rigorous training, in the craggy, damp, inhospitable Scots Highlands near the town of Achnacarry weeding down the pool of would-be Commandos to the best of the best; men not only adept at infantry fieldcraft and marksmanship, but with the special inner toughness of someone who’ll die before he leaves a job undone.
Churchill pushed the idea – but it met considerable resistance from the regular military, who resisted having not only many of their best men, but stocks of scarce equipment and training grounds, absorbed into the new units. The bureaucratic scuffling carried on through the winter…
…but finally, seventy years ago today, the Commandos got their first workout. Boarding two fast transports, with an escort of five Brit destroyers, two “Commandos” – British parlance for commando battalions – sailed for the Lofoten Islands, well above the arctic circle off the Norwegian coast near Narvik. The target – a fish oil factory (German explosive manufacturing used fish oil as part of its process). The bigger target – a PR victory, showing the world that the Empire could strike back, and showing the British military that the Commandos were for real.
The operation was codenamed “Claymore” The ground commander was Lord Lovat – who would become a legend on D-Day. But we’ll come back to that in a couple of years.
Landing in the early morning of March 4, 1941, the Commandos achieved complete surprise, and the mission was a complete success. They destroyed 11 German-held fish oil plants and 800,000 gallons of fish oil, sank five German trawlers and factory ships, and captured the entire 225-man German garrison along with 60 Norwegian Quisling soldiers. They also brought back 300-odd volunteers for the Norwegian forces in exile. The only casualty? A Commando officer who’d shot himself in the leg.
One victory was kept very hush-hush, of course. The Commandos retrieved from one of the German ships a set of rotors from the “Engima” code machine, helping supercharge the hyper-secret process of breaking the “Enigma” code. Of this, much more soon.
The military victory was small; the PR victory was immense. The Germans up and down the Atlantic coaast became conscious of the fact that they weren’t safe on the continent (several other raids – by no means always as successful or with casualties so light) followed), causing them to expend a lot of time and manpower guarding against the chance of more such raids.
It was effective in the US as well; as the US was starting to mobilize an immense draftee military, some officers – facing even stiffer bureaucratic resistance than in the UK – eyed the performance of the Commandos, and started pondering the idea of similar units, which led directly to the creation of the first US “Ranger” units after the US entered the war; they trained, initially, alongside the Brits at Achnacarry, on their way to their epic, defining battle at Point Du Hoc on D-Day. And, thence, to the Airborne Rangers and British Marine Commandos that’ve carried on so much of the War on Terror.
But, again, we’ll return to that.