Highlights from the inside story of the Commandos. The first official account of the daring exploits of Combined Operations
SHORTLY before midnight Ober Maat (Chief Mate) Munte, who had once been a stoker in the German Navy, was seated in his office in the Casquet lighthouse seized by his master when the Channel Islands were occupied in July, 1940. He was busy making up returns—an occupation well fitted to his rank and experience. A slight noise—it may have been the click of the door as it closed softly—caused him to turn in his chair.
Leaning against the door were two men with black faces, wearing crumpled khaki uniforms, somewhat damp round the ankles. Two Colt automatics, negligently poised, were in their hands. He got slowly to his feet and passed a hand across his eyes, but when he dropped it the figures by the doorway were still there. Chief Mate Munte began to sway and, as one of the men stepped forward, collapsed fainting with terror on the floor. To bring him round the twro black-faced men slapped his cheeks, and a short while afterward he was in a small boat bobbing uneasily in the treacherous waters that surge about the lighthouse he had failed to guard. By then he was in the company of the six men who formed his command. They were the wireless operators and the guard of the lighthouse. Those who had not been on watch were still in their pyjamas and were wearing hair nets, which at first caused the commander of the raiding party to mistake one of them for a woman. By four o’clock in the morning, after a stormy passage, the Germans found themselves prisoners of war in England.
Raids such as this take place frequently on the coast of German-occupied Europe. Not much is
said about them either by ourselves or by the enemy. Sometimes, however, perhaps when a particularly galling barb has been implanted in his hide, he cries out. Then something can be said of the manner of its planting.
A few days after the raid on the Casquet lighthouse, an operation took place on the coast of Norway. A number of officers and other ranks from No. 2 Commando and other Army organizations attacked the Glom fjord Hydro-electric Power Station. This is a plant of considerable importance supplying current to the chief aluminum manufacturing plant in Norway, which is situated a few miles away. The party was under the command of Captain G. D. Black, M.C., with Captain J. B. J. Houghton as second-in-command.
Captain Houghton and a companion reconnoitred the route ahead and returned after four hours, having found a suitable way across the “black glacier.” A meal was eaten; the party moved off and bivouacked for the rest of the night near the glacier. The next morning they started up the steep mountain side and were soon on the ice. The toggle ropes they had with them proved useful when it came to crossing a number of crevasses met with in their passage over the glacier. That evening they were within sight of the pipe line bridling the mountain torrent which supplied the motive power to the turbines and dynamos of the powerhouse.
After a rest they pressed on; but the precipitous nature of the way put them into great peril, for they were soon moving along the side of a mountain which at this point fell sheer into a lake. There were many loose stones and boulders on the rough track which led slowly downward. To dislodge one of these would bring down others and set the whole wild valley roaring. Treading delicately, they descended in silence and darkness, and by dawn they had reached good cover within a short distance of the power station, now clearly visible.
At eight o’clock in the evening they held a conference and Captain Black explained his plan. Two men were detailed to demolish the machinery of the powerhouse. Two others were to put charges under the pipe line. Others were toguard the powerhouse while the demolition party was at work. The remainder would form a covering party. The power station is connected with Glomfjord village by a tunnel, and it was near its entrance that Captain Black stationed himself.
Shortly before eleven in the evening the party went about its appointed tasks. A way was found into the station through one wing, which was being rebuilt. Captain Houghton and a companion crawled under a canvas screen and had got well inside when they caught a glimpse of one of the guards. They dashed at once into the guardroom, held up the guards, and then took them downstairs. Almost immediately afterward a German was met with and shot.
All this time the demolition party, who had slipped in on the heels of Captain Houghton and his companion, were at work; and presently they reported that the charges were laid. The party then moved off. A few minutes later there were two explosions. A vivid glow was seen through the windows and doors of the powerhouse, which seemed to shake and quiver. Flames shot up, and at that moment the air-raid siren sounded in Glomfjord village.
The raiders pressed on and presently halted to wait for those who had been detailed to deal with the pipe line. A roar, which sent the echoes flying round the lake, told them that here, too, success had been achieved; and presently the pipe-line demolition party arrived with Captain Black, who had stayed behind to cover them. United once more, they all moved off, but soon became involved in a fight with a number of Germans. There were some casualties on both sides.
The destruction wrought was in the highest degree effective. The power station was wrecked, and it is highly improbable that it can be put into proper working order again until the war is ended. This means that the aluminum works in Glomfjord, which had recently been enlarged, will also be idle.
Like a Bottomless Pit
FLIGHT SERGEANT COX, an expert radio engineer, arrived at the Air Ministry and shortly found himself in the presence of an Air Commodore, who congratulated him on having volunteered for a special and a dangerous mission. “I cannot yet tell you what it is,” said the Air Commodore, “but you must begin by learning all about parachute jumping.”
Intrigued and obedient, he went away to do so and soon reached the stage when he was allowed to leap from a captive balloon in the middle of the night. “The hole,” he says, “in the bottom of the basket, seemed suddenly to me to look like a bottomless pit.”
While he was thus engaged, cramming into a few days training which normally takes several weeks, a syndicate at Combined Operations Headquarters was planning the raid.
Like ourselves, the enemy strives unremittingly to improve his system of radio-location. By the end of 1941 he had made considerable progress and had established a number of stations on the western seaboard of Europe to give warning of the advent of our bombers. One of these, of the most modern design and construction, was near the village of Bruneval, in Northern France, some twelve miles NNE of Le Havre. It was decided to put it out of action, and to use for this purpose men of an Airborne Division, taken to their destination by Whitleys of Bomber Command and brought back to England by the Royal Navy.
The objective, housed in a small cabin standing in a shallow pit, was situated between the edge of the cliff and an isolated house. A quarter of a mile away to the south a small steep beach of pebbles and sand lies at the foot of chalk and flint cliffs, more than 300 feet high. It was from this spot that it was decided to embark the force when its task was completed.
The post was manned by German signallers, specialists in the working of the radio-location apparatus. It was well defended, immediately by a trench with dug-outs, and a short distance away by a pillbox mounting machine guns on the edge of the cliff, while another was situated just south of Bruneval, both covering the cove. Some 400 yards farther inland was a garrisoned farmhouse, Le Presbytère, surrounded by a small wood. In all the area was defended by fifteen posts, some of which faced seaward while others covered approaches to the beach. About a hundred Germans manned these defenses, but not far off was a regiment of infantry and a few miles farther on a battalion equipped with armored cars. The district was also under the protection of the day and night fighters of the Luftwaffe.
Careful preparations were made. Reconnaissance aircraft photographed the objective and the country surrounding it. From the pictures, scale models were constructed and special maps prepared. The observers in the Whitley crews were able, after some days’ study of them, to draw from memory accurate pictures of the coast line and the area of the objective.
“Come Sit By My Side”
^/^LL RANKS of the three Services rehearsed their parts for some time before the operation. It was delayed a few days until the weather should prove suitable. It became so on February 27-28.
The Naval Force, under Commander F. N. Cook, R.A.N., consisted of motor gunboats, assault landing craft and support landing craft, in which were embarked 32 officers and men of the Royal Fusiliers and the South Wales Borderers, whose duty it was to cover the withdrawal of the para chute troops. Two destroyers escorted the Naval forces, which were the first to move, for it naturally took them much longer than the Whitleys to reach the neighborhood of Bruneval. They were far out to sea by the time the airborne troops took off. These, commanded by Major J..ID. Frost of the Cameronians, were over the dropping area soon after midnight. A few minutes before the time fixed for their take-off they had formed up on the airfield and marched round the perimeter “like guardsmen,” with pipes playing. As each section arrived opposite its waiting Whitley it wheeled smartly to the right and entered the aircraft.
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On crossing the French coast the Whitleys were fired at by antiaircraft defenses and by flak ships. There was no air opposition, for an arranged diversion, carried out by aircraft of Fighter Command, was most effective, and no casualties occurred. The evasive action the Whitleys took, however, put two of them slightly off their course and the troops in them were dropped late and some distance from the point of assembly. This, as it turned out, did no harm, for they came into action later at a most opportune moment.
On the way over some of the men, wrapped in sleeping bags of comforting warmth, sang songs, among them, “Come, sit by my sid-e if you love me,” which is the song of the Parachute Troops, and Flight Sergeant Cox obliged with a solo rendering of “The Rose of Tralee.” Others played cards—the old Army game of pontoon. Their spirits were very high: “I can best describe them as terrific,” reports Major Frost.
Half an hour before they dropped, the leader of the Whitleys gave the signal, “Prepare for action.” The parachutists got out of their sleeping bags and, on receiving the order, went to action stations. The green light shone and one by one they dropped.
“In the moonlight I could see the forming-up place, which was a row of trees by a gully,” said Major Frost. “These I saw while I was still in the air. That we arrived just where we wanted to go was in great part due to the excellent air photography, which had been provided when the operation was being planned, and to the model of the country, which every man had studied, so that we all knew exactly what to expect.”
The airborne troops landed on ground covered by a foot of snow. “The first thing that struck me,” said Flight Sergeant Cox, “was how quiet everything was and how lonely I felt, and then I heard some rustling and saw something outlined against the snow. It was a container.”
These containers carried demolition and signalling apparatus and additional arms. The parachute troops equipped themselves with the contents; then formed up in battle formation and moved off to capture the radio-location station about 600 yards away. All carried knives and grenades and a high proportion Sten guns and .45 automatic pistols.
The assault party was divided into three. Some, under Major Frost, were to attack the isolated house nearby, in which it was conjectured the reserve crews of the station and some of the crew on watch would be found; others were to capture the post itself; and the third group were to act as a covering party, taking up a position between the large farm called Le Presbytère and the objective on the cliffs. Another party was to occupy the beach from which all were to be embarked when the operation was completed.
MAJOR FROST and Lieutenant Curtis led their men at the double toward the isolated house and the radio-location post. Both were reached in ten minutes and surrounded. The door of the house was open. Major Frost, blowing a blast on his whistle, rushed in, his men at his heels. They occupied the four rooms on the ground floor. They were empty and clear of furniture. He then ran up the stairs with four men, shouting “Surrender!” and “Hände hoch!”
A German, the only one present, was killed defending one of the upstairs rooms. Leaving 12 men to hold the house, Major Frost ran with his batman to the radio-location post, from which the sound of explosions had been heard.
He found it in the hands of Lieutenant Curtis and his men, who had bombed the dug-outs and killed five out of the six Germans discovered there. The survivor fell over the cliff, but landed on a ledge about ten feet down and was pulled back. Interrogated on the spot, he told Major Frost that the German troops in the immediate neighborhood did not number more than a hundred.
By this time they had come into action, and our men found themselves under machine-gun fire from Le Presbytère. Major Frost got his men out of the house, suffering one casualty, and formed them up with Lieutenant Curtis’ men and the covering party, to defend the radiolocation post which was now being dealt with by Flight Sergeant Cox and the Royal Engineers of the airborne troops under Lieutenant Vernon. While they were carrying out their task the German fire, coming from two machine guns, resolutely served, increased; two bullets struck a part of the apparatus under Flight Sergeant Cox’s hands. The lights of three vehicles were seen in the distance, moving along the road leading to Le Presbytère.
It seemed that the enemy were about to be reinforced; and Major Frost, having ascertained that the engineers had finished their task, began his prearranged withdrawal toward the beach near Bruneval village about 600 yards to his south. The beach is at one end of a road running to Bruneval between cliffs on which there were machine-gun posts. “We knew beforehand,” says Major Frost, “that there was a German strong point on the shoulder of the cliff where the ground sloped down steeply toward the beach. We suspected that it was not manned. As we reached it, a voice from the beach shouted, ‘The boats are here. It’s allright. Come on down.’ ”
They were about to do so when a machine gun opened fire on them from a point on the other side of the gap at the bottom of which runs the road with the beach at its end. There were two casualties, one of them being Sergeant-Major Strachan, who was hit by several bullets, of which three entered his abdomen. He survived the wounds they caused and was back on duty within a few weeks.
The retreating parachute troops at first thought that the hail from the beach was genuine, and were about to descend the steep slope to reach it when Lieutenant Ross, who was in command of the party detailed to capture the beach, shouted, “Don’t come down. The beach has not yet been taken.” Major Frost and his men, therefore, at once took up positions near the empty strong point, and made ready to defend themselves against attack from the land.
What had happened was that only about half the party which was to capture the beach had as yet arrived to do so. The others had been dropped two and a half miles away from the assembly point and were in consequence late. There were not enough men to begin the attack without them. Realizing this, Major Frost sent ten of his own men to reinforce the attacking party. As they moved off to do so, the missing sections arrived, some of them stout Highlanders, shouting their war cry, “Caber Feigh!”* The attack was at once launched and was completely successful. The garrison of a pillbox were all killed by grenades.
In a small house on the edge of the beach a solitary German telephone orderly was captured. He had stayed there on duty by his instrument, being rung up every few minutes by a major of the headquarters of the local German garrison wno seemed, so the prisoner said, to be in the last stages of agitation and cursed him for making so much noise. The orderly explained that the din was caused by grenades exploding in the room. At that moment the assaulting party burst in and the German surrendered. Another was captured, wounded, in an empty pillbox nearby. These, together with the man taken on the edge of the cliff, were the only prisoners to fall into our hands.
As soon as the beach was mastered, immediate efforts were made to get into touch with the landing craft which were to embark the troops.
About 2.30 a.m. their crews saw the flashes of explosive and tracer bullets in the neighborhood of the beach and made ready to come in to land. They had been waiting for some time, and had seen two enemy destroyers and two Ror E-boats, which passed within a mile but did not see them.
At 2.35 a.m. a signal was received asking them to come at once. The assault landing craft, covered by the support landing craft, immediately put in to the moonlit beach. “The first I knew of their presence,” says Major Frost, “was when someone shouted, ‘Sir, the boats are coming in.’ ”
The sappers, prisoners and wounded were the first to be put on board. At that moment the Germans manning
•The Antlers of the Deer. the cliff defenses opened a heavy fire, to which the support landing craft replied with vigor, silencing the enemy. The noise of this firing was very great and the naval officer in charge had to use a megaphone to make his orders audible in the din. All, with the exception of seven, were taken off. Of those left behind, one was dead and the remainder had not yet reached the beach. Our total casualties were one killed, seven wounded, and seven missing.
The flotilla then made for England. When day dawned it was given air cover by Spitfires of Fighter Command and suffered no attacks from the air or the sea, though at first light it was not more than 15 miles from the French coast.
So ended the operation of which the success was due not only to the valor of the troops, but once more to careful planning and to the close co-operation of all three Services.
Resolute And Determined
THE story of one more raid may be told. It took place in January, 1943. It is a typical example of the kind of enterprise into which the small-scale raids, begun in the summer of 1940, have now developed.
On the night of January 23-24, 1943, a number of motor torpedo boats, manned by Norwegians, with Commando soldiers on board, arrived off the southwestern coast of Norway. The objective of the troops was an iron pyrites mine situated at Lillebo in the island of Stord, and the second largest of its kind in Norway.
The attackers were divided in two groups. The first was to cover the activities of the second, whose duty it was to destroy the mine. The first, group approached the quayside of the small village of Saagvag. Their landing was opposed, but after a brisk fight they cleared the quay, took a number of prisoners and proceeded to establish road blocks and cut telephone wires.
While this first party went about their several tasks, the second force had been landed on the other side of Saagvag Bay. Once ashore, they pressed on toward the mine, covering a distance of two miles in twenty-five minutes, each man of them heavily laden with demolition charges.
Arrived at their objective, they at once set about its destruction. The hoisting gear above the mine was blown up and fell down the shaft, the crushing plant, the compressor house, the transformer and a railway shed nearby were blown to pieces. The demolition force then made its way back to the quayside, held by the covering force.
In the meantime, out at sea, the naval covering force of motor torpedo boats had not been idle. One of them, moving round the island, encountered an enemy merchant vessel of about 2,000 tons which she sank by gunfire. She also silenced an enemy gun position on shore, and together with another motor torpedo boat, shelled other enemy positions along the coast.
In the small hours of the morning the troops were re-embarked. Before going on board they got rid of such demolition charges as remained by I blowing up a silo at the quayside, the conveyor system, the ore crusher and , four enemy gun positions, together ; with their ammunition. On the way home the small force shot at and hit a Ju.88 which exploded in the air.
Thus at the cost of one N.C.O. killed, and a number of minor casualties, a mine providing the Germans with 160,000 tons of iron pyrites a year was so effectively destroyed as to be out of action for at least twelve months, an enemy merchant ship was sunk and much other damage done.
Such are the hazards of these raids. They are carried out by resolute and determined men, in whose hearts love of country and love of adventure are happily blended.
Editor’s Note: This is the first of two articles on the Commandos. The second article, which will appear in June 1 Maclean’s, will tell of a raid on Rommel’s house and of a Commandos attack on the coast of Italy.