The concept of forming a ‘Commando’ force was explored within just a few days after the evacuation of the BEF (British Expeditionary Force) from Dunkirk in May 1940. Winston Churchill had just been appointed Prime Minister and all his natural instincts looked for the development of any means to fight back. Churchill’s instruction to the Chief of the Imperial General Staff was to form a Tri-Service organisation to be armed with the very latest equipment, trained to a new level of skill and fitness, so that an attack could be made against Nazi Germany at the earliest opportunity.
The title ´Commando´ came from the raiding and assault style used during the Boer War, some 40 years earlier. Such daring tactics appealed to Churchill. All three Services of Army, Navy & Air Force were directed to provide their best men…to ‘encourage’ volunteers.
In due course Combined Operations established a Special Training Centre at Lochailort, an Amphibious Training Centre at Inverary and by 1942 the specific Commando Basic Training Centre was established at Achnacarry Castle, near Spean Bridge.
Training eventually centred at Achnacarry Castle. The term “Commando Training” soon became the byword for the finest and most thorough military training for fitness and skill. The area around the castle provided the finest natural opportunities for hard training which included mountain climbing – Ben Nevis, the highest mountain in the British Isles. There was rope crossing of fast flowing rivers, canoe and diving training in Loch Lochy, with practice beach landings. Men were teamed in pairs to face arduous challenges as teams – through marshland, snow, heather, rocks, water…whatever presented itself, regardless of weather conditions. Unarmed combat was a key and critical part of the course, with night training, developing skills to use terrain for concealment and silent approach.
Hand to hand combat taught close quarters attack & defence; weapons training with knives and small arms taught both skill and a fighting spirit which was instilled upon all taking this course. After 6 weeks of intense training, Commandos would be entitled to wear the coveted green beret and be proud to be part of an elite force.
The first significant example of fighting back came with the Raid on Dieppe. This took place on the night of 18th August 1942 and was a costly disaster. Even so, it was a dramatic learning experience to the benefit of D-Day. The main force selected for Dieppe was the 2nd Canadian Division, supported by US Rangers and British Commandos. It was a massive effort, deploying 6,000 men, over 100 tanks, all taken across the Channel in 237 ships.
The flotilla was spotted during the crossing and attacked by German Gun-boats. As the men landed they were cut to ribbons by heavy machine gun fire; tanks were destroyed by heavy shelling before they could disembark. With 3,500 men killed or captured, the raid was a spectacular failure which emphasised the difficulties of breaching established defences.
Colonel Lord Lovat, in command of No 4 Commando, survived the night. That baptism of fire was his foretaste for what was to come in Normandy. It was at Achnacarry where Lord Lovat met Piper Bill Millin, later to become such an iconic figure of British bravery, and perhaps eccentricity, on the Sword Beach landings.