Operation Collar (i)

This was a British special forces raid undertaken by No. 11 Commando/Independent Company at Neufchâtel Hardelot, Stella Plage, Berck and Le Touquet on the north coast of German-occupied France between Boulogne and Etaples as an ‘offensive reconnaissance’ to capture German military personnel for interrogation (24/25 June 1940).

As such, ‘Collar’ (i) was the first operation mounted by the new commando forces, and was not notably successful in anything but propaganda terms.

The raid was undertaken, under the command of Major R. F. L. ‘Ronnie’ Tod, by a 120-man party of the 375-strong No. 11 Commando/Independent Company, and its only real result was the killing of two German soldiers, while the only British ‘casualty’ was Lieutenant Colonel Dudley W. Clarke, who was present as an observer and had one of his ears nicked by a bullet.

In British army service the commandos were first established during June 1940 as a raiding force to be characterised by a high degree of personal initiative as well as excellent fitness, training and weapons skills, but in the type of non-regimental organisational establishment thought best suited to the raider role. In this last, unconventional and irregular tactics were deemed to offer the optimum means to assault, disrupt and reconnoitre the Axis forces in Europe.

The first raids delivered by the commandos usually involved fairly modest numbers of men, and were of simple undertakings of short duration and usually launched at night, but later grew steadily in complexity, size and duration.

Raised, trained and committed under the terms of the strictest secrecy, the commandos had a strong part in lowering the morale of the German garrison forces along the coast of German-occupied Europe, who saw themselves as increasingly vulnerable, and quickly gained a very high if not specific popularity with the British public. As World War II continued and their overall strength and capability were steadily increased, the commandos came to be used as troops, sometimes up to brigade strength and sometimes in conjunction with conventional infantry.

After Prime Minster Winston Churchill had ordered the creation of a raider force to ‘butcher and bolt’ as a means of continuing the British war against Germany after the evacuation of most of the British Expeditionary Force at Dunkirk in ‘Dynamo’, a suitable concept was suggested by Clarke, the military assistant to General Sir John Dill, the Chief of the Imperial General Staff. Clarke made his proposal on 5 June 1940, a mere two days after the completion of the ‘Dynamo’ evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force and a number of allied troops from Dunkirk, and this was approved at a meeting between Dill and Churchill on 8 June. To explore the concept somewhat further, and to raise and control the new force, the MO9 department of the War Office was created on 9 June, and MO9 became the basis of the somewhat larger Combined Operations Headquarters, which involved all three of the UK’s armed services.

On Churchill’s instruction, the new raider units were armed with the latest equipment and were to launch an attack at the earliest opportunity. In the summer of 1940 requests were issued to all current units in the UK, as well as the so-called Independent Companies which were in the process of disbandment, calling for volunteers, and recruitment was later undertaken in other theatres where British forces were involved, and among foreign nationals (mostly of the counties of German-occupied Europe) still fighting alongside the British.

In 1942 the Admiralty agreed that volunteers could be recruited from the Royal Marine Division, and the first Royal Marine commando, No. 40 Commando, was formed in February 1942.

In that same year, it also became permissible for the commandos to recruit among the British police forces, some 400 such men successfully emerging from the commando training course to be assigned to various battalions. Right at the beginning of the programme Clarke had proposed the name ‘Commando’ after the raiding and assault style of Boer kommando units of the 2nd Boer War (1899/1902). Churchill liked the notion, but a number of senior officers preferred the term ‘Special Service’, and in fact both terms existed side-by-side until the later stages of World War II. The Special Service designation led to the designation Special Air Service for the parachute-trained men of the original No. 2 Commando, and in the longer term to the Special Boat Service with its origins in Lieutenant Roger Courtney’s Special Boat Section of No. 8 Commando and 101 Troop of No. 6 Commando.

As originally established, each commando had an establishment of a headquarters unit and 10 Troops, the latter each of three officers and 47 other ranks, but in 1941 each commando had an establishment of six Troops (including a Heavy Weapons Troop) each of 65 men. Some 30 commando units were formed during the war, and there were a number of other special forces units. Army commandos and Royal Marine commandos were eventually formed into four brigades. Each commando was initially responsible for the selection and training of its own officers and men. The men received extra pay as they had to find their own accommodation whenever they were in the UK. Training was provided in physical fitness, survival, orienteering, close-quarter combat, silent killing, signalling, amphibious and cliff assault, vehicle operation, weapons (including enemy types) and demolition. Many of the officers, NCOs and trainee instructors initially attended courses at the all-forces Special Training Centre at Lochailort in Scotland, and at other locations in the Highlands of Scotland, the Combined Operations established a substantial all-forces amphibious training centre at Inveraray and, during 1942, a service-specific Commando Training Centre at Achnacarry near Spean Bridge.

After being chosen to carry out ‘Collar’ as the first commando raid on occupied France, No. 11 Independent Company was moved from its base in Scotland to the port of Southampton on the south coast of England. Here it undertook several training exercises against a local infantry battalion on the Hamble river. In the course of this training, the men discovered that the boats with which they had been supplied were not good enough to transport them across the English Channel. Having no other dedicated transport of their own, the commandos approached the Royal Air Force for the use of four of its air/sea rescue launches based at Dover, Ramsgate and Newhaven.

Implementation of the planned raid was entrusted to 115 officers and other ranks divided into four groups. Each group was to be landed on one of the target beaches at Neufchâtel Hardelot, Stella Plage, Berck and Le Touquet. The men were to spend no more than 80 minutes ashore before returning to the launches.

A major limitation was that the RAF launches were not equipped for an operation of the proposed type, lacked exact navigation equipment, and were fitted with compasses which were known to be unreliable. As they crossed the English Channel, the launches were noted by patrolling RAF aircraft which, unaware of the operation, flew close to the launches to investigate. At about 02.00 on 24 June 1940 the launches reached France and landed their embarked troops.

The group landed at Le Touquet had the Merlimont Plage Hotel as its objective, for intelligence had suggested that the Germans were using the hotel as a barracks. When the group reached the hotel they discovered it was empty and the doors and windows had been boarded up. Unable to find another target, the group returned to the beach, only to discover that their launch had put back out to sea. During the wait, two German sentries stumbled on the group and were quietly killed by the commandos’ bayonets. Another German patrol then approached across the sand dunes and the group was compelled to abandon its weapons and to swim to the launch.

The group landed at Hardelot penetrated several hundred yards inland and returned to its launch without meeting any Germans.

The group landed at Berck discovered a seaplane anchorage, but this was too heavily defended for the commandos to attack with any realistic chance of success.

The final group was landed at Stella Plage under the command of Tod. It encountered a German patrol and, in the course of the short exchange of fire which ensued, Clarke was very slightly wounded.

After the raiders had returned to England, the Ministry of Information issued a glowing communiqué which put the best possible construction of what had in fact been only a mixed success.

Despite the very limited success of the first commando operation, within a year Adolf Hitler was referring to the commandos as ‘terror and sabotage troops’ who, Hitler claimed, ‘acted outside the Geneva convention’. The German propaganda machine called the commandos ‘murderous thugs and cut throats’ who killed soldiers and civilians indiscriminately, preferring to murder their enemies rather than take prisoners.