Friday, 10 January 2014

Commando Tactics: Book Review

Stephen Bull: Commando Tactics, Pen & Sword (2013)

My first book in 2014. A very good account of the birth, evolution and to some extent extinction at the end the II WW of the British commando units. The feats undertaken by these troops caught the imagination of several war and postwar generations of British, as far as I see (I'm not British!) but the book makes a very balanced assessment of the performance and effectiveness of this corps.

The title is somewhat misleading as this is more a work about the development of the command units and their main actions (Norway, Dieppe, St.  Nazaire, D-Day) than a focused treatise in tactics. In fact I acquired the book with my thoughts on a previous work by the same author (Infantry Tactics in World War Two) and both came to be totally different animals

Despite this, the book is truly worth reading.  My main takeaway:  commandos were far from the supermen depicted in many contemporary accounts, an image fostered by the British official propaganda in the darker years of the War (41-42), when it was utterly needed to raise the moral of the population and to show the public that Britain was far from being a defeated country. To a large extent these were the children of Churchill, who showed unabated support to the commando corps all over the conflict.

In fact the effectiveness of the raid activities in terms of damage made on the enemy is not so obvious and the hard facts are not very conclusive when you stripped them from the propagandistic dimension.  The raid of St Nazaire for example was publicly sold as a test with useful lessons learned for the Normandy landings. However after reading the chapter in the book it is clear that from the very beginning was a badly planned and even worse executed operation with dramatic consequences for a large part of the men involved

At the other side of the scale, the performance in many of the actions was outstanding thanks largely to their superb training and leadership instincts developed; the commandos were also a good testing corps for new armament and techniques later extended to the rest of the British army. The training methods and organization were also a reference used by many other countries to develop similar services within their armies, very significantly the US Rangers corps.

However, in terms of tactics commandos cannot claim to have achieved any significant innovation or breakthrough method. That they received better training, it is undisputable; but the core of the tactical performance was based in the same texts and techniques taught to the rest of the army.

In the war years, the organization and use of the commandos was almost a continuous wrok in progress. From the initial employment in penny pocket units raiding small enemy detachments in Norway by 1941-42, we gradually moved to the use in more traditional battalion-sized units  in D-Day

In fact the role assigned in Normandy to the commandos was far away from that usually associated with the commandos, involving stealth and surprise coups. And in fact, the large formations and their use as part of the invasion force probably resulted in many good lives expended in the first few days of the landings without really having any decisive effect in the outcome of the battle. But this is not against the courage and bravery shown in the battle by the commando forces, as illustrated by the large number of awards and decorations received by its members (alas, paid with high toll of blood).

The end of the war saw the corps almost totally demised, being reduced to just three command groups by 1946. The author links their fate to the political ousting of Churchill, suggesting that commandos were never appreciated or even accepted in the British traditional army circles.

Overall a very interesting, well written and structured  reading in my view although as I said at the beginning to learn the history and the performance in combat of the commandos, no so much as a treatise in tactics.

Wargaming wise, the text offers high detail account of the main actions, useful if you plan designing some skirmish-sized actions on your gaming table. Quite suitable and inspirational to develop and play scenarios with Chain of Command for example.

I bought my copy in eBook format from the Pen & Sword website at a price of GBP4.99. A real bargain in itslef, even more when taking into consideration the offer running in early January wehre you could by 2 ebooks for the price of one


  1. Thank you for the review. It has me interested.

  2. Thank a lot for the review. Very interesting book. I have always liked the great raids.