A Roomful of Military Historians

This past weekend I had the opportunity to attend the Society for Military History conference, hosted by the First Division Museum in Naperville, Illinois. Of course, that begs the question: What happens when you get a large group of military historians gathered in one hotel? I suppose that for many people, it might be a painful experience, but for me it was nothing less than a very good time- great conversation around the hotel bar with some REALLY interesting people, and some excellent panel discussions!

British Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill

I also had the opportunity to sit on a panel entitled “Converging Ways of War: Forging the Anglo-American Alliance.” One of my colleagues presented a paper on the repair of British warships in American ports. Another spoke about the US Military Occupation of the New Hebrides and its impact on British and French colonists. I presented a paper on the USMC’s Observation of and training with British commandos in the 1940-1942 period. What? The Marine Corps trained with British commandos? They certainly did, albeit in small numbers.

This is a subject I have been interested in for some time. It brings together my passion for both the USMC and the British Royal Marines, as well as my love of the history of the storied USMC Raiders of World War II, and the clandestine Office of Strategic Services. What do the Raiders have to do with either British commandos or the OSS, you might ask?  In fact, this slice of USMC history is absolutely fascinating, and not very well known!!!

Lieutenant General Thomas Holcomb

British Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill, once referred to commandos as “ a steel hand from the sea,” a force that could move lightly, quickly, into enemy–held territory, and strike with both great surprise and ferocity. These were to be “troops of the hunter class who could develop a reign of terror down the enemy coast.”  Initially, the commando was a volunteer force gleaned from units of the British Army, but quickly came to include all branches of the British Services.  These commandos captured the imagination of both the British and American press, and populace. They also captured the attention of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and high-ranking members of his cabinet. And as the United States moved inexorably toward war, they piqued the curiosity of the United States Marine Corps. Could this training be utilized by the Marine Corps to further enhance its amphibious capabilities?

In November 1941, the United States Marine Corps dispatched two promising young captains to Great Britain. Their mission? To observe the training regimen of British Commandos- their origin, mission, organization, weapons, clothing, equipment, training, discipline and employment- in anticipation of the establishment of similar organizations within the Marine Corps.  Over a period of several weeks, Samuel B. Griffith II attended commando training. Wallace M.  Greene, Jr., who would later serve as Commandant of the Marine Corps, attended the British Amphibious Warfare School and the Royal Engineers Demolition School. Their report, dated 6 January 1942, was extraordinarily detailed, and would be integral to the formation of commando-style units within the Marine Corps.

Major James Roosevelt seen here with Lieutenant Colonel Evans Carlson. Both served with the 2d Raider Battalion

But it was not only from within the Marine Corps that there was an interest in the formation of these. commando-style units. On 22 December 1941, a messenger carried a briefcase to Franklin Delano Roosevelt, President of the United States. It contained a one page document written by Colonel William J. Donovan. Donovan, a World War I veteran and recipient of the Medal of Honor served as Coordinator of Information. Donovan was politically savvy, and was well aware that meetings between American and British military planners were in progress.

Contained within that briefcase was a memorandum which recommended:

That there be organized now, in the United States, a guerilla corps, independent and separate from the Army and Navy, and imbued with the  maximum spirit of the offensive. This force should, of course, be created along disciplined military lines, analogous to the British Commando principle…

For Major General Thomas Holcomb, Commandant of the Marine Corps, that memorandum would be more than problematic. Donovan was convinced that his guerilla corps, separate from both the Army and Navy, would be the perfect mission for the United States Marines.

Brigadier General Franklin Hart

As this was unfolding, President Roosevelt was entertaining the Secretary of the Navy, Frank Knox, and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill at the White House. It was on this winter’s night that Roosevelt revealed Donovan’s proposal.  Over snifters of brandy, the idea was discussed. Churchill certainly approved of Donovan’s idea of a commando force, and tentatively agreed to consider a plan put forth by Knox for commando raids of Japanese-held islands.

On 23 December 1941, Roosevelt answered Donovan’s memorandum, essentially stating that he thought the idea of a commando force had merit and that he would see it was given fair consideration. That the Marines would be involved was almost an afterthought. A number of factors made the Marines the perfect choice from which to form the commando units. The Tentative Landing Manual had touched upon commando-styled operations, and during the Fleet Landing Force exercises of the 1930s and into early 1941, the Marine Corps has experimented with commando types forces.

Captain Roy Batterton and the second group of Marines to undergo commando training.

But there was a more personal influence. A Marine Reserve captain named James Roosevelt was the son of President Roosevelt. He had served as Donovan’s aide at the office of the Coordinator of Information, and firmly believed in the formation of commando-styled units. He was also quite close to Marine Captain Evans Carlson, often described as “guerilla war zealot with plenty of practical experience,” and developed a plan for “development within the Marine Corps of a unit for purposes similar to the British commandos and the Chinese guerillas.”

In many ways, a “perfect storm” was created. MajGen Holcomb attempted to quell that storm by pointing out that Captains Greene and Griffiths had already been sent to England as observers and that small raiding forces had been part of the amphibious Fleet Landing Force exercises for some time.

Over the next few days, Holcomb received not one, but two messages from Admiral King, Commander in Chief of the U.S. Fleet. These asked for details on the formation of commando-style units, adding that the president “was much interested in the development and use of the equivalent of British commandos.”           

On 16 January, Holcomb received a courtesy copy of a letter written by Admiral King. It proposed that a “troop of 7 officers and 100 enlisted men, U.S. Marines Corps, be assigned to temporary duty with British commandos for training at the British Special Training Center and that this troop participate with the British commandos in combined operations against enemy shores.” The correspondence further suggested that it that were not possible then a smaller number of Marines should be sent for commando training. 

Not surprisingly, given the attention paid to British commandos in the American press, the idea of a U.S. version was gaining notoriety. The San Diego Union published a glowing piece on the British commandos, and in January 1942, Newsweek stated “Officials are seeking a name for American units corresponding to the British commandos, eventually to be used in continental raids from England.”

On 24 January, Brigadier General Clayton Vogel, Second Joint Training Force, received a dispatch from Admiral Chester Nimitz, Commander in Chief, United States Pacific Fleet. Vogel was ordered to

Develop organization and training of Marines and naval units of commando-type for use in connection with expeditions of raid character for demolition and other destruction of shore installations in enemy held islands and bases.

On 5 February, Admiral King ordered that a detachment of two officers and twenty enlisted men proceed to Great Britain for a two month period of Commando training.  This plan was further expounded upon in a letter of 9 February. It stipulated that the group be formed at Marine Barracks, Washington, that they “ be given verbal instructions to report to the Intelligence Division no later than 16 February for necessary procedures involved in designation as  Special Naval Observers, that the Commandant of the Marine Corps was requested to submit a complete roster of this detachment and that surface transportation be scheduled to depart no later than 1 March 1942.

U.S. Marines  trained in mountaineering.

Almost concurrently, Colonel Franklin Hart, the assistant naval attaché at the American Embassy, and also a liaison to Admiral Lord Louis Mountbatten, Commander of Combined Operations wrote:

I heartily endorse the type of training and operations performed by the Commandos. I feel that we Marines are ideally suited for this type of work, and that men so trained will be of immense value in any operation, whether a small raid, or advance party of a combined operation.

In my capacity as liaison officer with the Commodore, Combined Operations, I have discussed the subject in detail with Mountbatten. We both feel that these Marines undergoing training, should, when ready, be allowed to accompany the commandos on some of their raids on the continent. The experience gained, the prestige attained by the individual, will make the man far more valuable in the capacity of instructor when he returns to the United States. Again, there is the psychological effect upon the occupied countries if the fact is made known that American marines were operating against the enemy on their shores.

It should be noted that the 1st Separate Battalion was redesignated the 1st Raider Battalion on 16 February…thus formally establishing the British “commando-type” unit. The 2d Separate Battalion was activated on 4 February and redesignated the 2d Raider battalion on 19 February.

This is tantalizing evidence of a detachment of Marines who was scheduled to depart the U.S., enroute to Great Britain by 1 March. However, major publications by History Division, Marine Corps have no further mention of the group. A recent discovery sheds light on this detachment.            

A roster was found of the 1st Special Training Unit, a unit formed “for the express purpose of securing clearer insight into the operations, training and methods of the British commando organization.”  The unit was comprised of USMC personal from the 1st Marine Division, and the 1st and 2d Raider Battalion. A check of the muster rolls revealed that these men were detached from their units, and assigned to the Marine Detachment, London, which was the official duty station for almost all Marine personnel serving in Europe and Africa, including those on temporary duty or attached to the clandestine Office of Strategic Services.

The unit departed Washington on 4 March enroute to the Brooklyn Navy Yard. On the 5th they embarked aboard the British merchant vessel Myrmidon. Upon arrival in Nova Scotia, a detail of 48 men of the Royal Air Force and Canadian Royal Air Force came aboard.  Underway the following day, the Marines and airmen formed a ship’s guard that performed lookout duties and manned the ship’s anti-aircraft and anti-submarine guns. They arrived in Glasgow, Scotland on 23 March.

They were subsequently escorted to London and on 28 March were inspected by Admiral Lord Louis Mountbatten, Vice-Admiral Robert Ghormley, USN and Colonel Franklin Hart, USMC. Training began at the Commando Depot in Spean Bridge, Scotland, after which the unit went to Ayreshire where it was attached to 3 Commando. The course of training was completed on 28 May, 1942. It should be noted that two of these men, Captain Russell Duncan and Platoon Sergeant William C. Cossen, both served with the Office of Strategic Services in Africa. This is the first concrete evidence of Raiders serving with the OSS.

On 7 June 1942, a second group of Marines was designated to undergo a seven-week commando training course. Captain Roy T. Batterton, Marine Gunner George V. Clark and ten enlisted men began their training at Achnacarry, Scotland where they undertook a grueling schedule of weapons training, physical training, bayonet drills, climbing and field craft. Exercises were conducted with live ammunition. From there, training moved to the Isle of Wight, then to Portsmouth England where they took part in preparations for the amphibious landing at Dieppe.

Wreckage on the beach during the ill-fated landing at Dieppe.

Originally scheduled for 3 July, 1942 the landing at Dieppe was an elaborate amphibious raid slated to involve more than 6,000 troops. Planned by Admiral Lord Louis Mountbatten, of Combined Operation Headquarters, it involved some 237 Royal Navy vessels as well as 74 squadrons of aircraft. The objective was to seize a German-held town, hold it for a duration of at least two tides, and inflict as much damage on enemy defenses and facilities as possible before withdrawing. It was, according to Prime Minister Winston Churchill, “an indispensible preliminary to full scale operations” in combined operations techniques.  Had it taken place as scheduled, three Marines, Captain Roy Batterton, Sergeant Robert R. Ryan, and Corporal Paul E. Cramer would have landed from the HMS Locust as part of the Royal Marine commando. Bad weather forced the postponement of the landing, and after additional postponements the participation by the three Marines was cancelled. They subsequently returned to their commando training.

With the completion of that training on 31 July, the detachment returned to London, after which they were assigned to combat units in the Pacific. Most went to Raider battalions. Captain Batterton, later stated the course was exceedingly valuable to him during his assignment to the 4th Raider Battalion in the Pacific theater.

It should also be noted that cancellation of the three Marines’ participation in the Dieppe raid was not the end of Marine involvement in the ill-fated mission. As previously stated, Colonel Franklin A. Hart served as the assistant naval attaché at the American Embassy in London. He and another Marine officer were assigned as liaison officers to Lord Mountbatten, Commander of Combined Operations, and as such were involved in the planning and preparation for the raid on Dieppe. Hart observed the operation from the deck of the HMS Fernie, a British destroyer.

Colonel Hart’s report of the landing is a straightforward account of what was nothing less than an operational disaster. The landing at Dieppe was planned as a surprise attack with no naval gunfire preparation. However, the element of surprise was not achieved, and that was the undoing of the entire plan. After five hours of heavy fighting, the Allied forces withdrew suffering a loss of 3,648.  It remains one of the most controversial operations of World War II. The high casualty rates conjured up images of the disaster at Gallipoli. In 1946, Maj Gen Holland M Smith authored an article published in  Marine Corps Gazette. He stated that he had studied the raid on Dieppe, and took from it lessons that he applied to the amphibious campaigns in the Pacific theater.

Shortly after the failed raid, Colonel Hart was assigned to duty with the Staff of the Commander-in-Chief, U.S. Fleet, Navy department, as Chief,  Future Plans Section. His thorough knowledge of amphibious doctrine made him a valuable commodity within the Marine Corps.  His personal account of the landing at Dieppe was invaluable to the Corps.

And what was the impact of these interactions with our British brethren? The number of Marines who trained with, or served with the British is minute, yet it appears to have a rather significant impact given those small numbers. Lessons learned from the Dieppe landing were studied at the highest level, and those lessons were used when planning future campaigns in the Pacific. The lessons taught to the Marines who completed commando training were passed on to those who served in the Raider battalions.  The service and sacrifice of those Marines who went on to serve with the Office of Strategic Services cannot be ignored. (In fact, one of the original 22 who trained with British Commandos, Sgt Robert LaSalle, went on to serve with the OSS  and was awarded a Navy Cross for  actions in enemy-held France.) It was the genesis of an exchange which continues today, much to the benefit of both nations. Although small in number, these Marines were larger than life, and their legacy remains.

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