Updated: Nov 3, 2022
The annual period of national remembrance often throws up a number of stories of incredible bravery and courage. Among those who exhibited the highest levels of selfless service and sacrifice were the Commando who had a significant wartime connection with Cornwall.
In 1940 notes were passed around the recently formed Army Commando units requesting anyone with a knowledge of climbing to make themselves known to the War Office. Geoffrey Rees Jones, an Oxford rugby blue and Welsh international who was a teacher at Eastborne College in peacetime and was now serving with 5 Commando, had learned climbing from a fellow teacher. He put his name forward and soon found himself stationed at the Clachaig Hotel in Glencoe with several other Commando officers and for 3 months ran a course which showed you could make a mountaineering soldier out of an ordinary squaddy.
When Rees Jones returned to his unit, 5 Commando had been moved to Falmouth. Attached to 5 Commando was a 51 year old Royal Engineers Captain, geologist Professor Noel Odell, famed for the ill-fated British Everest Expedition in 1924 when he was the last man to see Leigh-Mallory and Irvine alive as they headed toward the summit. Rees Jones had persuaded his commanding officer to let him train his troop for cliff assault and had based himself at Bosigran Count House in west Penwith. With some help from Cornish climber Arthur Andrews, Rees Jones and Odell carried out a reconnaissance of sites in Cornwall and Devon that would be useful to train the Commando.
After the interruption of 5 Commando being sent to invader Madagascar against the Vichy French, Rees Jones then went off to join the recently established Commando Mountain And Snow Warfare Training Centre at Braemar in the Cairngorms. He was shortly to become its C.O.
In December 1943 Rees Jones moved CMWTC to Cornwall to train hard in cliff assault in preparation for D-Day. Dorys (small boats) would land commandos on otherwise inaccessible cliffs which would be scaled and an assault carried out. Cornwall was in the American zone and despite some opposition Rees Jones got his way to move to St Ives. The Army Commandos were joined by Royal Marine Commando units.
Here the men trained hard. Few locals seeing them doing Highland dancing outside the Sloop Inn in St Ives realised this was all part of Rees Jones getting his men on their toes and climbing fit. There were night time assaults on Hawk’s Point on Carrick Gladden where the killas rock was unforgiving to those who fell and the only recourse to those who landed in the water was to swim in the dark for Carbis Bay Beach.
A practice assault on the Penwith cliffs was filmed for the benefit of High Command and for training purposes. Along with another filmed assault when the now redundant Hor Point Chain Home Low Radar Station (M115) was blown to smithereens by satchel bombs with the remnants still littering the coastal slope, it forms the basis of my You Tube video on Commando training in Cornwall in World War Two.
The CMWTC held a commemorative dinner in St Ives in November 1949 before moving to Bickleigh in Devon in 1950.
One of the greatest raids of the war involved a Commando and Naval force that left from Cornwall in March 1942. The mission was to put the 1932 SS Normandie dry dock out of action so it couldn’t provide an Atlantic service port for the new German battleship Tirpitz which it was feared would wreak havoc in the Battle of the Atlantic where Britain was losing a lot of shipping, men and supplies. The plan was to ram a destroyer laden with explosives into the large dry dock gates supported by teams of Commando who would go ashore and destroy essential equipment and plant. Most of these would be transported in motor launches which would also provide their return transport.
358 naval personnel were involved with a team of 264 Commandos (minus the four doctors, three liaison officers and two journalists). Most of the assault team – 173 – came from 2 Commando with men from 3, 4, 5, 9 and 12 Commando making up the rest. Mountbatten, in charge of Combined Operations, visited the Commandos and crews in Falmouth and announced any man could walk away without a stain on his character. Not one did.
The flotilla left Falmouth at 2pm on Thursday 26th March 1942. They arrived off the Loire estuary about 9pm on the 27th and sailed up the river to make the attack. The Campbeltown, thanks to some skilled seamanship, rammed the lock gates at 20 knots. The Commando on board swarmed off to sabotage other key parts of the docks. However, as they had approached St Nazaire the defenders had opened up and caused carnage amongst the motor launches. Only one managed to put its Commando ashore. The Commando on the dockside having achieved most of their main objectives soon realised there was no transport home, so sought to fight their way out of the dockyard and through the town, with the thought of making it overland to the Spanish border. Many were killed and wounded and some captured as they ran out of ammunition.
Of the 622 men taking part only 227 returned. 222 on the four boats that made it back, five escaping overland to Spain and returning via Gibraltar. 215 were taken prisoner – 106 Royal Navy and 109 Commando. 103 men of the Naval Force were killed, along with 63 Commandos and 9 from the RAF’s air cover.
Five Victoria Crosses were awarded to men taking part in the raid along with 89 other decorations.
Lt Commander Stephen Beattie. His citation reads, “For great gallantry and determination in the attack on St. Nazaire in command of HMS Campbeltown. Under intense fire directed at the bridge from point blank range of about 100 yards, and in the face of the blinding glare of many searchlights, he steamed her into the lock-gates and beached and scuttled her in the correct position. This Victoria Cross is awarded to Lieutenant-Commander Beattie in recognition not only of his own valour but also of that of the unnamed officers and men of a very gallant ship's company, many of whom have not returned.” Lt Com Beattie survived the war as a POW and came to live in Mullion in Cornwall where he died in 1975. He is buried in Ruan Minor Churchyard.
Commander Robert Ryder. His citation reads, “For great gallantry in the attack on St Nazaire. He commanded a force of small unprotected ships in an attack on a heavily defended port and led H.M.S. Campbeltown in under intense fire from short range weapons at point blank range. Though the main object of the expedition had been accomplished in the beaching of Campbeltown, he remained on the spot conducting operations, evacuating men from Campbeltown and dealing with strong points and close range weapons while exposed to heavy fire for one hour and sixteen minutes, and did not withdraw till it was certain that his ship could be of no use in rescuing any of the Commando Troops who were still ashore. That his Motor Gun Boat, now full of dead and wounded, should have survived and should have been able to withdraw through an intense barrage of close range fire was almost a miracle.” He became an MP after the end of his naval career and died in 1986 while on a sailing trip to France.
Lt Col Augustus Charles Newman. A summary of his citation reads, “On 28 March 1942 in the attack on St. Nazaire, France, Lieutenant Colonel Newman was in charge of the military forces and he was one of the first ashore, leading his men and directing operations quite regardless of his own safety. Under his inspiring leadership the troops fought magnificently and held vastly superior numbers of the enemy at bay until the demolition parties had done their work. The colonel then attempted to fight through into open country and not until all the ammunition was spent were he and his men overwhelmed and taken prisoner.” After the war he served with the Territorial Army commanding 21 (Artists) Special Air Service Regiment. He died in Sandwich, Kent in 1972.
Able Seaman William Alfred Savage. His citation reads, “For great gallantry, skill and devotion to duty as gunlayer of the pom-pom in a Motor Gun Boat in the St Nazaire Raid. Completely exposed, and under heavy fire, he engaged positions ashore with cool and steady accuracy. On the way out of the harbour he kept up the same vigorous and accurate fire against the attacking ships, until he was killed at his gun.” Savage was buried in the War Graves plot of Falmouth Cemetery.
Sergeant Thomas Frank Durrant. His citation reads, “For great gallantry, skill and devotion to duty when in charge of a Lewis gun in HM Motor Launch 306 in the St Nazaire raid on 28 March 1942.
Motor Launch 306 came under heavy fire while proceeding up the River Loire towards the port. Sergeant Durrant, in his position abaft the bridge, where he had no cover or protection, engaged enemy gun positions and searchlights ashore. During this engagement he was severely wounded in the arm but refused to leave his gun. The Motor Launch subsequently went down the river and was attacked by a German destroyer at 50 to 60 yards range, and often closer. In this action Sergeant Durrant continued to fire at the destroyer's bridge with the greatest of coolness and with complete disregard of the enemy's fire. The Motor Launch was illuminated by the enemy searchlight, and Sergeant Durrant drew on himself the individual attention of the enemy guns, and was again wounded in many places. Despite these further wounds he stayed in his exposed position, still firing his gun, although after a time only able to support himself by holding on to the gun mounting.
After a running fight, the Commander of the German destroyer called on the Motor Launch to surrender. Sergeant Durrant's answer was a further burst of fire at the destroyer's bridge. Although now very weak, he went on firing, using drums of ammunition as fast as they could be replaced. A renewed attack by the enemy vessel eventually silenced the fire of the Motor Launch, but Sergeant Durrant refused to give up until the destroyer came alongside, grappled the Motor Launch and took prisoner those who remained alive.
Sergeant Durrant's gallant fight was commended by the German officers on boarding the Motor Launch. This very gallant non-commissioned officer later died of the many wounds received in action.” Durrant is buried in La Baule-Escoublac War Cemetery, France.
The raid was considered a success. The dry dock was out of action until two years after the end of the war. Tirpitz stayed in Norwegian fjords until the RAF managed to sink her. The morale boost to the French people was incalculable. The daring, pluck, courage and bravery of the British showed not just the public at home, but the world, that we would use every ounce of our resolve to defeat the evil that was Nazi Germany.
So this November as part of your remembrance why not visit the grave of one of those two VCs buried here in Cornwall, or spend a moment reading the inscriptions on the St Nazaire raid memorial on the Prince of Wales Pier in Falmouth. For those wanting to know more of the story of the raid I would recommend Jeremy Clarkson’s documentary The Greatest Raid Of All which is freely available on YouTube.
Postscript: One Commando I have failed to find out anything about despite my efforts locally and my communication with Commando Veterans Association is D H Hill of 12 Commando buried in Illogan Churchyard in December 1942. I suspect he died during training. If anyone is able to furnish me with information surrounding his death I would be most grateful.