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Special Operations: British Future Commando Force

Britain is implementing a lot of their Future Commando Force modernization measures in 2021. These include new combat equipment, weapons, organizational concepts and tactics. One example of the new organizational concepts are two new commando units called Royal Marines Vanguard Strike Companies (VSC). These have been in development for several years and are entering service during 2021. Each VSC consists of about 150 Royal Marine and army commando personnel, as well as some Royal Navy amphibious ships to operate from. One VSC will be stationed in Bahrain (Persian Gulf) while the other will be working with the Norwegian military to deal with the growing Russian threat in northern Europe. Personnel in each VSC will serve for six months and then be replaced by new personnel with the same skills and capabilities.

The VSCs will be wearing the new, distinctly commando, combat uniform. In the past the commandos simply adopted current army uniforms, weapons and equipment. That worked but the commandos noted that special operations troops in other nations had benefitted from developing combat uniforms suited to their particular tasks. These uniforms were distinctive and that seemed to improve morale as well.

Other innovations include training commandos to operate in smaller units, often as small as four men. Modern communications and navigation gear makes this possible. But you have to train using these new, smaller, combat groups and that is what the Royal Marines have been doing. These experiments contributed to the development of the VSC units, which are much more flexible than earlier commando combat units, which relied on larger basic combat groups of eight men. That approach was first developed by the SAS (Special Air Service) troops, who are now considered more capable, man for man, than the Marine and army commandos. The naval version of the SAS is the SBS (Special Boat Service) and is similar to the U.S. Navy SEALs. SBS is part of the Royal Marines. Like many industrialized nations, the more highly trained and equipped British “special operations forces” comprise about ten percent of the ground forces. Britain’s Royal Marines, SAS and associated support units comprise nearly 9,000 personnel. The largest component is the Royal Marines.

The current British Commando Force is primarily the 3rd Commando Brigade, which consists of three Royal Marine Commandos (battalions) along with army commandos providing artillery, engineer and logistics support units. There are also a growing number of army infantry commando troops that are often integrated into Royal Marine Commando units. The Royal Marines have long called their special operations battalions “commandos.” The British Army pioneered the development of modern commando operations during World War II but disbanded all its commando units after the war. The Royal Marines kept some of theirs. Eventually, all Royal Marine infantry units became commandos, as they are to this day.

The original British commandos were formed after France fell to the Germans in mid-1940. At that time, there were plenty of British soldiers eager to volunteer for a unit that was going to fight back right away. The major problem was the resistance of unit commanders reluctant to see their best troops volunteer for these new units. This was partly solved by forming two of the independent companies raised earlier in 1940 from reservists. These “independent companies” were sort of commandos, but mainly they were to be used when a small unit of infantry, like an infantry company has about 150 men, were needed to land in a coastal area and destroy something an approaching enemy might want, like port and communications facilities, air fields and so on. These independent companies were formed using men who had been discharged from the army over the past few years after completing their seven-year enlistments and agreed to join he reserves. These men were thus experienced, a little older (and wiser) and not already part of a unit that didn’t want to lose them. Most infantry units would like to have these fellows, but the high command had the backing of the prime minister to see if this commando idea would work.

The eleven “Independent Companies” were used for raids from the sea against German facilities, or small garrisons, in Norway. First use was in May 1940 as for of these companies took part of the British operations around Narvik, Norway. There were already many officers in the army who were open to the idea of commandos. But the “Independent Companies” were just volunteer infantrymen, who were willing to undertake very risky raiding operations. It was a start.

The British had a tradition, especially over the previous two centuries, of creating raiding type units for special operations. This sort of thing was not seen as totally alien. Officers who served in Britain’s numerous colonies had developed and used raiding type operations to deal with bandits or guerillas. British historians made much of the British success with “Rangers” in North America both before and during the American Revolution. There were light infantry units during the campaigns against Napoleon in Spain in the early 19th century. More recent commando examples were provided by South African Boers at the end of the 19th century, German colonel von Lettow Vorbeck’s Askaris in Africa during World War I, and the German storm troopers at the end of World War I. All this had made a strong impression on the World War II generation of British generals. While some commanders muttered about commandos being “private armies’, there was enough enthusiasm for the project to see it get going with a minimum of interference. Prime minister Churchill was also a fan, which helped.

Initially, each “commando” was a battalion size unit of some 600 men, with the fighting elements being ten fifty-man troops (a British term for platoons). In early 1941 this was changed to six troops of 65 men each. This was dictated by the capacity of the newly developed amphibious landing craft the troops used on many of their raids. An assault landing craft (LCA) could hold 35 troops (or 800 pounds of equipment), so each commando troop needed two LCAs.

By the end of the war, Britain had ten army “commandos” (as all commando battalions were called), and all were disbanded, along with all other commando units (like the SAS). The Royal Marines kept three of their nine commandos. The British revived the even more elite SAS (army Special Air Service) and SBS (navy Special Boat Service) in the 1950s, but the Royal Marine Commandos have the distinction of being the longest serving commando unit. The Royal Marines themselves date back to the 17th century when they were created to provide warships with some professional soldiers. Other nations followed in adopting that practice and later did the same with the British version of 20th century special operations forces.

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