The Royal Naval Commandos were also informally known as the Beach Commandos. Their primary task was to control the movement of men, vehicles and supplies through the landing beaches during major amphibious landings. The avoidance of bottlenecks and delays gave them a pivotal role in the supply chain.
The earliest attempts at exerting some control were undertaken by the Royal Navy manning the landing craft but these proved to be inadequate. As a result specialized 'beach parties' were formed and trained and were first tried during Operation Ironclad to capture the port of Diego Suarez at the northern tip of Madagascar between 5th and 7th May l942. This proved so successful that the Royal Naval Commandos (RNC), sometimes known as 'Beachhead Commandos,' were formed. Their duties included:
- landing in or ahead of the first wave to clear the beaches, to mark the limits of the beachhead and to consolidate the beachhead;
- clearing Allied personnel and equipment from the beachhead expeditiously,
- helping moor landing craft correctly,
- removing mines and underwater obstructions and taping the safe passage routes off the beaches for the wounded,
- informing subsequent waves of important intelligence about the defences and strengths of the enemy and advising how to exploit the enemy's weaknesses,
- setting up important ammunition and supply dumps,
- supporting a wide variety of troops with any initial advance inland,
- supervising enemy prisoners of war,
- being available to tackle any task and act as a rear-guard during any withdrawals.
The first RNCs were formed during the spring of 1942 from general service, reservists and 'hostilities only' officers and ratings. Each Commando unit came under the command of a Lieutenant-Commander or Commander and comprised three sections e.g. K1, K2, and K3. Each section consisted of two officers (a Beach Master (BM) and Assistant Beach Master (ABM), a Petty Officer and seventeen other ratings of varying rank. Acting rank could be found from time to time. Later, in the light of experience, the structure of the Commandos was changed to ten officers and sixty-five other ranks divided into three parties of twenty-five men each - one BM, three ABMs and twenty-two other ranks. They were responsible for a particular section of beach on a large invasion. Each RN Commando unit could occasionally come under the command of a Principal Beach Master (PBM) with the rank of Captain but this usually only occurred on larger invasions where each unit was spread over many miles.
In August l942 members of the RNCs (C and D) took part in Operation Jubilee, the Dieppe raid, with a BM and beach party assigned to each of the beaches. Some could not reach their assigned beach due to heavy gunfire. They suffered very heavy casualties with many others becoming prisoners of war. They would go on to play other roles within the heart of Germany itself. One such was the famous account of 'Albert RN'... but that's another story.
The problems at Dieppe were very grave but many lessons were learnt including the need for Combined Operations and within this the vital role of the RN Beach Parties in any future amphibious landings large and small. It was clear that those recruited to the Beach Parties needed specialized training and a school was established at Ardentinny in the Clyde estuary in Scotland.
To put all this activity into context it's worth mentioning here that in October 1941 Lord Louis Mountbatten took over the command of Combined Operations from Roger Keyes. The motto of Combined Operations was appropriately 'United We Conquer' and the RN Commandos were later to share in the many actions undertaken by this famous wartime organisation.
The school at Ardentinny (HMS Armadillo) accommodated between 500 and 600 men. Officers were mixed in with the ratings which was a most unusual arrangement for the times. Good use was made of Loch Long for amphibious landing drills, reconnaissance and specialised beach skills. Other training included weapons usage, rock climbing, assault courses, embarkation and debarkation using various types of landing craft under battle conditions, route marches and field survival.
Many of these skills were honed at Achnacarry in the north of Scotland in the area where the famous Commando Memorial has stood at Spean Bridge since the early 1950s. Trainees were put through their paces by the famous Army Commando Officer, Colonel Vaughan. Despite the arduous nature of the training very few men were RTU'd (returned to unit) as being unable to complete the course.... nobody wanted their service record noted with such an entry. The RNCs were expected to pass the Commando training course and receive their much coveted green beret along with the famous F-S dagger from Colonel Vaughan at special parades. It is said that their time spent at Achnacarry was responsible for their new motto IN PRIMO EXULTO - First In, Last Out.