by John S. Murray
Tony Lilley was/is my eldest son, Liam's godfather. We have long since lost touch, as I imagine that, if we're honest with ourselves, many of us have with godparents too often chosen with a logic - or lack of it - that the maturity of the years can only wonder at. Tony was the quintessential hard-nosed, take-no-prisoners property developer and financier who revelled in his alleged capacity to enter a revolving door after the opposition and come out of it ahead of them. A line from one of Nicholas Monsarrat's brilliant character delineations in "The Cruel Sea", that of Sub-Lieutenant John Morell fitted him like a glove: "He was living reproof to the solecism of displaying emotion. He was, inevitably, an Old Wykehamist". So, when he spoke emotively of what he described as one of his life defining experiences, I took particular note and one story of his has remained with me for over 40 years.
In July 1940, during the opening phase of the Battle of Britain, Tony was serving as a very young RAF ground crew member at Lympne, a satellite airfield in the Biggin Hill sector of II Group, Fighter Command on the Kent coast. It was at the epicenter of an area aptly described as Hell Fire Corner on account of its being subjected to continual daylight bombing by the Luftwaffe's Air Fleet 2. The attacks were spearheaded by the Junkers 87 dive bomber, better known as the Stuka, than whom there has been no more compelling embodiment of aerial bombardment, due to the banshee-like wail it emitted in a vertical dive. A straw poll of students of the Second World War would probably rate it among the top half dozen of the conflict's most chilling images - and arguably the very top relative to the period in which the Nazis were triumphant. Two months earlier the devastating psychological effect of that wail linked to the precision of the Stukas' bombing in support of the surprise German panzer offensive through the Ardennes (memorably defined as the Blitzkreig) had shredded the morale of the opposing French divisions and heralded the total collapse of their country in a matter of weeks.
Now what the German High Command had come to regard as the successor to long range artillery was being unleashed against British shipping in the English Channel and adjacent coastal targets. Tony said that, for the rest of his days, he would recall with emotion - and in detail - three vivid memories of one Sunday afternoon raid. The first was of a tenor so intense, as he crouched in the fragile security of his allocated slit trench, that in, between praying fervently to the Almighty with the promise not to waste one moment of whatever life was left to him were he to be granted survival, he actually thought that death - provided it was quick - might almost come as a relief. The second recollection was of the gunners of the anti-aircraft battery defending the airfield. In the midst of the maelstrom he could hear the closest of the gun crews going through its drill steadily, almost metronomically, the No 1 calling out the orders, the layer and the loaders responding in similar stentorian fashion. They went on doing that in the most disciplined way until, almost inevitably, they were obliterated by the direct hit of what must have been a 500kg bomb. And the third thing that Tony Lilley remembered about that bright, dangerous English high summer afternoon, at a point in time when free people everywhere were holding their breath as to the outcome of the greatest air battle in history, was that those young men at the heart of it - scarcely more than boys, for the most part - were Royal Marines.
Even as an embattled Britain was struggling for survival in the late summer and autumn of 1940 its service chiefs were giving effect to the national offensive spirit articulated by Churchill's directive 'to go and set Europe alight'. It spawned, over the four years which separated that ambitious declaration of intent from the Normandy landings, a multiplicity of raids on the coastline of the AXIS occupied continent, which varied in their strength, depth of penetration and success. Arguably the most successful, when judged by the criteria of results relative to resources deployed, of enemy forces directed to counter it, and of damage intflicted upon enemy morale was Operation Frankton launched in December 1942.
Its objectives were the destruction of German controlled merchant shipping in the French port of Bordeaux, (its destination once it had evaded the hazards posed by British naval forces based on Malta & Gibraltar) and the undermining of Axis confidence in the security - and thus the strategic value- of the port. Bombing was not an option, because of the high risk of collateral French casualties, so, on the instructions of the then Admiral Lord Louis Mountbatten (who had taken over as Director of Combined Operations earlier in 1942), Frankton was conceived and put into effect.
The plan was [to] carry a team of just 12 men by submarine to a point five miles from the mouth of the river Gironde, from where (having only then been advised of their objective) they were to be launched in six two men collapsible canoes, paddle 70 miles up it to Bordeaux where they were to destroy as many ships as possible, in the process disrupting harbour operations to the maximum extent. The raid started badly when one of the canoes was holed while it was being removed from the forward hatch of the submarine HMS Tuna and, as the five remaining approached the river mouth, another capsized in a violent riptide in which five feet waves were encountered. The two occupants were towed by other canoes closer to the shoreline where they had to be left to swim to at least temporary safety, as they were hampering progress, which was already falling behind schedule. They were never seen again and assumed drowned.
Thereafter, the four paddled up river at night, laying up during the day to avoid increasingly vigilant and intensified German patrol activity, notwithstanding which two more canoes were lost, the four men involved being captured, handed over to the Gestapo and shot - probably following the failure of torture to extract information concerning their objective. The last two canoes reached Bordeaux harbour where they were momentarily held in the light of a torch carried by a German sentry, who failed to raise the alarm; this was possibly because he mistook them for driftwood, because their occupants remained covered up and motionless as they were trained to do. They then attached limpet mines to the merchant ships with eight minutes fuses to allow them adequate time to escape and got away on the tide.
The four men involved then destroyed their canoes and moved on foot to link up with the French Resistance and, while the Germans were assuming that they would be moving south to Spain, they travelled l00 miles north of Bordeaux, a journey that took two months. Thereafter they separated in pairs, one of whom was captured by the Germans and, by now predictably, both men were shot.
The explosions in Bordeaux harbour, which greatly disrupted its use for much of 1943, sank one ship and seriously damaged four others; Churchill's view of the significance of this outcome was that it shortened the war by six months.
It is a measure of Combined Operations expectations for the success of its desperate enterprise and for the survival prospects of its volunteer participants that, when one of the last two eventually returned to Britain via Gibraltar after a 1 400 miles journey, he was arrested, as Mountbatten had assumed that all 10 men to leave HMS Tuna were dead and that anyone claiming to be one of them should be treated with suspicion. He escaped from Military Police custody and Euston station and made his way to Combined Operations headquarters.
Another measure - that of the dedication and commitment of those who became known as the Cockleshell Heroes - is that when the two men forced to return to England with "Tuna" recognised that they would be unable to take part in the operation which was to claim the lives of all but two of their comrades, due to the damage to their canoe ...... they wept.
In the words that Hitler had applied earlier in 1942 to the SAS: "These men are dangerous;" they were also Royal Marines.
I have taken these two stories out of chronological sequence, insofar as the 344 years history of the Royal Marines is concerned, because, in their contrasts as they represent the essence, the unique nature of the Corps and the qualities that its ethos demands of its members at every level. The first of them concerning the anonymous heroes of that antiaircraft battery on the English south coast 68 years ago embodied the obstinate backs-to-the-wall courage that has characterised the British fighting man down the centuries - and has served his country so well in the process. The second story speaks to the individual initiative, daring, adaptability, endurance and professional skill of the highly trained specialist. In both instances the qualities displayed can be said to have been bolted onto the traditional military virtues of discipline, determination, a sense of duty as well as of unity, loyalty and honour. That combination surely flies in the face of the jibe that the word MARINE is no more than an acronym for Muscles Are Required Intelligence Not Essential!
The Corps of Royal Marines, is the United Kingdom's oldest effective military formation after the three senior regiments of the Guards Brigade: the Grenadier, Coldstream and Scots Guards in terms of its having retained its original basic identity free of the rigours of amalgamation periodically imposed by governments of both main political parties - most often by the Conservatives, I must add.
The Royal Marines are the marines and amphibious infantry of the United Kingdom and, along with the Royal Navy and Royal Fleet Auxiliary, form the Naval Service. They are also the United Kingdom's specialists in mountain and Arctic warfare. A core component of the country's Rapid Deployment Force, the Corps' 3 Commando Brigade is capable of operating with total independence. It is a maritime-focused, amphibious, light infantry force capable of deploying at short notice and of fighting in every type of terrain in support of the United Kingdom Government's military as well as diplomatic objectives overseas and is optimised for highly manoeuverable operational situations. As the United Kingdom Armed Forces' specialists in cold weather warfare the Corps provides lead element expertise on the NATO northern flank and is particularly conditioned for operations at high altitude.
The operational capability of the Corps comprises a number of battalion sized units, of which three are designated as "commandos",
* 40 Commando (know as Forty ......) based at Norton Manor Barracks, Taunton, Somerset
* 42 Commando (know as Four Two ......) based at Bickleigh Barracks, Plymouth, Devon
* 45 Commando (know as Four Five ......) based at RM Condor, Arbroath, Angus, Scotland
* The Commando Logistics Regiment based at Chivenor, Devon.
* The UK Landing Force Command Support Group based at Stonehouse Barracks,. Plymouth
* The Fleet Protection Group Royal Marines based at HM Naval Base Clyde, Helensburgh, Argyll and Bute [Previously Commachio Group, so named after a Marines Commando action in Northern Italy during World War II]
* The Special Boat Service based at Royal Marines Barracks, Poole, Dorset
* 1 Assault Group Royal Marines based at Royal Marines Barracks, Poole, Dorset
* The Mountain Leader Training Cadre based at Stonehouse Barrcks, Plymouth
The Brigade also hold OpCon of attached army units, presently 29 Commando Regiment, Royal Artillery, 24 Commando Regiment Royal Engineers and 1 Bn The Rifles.
The independent elements of the Royal Marines are:
* Fleet Protection Group Royal Marines: This unit is responsible for security of the United Kingdom's nuclear deterrent and other security-related duties. It also provides a security detachment at the Northwood military headquarters near London, as well as specialist boarding party support for the Royal Navy worldwide, in such roles as embargo enforcement, counter-narcotics and counterinsurgency. It is commando sized, but the structure differs to reflect its diverse roles. It bears the colours, battle honours and customs of the former 43 Commando.
* 1 Assault Group Royal Marines: provides training in the use of landing craft and boats, and also serves as a parent unit for the three assault squadrons permanently-embarked on Royal Navy's amphibious ships.
* 4 Assault Squadron HMS Bulwark
* 6 Assault Squadron HMS Albion
* 9 Assault Squadron HMS Ocean
* Special Boat Service (SBS) are naval special forces and the confrere of the SAS. It is under OpCon of Director Special forces. It is commanded by a Lieutenant Colonel qualified as a Swimmer / Canoeist. SBS responsibilities include waterborne operations, maritime counter-terrorism and other special forces tasks.
* Royal Marines Band Service provides regular bands for the Royal Navy and provides expertise to train RN Volunteer bands. Bandsmen have a secondary role as field hospital orderlies. Personnel may not be commando trained, wearing a blue beret instead of the green; and the service is the only branch of the Royal Marines which admits women.
The three Commandos are each organised into six companies, further organised into platoon sized troops. Those companies are classified in the categories of Command, Logistics, Close Combat of which there are two and Stand off also two in number.
In general a rifle company marine will be a member of a four-man fire team, the building block of commando operations. A Royal Marine works with his team in the field and shares accommodation if living in barracks.
This structure is a recent development, formerly commandos were structured similarly to light infantry battalions in which respect incidentally they were lettered rather than numbered in acknowledgement of the fact that Royal Marines formerly manned a gun turret in every Royal Naval warship above the size of destroyer. During the restructuring of the United Kingdom's military services the Corps evolved from a Cold War focus on NATO's northern flank towards a more expeditionary posture.
The Amphibious Ready Group is a mobile, balanced amphibious force, based on a Commando Group and its supporting assets, that can be kept at high readiness to deploy into an area of operations. The Amphibious Ready Group is normally based around specialist amphibious ships, most notably HMS Ocean, the largest ship in the British Fleet. Ocean was designed and built to accommodate an embarked commando and its associated stores and equipment. The strategy of the Amphibious Ready Group is to wait "beyond the horizon" and then deploy swiftly as directed by HM Government. The whole amphibious force is intended to be self-sustaining and capable of operating without host-nation support. The concept was successfully tested during operations in Sierra Leone.
Royal Marines undergo the longest basic traimng regime of any infantry force in the world (32 weeks) at the Commando Training Centre Royal Marines (CTCRM) at Lympstone, Devon. The Royal Marines is the only part of the British Armed Forces where officers and other Ranks are trained at the same location.
Officers and marines undergo the same training up to the commando tests, thereafter Marines go on to employment in a rifle company, while officers continue training. Officer candidates are required to meet higher standards in the commando tests.
The culmination of training is a period known as the Commando Course. Following the Royal Marines taking on responsibility for the Commando role, with the disbandment of the Army Commandos at the end of World War II, all Royal Marines, except those in the Royal Marines Band Service, are required to complete the Commando Course as part of their training. Key aspects of the course include climbing and ropework techniques, patrolling, and amphibious operations. This intense phase ends with a series of tests which have remained virtually unchanged since World War II. Again, these tests are done with a "fighter order" of 32 lb (14.5 kg) of equipment.
The commando tests are taken on consecutive days; they include;
* A nine-mile (14.5 km) speed march, carrying full fighting order, to be completed in 90 minutes; the pace is thus 10 minutes per mile (6 min/km or 6 mph).
* The Endurance Course is a six miles, (9.65 km), course across rough terrain at Woodbury Common near Lympstone, which includes tunnels, pipes, wading pools, and an underwater culvert. The course ends with a four-mile run back to CTCRM. Followed by a marksmanship test, where the recruit must hit 6 out of 10 shots at a target representing a figure at 200 metres. To be completed in 73 minutes (71 minutes for officers). These times were recently increased by one minute as the route of the course was altered. The course ends at the 25metres range where the recruit must then put at least six out of 10 shots on target without cleaning their weapon.
* The Tarzan Assault Course. This is combined with an aerial confidence test. It starts with a death slide and ends with a rope climb up a thirty foot vertical wall. It must be completed with full fighting order in 13 minutes, 12 minutes for officers. The Potential Officers Course also includes confidence tests from the Tarzan Assault Course, although not with equipment.
* The Thirty miler. This is a 30 miles (48 km) march across Dartmoor, wearing fighting order, and additional safety equipment. It must be completed in eight hours for recruits and seven hours for officers, who must also navigate the route themselves, rather than follow a DS with the rest of a syndicate and carry their own equipment.
The day after the 30 miles march, any who have failed any of the tests may attempt to retake them. The point needs to be made that, unlike so many other military training courses, that for commandos stresses the importance of the team; completing the 30 miler as a syndicate and finishing the nine miler with the whole troop, the overriding factor being the unity shared by the wearing of the Green Beret.
Completing the Commando Course successfully entitles the recruit or officer to wear the coveted green beret, but does not mean that the fledging Royal Marine has finished his training. That decision will be made by the troop or batch training team and will depend on the recruit's or young officer's overall performance. Furthermore, officer training still consists of many more months.
The last week of the 32 is mainly given over to administration and preparing for the pass out parade. Recruits in their final week of training are know as the King's Squad.
After basic and commando training, a Royal Marine Commando will normally join a unit of 3 Commando Brigade in the West Country of England or on the East coast of Scotland.
Royal Marines may then go on to undertake specialist training in a variety of skills:
Platoon Weapons Instructor, Mortar Operator, signaller, clerk, sniper, Physical Training Instructor, Mountain Leader, Swimmer / Canoeist, chef, Landing Craft Coxswain, Telecommunications Technician (Tels Tech) etc. Training for these specialisations may be undertaken at CTCRM or in a joint environment, such as the Defense School of Transport at Leconfield or the Defence Police College.
Some marines are trained in military parachuting to allow flexibility of insertion methods for all force elements. Marines complete this training at RAF Brize Norton, but are not required to undergo the Pre-Parachute Selection Course (P-Company) training with the Parachute Regiment.
Royal Marines in their infantry role use a total of 14 weapons ranging from parabellum semi-automatic pistols up through individual sniper and light support rifles, light and heavy machine guns, grenade launchers and anti-tank missiles to 81 mm mortars.
The only units which carry colours are 40 Commando, 42 Commando, 45 Commando, and the Fleet Protection Group (which is the custodian of the colours of 43 Commando).
The regimental slow march is Preobrajensky and the official quick march 'A Life on the Ocean Wave", though I must add that generally on Beating of Retreat and pass out ceremonies, the band marches off parade to its unofficial quick march of Sarie Marais in recognition of the RM commando title being derived from Churchill's appropriation of it from the Boer units so named.
The Royal Marines are one of only six units with authority from the Lord Mayor of London to march through the City as a regiment in full array. This dates back to the charter of Charles II which permitted recruiting parties of the Admiral's regiment of 1664 to enter the City with drums beating and colours flying.
The modern Royal Marines retain a number of distinctive uniform items.
The Royal Marines Queen's and Regimental Colours both have within them a foul anchor, the cipher of HM The Queen, the St Edward's Crown, cords and tassels of gold interwoven with silks of the Commando's colour which correspond to the lanyard worn by all ranks and the single battle honour 'Gibraltar'. The basic difference between the two is that the Regimental Colour, which bears the Commando numeral below the motto, has its foul anchor interlaced with the cipher of George IV.
The fourth Hanoverian monarch's life style, personality and appearance may have been the absolute antitheses of the military ideal, but he was fascinated by matters military (Indeed in his later years he even suffered periodically from the delusion that he had actually fought at Waterloo) and was constantly caught up in their ceremonial related aspects. Unsurprisingly therefore, it was he who in 1827, when presented with a list of 106 possible battle honours for incorporation in the Royal Marines' new colours baulked at 'The greatest of their number and the difficulty of selecting amidst so many glorious deeds.' Instead, His Majesty set his distinctive stamp upon the Corps' standards, replacing the customary badges with those still borne: the single battle honour 'Gibraltar', the motto 'Per Mare Per Terram' and, for the first time, the Great Globe encircled by a laurel wreath to record, in the king's word: "'the most appropriate emblem of a Corps, whose duties carry them to all parts of the globe, in every quarter of which they had eamed laurels by their valour and good conduct"'
Why Gibraltar, known affectionately to generations of British servicemen as Gib or the Rock? It is because the name's very uniqueness is a reminder of the Royal Marines farflung service, wider than any purely landed-based corps. Specific in time and place, 'Gibraltar' celebrates a defining moment in the history of the Corps and of British maritime power. The seizure of the Rock in August 1704, during the War of the Spanish Succession, which ranged most of Europe against the threatening Imperial bloc of Bourbon France and Spain, by a force of 1 900 British and 400 Dutch marines began a 100 years struggle between the Royal Navy and the combined fleets of those countries that culminated at Trafalgar, another high point in Marine history.
For over 300 years Gibraltar has been a landfall for Royal Marines on their way to conflicts in the Mediterranean, South Atlantic and beyond. Its capture and epic defence was the first significant success attributable to British marines, an example of a type of operation that would typify the Corps for three centuries: the amphibious seizure and defence of a bridgehead against heavy odds.
The, by then, routine disbandment of the 10 Marine regiments following the outbreak of peace at the end of the War of Austrian Succession in 1748 (which incidentally had started eight years earlier as the War of Jenkins Ear) compared favorably with, inter alia, what the Naval Chronicle would describe as 'the age of prejudice' 1715-1739 when the very name of a Marine Soldier carried with it hostility to English liberty.
The 10 regiments were to be the last experiment with regimented Marines, and the administrative confusion it entailed. Future Marines would belong to a single integrated Corps, under unchallenged naval control, with an elastic organisational structure that resolved once and for all the problems that had dogged previous attempts to supply soldiers for the fleet.
The Royal Marines of today descend directly from a corps of 5,700 Marines, established by Order in Council signed by George II on 3 April 1755. They were under unequivocal Admiralty control:
"appointed to serve on board Your Majesty's ships and vessels at such times, in such proportions, and under such orders and regulations as Your High Admiral or Commissioners of the Admiralty shall judge proper."
Clothing ceased to be a source of profit for colonels and their agents, being provided directly by the Admiralty, and inspected by a board of naval and Marine officers. The Navy took control of pay, specifying:
That the marines be mustered, the muster rolls made up, and the respective companies cleared in such times, as Your Lord Admiral or Commissioners of the Admiralty shall judge to be most convenient, and best for the service.
Anson was the true father of the Royal Marines, his signature appearing alongside Lord Barrington's on the covering memo that accompanied the 1747 Draft Regulations and he was the first of a series of distinguished naval officers, including Earls St. Vincent and Mountbatten, who would act as patrons of the Corps, at key moments of its history.
Mountbatten we already know of, but Admiral of the Fleet, John Jervis (ennobled as Earl of St Vincent following his defeat of the Spanish fleet off the cape of that name in 1798, in which action Nelson first sprang to national prominence) is worthy of reference because it was he who as First Lord, was instrumental in obtaining the Marines their Royal distinction on 29 April 1802 and which was formalised when the Plymouth battalion of the Corps first appeared at the King's birthday parade wearing the blue facings of a Royal regiment on 2 June that year. At the end of his life St. Vincent paid the Corps a last tribute: "I never knew an appeal made to them for honour, courage, or loyalty that did not more than realise my highest expectations. If ever the hour of real danger should come to England, they will be found the country's sheet anchor". I must add that St Vincent, a strict disciplinarian, forbade the use of Irish - which is an interesting perspective on his lordship's view as to the potential source of problems within the Corps - and appointed an Inspector of Marines to enforce the new regime.
It was St Vincent who, significantly, stressed formal discipline through his captains of Marines whom he would regularly assemble to quote contemporaneously 'under pretext of informing them about uniformity in dress, in exercise, and in economy: but really to give them some sense about keeping a watchful eye, not only upon their own men but upon the seamen'. He also ordained that, as the enforcers of shipboard discipline, marines should be strategically berthed, generally close to the officers cabins, the armoury and the bulkhead of the gunroom in order again quoting contemporaneously 'that they might not be burst in on.'
The emphasis was on overawing the impressionable in face of the ever present threat of mutiny which manifested itself with fnghtening reality in 1797 through a volatile combination of crowded, unhealthy shipboard living conditions, inadequate diet, harsh discipline, pay that had not been increased in 130 years, fraudulent pursers and the fact that due to a chronic shortage of seaman a considerable percentage of crews were made up of men who had been press ganged. Another security threat was the multiplicity of nationalities in Royal Naval crews perhaps induced by the attraction of prize money - Victory at Trafalgar had upwards of a dozen - an admittedly extreme case in 1709 found the captain of HMS Ruby completing his crew with French prisoners of war and humbly praying for some marines to 'disciple them'.
Everyday injustices were prudently - in the light of the invasion threat posed by revolutionary france in 1797- addressed and one has the contemporary view of a seabome fighting force that was an unbeatable combination of professionalism, courage, stoicism, fortitude and self belief.
Exemplars of these qualities are countless, but some do bear mentioning, such as stories.
* of an action Ceylon in April 1782, wherein HMS Monmouth's Marine detachment was annihilated, whereafter its Captain having, in a contemporary account 'received two wounds in the face from splinters, two musket balls passed through his hat, his hair was on fire, his coat torn between the shoulders and part of it shot away' nailed his colours to the stump of the mizzen mast and stood on the quarterdeck, alone except for the first Lieutenant and Master and, again quoting 'every other person quartered there and on the poop having been killed or wounded except for Captain Pierce of the Marines and his lieutenant Mr. Minheer, who after their men had all been killed or wounded, nobly went and assisted at the guns on the main deck'.
* of Captain Wemyss of HMS Bellerophon at Trafalgar, having received eight muskets balls in the body and had his right arm shot off before going below said to his First Lieutenant: 'Tis only a scratch and I shall have to apologise to you by and by for quitting the deck on so trivial an occasion': * of Captain Wilson, commanding the Leander's detachment who, having lost both legs to Algerian double-headed shot spoke calmly between amputations to his Sergeant, who had lost an arm: "Ah Brabazon, are you here? I am sorry to see you thus. There is glorious work above - we are not unavenged" and remained in high spirits until shortly before he died; and
* of a member of HMS Genoa's detachment at Navarino in 1827, the last major set piece battle under sail, who had an arm shot off which he coolly placed along the shelf-piece above the gun - port saying: 'There's an example to you all!"
The Marine Corps came of age during the 22 years conflict with Revolutionary and Napoleonic France. Marines took their full part in the sea battles that settled the century old Anglo-French struggle for maritime supremacy and worked alongside blue jackets in countless raids and expeditions as part of an integrated amphibious team.
The overwhelming historical focus of the war at sea given the supreme nature of the victory which ushered in more than a century of British maritime supremacy know as the Pax Britannica and the heroic death in the hour of that victory of charismatic architect, Nelson (arguably the greatest sailor of any era) will always be the Battle of Cape Trafalgar fought on Monday 21 October 1805.
In the limited time available it must also be our focus, because 2 700 Royal marines, (9% of the total) including 93 officers, Corps establishment at the time fought in the battle; 146 of them drawn from the Chatham division under command of Captain Charles Adair comprised the detachment allocated to Nelson's flagship HMS Victory, so named because its keel was laid in 1759 the older Pitts' year of victories in the seven years war and the year following Nelson's birth.
The 40 marines on the poop deck of Victory suffered severely while earning Nelson's compliments for their steadfastness (it was recorded that 'no man went down until knocked down, boot a man was but below the waste) but the 25 reinforcements called up from the gun decks were speedily reduced to 10 by the deadly fire from sharp shooters in the fighting tops of the 'RedoutableM', who killed Adair outright at about the same time that they mortally wounded Nelson. A Sergeant Seeker and two other marines carried the stricken man, who had covered his decorations with a handkerchief to pre-empt discouragement spreading though the ship's company.
The double loss exasperated 2 Lt Lewis Roteley who had taken over command of the Marines and ordered that every musket be leveled to clear the mizzentop holding the offending sharpshooter and subsequently maintained that this was achieved within five minutes. There was certainly keen competition to avenge Nelson. Victory's captain Hardy given credit to Midshipman Pollard, but an officer in Euryalus thought that the mysterious marksman was 'immediately shot by a corporal of Marines from the quarter-deck of Victory - a poor satisfaction'
The French commander, Vice-Admiral Pierre Charles Jean Artiste Sylvester de Villeneuve, whose aristocratic lineage had initially hampered his career offered his sword in surrender to Captain James Acherley, Royal Marines, who said that it should rather be offered to his ship's captain. Atcherley subsequently commanded a Marines guard of honour in full dress for Villeneuve when he came aboard Victory.
Subsequently Villeneuve lived on parole in Hampshire (visiting London before being repatriated in Nelsons Funeral in April 1806 and returned to France. There he committed suicide probably as a result of the naval minister's failure to reply to his letter requesting a court martial by which Villeneuve hoped to exonerate himself of the charge that he had been in derogat[ion] of duty during the Trafalgar campaign. Incidentally a statement credited to Nelson on the morning of Trafalgar when rejecting the suggestion by William Beatty, surgeon of the Victory, that he discarded his coat embroidered with the stairs of his four orders of Knighthood because it would make him a conspicuous target that: 'In honour I gained them in honour I will die with them' appears to have been credited to him posthumously by Ealing Studios script writers somewhat more personally. What he actually said when acknowledged his vulnerability: was "it is now too late to be shifting a coat"
A single brevet majority was the only Marine promotion for Trafalgar, a miserable reward for a Corps which had supplied an eighth of the manpower but whose 361 casualties amounted to 22% of the British total.
Great Bntain emerged from the Napoleonic Wars as the predominant world power. Napoleon's pursuit of empire had consumed the navies of Europe, while alternative centres of naval power in America and Japan had yet to arise. Except for Navarino in 1827 the Royal Navy fought no fleet for a century. The long Victorian aftemoon contrasts sharply with the invasion scars of the preceding century, or the world wars of the next, but the image of sleepy complacency is misleading. The Corps' motto was more than ever justified, as the Royal Navy exploited the maritime supremacy won in the battles of the Glorious first of June in 1794 and over the next 11 years in those of Comedown, Cape St Vincent, the Nile, Copenhagen and Trafalgar. Capital ships may have swung idly at anchor buoys, but sloops and gunboats were active, chasing slaving schooners and pirate junks, and spreading the benefits of Free Trade wherever there was sufficient water beneath their keels to do so.
Marines were ideal for imperial defence as they did not need 'that array of cocked hats which under the army system seems to be inevitable'. They could move ten or a thousand miles, at twelve hours notice, 'without all the necessary departmental arrangements which are involved in moving a regiment of the line .... Knowing that their organisation is of such a character that wherever they may go they can take care of themselves. Marines formed the backbone of naval brigades that policed an Empire denuded of regular troops by economy minded governments. Wherever the Royal Navy went, Marines went too, coaling ship at 112 degrees in the Gulf, double awnings rigged against the Arabian sun, or standing guard in sealskin helmets at the Crimea with icicles in their beards.
Time being of the essence, doing justice to 334 years of Royal Marines achievement poses a distinct challenge and for this reason I must move on with this in story straight to the last military episode in the Victorian era as being of most interest to members of this society - the Second Anglo-Boer War. Before doing so, though, let me briefly retell a story that captures in a small way the essence of that period of colonial expansion. Referring to the successful outcome of a West African expedition in 1897 the record baldly states that: "There were no moral scruples about imperialism aggression, and not much ceremony:
Corporal Hunt then produced a Union Jack from the breast of his serge tunic, lashed it onto a bamboo pole, stuck it into the roof of the Headman's hut, the troops saluted, and the British Empire was so much bigger."
The only Royal Marines to fight in South Africa come from the Cape Squadron. They began by escorting naval field guns, then mutated into gunners, regardless of cap badge:
RMLI or RMA They trekked from Simonstown to Mozambique and witnessed a military revolution. For the first time the British Army faced magazine rifles, whose flat trajectory bullets and smokeless cartridges swept battlefields with an invisible rain of death, preventing reconnaissance and mocking traditional tactics. Attached to the Kimberley relief column under Lord Methuen, the Royal Marines had their introduction to twentieth-century warfare at Graspan on 25 November 1899. Captain A.E. Merchant RMLI was appalled:
'Yes Gods! Where was the Intelligence?
The marines and a small number of bluejackets were given the post of honour, were committed to the attack and carried it though, but at a frightful sacrifice. I have never realized what is until now . The hail of bullets was awful. Officers and men dropped on all sides. How I got through, I cannot tell ..... Four of our officers were killed, two wounded, and 99 men killed and wounded, a total of over 40 percent.'
Many of those hit had practised open order tactics during weekly training sessions outside Simonstown. Extended in single line at four paces per man, the Marines brought up their left shoulders and advanced obliquely upon the line of rocky hills that made up the Boer position. Supporting artillery fell silent 700 yards from the objective, 'and almost immediately the kopjes, which a moment before had seemed quite clear of the enemy, opened a regular storm of fire.' Noise and extension made controlled volleys impossible, so men ran forwarding short rushes, and threw themselves down to retum fire. So perfectly did they carry out the drill that at least until quite recently, lines of cartridge cases still revealed successive fire positions.
At the crest the Marines found three dead Boers. It was poor exchange for the casualties and contrasted sharply with Marine attacks in earlier colonial conf1icts. It was not immediately apparent that runaway developments in weapons technology had revolutionized warfare. Merchant expressed general fury after two more frontal attacks on Boer positions: 'we were sold by our Cavalry and intelligence ... someone deserves a hanging over the business. The infantry and Artillery have done everything that was asked of them at those 3 hard fights, and fruits of all have been lost.'
The Royal Marines' experience of war at sea in the early twentieth-century followed a familiar pattern of blockade, convoy, and bombardment. On land the Corps was engaged in operations of a quite unprecedented character. The continental commitment that drew the British into the First World War compelled them to engage a powerful European enemy in battles of attrition they usually left to their allies, while the Royal Navy pursued more profitable fringe activities. In 1914 most of the European coastline remained in friendly hands, affording few opportunities for amphibious operations like those around Spain or the Mediterranean in the 18th century. German colonies were few, and the Fatherland's European shoreline was short and heavily defended. Despite these strategic constraints, a cartoon in "Globe and Laurel" the Royal Marines Joumal suggested that, like plum and apple jam, Royal Marines appeared on every front of the First World War. They formed naval striking forces in Belgium and Siberia, and secured naval bases at Scapa Flow, Ascension Island and Petrovsk on the Caspian. Marines in armoured cars chased Uhlans and airplanes in Flanders, while others laid mines for Austrian gunboats on the Danube, or hauled naval guns through African swamps. The 15-inch howitzers of the Royal Marine Artillery (formed in 1804 and amalgamated with the Royal Marines in 1923) transportable in nine separate tractor loads, provided the ultimate symbol of an immobile artillery war. Specialist units included submarine miners, a motor transport company of London bus drivers and the RM Labour Corps that handled military stores at the Base Ports of the British Expeditionary Force in France. The Royal Marines' most significanlt contribution to the land war were infantry battalions that fought at Antwerp, Gallipoli and on the Westem Front. Their progress from hopeful improvisation, through terrible sacrifice to forgotten triumph epitomises the general experience of the British Army during the First World War.
The Gallipoli offensive in February 1915, mounted to force passage of the Dardanelles Strait so as to bring relief to Russia and thus overcome stalemate on the Westem Front, as well as release 120 Allied merchant ship trapped in the Black Sea by the Turkish closing of the 40 miles long waterway to the Mediterranean, was arguably the most ill-conceived campaign of the Great War, though there were serious contenders for that title. It had caused a serious rift between the First Sea Lord Admiral Sir John Fisher and the First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill when Fisher told the latter: 'Damn the Dardanelles. It will be our grave' - and so it proved at a cost of half a million Turkish and Allied casualties. When the attempt to settle the issue by naval gunfire failed, with the effective loss of five capital ships, an invasion force was put ashore on beaches dominated by high ground and defended by 60 000 determined Turks. Despite prodigies of valour by the attackers nothing material was achieved and the peninsular footholds were finally evacuated on the night of 8/9 January 1916.
The Royal Marine Light Infantry, whose four battalion brigade suffered over 50% casualties, upheld the Corps' proud claim to be first into action and last out.
As to the Western Front it must suffice to say that the extent of the attrition suffered is reflected by the fact that the battalion that was an amalgamation of remnants of 1st & 2nd Battalions of the Royal Marine Light Infantry included just one officer of those mobilised in August 1914 with the original aggregate of 4 000 marines having been whittled down to just 200. The 885 casualties suffered in the Gavrelle Windmill offensive of 28/29 April 1917, made it the worst single day in the Corps' history.
A new 4th Battalion RMLI absorbed all available Corps infantry replacements with a view to its taking part in a daring and well-planned raid on Zeebrugge, Belgium on St George's Day 1918, which succeeded in sinking block ships across the mouth of the eight miles long canal used by German submarines to reach the sea from their base in Bruges and thus avoid the North Sea Minefields. The battalion sailed in the old cruiser "Vindictive" stormed the heavily defended mole and, having largely achieved its objectives withdrew taking its wounded, but at the cost of its CO and 2 I/c and 50% casualties. In few engagements has a British ship suffered so proportionately and in fewer still has she succeeded in face of such losses. The canal was rendered unusable to U boats and after the war it took a salvage company almost a year to clear the wreckage.
King George V recognised 4 RMLI's collective bravery with two VCs chosen by secret ballot. Captain E Bamford, awarded the DSO for Jutland was selected for the officers, while Sergeant Finch, who subsequently became a Yeoman warder at the Tower of London, was chosen by the majority. Out of respect for the battalion achievement and sacrifice at Zeebrugge the Corps never reformed 4 RMLI. One of the most significant awards of the Victoria Cross, given the particular circumstances, was the posthumous one made to Major Francis John Wilham Harvey. He commanded the Marines' 'Q' turret, one of four mounting twin 13,5 inch guns on HMS Lion, the flagship of Vice Admiral David Beatty, commander of the Battle Cruiser Fleet, at the Battle of Jutland on 31 May 1916. The turret had just fired its twelfth shell at Lutzow some 13 000 yards distant and the guns were being re-loaded when an 11-inch shell from that ship hit Lion at the junction of Q turrent's thick front armour and roof plates peeling them back like the top of a sardine tin, killing or wounding everyone in the gun house. Harvey was mortally wounded, but before he died he ordered "Q" magazine to be flooded. Had he not done so, Beatty's flagship must have blown up with incalculable consequences for the outcome of the war, which it was said the commander of the Grand Fleet, Admiral Sir John Jellicoe was the only man capable of losing in an afternoon.
The closeness of Lion's escape was brought home when, within 30 minutes, two more of Beatty's battlecruisers, "Indefatigable" and "Queen Mary" blew up as did later, "Invincible", the flagship of the 3rd Cruiser Squadron. These catastrophes were all probably due to faulty ammunition handling practices, which Beatty ignored in pursuit of faster rates of fire and Chatfield, his Flag Captain, captain of Lion actually endorsed.
Harvey's elevated action earned him the sixth and perhaps the hardest won of the Corps 10 VCs.
A tenth of the Royal Marines engaged at Jutland became casualties, over 90% of them fatally so, compared with 1 in 3 at Trafalgar. In the overall of the 55 000 served with the Corps in the First World War, 12 135 became casualties.
The Royal Marines evolution from Sea Soldiers to Special Forces would have astonished most inter-war observers. Until 1939 the first priority of the Corps was naval gunnery, while planners, mindful of the carnage of Gallipoli, remained suspicious of amphibious operations. It was to take political intervention at the highest level to free Marine energy and expertise to make an essential contribution to victory and to meeting the challenges of the post-war world.
Following initial small ad hoc employment on the maritime fringes of the Second World War in accordance with patterns set by earlier Marines: meeting short-lived emergencies, covering landings by regular military units and, all too often their evacuation, the Corps capacity for petit guerre, small war - neglected by larger formations - was recognised by the creation of the Royal Marines Commandos in the first instance as a supplement to the Army Commandos formed in 1940, which had already distinguished themselves in the St Nazaire Raid in March 1942. By happy chance this coincided with the war's catastrophic opening phase and the start of the Allied counteroffensive that would carry Marines across the beaches of Italy, as well as through the Balkans, to the Baltic and sweeping victory. They could truly be said to have, in Churchill's words, "tracked the Nazi beast to its lair."
That first RM Commando, the successor to which is 40 Commando, was formed at Deal on the north Kent coast under Lr-Col 'Tiger' Picton-Phillipps in February 1942. Selection was rigorous; in the words of one recruit who had volunteered out of boredom in response to anything that came on the notice board: 'The platoon commander and his sergeant would be the judge as to whom they wanted to keep as suitable men. If they were not fully confident about an individual or his attitude was not right - off he went back to his unit."
By summer the Commando was in prime condition and animated by the desire to at last set aside frustrations at not having seen action. Unfortunately, it was to be blooded in Operation Jubilee, the raid launched against the French coastal town of Dieppe in the early hours of 19 August 1942 with the intention of seizing and holding a major port for a short period to prove it was possible; gathering intelligence from prisoners; assessing German responses and, in the process, utilising a large number of Canadians for whom Churchill was anxious to find employment. It was described as 'not a raid, nor an invasion, but a reconnaissance in strength'; it proved to be the most spectacular, costly and controversial of all Mountbatten's Combined Operations projects through a combination of ill luck and inadequate planning and was aborted in the early afternoon with a loss to the Canadians in terms of prisoners and casualties of 57% of their number.
Originally assigned a lesser role, that of a cutting out mission in the harbour, the RM Commando was diverted to the main landing beach. They ran in under machine-gun fire and motor bombs, mixed with low-trajectory rounds from anti-tank guns mounted within the cliffs, a scene described in the unit history as 'a sea parallel to the Charge of the Light Brigade'. Casualties from earlier assault waves lay neatly on the beach in reverse arrow fonnation Quoting from the unit history 'As the range shortened and the smoke cleared there was no doubt in any man's mind that continued attempt to reach the town would meant certain death to the majority. Not until he had personally proved the futility of the adventure did Picton-Phillipps call it off. He, again from the history, 'stood in the stern of his landing craft in full view of all, placing white string gloves on his hands and waving to the boats astern to return to the cover of the smoke'. He was killed almost immediately but his self-sacrifice saved hundreds of lives, as few who landed got away unscathed.
That first Royal Marine Commando suffered one-third casualties and their descendants still celebrate Dieppe Day as their Unit Memorable Day for, disastrous though it was, it showed the way forward.
Thereafter a second RM Commando was raised with the units being numbered 40 & 41 respectively with internal organisations reflecting their light raiding role: a small headquarters with four troops of 100, lettered A, B, X and Y in acknowledgement of the Marines' gunnery role at sea.
In 1943 a total and long overdue re organisation of the Royal Marines was put into hand under the direction of Lt-Col Bob Laycock, commander of the Special Services Brigade amongst whose qualification for the task was the fact of his having walked across the North Afncan desert for 41 days after his own commando unit was decimated behind enemy lines during an unsuccessful attempt to assassinate Rommel in 1941. The outcome of his conclusions: that the days of small-party raiding were coming to an end with the intensification of the land war; that Commando unit casualties should only be made good with fit and collectively trained replacements; that the work-up to every operation should be precisely timed; and that Commandos should be enlarged as well as given a large measure of independence.
Laycock's recommendations resulted in the creation of seven more RM Commandos numbered 42 to 48 by the spring of 1944 primarily with the invasion of France in mind. This was a coup for Mountbalten who, in one fell swoop, achieved what many had long believed was the true destiny of Royal Marines: that of raiders-cum-soldiers aligned to amphibious operation - in other words, truly per mare, per terram.
All this was the beginning of a complete and badly needed reorganization that would have ramifications down the century and on to the present day. In immediate terms the nine RM Commandos were apportioned, with seven Army Commandos, into four Special Service Brigades each comprising four units of which the 1st and the 4th fought through to victory in Europe from the starting point of the Normandy invasion of 6 June 1944, (which saw the largest single commitment of Royal Marines in their history), the 2nd in Italy and the Balkans and the 3rd in India as well as the Arakan in Burma.
In the course of the Second World War the Corps establishment expanded from 13 000 to 78 500 and sustained casualties of just over 7 500.
With the post-war disbandment of the Army Commandos that first gave expression to the commando principle which had originated in the fertile brain of Winston Churchill recalling his 40 years old memories of the hit-and-run tactics successfully employed by the Boers against overwhelming British Imperial odds in the guerilla stage of the Second Anglo-Boer War, 3 Commando Brigade became the worthy legatees and implementers of the modem version of that principle. The inheritance came in the face of inter-service rivalry and ultimately grudging acceptance by the bean counters in Whitehall and the Treasury which only added to the burden of Corps responsibility towards a nation impoverished by two major conflicts in a quarter century and a severe diminution of international status in a world suddenly dominated by two super powers. One of these, practised in the art of brinkmanship was malevolently aggressive and the other, for all that it had saved Europe for democracy with its implementation of the Marshall Plan, was too often opportunistic and overly self serving with particular regard to the demands of the four yearly Presidential election cycle.
The Royal Marines have truly honoured their responsibilities to the letter inter alia variously participating in what a leading writer described as the Fighting Retreat from Empire, protecting those such as the Falkland Islanders who wished to remain within the Imperial embrace: defeating the jungle-based Communist insurgency which threatened the infant Malaysian state, successfully confronting the Indonesian threat to Borneo and the Communist one in Korea (where they earned the respect of the United States Marine Corps); all overlaid with milatary treaty commitments. Closest to home, of course, they have had to at once combat terrorism and do their utmost to damp down sectarian violence in Northern Ireland. The burden of responsibility endures in Iraq and Afghanistan, where accommodation of the highest professional standards remains rooted in the enduring military virtues linked to an on going awareness of the Heart and Minds' philosophy's importance.
In summation across five centuries of peace and war the history of the Royal Marines demonstrates how down-to earth preparation and combat effectiveness are inextricably bound together, a unity symbolized by the Corps badge: the Great Globe itself encircled by the Laurel Wreath.
The Royal Marines (Richard Brooks)
The Royal Marines (Julian Thompson) Royal Marines commandos (Johan Parker)
Bysen Byland (James D Ladd)
Nelson (Carela Oman)
Nelson's Navy (Philip Hartythornwait & William Younghusband)
The Royal Marines 1956-84 (William Fowler & Paul Hammond)
Victory vs. Reoutable (Gregory Fremont Barnes)
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