A history of 'W' Commando

Written by Bill NEWELL (Royal Canadian Beach Cdo - W1 Section) who died 5 March 2012 aged 87.
'W' Commando

The Commando was made up of volunteer members of the Royal Canadian Navy. In August of 1943 it was assigned overseas to HMS Armadillo at Ardentinney in the Clyde estuary of Scotland. The Commando unit was made up of 3 sub-units, W 1, W 2 and W 3 each with 25 ratings and leading seamen and 3 officers under the combined leadership of a Commanding Beach Master and an Assistant Beach Master. The Commando was set up to organise and control the flow of vehicles, men and supplies onto and through Juno Beach on D-Day and for several crucial weeks thereafter. Any congestion on the beach resulting in delays in the orderly supply of ammunition, vehicles. equipment, food, medical supplies, not to mention fresh troops, would have dire consequences for the progress of the war.


HMS Armadillo was a relatively small and rugged Royal Navy Combined Operation base specializing in beach commando training. On arrival we were inducted into the code of requirements as trainees at the base. We were supplied with British Army uniforms and fatigues with badges to be sewn on and assigned to our sleeping quarters in Nissan huts. We were left to locate the heads (toilets) and mess hall but since we arrived late for supper we went without.

Our six month training period during that winter was very arduous. Quite apart from the frequent cold rains the temperatures hovered around freezing with snow on the hill tops. The general tenor of the training was best illustrated by the trainers often shouted learning point, 'If you're dumb enough to get yourself killed, we'd rather have it happen here than later in combat when others will be depending on you.? Learning to crawl under barbed wire with live machine-gun fire overhead was a salutary experience as was making our way through a detonating mine field on the long assault course. To describe it as stimulating is an understatement. I finished one exercise with a bullet hole through my backpack. There were many sessions of unarmed combat.

Our numerous three-day exercises in the rugged hills around Ardentinney were gruelling, cold and tough, but the experiences instilled a strong sense of survival in us, which was the purpose behind the training. Getting any sleep at night was a trial as we fashioned one-man tents with our ground sheets as best we could. We ate meagre amounts of food consisting of one K ration* for each day with a small block of sugar and one of chocolate which was hardly adequate considering the physical exertions involved. However, the experience made us appreciate the 'comforts' of our camp accommodations which, although basic, were luxurious in comparison. We were always pleased to get home from the hills. [* K rations were issued to American service personnel in the field. Unlike regular military rations they required minimal preparation using canned, pre-cooked or freeze-dried foods, powdered beverage mixes and concentrated food bars.]

The weapons and survival equipment we used in the training was old and worn and although it served the purpose it caused frequent accidents resulting in casualties which the instructors seemed to anticipate. We made many practice night landings from a well-worn Landing Craft Mechanised (LCM) and not once did the ramp operate properly... so it was over the top and down into frigid water. Many items of equipment and weapons were left on the bottom in the interest of surviving and as a result of these nocturnal exercises our sleeping hut was continually cluttered with clothes lines loaded with wet clothes.

We completed the course at Ardentinney in February 1944 and we were sent to HMS Lizard in Hove, on the south coast of England adjacent to Brighton. From there we were posted to various Canadian Army and Combined Operation bases throughout the south of England for specialty training. In the Hazelmere area we operated Sherman tanks and other mechanized equipment and dispatch riding on Harley-Davidsons (on the road) and Nortons off the road. Elsewhere we trained in sniper firing, chemical warfare, flame-throwing, detecting and disarming mines and booby traps, and demolition. We were issued with reading materials on aircraft recognition to study at night.

Part of the motorcycle course involved jumps in an area known as the Devil's Punchbowl. There were many accidents and minor injuries and the instructors seemed more concerned about the bikes than to the riders! The tank operating training was undertaken with enthusiasm and, as it turned out during the Normandy landings, it paid off in large measure in keeping the armoured traffic moving through the beachhead. Any serious congestion on the beaches would have severely restricted the deployment of fresh troops and their equipment as well as supplies of fuel, food and armaments to the advancing front line.

The soldiers of the Canadian Army regiments stationed at the bases where we received training did not welcome our presence because of the danger that our higher levels of discipline and fitness might be adopted by their own commanding officers. One such example was the requirement to 'double-up' anywhere outside our living quarters except while we were on leave. Also, whereas they would discard much of their mess hall food with complaints, we would often return for seconds because it was so much better than our rations on the British bases both in quantity and quality.

A short time later we moved to an army base in the Hindhead area for a ten day training course in chemical warfare and flame-throwing. After the cold winter months spent in Scotland the weather in the late spring of southern England was balmy in comparison. We put up four-man bell tents for our sleeping quarters in a valley below the main camp with outhouses and water troughs for washing. 45 gallon drums with classified contents were everywhere. The flame-throwing training used Bren-gun carriers against mock pillboxes which we were expected to encounter along the beaches of France. The fluid used was a new development which later became known as napalm. It would stick to whatever it hit up to a hundred yards and continue burning with a very hot flame.

Training with the mustard gas often used during WW1 was unpleasant and hazardous. It was dabbed on our hands and arms to illustrate what would happen if we failed to protect ourselves. Liquid mustard gas was also covertly sprayed on the wooden floor of the training lab with the result that several of us felt painful burns on our feet as the gas penetrated through the soles of our jack boots.

We discovered that exposure to the gas had the effect of desensitising our noses. Two of us had been accidentally sprayed with liquid gas on the backs of our fatigues and our necks. The burning pain was instant and painful causing us to run back to our camp to wash it off. By then it was late in the day so we went for a glass of bitters before supper in the canteen. It was full of soldiers and the air very warm and thick with smoke. We picked up our drinks at the bar and made our way through the crowd to a table in the far corner. We were oblivious to all of the coughing and spluttering going on around us and to the sudden preference people had for the outdoors. In no time we had the entire canteen to ourselves and shortly afterwards an MP wearing a respirator entered and ordered us to vacate the premises. Outside we encountered the patrons in resentful mood at having had their rest and relaxation so rudely interrupted. The incident did not endear us to our Canadian army colleagues. On returning to HMS Lizard we learned that W-1 unit was to be sent to HMS Volcano in the Cumbrian mountains of northwest England for a ten-day course on handling explosives, demolition, detecting mines and booby-traps. Much of the training was performed on beaches overlooking the Irish Sea from where we could see the Isle of Man on a clear day. We learned to load and detonate ‘Beehive’ anti-pillbox devices which fired a nickel ball through concrete up to two feet thick, and the application of cortex cord explosives used in removing anti-tank pillars as well as detecting concealed booby-traps.

On returning to HMS Lizard once again we were relocated to HMS Mastodon at Exbury, Hampshire where we were to provide security on the Rothschild estate. This had been requisitioned by the RN for the planning of Operation Neptune - the water-borne part of Operation Overlord. The comings and goings of many high-ranking personnel during this period was strictly classified. While not engaged on security patrols we continued training in the use of small arms and elsewhere on the nearby Beaulieu River others were training crews for the many types of landing craft to be used in the forthcoming invasion.

Many night hours were spent here watching for low flying German aircraft which were known to be dropping espionage agents in the area. One Junkers 188 was shot down and crashed on the front lawn of the estate. There were seven bodies pulled from the wreckage whereas this aircraft was known to have a crew of only five. Our searches for enemy agents in the surrounding country only turned up Land Army girls working in the fields. Early in May '44 we were moved to HMS Vectis, a holiday camp near Cowes on the Isle of Wight which had been requisitioned by the RN for use as a Combined Operations base. It was here that we waited for our assignment into action with the invasion, although at the time we knew nothing about when, where or what. I spent much of my time on the firing range practicing with my elderly Lewis air-cooled machine-gun. Above the target bank we could see many of the barrage balloons in the near distance as they drifted above all of the ships anchored in the channel. Each ship had two balloons with dangling cables as protection against dive bombers.

The required sequence of .303 cartridges loaded into the breech pan of the Lewis gun was one ball, one armour-piercing and one tracer. The tracer enabled the gunner to see where he was shooting. The down side to this sequence was that in constant rapid fire the barrel of the gun seriously overheated. To reduce the likelihood of this happening I occasionally had the pans loaded without tracers. The gun was heavy and had a tendency to pull upwards when firing, and for better control I preferred to lie down to fire the gun. In any position it was quite hard to control. One of our officers criticized my low firing position and wished to show me how to do it standing up. I removed the empty pan and loaded one with no tracers. The kick from the gun was much greater than he expected and he could neither control the upward drift or release the trigger. We stayed well out of his way and watched as one the barrage balloons succumbed to his uncontrollable fusillade by deflating and falling to the ship's deck with all of its cables. Much to his discomfort and our pleasure he handed back the gun and left the scene muttering obscenities as he strutted off.

Bomb Disposal at HMS Volcano

It was about a five hour ferry and train ride from our operational base at HMS Vectis on the Isle of Wight to London and a lot longer from there to the small community named Holmrook on the west coast of Cumberland (now Cumbria) some 300 miles further north. At the railway station we boarded two trucks which were there waiting for us and after a comparatively short ride we passed through the gates of an estate. The mansion house was similar to HMS Mastodon but considerably smaller.

We were W-1 Unit made up of twenty five men and three officers from Royal Canadian Navy Beach Commando ‘W’ which was composed of three units - W-1, W-2, W-3, totalling 75 men and 11 officers. Since completing our basic Commando training at HMS Armadillo in Scotland, each unit had been sent to several different training centres for a wide variety of offensive and defensive instruction.

The men were assigned to two temporary out-buildings at the rear of the mansion and on a bank overlooking a fast-flowing river, and the officers were taken into the mansion. There was a small mess hall nearby and the meals were typical of that provided at most British bases, but still an improvement over that fed to us during our six months of basic training at HMS Armadillo in Scotland during the winter. After breakfast we were mustered on the small parade square with our weapons and told that we were to double down about a half mile to the beach for explosives training. The beach was secured off from the public and on a clear sunny day we could see the Isle of Man. On arriving at the beach we found three instructors waiting for us and we were broken into three groups of nine each. The instructors allowed us to handle various types of explosives such as forcite, cortex and cordite. He instructed us in detail as to the use of each type and the amount applied in each application.

There were 6 inch diameter wooden poles driven deep into the underwater beach at an angle towards the sea and which showed about two feet above the surface when the tide was out. We were taught how to cut these off underwater using a triple cord of cordtex with a blasting cap. Many of these posts were armed with an explosive which we were taught to disarm prior to cutting the pole off, but of course in our instance dummy explosives were used.

In the area directly behind the beach in long grass we were shown how to recognize the anti-personnel ‘S’ mines. They were vicious, hard-to-see and easily-tripped devices that had three tempered steel wires protruding about six inches above the sand holding a ball bearing amongst them. If any of the wires was jarred by a boot the ball bearing dropped down through a canister and detonated a firing pin, similar to a shot gun shell, which blew the canister into the air where it exploded about ten or twelve feet above ground, spraying some 200 lead pellets in a circle. The only effective action was to stand aside, let the 'S' mine eject into the air and then lie down over the hole it had created because the pellets sprayed outwards leaving an untouched space of about six feet in diameter in the centre... easier said than done!

There were various simulated concrete German defence structures such as gun emplacements on the beach for practicing the use of demolition devices. One of these devices was known as a 'beehive'. It was about the size of a large coffee can with three small steel bars about six inches long attached around it. Also attached was a length of cortex with a fuse cap inserted into the core of it. The objective was to fasten the device to the concrete wall by cord, if possible, and then light the fuse. In about twenty seconds the fuse detonated a charge which fired a white-hot nickel ball with the capacity to penetrate a concrete wall up to two feet thick and then ricochet around inside the bunker disabling or killing the gun crew.

We were also taught the skill of using the No. 36 hand grenade while at HMS Armadillo, from pulling the pin and holding the spring lever down until we knew where to throw the grenade. This was a dangerous practice to yourself and to others nearby if you were hit by enemy fire or inadvertently dropped the grenade it would explode. We also learned how to detect anti-tank land mines which required a weight of 1500 lbs to detonate them.

Back at the base there was a wooden building set off by itself which was used for training in the detection of booby traps. Such devices were hidden under simulated casualties lying on the floor, attached to furniture and anything else that could be moved. These were small hidden explosives which could be detonated by the slightest movement. The idea was, in the event that you occupied any facility which had previously been occupied by the enemy, to move very carefully and not move anything until the area had been checked and cleared.

The first enemy bunker which I occupied just behind the beach on Juno was a four foot deep excavation about twelve feet by ten feet with three feet of sand bags around all sides except the opening to get in and out. The two beds inside comprised twelve German army blankets.

The only booby trap I could find was a large picture of Betty Garble taking a milk bath!


Two weeks later we were transported to Ryde where we boarded an LCI(L) to be taken across the channel to Juno Beach in Normandy where wee took over the positions of  'P' Commando, which had suffered a number of casualties. The sight of all the battle cruisers, destroyers, mine-sweepers, landing ships and landing craft was awesome. While there was still enemy shelling and dive-bombing of the landing area, the ground combat action had moved inland some distance behind the beach. There were increasing numbers of German prisoners being gathered on the beach and many of them had soiled field dressings on their wounds.

From that point on we were busy night and day guiding in landing craft and directing the steady flow of incoming troops as well as unloading tanks and other armoured equipment. We were also occupied carrying the wounded and escorting prisoners into empty landing ships to be taken to England. My weapon was always at my side ready for firing in the event of counter attacks and for firing at low flying enemy aircraft intent on strafing the beaches. The first day I found a vacant enemy bunker in the sand dunes behind the beach which was close enough for me to use for short naps during any lapse in the traffic. I was taken aback to find twelve German army blankets for a bed and a large picture pinned on the sand bags of Betty Grable taking a bath; I had stumbled into a luxury suite.

A short time later in the dark of night I was unloading Churchill Tanks from an LCT during shell fire from a 200mm railway cannon at Le Havre. I became trapped in the grates of the loading ramp injuring both legs and was taken to a nearby Mobile Army Surgical Hospital (MASH) station with a makeshift airfield and flown to a hospital in England. On recovering well enough to walk with a crutch I was sent back to Vectis and from there over to HMS Dolphin at Gosport for transport back to Normandy on a motor launch (ML). Arriving off the coast at Arromanches we could see shell fire behind the beaches so the young captain would not go in close to put me ashore. After a couple of shots of navy rum the cook offered to row me in the 8ft skiff carried by the launch. In the black of night we made it to the beach without being hit by a landing craft. It was likely the only rowboat landing made during the invasion!

While making my way from Gold Beach north to Juno I was recruited into driving a Sherman tank up to the combat lines. After two days of that I managed to find my unit on Juno Beach. In all we had spent 6 weeks on the beach and the operations were in good order. In addition the Mulberry Harbours and the capture of French ports provided other routes for the movement of men, machines and supplies and W Commando was returned to HMS Vectis where we were officially disbanded.

Shortly after we boarded RMS Queen Elizabeth at Southampton for the voyage to New York with three thousand American casualties and four thousand German POWs for company.

I left the unit with an everlasting deep sense of pride for having accomplished one of the most demanding military training schedules in existence at the time and having played a part in the difficult process of ensuring the success of the greatest amphibious invasion in history.

Bill Newell
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