The Book Dad – Commando – James Owen

The Book Dad – Commando – James Owen


s I am clearly on a reading theme, I had to buy this one. The review by Tony Rennell for the Daily Mail and the avalanche of abusive criticism that he stirred up told me I would not like this book.

I was wrong! (But I do think the picture on the dust jacket is quite awful). The book, though, is jolly good – ‘Boy’s Own/Roy of the Rovers’ stuff’!

I did find the book difficult to follow chronologically at times: one minute we are in the Libyan desert, and the next we are in the Lofoten Islands – but some time earlier – (and we read of the famous telegram sent to a Mr A. Hitler in Berlin).

I was very surprised that the Bruneval raid in February 1942 was only worth one short paragraph: there is a tendency for Owen to concentrate on failure rather than success…

Anyway, the book shows how these brave men, who were ill equipped, ill informed, frequently without maps or a working knowledge of Morse code, submarines turning up at the wrong bay, were taking the war to the enemy. What else should we have done in those desperate and dark days?

As Churchill himself said “enterprise must be prepared, with specially trained troops of the hunter class, who can develop a reign of terror down these coasts…how wonderful it would be if the Germans could be made to wonder where they were going to be struck next..”  Colonel Robert Laycock, Commander of Force Z, said “he wanted men that could adopt the lightning, destructive and ruthless methods of the gangster”.

Owen (left) shows how the early raids – apart from Lofoten – were seriously flawed. The trip to the Hotel des Roses in Rhodes was in vain: the attack was cancelled. Rommel hadn’t been at the villa at Beda Littoria for months and was at his 50th Birthday party in Rome at the time of the attempt to capture him“…a calamitous failure”. The raid on the Italian port of Bardia ‘did not go well’.

“Living behind enemy lines is very unlike any other form of soldiering…one can never feel quite at ease”: an understatement by Laycock, if ever I saw one! And, “Never in the history of human endeavour have so few been buggered by so many”.

All this saw the end of Commando activity in the Middle East.

But now, in October 1941, the command of ‘Combined Operations’ falls to Mountbatten and ‘it marked the end of an era of gallant amateurism’. Or did it?

In December 1941, there was ‘Archery’, the raid on Vaagso, north of Bergen, ‘Mad Jack’ Churchill dashing ashore playing his bagpipes and armed with his claymore, 130 Germans killed for the loss of 17 commandos (and 98 prisoners taken). ‘Postmaster’ in West Africa – a successful collaboration between intelligence services and special forces, not often repeated, ‘Chariot’, the raid on St Nazaire, ‘Jubilee’ the very costly raid on Dieppe, ‘Frankton’, the ‘Cockleshell Heroes’ raid on ships in Bordeaux harbour (read my review of Ashdown’s first rate book on that), and on to ‘Overlord’, Lord Lovat, to link up with the 6th Airborne Division at the Caen Canal and Orne River bridges, piped ashore by Bill Millin…

This book is a first-rate read, and very well researched – even if some do take issue with his conclusion about the impact that all this bravery had on the outcome of the war.

The Book Dad Rating – 4.5/5


  1. James Owen
    Nov 17, 2012

    Dear Book Dad,

    Thank you so much for reviewing my book ‘Commando’ – and I’m glad to hear that you enjoyed it.
    You mention the Bruneval raid. I didn’t cover it for the simple reason that the operation was carried out principally by airborne troops rather than by commandos (even if the Paras had begun life as No 2 Commando).
    And I have no quibbles with the bravery shown by the Commandos. It’s just that the evidence tends to show that, however successful and inspiring some of their missions might have been, they didn’t have the strategic impact on the war often claimed for them. If courage was all it takes to win wars, I’ve no doubt that the Allies would have triumphed much earlier than they did.

    Best wishes,

    James Owen

    • Book Dad!
      Nov 17, 2012

      I have to appear on Radio Norfolk next month- my stepson, the ‘book boy’ insists: your book is my Christmas stocking filler, fully justified. (apart from the awful dust cover – talk to your publishers about that!)

  2. Book Dad!
    Nov 17, 2012

    ..and you do claim that, even in 1945, 300,000 German soldiers were in still in Norway rather than in North West Europe. Jolly good show!

  3. Tom Newton
    Nov 17, 2012

    Wow! Congrats book dad a message from the man himself! You must be very chuffed. Going to have to buy this now – Mr Owen I applaud you for interacting with your fans!

  4. James Owen
    Nov 25, 2012

    Hello again – yes, Norway is perhaps the only example where it can be argued that raiding had long-term strategic impact. But the evidence for it is scanty. There were lots of German troops stationed there, but there needed to be – it’s a big country with an immense coastline. In fact, the garrison was about the same as that which occupied France, which has a much shorter coast and, in Vichy, a collaborationist partner holding down much of the country. Of course, the Norwegian garrison didn’t play much part in the war, but it might have done if the Allies had invaded there. Hitler wasn’t to know that they wouldn’t.
    It’s also arguable why he stationed so many troops there (and, incidentally, many were second or third-line battalions of youngsters or medically suspect). He did have a bee in his bonnet about it being a ‘zone of destiny’, but how much that was down to commando raids is debatable. Certainly the evidence in German records, and the view of the official German historians, is that while raids and sabotage was viewed by the German High Command as local annoyances, they weren’t usually major factors in determining how and where the bulk of forces were disposed. It’s often said that the Commando Order of August 1942 shows that Hitler regarded the Commandos as a real threat to morale. In fact, from what Keitel and Jodl said at Nuremberg about the circumstances of its creation, it seems more that Hitler was enraged by the ‘underhand’ idea of landing parachutists and commandos behind the lines. He was also goaded into fury by anecdotal evidence that at Dieppe, and in the commando raid on Sark which I explore in the book, German prisoners had been killed when tied up. Jodl and Keitel argued strongly against the order at the time, on the grounds that Commando raids weren’t (as Hitler thought) contrary to the traditions of war – that at least shows that two very senior figures in the German military didn’t view the raids as enough of a threat to morale to justify special measures against them.
    I hope that makes my point of view clearer! As I say in the book, historians are blessed with having hindsight. We do appreciate that at the time commanders have to make the best decisions that they can with the information that they have available. But given that we can often see things with a clearer perspective all these years later, it’s our responsibility to use that advantage, to take a step back and try to see the bigger picture. Not many people would still maintain (as they did at the time) that the Charge of the Light Brigade or the first day of the Somme were worth the sacrifices made – but that doesn’t mean that historians don’t respect or won’t celebrate the courage of the individual soldiers involved. I think one can legitimately distinguish between those two things. And, as you say, in 1940 there wasn’t much else we could do to give us the hope that we could hit back – and the very existence of the Commandos did at least foster that.

    • Book Dad!
      Nov 25, 2012

      I can do nothing but accept the words of a very respected historian – I only read books!

      But, this book of yours has been the most expensive of my life: I am now the proud owner of a near mint condition Fairbairn Sykes 1st pattern Commando knife, with scabbard ‘..has seen action’. And its all your fault!

      On Tuesday, I am on a local radio programme, Radio Norfolk, as a guest of ‘the Book Boy’: your excellent book will be one for my Christmas ‘stocking fillers’ list.

      By the way, what did you think of Paul Ham’s book, ‘Hiroshima Nagasaki’, and my comments on this? What else were we supposed to do….?

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