Britain formed its first commandos in southern England in June 1940, just after the evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force from France. A designated British commando unit was the equivalent of a battalion and consisted of 10 troops of 50 men each. On formation and during their initial training, the first commando troops were given a ration allowance and billeted in local houses, where they were responsible for their own discipline and were made to rely on their initiative and self-motivation. In October 1940, Number 3 Commando, with a total of 475 officers and men, moved to the Combined Training Centre at Inverary in Scotland. Other commando units were also forming at the time.
The first British commando operation took place in March 1941 against German installations on the Lofoten Islands of Norway. Later commandos raided South Vaagso, also in Norway, and they conducted operations against the Channel Islands, were landed by submarine off Sicily before Operation husky, and were responsible for many other operations against German coastal installations. Commandos were again in the forefront of the landings in France in Normandy in June 1944, and they took on an infantry role as they advanced inland, despite the fact that commando troops were not line infantry but special forces. On 6 June 1944, commandos mounted an attack on the German battery at Merville overlooking the invasion beaches; the battery was destroyed.
When the United States entered World War II, Brigadier General Lucian Truscott, U.S. Army liaison to the British General Staff, convinced Army Chief of Staff General George C. Marshall of the need for an American commando unit. On 26 May 1942, the army authorized formation of the 1st Ranger Battalion, which was activated on 19 June. During the war, the United States formed six ranger battalions. The first through fifth served in the North African and European Theaters, whereas the sixth served in the Pacific.
For training, the U.S. 1st Ranger Battalion was sent to the British Army Command's Training Centre in Scotland. For several weeks, the American rangers were tested to their limits by the Commando Centre trainers. Eighty-five percent of those who began the course graduated.
On 19 August 1942, 50 American rangers were added to a British and Canadian commando raid on the French port city of Dieppe. Three rangers died and five were captured, but the Americans won high praise for their efforts. Rangers subsequently took part in raids on Norway while attached to British commandos units. They also fought in Sicily and participated in the landings in Italy at Salerno and Anzio. As raiding forces, they were only lightly equipped, but they were subsequently employed as infantry troops nonetheless. The 1st and 3rd Battalions led the attack on Cisterna but were almost wiped out. The remaining 4th Battalion took heavy casualties while trying to rescue the first two. Of 1,500 men in the three battalions, only 449 remained.
During the Allied invasion of France, the U.S. 2nd Ranger Battalion landed on the west flank of Omaha Beach with A Company of the 116th Infantry Regiment and moved up to the village of Vierville-sur-Mer to secure the coastal road to Pointe du Hoc, destroying the German positions and radar station along the way. Meanwhile, the 5th Ranger Battalion received the important task of disabling a battery of six 15 cm German coastal artillery pieces at Pointe du Hoc. These guns would be capable of hitting almost any Allied ship supporting the U.S. landing. The rangers successfully scaled the cliffs, but much to their surprise, they found that the German artillery had already been removed from Pointe du Hoc. The rangers then pushed inland, destroying some of the pieces behind the beaches.
A joint U.S.-Canadian brigade-sized unit, known as the First Special Service Force, also took part in the Aleutian Campaign, in the fighting in Italy, and in the August 1944 landings in southern France. In subsequent European fighting, rangers continued to lead the way and were some of the first units to counter the German Ardennes Offensive in December 1944. In 1945, ranger units established bridgeheads across the Rhine River into the heart of Germany.
Elite formations also served in the Pacific Theater. During the Quebec Conference of August 1943, U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston L. S. Churchill agreed to have a U.S. ground unit spearhead the Chinese army with a long-range penetration mission behind Japanese lines in Burma. Its goal would be to destroy Japanese communications and supply lines and to play havoc with Japanese forces while an attempt was made to reopen the Burma Road.
A presidential call for volunteers for "a dangerous and hazardous mission" elicited some 2,900 volunteers. Officially designated as the 5307th Composite Unit (Provisional)—code-named galahad—the unit later became popularly known as Merrill's Marauders after its commander, Brigadier General Frank Merrill. Organized into combat teams, two to each battalion, the Marauder volunteers came from various theaters of operation. Some came from stateside cadres; some from the jungles of Panama and Trinidad; and the remainder were veterans of campaigns in Guadalcanal, New Georgia, and New Guinea. In India, some Signal Corps and Air Corps personnel were added, as well as pack troops with mules.
Following training, undertaken in great secrecy in the jungles of India, about 600 men were detached as a rear-echelon headquarters to remain in India to handle the soon to be vital airdrop link between the six Marauder combat teams (400 men to a team) and the Air Transport Command. In units designated by color-coded names—Red, White, Blue, Green, Orange, and Khaki—the remaining 2,400 Marauders began their march up the Ledo Road and over the outlying ranges of the Himalaya Mountains into Burma.
The Marauders, with no tanks or heavy artillery support, moved overland some 1,000 miles through extremely dense and almost impenetrable jungles and came out with glory. In 5 major and 30 minor engagements, they defeated units of the veteran Japanese 18th Division, the conquerors of Singapore and Malaya who vastly outnumbered them. Moving in the rear of the main Japanese forces, they disrupted supply and communication lines and climaxed their operations with the capture of Myitkyina Airfield, the only all-weather airfield in Burma. The unit was consolidated with the 475th Infantry on 10 August 1944.
The 6th Ranger Battalion was activated at Port Moresby, New Guinea, in September 1944. Commanded by Colonel Henry "Hank" Mucci, it was the first American force to return to the Philippines. Its mission was to destroy Japanese coastal defense guns, radio, and radar stations on the islands of Dinegat and Suluan off Leyte. Landing three days in advance of the main Sixth Army invasion force on 17–18 October 1944, the 6th Battalion swiftly killed or captured some of the Japanese defenders and destroyed all their communications. The unit took part in the U.S. landings on Luzon, and several behind-the-lines patrols, penetrations, and small unit raids served to prime the rangers for what was to become universally known as one of the most daring raids in U.S. military history.
On 30 January 1945 in the Cabanatuan raid—led in person by Colonel Mucci—C Company, supported by a platoon from F Company, struck 30 miles behind Japanese lines to rescue some 500 emaciated and sickly prisoners of war, many of them survivors of the Bataan Death March. The rangers, aided by Filipino guerrillas, killed over 200 members of the Japanese garrison, evaded two Japanese regiments, and reached the safety of American lines the following day. Intelligence reports had indicated the Japanese were planning to kill the prisoners as they withdrew toward Manila. Effective reconnaissance work by Filipino scouts contributed to the success of the raid.
Later commanded by Colonel Robert Garrett, the 6th Battalion played an important role in the capture of Manila and Appari. At the end of the war, it was preparing to take part in the invasion of Japan. The unit received the Presidential Unit Citation and the Philippine Presidential Citation. It was inactivated on 30 December 1945, in Kyoto, Japan. It and other elite units from the World War II era gave rise to the special forces of today's military establishments.
Durnford-Slater, John. Commando. London: Greenhill Books, 2002.; Lane, Ronald L. Rudder's Rangers. Manassas, VA: Ranger Associates, 1979.