There are those who, for whatever reason, delight in declaring that virtually every advance in modern warfare was ‘taught’ to the world by the wily old Boers. One of the more widely accepted such claims is that the British were so impressed by ‘the Boer way of fighting’ that, 40 years later, Churchill was inspired by them to raise elite raiding units in WW2 – the famous ‘Commandos’. It is a title still used with pride by, among others, Britain’s Royal Marines and the First and Second Commando Regiments of the Australian Army. The inference of those who like to bandy this association about is that the WW2 ‘Commandos’ were an attempt to copy the tactics, methods and skills of the Boer ‘Kommandos’.
However, aside from sharing a very similar name, was there really much resemblance between the two?
Even prior to the formation of the WW2 Commando units, the British army had a long history of deploying unconventional, hand-picked / specially-trained formations for unusual tasks. One can go back, for example, to such units as Roger’s Rangers of the French and Indian Wars, the Riflemen of the Napoleonic Wars, and even the Camel Corps raised for the Gordon Relief Campaign.
The most immediate precursors to the Commandos were the ‘Independent Companies’. Raised in the early days of WW2, and under the direction of the shadowy MI(R)[i], each of the ten Territorial Divisions based in the UK formed an ‘Independent Company’: a hand-picked, highly mobile, lightly equipped unit ideal for irregular warfare and raiding operations – initially specifically for service in Norway. 20 picked officers with experience of fighting on the NW Frontier were rushed to the UK to bring their knowledge of both mountain and irregular warfare to the new units. Though the Independent Companies were disbanded at the end of the Norwegian Campaign, many who served in them joined the Commandos when they were formed almost immediately thereafter.
And if the concept of forming a unit like the Commandos was not exactly ground-breaking by the British army’s ever-inventive standards, in addition it was not even Churchill who came up with the name ‘Commando’ at all, but rather a Lt. Colonel (later Brigadier) Dudley Clarke. After active service in the Royal Artillery and then the Royal Flying Corps in the Great War, he returned to the Royal Artillery and saw more active service in the inter-war period. By the time of the Second World War, Clarke was working in military intelligence and, during the Battle of France, drafted a proposal to form more small, amphibious raiding parties – units which he wished to term ‘Commandos’. As Clarke was born in Johannesburg, it is often claimed that he was inspired by ‘memories of Boer raiding units’ from the war. Given that Clarke was less than six months old when the Boer War started however, this, like so many other assertions about the conflict, is highly fanciful.[ii]
Churchill, newly installed as Prime Minister, had been toying with a similar idea at about the same time, though his choice of name was ‘the Leopards’: “specially trained troops of the hunter class who can develop a reign of terror down the enemy coast”… “There ought to be at least 20,000 Storm Troops or ‘Leopards’ drawn from existing units, ready to spring at the throats of any small landings or descent”. Churchill agreed to Clarke’s suggestion in terms of the name, which, given how many other things were to be named after various big cats in World War 2, was perhaps just as well. Many senior officers disapproved of Clarke’s suggestion, however, preferring the term ‘Special Service’ for the units and, indeed, the two names ran concurrently for a time – despite the rather unfortunate abbreviation.
Even when the name ‘Commando’ became accepted, it was about the only thing these elite units would have in common with their almost-namesakes of 40 years previously. For a start, only serving troops – many of whom were veterans of the Independent Companies and / or the campaigns in Norway and France – were eligible for selection for the Commandos. Those who were selected had to endure three months of hellish training at a Guerrilla Warfare centre in the Scottish Highlands (the establishment of which had been approved back in the days of the Independent Companies), struggling their way through an intensive regime which sought to:
- develop a high degree of stamina and endurance under all climatic conditions and types of terrain.
- perfect the individual in basic military skills as well as in special work likely to be encountered on operations such as wall climbing, skiing and demolitions.
- develop a high percentage of men with specialist qualifications such as motorcyclists, truck drivers, small boat operators and locomotive engineers, etc.
- develop self-confidence, initiative and ingenuity in the individual and in the group.
- develop teamwork in operating as small groups under arduous operational conditions.
The unrelenting training taught everything from pistol shooting to cliff climbing, small boat handling to first aid, stalking to demolitions, and signals to hand-to-hand combat, the latter of which was taught by two especially savage, tough-as-nails, ex-Shanghai Police officers[iii] who instructed in: ‘ a combination of ferocious blows, holds and throws, adapted from Japanese bayonet tactics, ju-jitsu, Chinese boxing, Sikh wrestling, French wrestling and Cornish collar-and-elbow wrestling, plus expert knowledge of hip-shooting, knife fighting and the use of the Tommy gun and hand grenade’.
Only around 50% of these hand-picked, battle-hardened veterans made it through the initial three months, and even then there was yet more specialised training to complete.
Though initiative was encouraged, discipline was excellent, with one American observer noting: ‘To all appearances the discipline and morale of commandos is exceptionally high. This may be in large measure accounted for by the fact that all commando personnel are selected volunteers who applied for this type of duty because of the prospects of frequent action’. Commandos were also expected to have the highest standard of dress and bearing.
By any criteria, a Boer Kommando of 40 years earlier could not possibly have been more different. This should not really be surprising, however, as ‘Kommando’ was simply the Dutch / German for ‘unit’ or ‘command’ and implied absolutely no ‘elite’ status whatsoever until the title was adopted by the Commandos of WW2. It is also worth noting that while ‘Kommando’ was the military unit, the Boers who made up such a unit were not called ‘kommandos’ – the use of the word ‘commando’ to describe an individual soldier only came about in WW2.
Furthermore, while selection and training for the WW2 Commandos was extremely tough, the Boer Kommandos were almost the exact opposite, being nothing more than geographically based militia units, with all burghers of that town / district automatically liable for Kommando service. Unless you believe, therefore, that simply by living in the Boer republics, men were magically transformed into super-human warriors, one has to accept that plenty of these burghers were cowardly, reluctant, short sighted, asthmatic, flat-footed, and generally unsuited to military life – exactly as in any other nation.
While those who served in the Commandos of WW2 were highly-trained ‘chosen men’ representing a only tiny fraction of British forces overall, nearly everyone who fought on the side of the republics in the Boer War fought in ‘Kommandos’. A select few men served in some small units like the paramilitary police of the Transvaal (the infamous ‘ZARPS’) or the Staats Artillerie, but the rest fought in Kommandos. This was simply what they called their larger units, in the same way the British army referred to theirs as ‘battalions’ or ‘regiments’.
The Boer republics did recognise a handful of reserved occupations such as the railways and telegraph technicians, and those with major health issues were supposed to be exempt from service. Even this system collapsed after a few months, however, and the medical certificates issued were routinely ignored. As General Ben Viljoen recalled,
‘…immediately martial law is promulgated the entire Boer adult male population is amenable for military service. In the ranks of a commando one finds men of every profession, from the advocate and doctor to the blacksmith and plumber.’
Indeed, far from being a selective elite, many who were called up for Kommando service were rather less than enthusiastic – to say the least – as this contemporary description suggests:
‘The military qualities of the Boers, like those of Cromwell’s men, were useful but not showy. They came by instinct and not by acquisition, and they cannot be sufficiently accounted for as the outcome of experience in the pursuit of game on the veld. They were neutralized partially by characteristics the reverse of military. The Boers were not remarkable for personal courage. If there had been in the Boer Army a decoration corresponding to the Victoria Cross it would have been rarely won or at least rarely earned. There is scarcely an instance of an individual feat of arms or act of devotion performed by a Burgher. On the few occasions when the Boers were charged by cavalry they became paralysed with terror. They were incapable of submitting themselves to discipline, and difficult to command in large numbers. They could not be made to understand that prompt action, which possibly might not be the best under the circumstances, was preferable to wasting time in discussing a better with the field cornets. They were subject to panics and, for the time, easily disheartened: and their sense of duty was not conspicuous. The principles of strategy were unknown to them, their tactics were crude, and with the exception of a very few who had fought in 1881, they were without experience of the realities of war.’
Even one of their own, the young Deneys Rietz, described his new colleagues in the Pretoria Kommando in less-than-glowing terms as being:
‘mostly young fellows from the civil service and the legal offices and shops in the town. Few of them had ever seen war, or undergone military training’.
These were hardly the sort of men who would have breezed through WW2 Commando training.
Commandant (later General) Ben Viljoen had similar experiences when he was tasked with raising the Johannesburg Kommando in September 1899, finding that those liable for Kommando service dreamed up all manner of excuses to avoid service. When Viljoen moved to the front on the 29th September, he thus only had 400 men instead of the 750 that he had counted on. Similar reports came from other towns in both republics, and the Transvaal Government went so far as to set up a special commandeer commission to ‘root out the burghers who were in hiding’. There were also plenty of cases of Boers at the front trying to get medical certificates issued to get away on home leave—a practice referred to by their more stout-hearted comrades as ‘bangsiekte’ (fear-sickness). Others took the more rather more drastic route of self-inflicted wounds.
Even though many today like to claim that Boers invented ‘Commando Warfare’, unlike the Commandos of WW2, who were specially selected and trained for aggressive operations and daring raids, the Boer Kommandos were much more suited to defensive action:
‘The Boers had certain qualifications which gave them great superiority in defence, but they had also certain weaknesses, chiefly due to want of discipline, which rendered their defence weak in one respect, and made them almost powerless in the attack. While their mobility, elasticity, and intelligence made it safe for them to trust to individual initiative for the prompt strengthening of a threatened spot, their general discipline was not good enough to allow of an orderly movement to a flank of a large body in the stress of battle, and thus our flank attacks were rarely opposed. Again, the feebleness in attack allowed us to hold a front with a handful of men, who would have been powerless against such a counter attack as might reasonably be expected from European troops.’
Discipline in the Boer Kommandos was often poor with orders considered ‘optional’, and outlying positions being abandoned if they were deemed to be too risky. The men often came and went as and when they pleased:
‘The Boer was never willing to sacrifice his personal property for the common good, neither would he instantly and implicitly obey the orders of his commanders. He was a shining example of the ultra-individualistic idea, which is both a fault and a virtue. In the early days of the war it was almost impossible for the Boer commander to extract obedience from his men. Every project of any importance had to be talked over and argued about at length that the moment for its successful execution often passed.’
One burgher, writing about his brother (who was also serving), agreed:
‘I have not seen Victor since the day of his arrival. They seem to be having rather uncomfortable times down there. They threatened to go out on strike, and abandon the fort if they did not get reinforcements at once. There are, however, none available just now so they will just have to get on as best they can… The order and discipline is something grand; it is really a wonder we have not come to grief yet!’
Deneys Rietz concurred, describing life as on Kommando as:
‘…a pleasant experience. There were no drills or parades and, except for night picket and an occasional fatigue party to the railway depot to fetch supplies, there were no military duties. Our commando received many fresh drafts … but discipline was slack, and there was a continual stream of burghers going home on self-granted leave, so that we never knew from day to day what strength we mustered.’
While General Viljoen had similar views on the men who purported to lead these Kommandos:
‘The Boer officers can be divided into two classes—the brave and the cowardly. The brave officer fights whenever he gets the chance, whereas his chicken-hearted brother always waits for orders and makes elaborate plans to escape fighting. It is quite easy in the Boer Army to succeed in the course adopted by the latter class, and it is not infrequently occurred that the Boers preferred this class of officer to his more reckless comrade, for they argued—‘we like to serve under him because he will keep us out of danger’. And just as the officers could be divided, so could the men.’
Of course, after the Imperial troops won the conventional war and slowly but surely started rounding up the bitter-einders, one could argue there was a process of Darwinian selection, whereby the ‘hard core’ stayed in the fight longer than those less well-motivated burghers. It can be claimed that the quality of the Boer fighters thus improved as the war dragged on. However, one must remember that many surrendered burghers were forced to re-join the Kommandos or face their farms being burned down by the bitter-einders – such men could hardly be considered as motivated as a WW2 Commando was.
One also has to be aware of the fact that many of the others who remained in the field to the end did so simply because, unlike the more well-educated and successful burghers, they had no good reason to surrender. Though it greatly upsets their latter day apologists to admit it, many bitter-einders were renegades, criminals and members of the pre-war bywoner under-class to whom the guerrilla war was a rather jolly means to enriching themselves at the cost of loyalists, surrendered burghers or blacks. One of their own described them as
‘…men who are ruining the country, stealing from and terrifying their own people, at the instigation of Steyn, Hertzog, and others. They are encouraged to roam about the country in small parties for this purpose. If I had space, I could instance hundreds of cases to show their atrocious conduct. Notorious thieves and cowards, such as Commandant Nel, of this district who has never been in a single fight, are allowed to clear the isolated farm houses of every valuable. Even widows whose husbands have been killed on commando are not safe from their depredations, and there have been cases, such as Prinsloo’s, of this district, where they have even set fire to the dwelling houses while the inmates were asleep inside. As I have said, these marauders possess no property, and have the natural delight of the bywoner class to injure anyone better off than themselves.’
‘It is impossible to reason with the men who are now at the front. With the exception of a few officials, these men consist almost exclusively of the poorest and most ignorant class of bywoners [sharecroppers], augmented by the desperate class of men from the Cape Colony, who have nothing to lose, and who lead a jolly, rollicking life on commando—stealing and looting from the farmers who have surrendered, and whom they opprobriously call Hendsoppers but doing very little damage to the English’.
But even if some of the bitter-einder groups proved to be skillful and tough (if very ill-disciplined) adversaries in the guerrilla war and carried out some impressive attacks, the oft-spouted boast that the Boers ‘invented’ what would later become known as ‘Commando tactics’ is simplistic and incorrect. These irregular tactics can be traced back centuries, at least to the British-raised Roger’s Rangers in the French and Indian Wars (and arguably much further back than that) and the first use of such tactics in the Boer War was actually by the much-maligned British army.
Raised just prior to the Boer War and before anyone could reasonably claim they were acting on lessons ‘taught to them by the Boers’ – Rimington’s Scouts (or ‘Tigers’) were an elite force formed by Major Rimington, a regular British army officer. The Tigers were composed of picked local frontiersmen (recruited from both sides of the border between the Cape Colony and the Orange Free State) and skilled hunters. These were self-reliant, resourceful and highly motivated men with good knowledge of both the terrain and local languages. Working independently in small groups, Rimington’s Tigers acted as the eyes and ears of British commanders on the Western Front, quickly earning a reputation akin to that of the Long Range Desert Group of World War 2 fame.
Unlike the Boer Kommandos, in which every burgher of the district was liable for service (whether he liked it or not), the Tigers accepted just one in five volunteers. Indeed, so good was the quality of these recruits that only half-a-dozen were expelled from the regiment during the conflict for ‘want of pluck or nerve’ and between 70 and 80 of the original 200 recruits were commissioned during the war.
Commanded by Major Hunter-Weston, and attached to French’s Cavalry Division, the Royal Engineers Mounted Field Troop is another example. Though their description as being a ‘highly mobile, lightly equipped version of the standard RE Field Company, combining telegraphers, bridging specialists and even photographers. Unknown in continental armies at this point, it was still something of an experimental formation in Britain, with its roots in colonial campaigning and the large-scale manoeuvres of the Indian Army in the early 1890s’, might not suggest it, the Field Troop soon established a reputation for daring demolition raids behind the republican lines.
Just before Bloemfontein was captured in March 1900, Hunter-Weston personally led a small patrol of his mounted sappers and volunteers from the cavalry pioneers to pull off an audacious coup against the railway line, which connected the capital of the Orange Free State to the Transvaal. In an operation of which the modern-day SAS would be proud, the gallant Major and his small party pushed:
‘…round eastwards until he struck the railway about seven miles beyond the capital, and, having wrenched out some rails, proceeded along the line to find a culvert. There were numerous parties of Boers moving, or on picket duty, all of whom had to be avoided; but the culvert, when found, proved to be guarded. Nevertheless, by creeping forward, a charge of dynamite was successfully laid and exploded, and the line was cut effectively. Major Weston and his men succeeded in rejoining the escort, and getting off with no loss, despite having, as dawn broke, to charge through a Boer patrol which had stumbled accidentally across their path, and only one slight wound amongst the party resulted.’
Not only did Hunter-Weston’s patrol prevent any possible reinforcement of Bloemfontein, it also meant that an enormous amount of rolling stock was bottled up there to be duly captured when Roberts took the city. Conan-Doyle reported the haul to be ‘28 locomotives, 250 trucks, and 1,000 tons of coal, all of which were standing ready to leave Bloemfontein station’.
Hunter-Weston and his mounted sappers were to repeat this achievement some months later, striking the railway line north of republican-held Kroonstad deep behind the Boer lines. Navigating by the stars to slip past various defensive positions, the Major—together with the equally colourful Major Frederick Burnham – led 50 volunteers on a successful night raid some 15 miles behind the front lines. Though lacking the strategic impact of the Bloemfontein raid, The Times enthusiastically claimed the action to be ‘one of the most stirring, gallant and self-sacrificing side-histories of the war’.
In contrast, back in late 1899, the Boers did not launch any Hunter-Weston style raids against the railways that supplied Methuen in the west or Buller in Natal, permitting the Imperial forces to build up their relief forces to raise the sieges. Small groups of well trained and highly motivated Boers could have wrecked utter havoc behind the Imperial lines during that phase of the war, targeting railways and bridges with daring night ‘Commando style’ attacks. However, they never did, instead preferring to sit passively in their trenches, handing the initiative to the British who then relieved both Ladysmith and Kimberley.
And even before the Boy’s Own derring-do of Major Hunter-Weston, there were plenty of other examples of raids launched by well led and daring Imperial troops, striking at the Boers in the dead of night in a way the WW2 Commandos would have recognised.
On 27 October 1899 – less than a month after the outbreak of war – ‘D’ Squadron of the Protectorate Regiment carried out a highly successful night raid on the Boer trenches surrounding Mafeking. The troopers stalked unseen though the darkness toward the republican positions and then leapt in to butcher them with bayonets. Suddenly set upon by cold steel in the middle of the night, no mercy was shown to the terrified Boers and in a few horrifying minutes sixty republicans were killed or wounded. The raid commander was the first into the trenches and killed four Boers with his sword, decapitating one with a single swing. His valour earned him one of the first VCs of the war.
In Natal, Ladysmith’s defenders also struck back at their besiegers. On the night of 7/8 December, 500 men of the Imperial Light Horse and the Natal colonial regiments raided the heavy gun positions on Gun Hill. The plucky troopers picked their way through the night, advancing stealthily toward the Boer lines. While 300 men were told off as flank guards, the ILH and a hundred Natal troops advanced on the guns. A sentry was surprised, some shots were fired and the officers shouted, ‘Fix bayonets!’ and ‘Give them the cold steel!’ The colonials had not one bayonet between them but the very thought was too much for the Boers and they fled in panic. The raiders blew up a Long Tom and a howitzer then triumphantly retired to Ladysmith, dragging a captured 7-pounder (some accounts claim this was a Colt machine gun) and carrying the Long Tom’s 180lb breech block with them as a souvenir. When safely back in Ladysmith, three lusty cheers were given for the Queen. The execution of the raid had been close to perfect, with Imperial casualties of just seven men wounded.
Again the contrast is stark: the Boers launched no such audacious, nighttime raids in any of the sieges, not even daring to strike against the crucial Naval Guns which were key to the defence of Ladysmith. Even many of the conventional attacks that they could be persuaded to launch were called off as soon as they came under fire, or fell back after only the lightest of losses. One assault was even called off due to rain making the ground ‘unsuitable for military operations’.
In numerous cases, large sections of their attacking forces simply sat out the attacks in a fashion that was utterly unthinkable to the British infantry, let alone the WW2 Commandos. The republican attack on Wagon Hill, for example, failed largely because many of the Transvaal Boers simply left their comrades from the Orange Free State to their fate.
In another example, the besieging Boers belatedly attempted to take Mafeking by force with an attack which envisaged 700 burghers pushing through some native villages and overwhelming Baden-Powell’s men. In the days prior to this, one despondent Boer recorded the somewhat chaotic preparations for this attack in a letter home:
‘There is also a movement on foot to storm Mafeking one of these days. Volunteers have been called for, but with the exception of the Uitlanders [foreign volunteers / mercenaries] under Commandant Eloff the call has not been responded to at all. It may be that all will be ordered to go, but that is hardly likely as our Burgers are not given to obeying orders when they are in conflict with their own personal views.’
Sure enough, few of the burghers had any interest in such a dangerous scheme, and Eloff had to make do with just 240 men who could be persuaded to take part. The assault was launched on 12 May but was quickly contained and pinned down by a vigorous counter-attack. The Boers surrendered, having sustained 60 casualties with 108 taken prisoner. Baden-Powell’s losses were only twelve dead and eight wounded.
Even further into the Guerrilla War, when the modern myths assure us the Boers were running rings around the plodding, ponderous Imperial forces, things had not greatly improved. When de Wet’s Kommando attempted to ambush the Imperial Light Horse at Tiger Kloof Spruit in December 1901, for example, de Wet himself grumbled that his defeat was due to so many of his men refusing to take part in the attack:
‘I saw that only one-third of my burghers were charging. The others were keeping under cover, and do what I could, I could not drive them out… Everything went wrong… when the burghers who were charging the English discovered that the greater part of their comrades had remained, they turned round and retreated’.
A level of cowardice and ill discipline unthinkable in a WW2 Commando unit.
When looked at dispassionately, it is not entirely clear exactly what it was about the Boer ‘Kommandos’ which inspired Lt. Colonel Clarke to propose naming the ‘Commandos’ after them, or why Churchill agreed to it. It is certainly a catchy title – much more memorable than the ‘Independent Companies’, ‘Auxiliary Units’, ‘Long Range Desert Group’ or even the ‘Chindits’. Either way, it was the exploits of the British (and Allied) WW2 Commandos, rather than those of the Boers, which gives the name the cachet that it so rightly enjoys today.
Following the lead of the British, the American army formed their own elite light infantry raiding units in WW2. They chose to name these the ‘Rangers’ – in honour of the hand-picked and highly skilled Rogers’ Rangers – a title still used by the US 75th Ranger Regiment today. As much as it pains me to write this, one could argue they made a rather more rational and historically accurate choice.
[i] MI(R) was established in 1939 to coordinate irregular / guerrilla operations. It would later be amalgamated with MI6’s Section D to form SOE – interestingly, the Head of SOE said his organisation was modeled on the IRA.
MI(R) was also responsible for forming the controversial and unconventional ‘Auxiliary Units’ which would perform no-holds-barred, gloves-off, last ditch home defence in 1940
[ii] Clarke disappeared into relative obscurity after the War, perhaps in part due to an alleged penchant for transvestism
[iii] Eric ‘Bill’ Sykes and William ‘Shanghai Buster’ Fairbairn who had served together in the Shanghai Police Riot Squad. They also designed the famous, double-bladed ‘Fairbairn-Sykes’ Commando knife. It was often said that Sykes finished pretty much every sentence with: ‘and then kick him in the testicles’.