Military history

Area Three

Commando Walk: The 1st Special Service Brigade on D-Day


The 1st Special Service Brigade was a mixed Army Commando and Royal Marine Commando unit commanded by Brigadier Lord Lovat. The story of the Commandos goes back to the period after Dunkirk when the Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, called for the formation of a special force to continue to carry the fight to the Germans in mainland Europe, but in small teams. Army Commandos were then formed, each consisting of ten troops, comprising three officers and forty-seven men. The Army Commando units in this brigade – No. 3, No. 4 and No. 6 – had taken part in a number of such sorties into Europe, including Norway and the Dieppe Raid. By 1944 the Army Commandos were also joined by Royal Marine Commandos of 45 Commando and men from the No. 10 (Inter-Allied) Commando, which included Belgian, Dutch, French, Norwegian, Polish and Yugoslav troops. The bulk of the French Commandos were attached to No. 4 Commando for D-Day.

The men of 1st Special Service Brigade approach SWORD Beach. Piper Bill Millin is the third man in on the right, pipes just visible.

Commando Walk

1. Montgomery Memorial

2. Commando Memorial

3. WN-18 and Commando Memorial

4. Kieffer Memorial

5. Ouistreham Gun Battery (site of)

6. Ouistreham Bunker Museum

7. Communal cemetery

8. Pegasus Bridge Area

The brigade’s task on D-Day was to land on the left flank of 3rd Division’s assault at La Brèche at Queen Beach Red, and then fight their way along the lateral roads by the coast into the port of Ouistreham. Here they were to neutralise the German defences around the casino and a coastal battery and positions close to the port so they did not threaten the follow-up waves on SWORD Beach. Having secured Ouistreham, they were then tasked with moving inland along the Caen road to Bénouville and linking up with troops of 6th (Airborne) Division. This link-up would secure not only the vital bridges that the airborne troops had been tasked to capture but also the eastern flank, allowing the main assault on Caen to continue.

The first to land was No. 4 Commando, which touched down at La Brèche at 0830, thirty minutes after the first landings by 3rd Division. As the men beached it was clear the initial landings were opposed as the air was thick with gunfire. Lieutenant Murdoch McDougall of No. 4 Commando recalled,

I splashed forward into the shallower water and up onto the smoke-laden beach. Through the wreaths of smoke I could see the hazy outline of the ridge of dunes. The air was full of peculiar whines and whizzing, while the clumping of the mortars and the tearing, searing rattle of machine-guns seemed to dominate everything.1

The unit suffered more than forty casualties as they exited the landing craft, among them their commander, Lieutenant Colonel R.W.P. Dawson, who was lightly wounded. His men, seeing the assault infantry pinned down, assaulted the German positions and fought their way through the maze of bunkers and slit trenches. This short, sharp fight enabled the 2nd East Yorks to get off the beach but in the link-up between the Commandos and the infantry Colonel Dawson was wounded again, this time in the head.

Meanwhile, No. 6 Commando had landed 10 minutes after No. 4. As they landed two of their assault craft received direct hits, causing heavy casualties. The site that greeted them as they followed No. 4 off the beach was later described by the Adjutant as a ‘Martian landscape’ – gaunt and gutted buildings, a maze of tangled wire and craters everywhere. Landing with No. 6 was the Brigade Commander, Brigadier Lord Lovat DSO MC and his piper, Bill Millin. Wearing his father’s borrowed Cameron kilt, he was to accompany the Brigade commander for the whole of D-Day.

Commandos landing at SWORD Beach on D-Day.

My job as Piper, I was personal Piper to Lord Lovat. My job was to play the bagpipes for the invasion . . . to play the pipes going ashore. I was completely unarmed, all the weapons I had was a skinundoo in my stocking. Coming ashore the landing craft touched down, the ramps went down, Lovat jumped off, I jumped off behind him. Of course Lovat being a tall man unlike me; the water came up to his knees but it came up to my waist when I jumped in. I struggled through the surf until I got level with him and then struck up the bagpipes. I played ‘Highland Ladee’ through the surf until I got onto the beach and then I stopped.

When I went onto the beach other people were furiously digging in. Other Commando had managed to get off the beach but my group . . . had been pinned down. I was standing at the water’s edge with Lovat when the Brigade Major came up and said the Paras had captured the bridge at Bénouville. Lovat turned to me and said ‘Now Piper do you mind very much playing the Road to the Isles. You can march up and down a bit if you wish.’ I thought it was rather an odd thing when the beach was under fire . . . the noise was terrific. Anyway I struck up the bagpipes and marched up and down; the comments I received, some were complimentary, others were not so complimentary.

At the time it didn’t cross my mind about being killed but on reflection . . . I wondered why they didn’t kill me coming ashore when many others were killed and wounded. I think I was lucky but being a young man I didn’t think I was the one going to be killed. Later prisoners said they didn’t shoot me because they thought I was mad!2

For some Commandos it was a tricky landing in the rough sea.

Commandos push off the beach.

Soaked with coming through the surf in his heavy kilt, Millin changed into his denim trousers once the beach was clear, but continued to pipe the brigade into action.

Thus with the arrival of these men from Brigade Headquarters and then the Inter-Allied Commandos, No. 3 Commando and 45th Royal Marine Commando, the brigade was now complete and moved to the lateral roads for the next phase of operations. Lieutenant McDougall remembered,

Once clear of the wire and first line of emplacements, we looked for and quickly found the assembly area of partially demolished buildings. Here, a little off the beach, things were unnaturally quiet. After the chaotic din of the beach itself, which had been almost numbing in its intensity, it seemed extraordinary that we should be able to speak in a normal tone of voice here . . . The next part of the operation was to be the approach through the little town on our left, culminating in the assault on the battery at the far end.3

The move on Ouistreham was lead by the French Commandos, commanded by Colonel Philippe Kieffer. Kieffer was ‘tall, burly and determined, whose family was still in France, and whose son was at that moment fighting with the Maquis in the Haute-Savoie’. 4 His men encountered harassing fire from snipers and the occasional machine gun in the fortified houses, but they cleared these with some relish. On the outskirts of the town they came across a French gendarme, who was also a member of the French Resistance. He was able to lead the assaulting troops down a better route avoiding the main strongpoints. Another elderly Frenchman, Monsieur Lefevre, also approached Kieffer and his men and explained that during the bombardment of the German defences he had slipped out and cut the cables to the dug-in flamethrowers covering the defences around the casino and gun battery. These were electronically controlled from distant bunkers, but now they were out of action.

The old railway line that ran along the coast was used as a line of advance on D-Day.

Commandos moving closer to Ouistreham.

Monsieur Lefevre, a French Resistance leader who cut the power to the flamethrowers at Ouistreham.

At this point the Commando force broke off, with the French Commandos heading to take on the casino area, and No. 4 Commando making the assault on the gun battery. No. 4 Commando was now well into the town. Here they began to encounter French civilians, once residents of a quiet seaside port and now in the midst of battle. Lieutenant McDougall turned one corner and found,

a cafe in front of which a beaming figure in pyjamas was rushing from group to group, cheering and waving . . . My attention was caught, however, by what was happening at the other side of the street, where a young woman, sobbing distractedly, was being hurried indoors by another, older woman. I wondered what was the cause of their grief; was it simply a result of reaction at having had to contain and conceal their feelings for so long? Or had the girl perhaps formed some sort of attachment to one of the German garrison?5

The troops of No. 4 Commando pushed on. As they neared the objective the fighting became a matter of taking possession street by street, and in some cases house by house. Using cover, fire and movement to cross open ground and grenades to clear defenders in confined spaces, the men gradually reached the buildings overlooking the gun battery. The assault went in, again covered by the fire of Bren Guns. The air was full of tracer rounds, most gunners having loaded their magazines with one in five tracer bullets. One troop brought up a PIAT and silenced a machine-gun position and mortar pit that was impeding the assault, and then the men went in at the point of bayonet. It was soon found that the concrete emplacements protecting the guns had survived the pre-D-Day bombardment from both the air and sea, so it was a tough fight from casemate to casemate. Gradually, each casemate was reached, and as was to be a familiar story on 6 June 1944, the casemates were found to be empty. There were no guns of any calibre, and no signs of recent occupation. The cost of this discovery, as welcome as it was for the overall plan for the landings on SWORD Beach, was high. Casualties had been heavy – at one stage medics from both sides worked together to attend to the considerable wounded from both sides. Lieutenant McDougall caught the tail end of the gun-battery fight and got an immediate report from his comrades,

E Troop reported that [the] gun emplacements were . . . empty of big guns. D Troop in their first rush upon the various defences of the battery had taken over a hundred prisoners, while the crews of various machine-gun posts had been killed. At least it had been ascertained that the battery contained nothing that could in any way hinder the landings of the follow-up troops.6

Part of the Ouistreham gun battery.

With this threat neutralised and the casino dealt with by the attached French Commandos in an equally tough battle, No. 4 Commando withdrew and marched south to link up with 6th Airborne.

As the fight for Ouistreham was going on, No. 6 Commando had been working on the vital link-up between the Special Service Brigade and the airborne troops. This unit was led by Lieutenant Colonel Derek Mills-Roberts DSO MC, an ex-Irish Guards officer who was an old friend of Lord Lovat; the two had attended Oxford together. No. 6 Commando was charged with advancing on Pegasus Bridge, ensuring it was secure and then to push on to secure the vital eastern flank beyond the bridges. The ground beyond the beaches towards Bénouville was marshy and intersected with deep ditches, some of them up to 6ft deep, often with thick mud at the bottom of them. This made the Commando’s advance somewhat difficult and scaling ladders had to be used to cross some of the larger obstacles. They also encountered some opposition, but they were latterly supported by tanks from the 13/18th Hussars, who had come ashore at La Brèche. One of the troop officers left a detailed report of the unit’s action that day:

On reaching the Commando forming-up position, the Commanding Officer only gave the troop enough time to get into proper formation before continuing the advance inland. The country was by this time heavily wooded, and the troop stuck to fairly well defined paths, which were luckily going in the same direction as the line of advance. The enemy had stuck ‘Minen’ signs all over the place which must have been bluff as no mines were encountered despite the fact the troop walked over many of the signed areas. Continuing in a southerly direction the troop soon came to the two pill boxes which had been allotted to 3 Troop to either attack or neutralize until the remainder of the Brigade had passed through. Although no firing was coming from these pill boxes at the time they could be seen quite easily through the trees – another strong point also being discovered in the corner of a field which was not shown on the photograph.

The troop commander decided to attack all three positions and despatched No. 2 Section to the more westerly and went himself with No. 1 Section to the other two. No. 2 Section attacked and found the position had been vacated at very short notice, and signs of bombing were evident everywhere. The section then returned to support No. 1 Section in the event of their needing it. No. 1 Section were formed into two parties and a third gave covering fire onto a hedge ahead whilst the attack went in from the flank. The first pill box was cleared by grenades after putting up minor resistance. The second pill box was attacked in a like manner and two prisoners were taken. Returning from this attack fire was turned on the section from a hedge in the rear. In the attack one man was severely wounded.

No. 2 Section then proceeded off to destroy the six-barrelled mortar which had been firing fairly close all this time, in co-operation with two Sherman tanks which had by this time come up with some other infantry. On reaching the road in the area . . . the section came under small arms fire from a distance. After penetrating a little further the mortar was nowhere to be seen and having gone somewhat over our boundary the section returned, and on the orders of the Brigadier continued the advance to Breville.

The route that was taken was Colleville [to] Bénouville bridges [via] Breville. During the advance several snipers were contacted but they always fired and retired through the undergrowth. On reaching the Bénouville area small arms fire was heard in the village so the Troop Commander decided to by-pass the village and make for the bridges which had been reported captured by the Airborne. On nearing the bridges a group of men were seen through a hedge 200 yards away and these were first thought to be Germans; on looking at them through the glasses, however, they were recognised as paratroops. The Troop Commander waved the Union Jack carried for this purpose and shouted to us. On seeing us the paratroops cheered frantically and moved towards us. The party consisted of a paratroop Brigadier, Colonel Pine-Coffin and their HQ. The Brigadier said to our Troop Commander: ‘We are very pleased to see you’. The Troop Commander characteristically answered, looking at his watch: ‘I am afraid we are a few minutes late, Sir!’7

In the final advance on Bénouville Lovat caught up with No. 6 Commando, and still had his Piper, Bill Millin, with him. Bill recalled, ‘after leaving the beach I played the Commandos from Ouistreham to Bénouville, about 4½ – 5 miles, and there were pastures and built up areas where we were being sniped at and mortared. We reached the bridge at Bénouville and I doubled over there as it was under fire. Lovat and I led them over.’8 Indeed, Lovat was given the honour of making the final link-up with Pine-Coffin, commanding 7th Bn Parachute Regiment, which was defending the area. The link-up had been made, the bridges were secure, the Commandos had taken out their initial D-Day objectives at Ouistreham and now the next phase of their D-Day task was put into operation. They would move across Pegasus and Horsa Bridges, as Lovat and Millin had done by leading them, and move onto the ridge, into the woods and villages beyond, and secure the vital eastern flank.

Walk 3: In the Commando Area

STARTING POINT: Seafront Colleville-Montgomery

GPS: 49°17′36.5″N, 0°17′02.2″W

DURATION: 18.1km/11.2 miles

Park your vehicle in the car park just off the Avenue des Bruxelles on the seafront at Colleville-Montgomery. There is plenty of parking available here and along the seafront.

This site overlooks where the 3rd Division landed on 6 June 1944 on what was SWORD Beach. Infantry battalions from the division ran into a lot of opposition on these beaches and suffered numerous casualties in pushing off them. The men from 1st Special Service Brigade came in later, only to find the beach still under fire and very much a battlefield. No. 4 Commando was the first to beach, and as the battle for the beach moved into the battle for the buildings in this area, the Commando plan was put into action and the men moved from the beachhead along the lateral roads towards Ouistreham.

The Commando Memorial at Colleville-Montgomery.

From the car park follow the shoreline along Boulevard Maritime. The beach to your left is where most of the Commandos landed. The huge bunker at strongpoint Widerstandsnest 18 (WN-18) comes up on the right. Stop here. Strongpoint WN-18 was a huge German pillbox complex more than 300m across. It was equipped with an anti-tank gun and machine guns and had caused many of the casualties to the landings on SWORD Beach. Opposite, on the shore side, is a memorial to the landings and the Commando units.

Continue along Boulevard Maritime. Further along take Avenue du 4eme Commando on the right, and the first left Boulevard du Marchal Joffre. Follow this road; this is a route used by the Commandos to approach Ouistreham and the wall on the right is typical of the Normandy walls in this area, which appear in many of the wartime photos. The area was much more open along this road in 1944, and few of the original buildings from that period still exist.

Further along the road reaches Boulevard Winston Churchill. Here turn left and return to the shore into Boulevard Aristide Briand, turning right. Further up on the left is the memorial to Commandant Kieffer and the French Commandos. Stop here.

Capitaine de Corvette Philippe Kieffer was a French naval officer who commanded 1er Bataillon de Fusiliers Marins Commandos, which became part of No. 10 Inter-Allied Commando. Born in Haiti in 1899, he first worked in a bank in New York. He volunteered for service in the French Navy in 1939 and served at Dunkirk. Having escaped the fall of France, he joined the Free French Forces in the UK and joined the Commandos in 1941. Kieffer led his men ashore on SWORD Beach and they spearheaded the attack on the casino area of Ouistreham on D- Day and then moved up to Pegasus Bridge and beyond to the high ground on the eastern flank. The memorial is located on top of an observation cupola, part of the Ouistreham gun-battery site.

Follow a sandy path along the beach from the memorial behind the casino and then turn right and walk across a car park to Place Alfred Thomas to visit the Musée du Commando No. 4. Stop here. The museum is run by the French and dedicated to the Commandos who attacked Ouistreham on D-Day and in particular focuses on the role of the 177 French Commandos under Kieffer. It contains many unique photographs and artefacts, often donated by the families of Commandos who served here. The museum is open every day from mid-March to late October from 10.30am to 6pm.

From the museum continue along Place Alfred Thomas to the next roundabout and then go left along Boulevard Maritime. Go through the trees towards the beach. Stop. This is the site of the Ouistreham gun battery. Little of it remains today as most of the concrete gun pits and bunkers disappeared with the post-war redevelopment of the site. However, you can walk out onto the edge of the beach and see the potential field of fire of the battery up SWORD Beach and looking back the tall concrete observation bunker can be seen rising above the rooftops.

From the Boulevard Maritime take Avenue de la Plage to where it meets Avenue du 6 Juin. The huge observation tower of the bunker is visible on the right. It has since been converted to an excellent museum. The Ouistreham bunker was part of the gun-battery site and acted as its eyes. The 52ft-tall structure gave commanding views out to sea and up the coast and was linked by radio to a number of artillery positions well away from the beachhead. The defenders of the bunker sealed themselves in on D-Day and would not surrender. The bunker did not fall until 9 June when Lieutenant Bob Orrell of 91st Field Company Royal Engineers mustered enough explosives to blow the doors off the entrance, a feat that took some 4 hours. Once the position was breached, the garrison of two officers and fifty men surrendered. Today, the museum has numerous vehicles outside, including a Higgins Boat used in the film Saving Private Ryan. Inside you can climb to the top and see the original range finder and enjoy spectacular views over SWORD Beach.

The Bunker Museum, Ouistreham.

From the bunker continue up Avenue de la Plage until it meets Rue Leon Gambetta. Here turn left and take the first right, Rue du Hamel. Follow this to the end, take the first left, Rue du Fonteny, and then first right, Rue Cite Jardin. Follow this to the end and cross Avenue de la Liberte to the civil cemetery. Go in via the main gate.

Located in Rue Gustave Flaubert in Ouistreham, this large communal cemetery has five British and Commonwealth graves from the Second World War, and gets very few visitors compared to other D-Day sites, as few realise it is here. Among the pre-D-Day casualties are Sergeant Pilot Edward Appleton-Bach who flew with 131st (County of Kent) Squadron RAF. He was shot down on 18 November 1942 when his Spitfire VB took part in Operation ‘Rhubarb’ – an ongoing plan with aircraft working in pairs to take on key targets in fighter range in German-occupied France. Of the D-Day casualties Private Frederick Burkett, Corporal Frederick Maskell and Private Orlando Farnese died with No. 4 Commando, the latter serving as one of their medical orderlies. Flight Sergeant John Francis McCullum was a Canadian who died on 24 October 1942 flying with 207th Squadron RAF. He was part of a Lancaster bomber crew that had been on an operation against Milan. The aircraft was shot down and crashed in the sea, the crew all being killed but being washed up along the French coast in different places and McCullum’s body found on the beach at Ouistreham.

The tower of the bunker is impressive and even today dominates the area.

At this point the walk can be cut short. You can take the route back to the car park on SWORD Beach via Avenue de la Liberte and back to the seafront, and then follow the shore back to La Brèche. Otherwise, the walk can be continued in the footsteps of the Commandos to where they joined up with the airborne troops, and the Pegasus Walk in Chapter 1 could be linked up to this walk to make a full day’s walking on the battlefield.

To continue with the walk, follow the Avenue de la Liberte (D514) to where it meets the second roundabout from the cemetery. Here turn right onto the Route de Saint Aubin d’Arquenay. Follow this up the rising ground to the village of Saint Aubin d’Arquenay, taking a route used by Lord Lovat and men from 1st Special Service Brigade. Just before the village take the first left onto Chemin de la Maladrerie. At the end turn left onto the D35 and follow it downhill to Bénouville. On reaching the church in Bénouville the Pegasus Walk can be followed, or simply stay on this road until you reach the next roundabout and turn left.

Follow this road down to Pegasus Bridge where the Gondrée Café and Pegasus Museum will be seen. This is the point that having met up with Lieutenant Colonel Pine-Coffin, Lord Lovat assembled his men and had Piper Bill Millin lead them across the bridge to the eastern flank.

After a visit here you can walk back to the seafront at Ouistreham by taking the towpath along the canal, and then following the shoreline back to the parking at La Brèche. At a steady pace this would take around 90 minutes. An alternative is to get a local bus back to Ouistreham and then walk the last section to the car park.

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