Remarkable stories of war told by those who fought for a proud nation. Their words. Their voices. Our first episodes tell riveting stories from World War II, then we move on to the Vietnam War and other dramatic conflicts.
At 20 years old, James Dunning volunteered for the new special force that would become the Commandos (or British Commandos). The Commandos quickly became famous for their rigorous training, elite status, and their green berets.
Dunning fought with the Commandos during World War Two, most notably during Operation Jubilee. Better known as the Dieppe Raid, Operation Jubilee was a British amphibious landing on the shores of Dieppe, France on August 19th, 1942. The British considered it a failure due to the loss of almost 75% of their troops, but it gave them valuable knowledge and experience that would contribute to the success of the D-Day Invasion.
After Dieppe, Dunning trained to become an officer. He was sent to Achnacarry Castle in the Scottish Highlands, which served as a training ground primarily for the Commandos. He went on to become an instructor there.
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I’m Ken Harbaugh, host of Warriors In Their Own Words. In partnership with the Honor Project, we’ve brought this podcast back at a time when our nation needs these stories more than ever.
Warriors in Their Own Words is our attempt to present an unvarnished, unsanitized truth of what we have asked of those who defend this nation. Thank you for listening, and by doing so, honoring those who have served.
Today, we’ll hear from Maj James Dunning. Dunning served in the British Army during WW2 as a Commando, and fought in the unsuccessful Dieppe Raid in August of 1942. In this first part of his interview, he describes how he became a commando, and his engagements leading up to the Dieppe Raid.
First of all, one has to think back. When one looks back from being 80 years of age. The reasons for joining that time seemed quite trivial. It was in 1937, 1938 when the Munich business was on. And also in the beginning of 1939, transcription was coming in England and I was working with my father in the family business and I wasn't all that happy. And one day I thought, "I don't know, I've had enough of this. I think I'll join the army." And that's really just how it all happened. Within a few weeks- And the great thing was, joining then I was there to make my own choice, whereas if I'd waited another six to nine months, I would've been transcripted and had to join up wherever they wanted to put me. So that was really, it was an impulse before the war, with the war clouds coming and frustration in the job and wanting to get away out of a family environment. Here we are, I'm young and foolish, I joined.
I joined an armored car regiment. An armored car regimen. They wanted the musicians too. And I was keyed in and played in the band and that. And so it all worked out very well. But then the war came and that was the end of that type of thing.
It was just after Dunkirk when Britain was alone facing the possibilities of invasion. And having not seen any action, I was then 20 years of age, I was at the training school teaching map reading and there was a notice for volunteers for a special force. The details were quite brief: able to swim, able to drive a car and a motorcycle, prepared to parachute, and also willing to be transported in a submarine. And still young, foolish, I thought, "Ah, that sounds adventuresome." And away I signed. I was a sergeant by that time and well, it seemed to be a good opportunity to away from the classroom training place I was in. And I volunteered and it was simple as that. There was no tests or anything. One was just interviewed and either in or out, and I was in.
Each troop leader having been chosen by the CO, was responsible for choosing his own two officers and his own 50 men. And looking back, I think each troop leader had different ideas. But in our particular case , my troop leader, I think looked for a person who was fit and in conversation probably conveyed that he had the right ideas of being prepared to have a go at anything. As I said earlier, it was ironic really because one wasn't tested on any of the military skills, that came later and was a disadvantage in many ways as it proved that we had to then establish a training center. So before the people were drafted into an operational commando, they all had an acceptable standards of military proficiency and performances.
When I volunteered, the various commandos were set up all around the British Isles because one of the things that Churchill laid down, who was a prime architect of commandos, that no units could be spared from the vital task of defending Britain. So it was decided that they aim at raising 10 commandos of 500 men, and they would be formed in various parts of the British Isles so as not to denude any one area. And so we were formed in South Coast here, not far from here, about 80 miles from here at Weymouth in Dorset. And we all must have then, the most extraordinary thing about the early commandos, they did not have barracks, no barracks. We arrived as volunteers, we were given a ration card because Britain was cross, all food was rationed and an allowance of six Shillings and a pence, that's about 33 pence per day and told, "Go and find somewhere to live. It's your responsibility to feed and water yourself and as long as you are on parade at the right place at the right time. Tomorrow, no questions were asked." So that was the starting point.
And then the initial training was mainly to get fit, physically fit. The routine started at Weymouth at a lovely time of year, July, beautiful summer of 1940, clear blue skies most days. Right on the coast, went to go swimming and half past six every morning while we were at Weymouth, a PT parade and early morning swim and then back to our chosen billets for breakfast. And then the morning was spent on weapon training, rifle, Bren gun, bayonet fighting and weapon skills and combined with route marches and map reading and so on. And right from the first or second week we started training for night operations. The blackout was on in war time Britain, and then there were raids, attack and search nights, which gave a atmosphere of realism for training of the type we were proposing to put into action.
Most veterans, looked back when they all say without any shadow of doubt that their most arduous and mentally taxing pieces of the training were the speed marches. And it was not so much, well just as much, physical but equally mental. You've got to make that mental barrier when you go on, when the flesh is inclined to give in some mental things in the mind. And that was the toughest part, the speed march.
Looking back, the first few months now, I think most people found it progressively acceptable, but those who couldn't make the grade were out of any compunction were returned to their own unit whether it be infantry, tanks, artillery or whatever. And that was a great thing throughout all commandos, the RTU system, returned to unit. If a person was physically unable or mentally unable or a winger, a moaner, and didn't fit in with a team, he was without any redress whatsoever, RTU'd.
We were the first people, after Dunkirk, to get the United States Thompson submachine gun, which we'd previously only seen in James Cagney films and Edward G. Robinson. And they had a tremendous impact on the weapon training because being a short range carbine, it fundamentally fired from the hip and in small bursts. And once we got those, we said to ourselves, "All right, we fire this weapon from the hip, why can't we fire a light machine gun from the hip, the Bren gun or the rifle?" And that all fitted in with the development of aggressive, offensive methods of fighting because previously a lot of the weapon training had been done on what you might call World War I, and World War style of training: adapt a nice firing position on the ground, everything fine. And it wasn't really geared for modern warfare where you had to fire a weapon under all circumstances and from all positions.
A Bren gun was a light machine gun, which had been invented in Czechoslovakia in the mid thirties and was adopted by the British Army in the late thirties as a standard infantry light machine gun to replace the old maxim and in between the rifle and the Vickers machine gun. So basically we had just the basic infantry, small arms, rifle, Bren gun, Tommy gun, and a variety of grenades. Later on when the role of commandos was ordered, we had heavier weapons. First of all was the two inch mortar and then the three inch mortar and the Vickers machine gun. I have admitted one very cumbersome weapon which we had and that was known as The Boys anti-tank rifle, a very unpopular weapon, heavy, fired a armor piercing round, had a kick like a mule, the actual gun. It was bolt operated and it was very useful against light tanks, but mainly used against in placements and pill boxes. And that was eventually replaced by a PIAT. It was a projectile which fired a shell with a hollow charge which could puncture hold into a tank or an in placement.
The Fairbairn and Sykes, they're amazing characters. Fairbairn and Sykes, two Shanghai policemen, they came back, they were quite middle aged men, we thought they were quite old. And they came to a place called Lochailort which was the forerunner of Achnacarry. And up in the highlands, Lochailort was started almost my accident. Lochailort was the first special training center in Britain and it came, as I say, almost my accident in as much as in late 1939, '40, the Russians had invaded Finland and the British government decided to send a small token force to help them Fins. And so they called for people who could ski and as one would expect, most of the people that could ski were people who had the means to go skiing before the war which was very limited. And as a number of, well, some several hundred people volunteered, but they were mainly officers. And unless they were a regular officer, they had to relinquish their war time commission.
But anyway, those got together, sent to the south of France, trained with the Alpine Chasseurs, so French mountain troops and then they came back. And when they came back, unfortunately, by that time the Fins had articulated and there was no need. And among these people that had volunteered were some very adventuresome types. There were two brothers called the Stirling brothers, one who became the founder, well, he became commando and then a founder of the SAS, other characters like that. And they decided that they would spend their leave up in Scotland at one of the lodges of Stirling Brothers and the Highlands. Why they were there, they had what you might call an ear in the corridors of power. And they decided they'd try and get a private army to do a raid in Norway. And they set off, they did get a submarine, but it broke down, they came back. And when they came back they said, "Well, we must get together and start a special training center." And that's how Lochailort was started. And among the people they got very quickly were these two Shanghai policemen of Fairbairn and Sykes who had started the Shanghai Riot Squad. And they introduced arm to arm combat, close quarter combat to the British Army and also introduced a famous FS fighting knife which is here today.
I went to Lochailort and did a demolition course under a man called Mad Mike Calvert who would claim to teach you to blow up everything from a brigadier to a battleship. But while I was up there doing my demolition course, I had sight of and rub shoulders were people who were doing that particular course as opposed to my course on demolitions.
Mad Mike Calvert. He was a sapper, a royal engineer and he was a qualified explosive expert. And he taught explosives until... After the Lochailort got established, a lot of instructors like Ster... when the commandos performed, because the Lochailort was formed before the commandos, but only a few months. They got established and some of them, like the Stirling Brothers. Lord Lovat was up there, he taught field draft and they decided to volunteer for commandos. And Mad Mike, he didn't initially, he kept on teaching demolitions and then they decided they wanted some of these irregular warfare expert tutors to go to the far east to help with Wingate and the Chindits. And Mad Mike then left Britain, left Lochailort and went over to the far east and became a commander of one of the columns of Wingate's first expedition in the jungle. But he was a mad character, hence his nickname Mad Mike.
FS knife was a fighting knife invented by Fairbairn and Sykes, nicely balanced. It became and still is, the emblem of the commandos. The Royal Marine commandos of today have their shoulder fangle fighting knife. And Fairbairn and Sykes taught one how to handle the knife. I would say it was very rarely used in action, but it was one of those things which inculcated the right fighting offensive spirit, which was possibly lacking in the peace time army. One of the great moments that I always have is that the peace time army of Britain, which I only saw the last few months, that one fit, fit to play games and rugby and tug war cross country but not fit to fight.
I'll give an example of that. When we first started in commando, the [inaudible] would go, or the sergeant would say, "Right, get ready for PT." And people would change into shorts and a singlet and brown canvas shoes to do PT as if they were at school that was wrong. We said, "No, this is ridiculous. You want to do PT in your battle dress your boots, not have Indian clubs for arm exercises. You use your rifle and so on." And that was another example of bringing up to date and getting chaps to think in terms of preparing to fight as they have to fight. And Fairbairn and Sykes brought that in. They said, "You'll probably end up without any of your weapons sometime you've either got to disarm your enemy or know how to either kill him or maim him or put him out of action without a weapon. And therefore you look around what have you've got? You've got boots on your feet to use. You can use your hand in a certain way and so on." And this is all part of creating that spirit, that offensive spirit which became known as the commando spirit.
Sykes was the judo expert, but both had got what was called the black belt in judo. And I think one of them has, recount without looking at record, Fairbairn possibly was the first foreigner outside Japan that had a black belt.
Well, the original ones, the chaps that joined up in '40, it was an ongoing thing. We were being prepared for operations while we were still really training. And as a result, some of the earliest raids weren't successful. They were good propaganda because people did land on the enemy coastal line, but they weren't really successful. It was a different feeling, I should imagine later on when the training center was established and there was a course of six weeks to go through to get your green beret. Because initially until the first two years from 1940 to '42, we didn't have a green beret. We all wore our own regimental headdress, whatever it was, a Tam o' Shanter of the Scottish regiment, a [inaudible] cap in the cavalry, a black beret for the tank people and so on. So for us, in the early days we were in commandos and so it was just ongoing. We didn't feel really any different after that training. We did, initially, but we knew we were better. Whereas from '42 onwards, the chaps that came in had to go through the basic training and weren't a commander until they passed that. The early chances were commanders from the start. A subtle difference.
Well, the first big one we went on was successful, the Lofoten Island ones. The Boulogne one, it started off badly. We were tubing some landing craft across the channel from Dover and I think the three of them. And in C troop, we had two chaps in the landing craft and it got a washed going over and subsequently sunk. And as a result the guys in that landing craft were drowned. But there were only two, it has been said by someone and I've heard that it had been reported in a recording at the Imperial War Museum that there could have been as many as 30, but that is not true. Our troop sub major second in command of the LCA, which would've been loaded and we lost just the two no more. I can remember their names, [Crump] and [Hoodless].
Anyway, we did land there. Our particular role was to create a bridge head. A beach head. And so that was our main task. The other troop, would land in, B troop, had a variety of objectives and catch a prisoner. And they had with them some experts who wanted to examine a certain installation or a type of defenses of this installation. But I personally was not involved in that. It wasn't a spectacular raid like the Fulton raid where you saw positive results. But it certainly, according to the CO and his report, successful in a limited way. But it was unsuccessful in as much as we didn't use the right technique for taking our landing craft across in the first attempt.
The idea behind the system was to have no tail, no administrative tail. Every infantry battalion to keep the battalion on the road as it were, has to have cooks, orderlies, has to have guards, and all that sort of thing. Well, if you have a system whereby you give the soldiers or lower people in the unit a ration card and money to find their own billets, especially as all the commanders that set one were founded in seaside results for two reasons. One, you had access to the sea and often small boats, fishing boats or small craft or practice seamanship and B, you had availability of lodgings and places like that which weren't being used because of the war, but would be available for billeting soldiers and land ladies custom to providing breakfast and an evening meal for their seaside visitors. So that was fine and that worked very well.
Because we dropped six shillings and a pence which was a third of a pound sterling. Other units, other people often thought outside commanders it was extra pay but it wasn't. That was for our subsistence. So that myth had to be exploded later on during the war. It worked very well. It meant that unlike an infantry battalion, you had a hundred percent of your men available for training. And Colonel Darby of the US Rangers, when after they had come over to Britain in '42, they had gone to Achnacarry which was followed on after Lochailort and had to marry up with one commando to prepare for the North African landing. And Colonel Darby's on record as saying it was a tremendous boost to the morale of his men. And for the first time he had all his cooks and other back man and all those sort of things out training because they had a ration card and he had a hundred percent. And he said it was tremendous and it gave the men a lot of initiative instead of being in Barracks and told to get on parade in 10 minutes time and this and that, they had to do it for themselves. They had to think about it, where they were going to be, what equipment they were going to take. And so it stimulated initiative.
To be able to react to any given situation within the framework of the main aim, to destroy the enemy. Compatible with self-sufficient was the need for each individual to be part of a team and the smallest denominator for the team was two. So we introduced what was called ‘Me and my pal’, which I think Americans later called ‘Me and my buddy’. And then the two became a self-contained unit and invariably they shared the billet together as they were on the Bren gun. They were automatically the number one and the number two and the mortar, number one and number two. So to go back to your original thing, self-sufficient, able to cope with a situation and respond to a situation with full confidence. Confidence in the order is given because there has to be a mutual respect and loyalty between the leader of whatever rank, whether it's on the officer down to the section sergeant, to the lance corporal in charge of a little group. And to have that trust, a mutual respect, which came through all the various aspects of training where leadership at all its levels came out like mountaineering, rock climbing, a dicey situation in the water, and so on.
It developed in training and was probably more applicable in training because when you did a raid and came back and then trained again, you had chance to cement any losses. But when the commando like in Normandy where they're in the line for 90 days, the system to a degree broke down because one might get killed and then your buddy had gone, you see? So you then have to try and get another link and possibly you became one of three or something like that. So it was an ideal situation, mainly for the purpose of training. But it did stand the test of action, but it was liable to be broken up. And of course it could have, if you were very devoted to your buddy or pal and you lost him, it could really tear a hole in here. And so there was a danger there. But that was met by another couple would say, "Well, we've looked after old George, he's lost Fred, we have him with us." And then a reinforcement would come in and a heal of the gap.
Oddly enough, in commanders in particular, we often used to find that a bloody good soldier is a little bit bolshy and was always moaning. We'd often, especially in C troop, I remember quite a few, and George would know them, we'd say, "I tell you what we'll do, we're given the stripe, make him a lance corporal, give him some responsibility. And then instead of being a whiner and a moaner, he had to pass on the orders and he'd explain why it was necessary”. And I can think of two chaps in particular who could have been a bit of a nuisance, and we gave them stripes, gave them a bit of responsibility, and they reacted and it did the trick.
Initially, the concept of commando raids were small raids. The chap in charge of overall charge of commandos was a great buddy of Winston Churchill, who'd been a great leader in World War I who was Sir Roger Keyes. He, towards the end of 40, he had the idea that we should go for bigger raids. And he got the year of Churchill and they planned while we were all up in Scotland, a big raid in the Mediterranean to capture an island called Pantelleria or in the Mediterranean which would be used as a base to operate against the Italians' supply in North Africa. In the event, it was canceled, although the commanders were sent out there and that's another story.
Following on that, the chiefs of staff and the economic advisor decided that there'd be a big raid in Norway because the Germans who were occupying Norway had developed factories in the north of Norway where they were converting fish oil, cod oil into a component for nitroglycerin for explosives and sending it back to Germany. So we decided carry out a big raid, two commandos, number three and number four to the islands of Lofoten, one into the Arctic circle and destroy these factories and the fishing fleet which were producing this substitute for nitroglycerin.
So off we went, we staged at Snapper, we had detailed plans. I was then a sergeant in F troop and we had a specific task. I had to land with my little group and I had a house to go to and to get at a chap who was the manager of a little factory. And he would take us into the factory and we would destroy everything in there. And all of us had tasks like that. Another troop had to go and surround a little barracks where the Germans were located and either capture or destroy them.
And so the landing, which was up the field, was carried out with complete surprise. We were all dreading it, well, not dreading it, but apprehensive that we'd be shot up going in, but we weren't. We got in with complete surprise. And the whole raid, it sounds almost fantastic. We destroyed something like 16 or 17 factories. When I say factories, they were small units, not great big things like you're used to in the States, you know the factory. But they were producing this oil and it was stored in great tanks and we destroyed something like 800,000 gallons of this oil. We sunk, with explosives and death charges, something like 18 ships. We captured 200 odd German prisoners and we brought that 300 Norwegians without one single loss. There was only one person injured and that was an officer who shot himself in his leg taking the holster out from a leg holster. It was a fantastic achievement and was often decried because there was no fighting hardly.
But the group that captured the main group of the German prisoners got to this small barracks where over a hundred and they surrounded it and it was just before their re-valley. And they knew that they had a sort of parade first thing. And they waited until they paraded before they fired. And the Germans had no weapons with them, they weren't expect... The most extraordinary success story which because there was no battle, is often just been neglected. So that was Lofoten Islands. Tremendous. And of course it was a great booster morale back here, bring back 200 old prisoners, see them landing in [inaudible] because it was a time in March 1941 when there was heavy blitz in London. So it was a good morale booster.
That was Maj James Dunning. Next time on Warriors In Their Own Words, he’ll describe the infamous Dieppe Raid, and how he became an instructor at Achnacarry Castle.
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