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The birth of commandos: myths and reality
The birth of commandos: myths and reality

Special forces for sabotage and reconnaissance actions. What is hidden behind the concept of "commando" and where did this word come from?

The term "commando" was introduced into circulation in the 40s of the twentieth century, when the first army special units began to appear in Great Britain. Winston Churchill was the initiator of their creation. Here is what he wrote in a message to his government minister Anthony Eden: "I got the impression that Germany was right to use assault units during the First World War and now … France was defeated by a disproportionately small group of well-armed soldiers from elite divisions." Already in the summer of 1940, Churchill demanded that senior military leaders begin work on the formation of special forces, which were supposed to be used primarily behind enemy lines to organize sabotage and guerrilla warfare.

Such units have received the official name "special service battalions". However, among the first special forces, another name quickly spread - "commandos". It was written by an officer of the British Department of Defense, Lieutenant Colonel Dudley Clark, of South African descent. As the fighters of the first battalion of the "special service" recalled, he "told them with ardor about the legendary Boer partisans organized in the" commando ", their tactics and techniques" during the Boer War of 1899-1902. Many people liked the romantic stories of the South African, and they liked the name too. Why did the South African Dudley Clark so attract his listeners?

Hit and run

Apparently, many have heard such a saying: "The third one does not light a cigarette from one match." But not everyone knows that it went from the time of the Boer War of 1899-1902. They joked so gloomily, fearing their opponents - the Boer snipers - the British "red coats", the soldiers of the colonial British army. They said: "When the first smoker lit a match to light it, the driller, who is in ambush, raises his gun, when he lights the second one, the drill aims, and when the third smoker lights it, the drill shoots." And shoots right on target. The third does not light a cigarette, because he simply does not have time - he falls dead.

Boer partisans. The birth of commandos: myths and reality
Boer partisans. The birth of commandos: myths and reality

Boer partisans. The phenomenal speed and accuracy of the Boers (“farmer” in Dutch), the descendants of the first European settlers in South Africa, were legendary. They could shoot accurately even in pitch darkness, focusing not only on the light of a lighted match, but also on the voice. Every adult farmer who carried a weapon was a real sniper, for if he did not become one, then after two or three marches along the bush he turned … into the prey of a Zulu warrior. The Boers combined excellent positional weaponry with excellent shooting on the move: from carts and horses. And that was not all. White South African settlers in a continuous struggle for survival, where every night spent in the bush threatened innumerable dangers: the Zulus, bloodthirsty predators, have perfectly learned the art of disguise. They were real hunters. And their target could be both game and man. They were also born scouts. French officer Gillergas wrote: “Boer is an excellent scout, because he knows his country very well, and his eyes are more trained than those of the enemy. The air in South Africa is very clear and everyone's eye can see a great distance; but only a boer, accustomed to the local environment, can distinguish an Englishman from a local man in the street where a foreigner notices only a living creature … ". The first settlers from Europe, mainly the Dutch, as well as the Germans and the French, appeared in southern Africa as early as 1652. Over time, they formed a special ethnic group - the Boers (Afrikaans) with their own language - Afrikaans. They were forced to wage a severe struggle for survival, to fight with predatory beasts and numerous African Zulu hunters, who, naturally, considered these lands their own and did not intend to give them to their bearded white uncles.

To protect their settlements, the Boers began to create special units, which they called "commando". They consisted of the most experienced and militarily skilled farmers. History has preserved for us a description of the first battle of the South African commando.

This happened in 1816. In Bloemfontein, a detachment of 135 farmers was formed to defend against the Zulu. They were seasoned and experienced pioneers who participated in more than a dozen battles with the aborigines. Once this detachment of Boers had the opportunity to meet with a whole army of Aboriginal people. The Africans gathered about 12 thousand soldiers armed with spears. The Boers were armed with guns and had an important advantage in means of transportation - horses. Although the numbers of the parties were clearly unequal, the Boer commandos did not flinch and decided to take the fight. The opponents converged on the Mariko River, not far from Mafeking. The Boers used their advantage in weapons and the speed of horses so skillfully that within a few hours they put out of action up to a third of African warriors.

Their tactics were as follows. The riders, who were perfectly capable of shooting from the saddle, lined up in a row, and at once let their short, but extremely hardy horses into the crowd of Africans. The clatter of hooves, dust from under the horses and the warlike cries of bearded horsemen dressed in wide-brimmed hats confused the ranks of the aborigines. Approaching the distance of a spear throw, the Boers sharply upset the horses and at once fired a volley from their rifles. Then, not wasting a second before the most agile Zulu spearmen could reach them, they retreated. Furious and annoyed aborigines rushed in pursuit, but could not keep up with the agile animals. When the chase was choking, the commando riders stopped their horses, lined up in battle formation and again rushed to the attack.

Using such tactics, the Boers achieved several goals at once: part of the Zulu soldiers rushing in pursuit turned out to be unarmed, since they did not have time to pick up the thrown spears. After running several hundred meters, the natives quickly got tired and were not so accurate at the next collision. And finally, operating at the rate of "ebb and flow", the Aboriginal army was mixing, losing order and control. As a result, 12 thousand aborigines were scattered, and their leaders and best warriors were killed. Of the one hundred and thirty-five commando warriors, not one was even wounded. In the future, this tactic of the Boers, used everywhere, was called by the British "Hit and run" - "Hit and run".

In search of "birds of prey nests"

In 1877, the powerful British Empire declared all of South Africa the property of Britain. The freedom-loving Boers, under the threat of occupation, united and rebelled. As an eyewitness wrote, “each farm had its own shooters,” the Boers, experienced and seasoned snipers and hunters, began to form commando squads. In the first major clash of British colonial troops with the Boers at Majuba Hill, four hundred selected colonial riflemen were destroyed by several dozen snipers, skillfully disguised in rocky crevasses. The British realized that they could not defeat the Boers in a swoop, and in March 1881 an armistice was concluded, which resulted in a peace treaty between the Boers and the British administration. The Boers received the right to found their independent republics - Orange and Transvaal.

At the same time, commandos receive the status of official semi-regular military formations of these republics. According to the law, their members (commandos) were summoned to assembly points "in the event of the need to suppress internal unrest in the country and to protect the Fatherland from external enemies." Each Boer commando, in the event of being drafted, was obliged to appear for military service with his own weapons and equipment, except only in cases of "extreme poverty." In addition to weapons, the drill was obliged to have a supply of food, a horse, and many brought them to assembly points and their own carts drawn by oxen.

The second Boer War broke out in 1899. The British prepared thoroughly: several regiments were transferred from the metropolis and other colonies - Canada, Australia, Malaysia, Rhodesia. However, at first, the British, despite their well-oiled discipline and tactics, suffered several significant defeats. Mainly because of the psychological attitude: "a well-trained soldier cannot see a serious opponent in a horse farmer." But in the meantime, these horse farmers, organized in commandos, numbering from several tens to hundreds and thousands of fighters, inflicted defeat after defeat on them.

Here is a documentary testimony of a participant in that war: “Their (Boers. - Auth.) Soldiers were courageous, hardy and fought with religious frenzy. Riding undersized horses, they had a mobility that almost doubled their numbers and never allowed them to flank. As shooters, they simply had no equal. Add to this the advantage of operating in familiar conditions, using shorter and safer communications, and you will understand how insurmountable task was before the soldiers of the empire."

However, the British gradually increased their numerical advantage, selected, proven units led by experienced military leaders were transferred from India and other colonies of the empire, who began to push the enemy on all fronts. Afrikaners, due to their small number, were forced to go to guerrilla warfare. It was here that their commandos showed their exceptional efficiency. The partisan detachments consisted of “Boers - tanned, overgrown, bearded farmers. These were the people of the Bible and rifles who had absorbed the traditions of guerrilla warfare. They are, perhaps, the best natural-born warriors on earth, well-aimed marksmen, hunters, accustomed to restrictions in food and even more in comfort. Their manners and speech are rude, but they can be placed next to the most disciplined armies in the world … ". The Boers used all the methods of guerrilla warfare known at that time: they destroyed small military detachments and posts, seized carts with food, cut railways, deprived the British of water sources and feed for horses, set snipers to ambush train drivers and stokers with military and civilian cargo.

In their tactics, the Boers made extensive use of experienced trackers-scouts, who honed their craft "in the hunt for animals and aborigines." They penetrated the battle formations of the "Fusilier and Dragoon royal riflemen, bringing valuable information about their numbers, weapons and moods." At the same time, they often disguised themselves in "English dress, posing as Englishmen."

The Boer commando fighters successfully used many of the techniques of deceiving the enemy, which today have become part of the usual arsenal of special forces in the world. Once a select detachment of the Manchester Gordon Regiment, after a long bloody battle, finally took the fortified height of the enemy by storm. The English officer who led the attack, with a bloody saber, was the first to climb onto the cannon repulsed from the Afrikaners, ready to announce victory, but suddenly he heard the signal of the regimental bugler: "Stop fire!", "Everyone, rest!" The British, accustomed to obeying commands without question, lowered their guns in bewilderment. After some time, the bugler's command was repeated, and "with a sense of accomplishment, the soldiers" immediately retreated. Only after some time, the regimental bugler who had emerged from the battle formations in a frenzy shouted that he was not the signal at all. It turned out that the Boer commandos had learned the signals of the British army and, "sounding" them at the right time, stopped the Manchester offensive. And when the British soldiers realized the cunning and rushed to the already captured, but abandoned positions, they were greeted by friendly volleys. "Boers began to appear from behind each stone, strange, ridiculous figures, each of which snarled with deadly fire."

Boer partisans. The birth of commandos: myths and reality
Boer partisans. The birth of commandos: myths and reality

After the capture of many fortifications of the Boers, the elite royal riflemen, accustomed to frightening the aborigines with one of their appearance, with tears in their eyes, calculated the losses: the regiments after the attacks often lacked up to a third of their combat strength. For many, this was a revelation. Indeed, before each attack, their commanders, looking at the enemy through binoculars, saw only a few bearded men with guns, "lying between the stones and chewing on jerky." And they were met by tens and hundreds. The Boer hideouts were so perfect that one British officer, "firing 120 bullets from his gun," confessed "he never saw what to aim at." Another British officer testified: “The Boers took cover so skillfully that most of the time there was simply no one to aim at. You could only see the barrel of the rifle! " Imagine the surprise of the British when, after a successful attack, having lost dozens of comrades, they found between the rocks "covered with straw, comfortable, with a supply of food and drink" sniper rookeries equipped with escape routes. And in each of them only recently was "an adamant and formidable inhabitant" who left the position and left the enemy only "a bunch of spent cartridges and bits of food." The British nicknamed these shooting cells "birds of prey nests."

Experience is the son of difficult mistakes

An important quality of the Boer commandos was the ability to quickly learn from victories and defeats. They fought not by number, but by skill. The famous writer Arthur Conan Doyle, who took part in the Boer War as a physician to the colonial troops, characterized the Boer warriors as follows: “They were brave hunters and pioneers who demonstrated the highest skill in changing tactics in accordance with the actions of the enemy. This was their most important quality, which almost always helped them to win. " The Boers understood that, due to their small number, they could not defeat the enemy in open battle. Therefore, they sought new tactics. The Boer commandos used, for example, "escort tactics" with success. When the column of British troops went to the target, it was accompanied by flying commandos at some distance. Their riders did not get involved in combat with guards, using their fast horses and excellent knowledge of the area. But at the slightest opportunity, they fought off the column and took prisoners of the gaping British.

For example, the detachment of General Gatacre, consisting of the 2nd Northumberland Fusilier Regiment (about 960 soldiers and officers), the 2nd Irish Infantry Regiment (840 people), 259 mounted infantrymen and two field artillery batteries, with a total strength of up to 3 thousand people on the march were accompanied by several Boer commandos, consisting of 10 - 15 people. Afrikaners did not shoot, but only showed themselves from afar, demonstrating their horse riding. As soon as the English general sent a company or squadron to meet them, the Boers immediately disappeared without a trace into the savannah. The British campaign lasted for several days, enormous physical exertion and psychological stress led to the fact that the soldiers fell asleep at the side of the road, and the Boers took them prisoner. At the end of the march, the 3,000-strong column was a pitiful sight. General Gathakra's combat losses were only 26 killed and 68 wounded. But about 600 people were captured by the Boer commandos!

In another case, the Boers, to prevent the British from crossing the river, dammed it downstream, thereby deepening the ford and preventing the British Royal Guard from ferrying the guns.

The destruction of a British armored train on October 15, 1899 can be considered a real special forces operation of the Boers. In the Anglo-Boer War, armored trains equipped with powerful naval guns caused the Boers a lot of trouble. British General Hildward, who commanded the Empire's troops in the area of Excort and Chiwely, ordered the crew of an armored train to move to the area of Colenso to "probe the Afrikaner rebels." At this time, several detachments of Boer commandos, skillfully disguised themselves, took up positions near the embankment. When the armored train rushed past with a crash, several people crawled out onto the roadbed and in a matter of minutes dismantled the rails, cutting off the armored train's escape route. After a while, an armored train carrying ninety Dublin fusiliers, eighty Durban volunteers and 10 naval sailors serving a 7-pounder gun, was attacked by another detachment of Boers. The driver immediately reversed, increasing the power of the steam engine. The huge armored colossus gradually picked up speed and flew at speed into the area disassembled by the Boer commandos. Several platforms with fusiliers ended up in a ditch and were immediately mercilessly shot by snipers.

Ironically, the well-known British journalist Winston Churchill, attached to the colonial units, was on the armored train. Churchill managed to happily escape the Boer commando's sniper bullet. Moreover, he showed composure and determination, bringing the driver to his senses. Under his leadership, the locomotive was uncoupled from the derailed platforms, and several people, including the future British Prime Minister, escaped in the driver's cab. However, the Boers soon surrounded the locomotive. Churchill and his comrades were taken prisoner, from which, however, soon escaped successfully. But that is another story.

Boer partisans. The birth of commandos: myths and reality
Boer partisans. The birth of commandos: myths and reality

So Churchill gave the green light to the name, which was born in South Africa and denoted the most implacable and fierce enemy of the British Empire - the Boer commandos of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. But a worthy enemy, who can be considered the prototype of modern special forces formations. The qualities of the Boer commandos: excellent accuracy and the ability to shoot from any position, the ability to operate in small mobile groups, disguise, as if merging with the surrounding terrain, endurance and unpretentiousness, and most importantly - the ability to think, change tactics and adapt to circumstances - all of them today are the main ones for the military personnel of any special forces of the world, which are called "commandos".

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