Article by Mark Simmons.
Vice-Admiral Norman Denning said of Ian Fleming the ‘ideas man’ who worked at Naval Intelligence, that many of his ideas, ‘were just plain crazy’ yet there were a few ‘that made you think before you threw them in the wastepaper basket.’ One that was not dismissed was the creation of what became known as 30 Assault Unit.
The Director of Naval Intelligence Admiral John Godfrey and his assistant Commander Ian Fleming had been impressed by the exploits of the Abwehrkommando. A specialist unit formed mainly from the Brandenburg Lehr Regiment that moved with the advance using their linguistic skills, many had lived aboard before the war, to seize anything of use in the intelligence field. They achieved good results in the Balkans, Greece and Crete.
The idea to form a similar, if expanded, a specialist unit of Royal Marine Commandos was put before the Joint Intelligence Board in 1942, who agreed to the formation of the unit. Initially, it was divided into four troops of Royal Marines, Army, Royal Air Force, and a Royal Navy section, the RAF part was never formed.
The Dieppe Raid
The Royal Marine 33 Troop of the yet to be designated 30AU took part in the ill-fated Dieppe raid in August 1942, as a clandestine part of 40RM Commando. Their goal was to obtain a cipher machine and documents from the German Naval HQ housed in a quayside hotel. Ian Fleming had wanted to land with them but was deemed too much of a security risk if captured, so he watched the landings from the deck of the destroyer HMS Fernie a mile offshore. The RM troop consisted of two officers and 26 men. For this operation, it was designated 10 platoon X Company 40 Commando, which was transported to Dieppe on the old flat bottomed Yangtze River gunboat HMS Locust.
Her skipper was Commander Robert E. D. Ryder, known as ‘Red’ a former polar explorer, he had won the VC during the raid on St.Nazaire five months earlier to prevent the dry-docks there being used by German battleships.
Part of the citation for the VC published on 19 May 1942 reads: ‘Though the main object of the expedition had been accomplished in the beaching of Campheltown, he remained on the spot conducting operations, evacuating men from Campheltown and dealing with strong points and close-range weapons while exposed to enemy fire for one hour and sixteen minutes, and did not withdraw till it was certain that his ship could be of no use in rescuing any Commando troops who were still ashore.’
That his Motor Gun Boat, now full of dead and wounded, should have been able to withdraw through an intense barrage of close-range fire was almost a miracle. Ryder later went on to command 30AU; he retired from the navy as a Captain. His Victoria Cross is held by The Imperial War Museum London.
The Locust came in toward the shore at 15 knots heading for the Mole to land the Marines but it was shrouded in thick black smoke and the gunboat was met by a blizzard of shellfire and hit. Marine ‘Ginger’ Northern was killed before they could get off Locust. Paul McGrath, nineteen at the time, another marine his first time in action was ‘petrified’ and ‘stunned’ by the experience. Ryder abandoned the run in toward the Mole, the Marines went over the side, down scrambling nets into Landing Craft, a flotilla of them made for the shore through a smokescreen.
They emerged running onto the beach where the Canadians had landed and were stranded. Some of the Landing Craft got the message to abort the landing, shouted and waved by Lt-Colonel J.P.Phillips to go back, wearing a pair of white signalling gloves to be seen better. The Landing Craft carrying 10 Platoon grounded on the beach and was immediately caught in a cross-fire. Lieutenant Herbert Huntington-Whiteley, the platoon commander, ordered his men to abandon their kit and swim for it back to the ships.
Thus Ian Fleming’s first experiment with this specialist unit ended, the men swimming away from the burning Landing Craft and carnage on Dieppe beach. Sergeant John Kruthoffer swam over two miles before being picked up. McGrath thought he was going to drown with his life jacket deflated he often went under; luckily near the end of his strength, he was dragged into a small boat.
Out of 5,000 Canadian troops landed that day, only 2,200 came back. Along with Marine Northern killed on Locust, Marine John Alexander from 10 Platoon did not make it. Their parent unit 40 Commando suffered a total of 99 officers and men 23 killed the rest wounded and/or captured out of 370 who went into action. Members of the unit were awarded two Military Crosses and three Military Medals.
In his report Fleming found it difficult ‘to add up the pros and cons of a bloody gallant affair’ but he thought the ‘machinery for producing further raids is thus tried and found good.’
The Next Phase
30 Assault unit then settled down to a period of training, including house clearing, lessons on explosives and bomb-making and safe blowing. They also began French lessons. The buzz was maybe they were going to France.
Admiral Godfrey had decided a small section would take part in Operation Torch the Allied invasion of North Africa. The unit had now been given the cover name ‘Special Engineering Unit.’
Lieutenant Dunstan Curtis RN would command the first assignment; his detachment joined the cruiser HMS Sheffield on the clyde also on board were 600 American troops. Training continued on the journey south weapon handling and physical exercises and the French lessons continued. Arriving at Gibraltar the destination was at last revealed as Algiers in French North Africa. Curtis and his small team objective, once ashore, was to locate the French Naval HQ and grab whatever they could. For the landing, along with the American troops, they transferred to two destroyers, the Assault unit was embarked on HMS Malcolm. In the early hours of 8 November, on a dark moonless night they headed toward the Bay of Algiers, both RN ships flew the Stars and Stripes hoping the French would not fire on them.
The plan soon went awry in the darkness. The ships could not find the narrow entrance to the harbour, and then the French woke up they were lit up by searchlights and came under fire from shore batteries. Malcolm was closer in at the time, her crowded decks were swept by shrapnel, ten men were killed and twenty-five wounded. McGrath had the feeling of here we go again but kept his head down, for on a ship ‘there is no hiding place’, the damaged ship headed out to sea.
HMS Broke the second destroyer did, at last, find the boom and broke through into the harbour landing her embarked American troops. Broke came under heavy fire and had to leave the harbour she was hit twice and would later sink. The American troops cut off and coming under increasing pressure had to surrender. The men of 30AU transferred from the damaged Malcolm to HMS Bulolo a converted liner the HQ ship of the task force. From which along with more American troops they landed some twelve miles west of Algiers.
Having landed, they set off toward a secondary target the Italian Commission HQ at Cheragard. They took the HQ housed in a villa capturing seven Italians. Later in Algiers Lieutenant Curtis found an Abwehr Enigma machine in the German Armistice Commission it was hurried back to Bletchley Park. Flown to Gibraltar and then to England, along with two tons of documents that were shipped home, these finds completely justified 30AU and Godfrey’s and Fleming’s faith in them.
The men returned from North Africa to find they had now been designated 30 Commando and had a new base at Amersham, Buckinghamshire.
They were reorganised into three troops Naval, Military, and Technical the later composed of RNVR officers, specialists in mines and torpedoes, submarines, radar and secret documents.
The next big operation for 30AU was Operation Husky the invasion of Sicily. The unit was also engaged in various operations around the Bay of Naples. In a night raid, they removed the Italian Admiral Eugenio Minisini and his wife from the Torpedo works on the Baia Peninsula along with several pieces of her luggage under the noses of the Germans to Capri. There the Admiral was interrogated and he supplied a great deal of information on the whereabouts of documents on torpedo and submarine research.
John Steinbeck, then a war correspondent working for the New York Herald Tribune, sent a dispatch dated 15 October 1943, titled ‘The Lady Packs’ where he recorded his impressions of the ‘celebrated commandos’ who he found ‘very strange men. Wearing boots with thick rubber soles, looked far too large for them. They were dressed in faded shorts and open shirts, and their arms were old-fashioned revolver, and a long wicked knife each.’ It seems the celebrated novelist got mixed up between operations, for the rescue of Admiral Minisini took place with an LCI towing a whaler to ensure a silent landing, whereas he cites an MTB. And the Commandos encountered no trouble that night but he indicates they disposed of eight guards with their wicked ‘long thin knives.’
In the late months of 1943, there was a power struggle over who should control 30 Assault Unit and what it should become. Colonel Robert Neville of Combined Operations had gone to Italy to inspect the unit and expressed the opinion it should become part of the Royal Marines. Ian Fleming argued it never was or had been intended to become a commando unit. It was too small rarely exceeding 120 men whereas a commando unit was by then around 600 men. Its task was intelligence gathering in which it had excelled and should be part of NID. Fleming won the argument. It was reorganised into three troops now designated A, B, and X, their new base was at Littlehampton on the South Coast.
All the fighting men were now Royal Marines, the new CO Lt-Colonel Arthur Woolley RM, the intelligence gatherers were mainly RNVR officers. 30AU now became part of Naval Intelligence as NID30 with its own office at the Admiralty. After his return from Italy Lt-Commander Glanville recalls being told by Fleming that the unit needed to shape up. ‘You can’t behave like Red Indians anymore. You have to learn to be a respected and disciplined unit.’ Yet the desk-bound Fleming liked to hear the stories of their adventures some of which would find their way into the Bond Books.
30AU were only a tiny part of the Normandy Landings code-named ‘Neptune’ for which it was split into three sections. The first to land on Juno Beach was X Troop Pikeforce led by Captain Geoff Pike RM, their target straight inland the Radar Station at Douvres-la-Delivrande. Second to land was Curtforce, led by Dunstan Curtis with 21 men they landed on Gold Beach on D+1. The main body under Colonel Woolley landed on Utah Beach on D+4 their target Cherbourg.
Lieutenant-Commander Patrick Dalzel-Job landed at Utah Beach with the main body on 10 June D+4. An adventurer and ideal officer for 30AU, in 1940 with his special knowledge of the North Norwegian coast, gained before the war, and with the aid of local small boats, he moved 10,000 men of the Allied Expeditionary Force without the loss of a single man. Then disobeying orders he used the boats to evacuate all the women, children and old people from Narvik just before the town was attacked by German bombers which reduced it to rubble. He escaped a Court Martial because the King of Norway thanked him personally and presented him with the Knight’s Cross of St.Olav.
On Utah Beach, Dalzel-Job found it difficult for the unit to move inland with their own vehicles past the masses of American troops. An hour after dark they halted near Ste Mere Eglise for the night there were no orders issued to dig in but some of the older hands did. Almost all the aircraft they had seen that day were allied, so they paid little attention when they heard aircraft low overhead, Dalzel-Job recalled what happened next.
‘Suddenly, there was an explosion like a bomb-blast immediately above us, followed by a peculiar fluttering noise in the air. For a while nothing else happened: then the whole field was lit by sharp flashes and explosions, like heavy machine cannons firing sporadically around us. The explosions did not last more than half a minute. In that time, the unit lost thirty per cent of its strength in killed and wounded.’
They had been hit by an early type of cluster bomb called a ‘butterfly bomb’ because they fluttered down to land before exploding. 30AU suffered three men killed and 21 wounded some seriously.
Paul McGrath, now a sergeant led a section that pushed fifteen miles beyond the American bridgehead at Omaha Beach looking for possible V1 launch sites. They found one near Neuilly-la-Foret. Dalzel-Job described it as having a ‘J’ concrete runway, and all around were scattered hurriedly abandoned German equipment and belongings.’ The day after the first of over 8,000 V1 flying bombs landed on London.
There were hundreds of German troops holed up inside the Douvres-la-Delivrande radar station the siege lasted a week, they had been bombarded by naval guns and aircraft and field artillery, and finally, it fell to a textbook attack by 41 RM Commando. By then there was only a handful of men from 30AU there under Lt-Commander Glanville, most of X troop having rejoined the main body. When he got into the station Glanville was exasperated to find the amount of looting that had gone on, many of the culprits were officers. The haul was small, some wheels from an Enigma machine and a used cryptographer’s pad.
Part of Curtforce with Lieutenants Guy Postlethwait and Tony Hugill both RNVR and nineteen marines had landed on D+2 at Arromanches moving west toward Port-en-Bessin, on the way they overran a radar station and hit the jackpot, it was taken intact, with a top-secret listing of all German radar installations in NW Europe along with the technical data on wavelengths, polarization, pulse repetition frequency and ariel display. Once back with the Admiralty it was regarded as the most important radar intelligence seized during the war, and within 36 hours all German radar in that group had been jammed.
By the time of the final push into Germany 30AU had grown to 25 officers half of which were Royal Navy and up to 300 men mostly Royal Marines, they worked largely in teams of 30 and with eight vehicles. They were among the first Allied troops to cross the Rhine. Colonel Humphrey Quill now commanded the unit. Ian Fleming had drawn up a list of targets, one of the main ones were the advanced U-boats built and designed at Kiel. 30AU were the first Allied troops to enter the town.
Much evidence was found about the fast type XVII U-boat known as ‘Walterboats’ named after the Walter drive system powered by hydrogen peroxide designed by Doctor Hellmuth Walter. Commander I.G. (Jan) Aylen serving with the unit came across two ‘Walterboats’ in Hamburg which had been ‘heavily damaged by bombs’ lying on a jetty, they resembled ‘a gigantic fish rather than a conventional submarine was an immediate clue to unusual speed.’ However, on closer inspection, it was found many of the more vital parts had been removed.
In Kiel, Doctor Walter was captured he would reveal nothing and confessed to being a loyal Nazi. Colonel Quill rushed off to Admiral Karl Donitz’s HQ, where he obtained written orders from the Admiral, the last leader of the Third Reich that nothing was to be withheld from 30AU. Walter then cooperated fully, getting submarine tests, various torpedoes, aircraft jet engines and V1 launch ramps ready to demonstrate for Allied VIP’s.
Also on Fleming’s list was the German one-man submarine, Admiral Bertram Ramsay who by then had 30AU in his overall command doubted such a vessel existed. Commander Ralph Izzard found one washed up near Walcheren. He put it on a tank transporter and took it to Ramsay’s HQ, on seeing it the Admiral still had reservations it would ever be used, it was just ‘a toy.’ Izzard suggested he look down the periscope which he did, to be met by the gaze of the dead German’s eyes in his bloated corpse at the other end, encased in his steel tomb.
With the items on Fleming’s blacklist near fulfilled he got in on the hunt himself. Jim Glanville had come across evidence of the German Naval Intelligence archives that were located in the Castle of Tambach in the Bavarian Alps, with a small team he set out to find them. The journey was difficult because of damaged bridges and wrecked roads. ‘The whole area was in a state of chaos, with SS units fighting it out. Wehrmacht fighting or surrendering and with bands of escaped POW’s mainly Russian and Poles roaming the countryside or deserters from the German Army…’
Reaching the castle they were confronted by a German Naval rating who surrendered when challenged by a marine’s Tommy-gun. World War I veteran Admiral Walter Gladisch commanded the post he was delighted to see Glanville and his men, he had been ordered by Donitz to hand over the archives to the Allies. He had doubted his ability to comply with SS bands nearby, the Russians approaching and even some of his own staff wanting to destroy the archive.
Concerned about the fate of the records Fleming arrived at the castle which he described as; ‘Cold, Dismal. Comfortless. Ghastly. Count Dracula Stuff.’ Although he found the old Admiral ‘quite helpful.’ The entire Archives were brought to Hamburg in a convoy of three-ton trucks where they were loaded onto a fishery protection trawler for the voyage to London. Later he admitted to having enjoyed his trip to Germany. As to 30AU his creation, with the war almost over, he felt, compared to others serving at the front, his ‘Red Indians’ had ‘enjoyed a far more light-hearted war.’ Although the unit in its ‘sharper moments had lost too many men’ which he bitterly regretted.
In 1946 the unit was disbanded. Many of the exploits and adventures of 30AU would find their way into his 007 books, starting with the first Casino Royale in 1953.
In 2010 the Royal Marines formed 30 Commando Information Exploitation Group which carries the history of 30 Assault Unit. In 2013 30 Commando IEX was granted the freedom of Littlehampton in honour of the original unit being based in the town.
Patrick Dalzel-Job, From Arctic Snow to Dust of Normandy
Andrew Lycett, Ian Fleming
David Nutting, Attain by Surprise
John Pearson, The Life of Ian Fleming
Nicolas Rankin, Ian Flemings Commandos
John Steinbeck, Once there was a War
Mark comes from a family with a long tradition of service in the Royal Navy and Royal Marines. In the 1970’s he served in the Royal Marines Commandos after gaining his Green Beret he was drafted to 40 Commando seeing active service in Cyprus. Later he served in 3 Commando Brigade, and with the Commando Logistics Regiment. With the Regiment, he took part in the Belize emergency of 1977 and served on detached duties with 42 Commando, the Mountain & Arctic Warfare Cadre, and 36 MAU of the United States Marines.
His new book Ian Fleming’s War is out now with a foreword by Anthony Horowitz. The thread of the Second World War runs through the whole of the Bond series, and many were inspired by the real events and people Fleming came across during his time in Naval Intelligence. In this book, Mark Simmons explores these remarkable similarities, from Fleming’s scheme to capture a German naval codebook that appears in Thunderball as Plan Omega, to the exploits of 30 Assault Unit, the commando team he helped to create, which inspired Moonraker.
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How were the men recruited for 30AU