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Bill Thayer

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Combined Operations

[Hilary St. George Saunders]

With a foreword by
Vice-Admiral Lord Louis Mountbatten
Chief of Combined Operations

The Book and the Author

Combined Operations • The Official Story of the Commandos was published in 1943, while World War II was as yet unwon. After introductory chapters on the formation and training of the Combined Operations Command, the reader is taken thru a dozen or so examples of the raids it had carried out, in which the extremely success­ful operation at Saint-Nazaire and the dismal failure at Dieppe are given the most space: the latter is presented as a learning experience.

The book's author was "the Official Recorder of Combined Operations", but in a review for the Book-of‑the‑Month Club, which the publisher then printed on the book jacket, no less a writer than Evelyn Waugh blew his cover, identifying him as Hilary St. George Saunders (something by way of payback, since our author mentions Waugh in passing, p38). Here then at any rate is that Waughian prose:

About the "Anonymous" Author

Combined Operations Headquarters, London, is where the simple soldier moves cautiously. Unfamiliar sights disconcert him at every turn of its white corridors: here an Admiral munches a stick of dehydrated pork; there a General pushes a collapsible bicycle; an Air Marshal toys with surgical instruments; a Chaplain flashes Morse with a lamp; a white-bearded professor bars his path with an experimental rifle; a charwoman sticks colored pins into a map; at the hub of this surrealist whirligig broods the benign figure of Mr. Hilary St. George Saunders. While others make history, he records it.

It is my pleasure to offer his American readers some description of this power­ful man.

Saunders is sanguine, almost jovial. There is something monkish about him, and one learns that he was at school with the Benedictines at Downside; but he is a monk of the fishpond and refectory — indeed, he is the monk of a secular painting of Friar Tuck of Sherwood Forest.

On closer inspection, the monk is replaced by the man in a continental café of the good days: the elderly man who frequented a special table, whom habitués greeted respect­fully, who played dominoes occasionally, but who for the most part was content to sit and watch people go by. And one learns that Saunders spent seventeen years in that "Café de la Paix," the Secretariat of the League of Nations.

There is a third impression — that of a man of books. Seeing Saunders, one knows at once he is at ease with books, knows where to find them on the shelf and where to look for the required references. So one learns that he spent yesterday's peace as Assistant Librarian of the House of Commons.

These facts are written plainly upon this remarkable man. But there are parts of his career one would not guess. One wouldn't think he had been hard up. . . . Instead of a subaltern in the Welsh Guards, I should have expected to find him in the wardroom of a destroyer; but with that now famous regiment he won the Military Cross at Bavai in the last war. I can imagine a slimmer Recorder coxing the Balliol second eight; I find it hard to see him acting in Hardy's "Dynasts." I can imagine him very companionable in a meat ship with Madame Tabouis and Pertinax after the fall of France, but I find it barely credible that he shared rooms with Mr. Charles Morgan. Cultured conversation over the wine of France fits him. But skiing? No. the mind boggles at the image of his solid and studious figure skimming over mountain snows. Yet that pastime is a passion with him.

Throughout his career, Saunders has been a writer, or half a writer — for it is a further contradiction that this idiosyncratic man of affairs should also be one of the world's most success­ful collaborators. It seems to me as extraordinary for two people to collaborate as for three to produce a baby. But Saunders has collaborated in nearly forty books. He is half of Francis Beeding, success­ful adventure writer; he is half of David Pilgrim, author of "So Great a Man." He admits to a share in five noms de guerre, and has spoken anonymously in the famous works "Battle of Britain," "Bomber Command," and "Coastal Command."

Now he enjoys one of the most interesting appointments of the war — Official Recorder of Combined Operations. To him come documents hidden from the unofficial historian: orders, reports, correspondence, diaries — the bare bones of history. More than this, he knows the men who give history its life and soul. He interviews the triumphant force commander; he talks with men who serve in ships. He is war correspondent par excellence, with the advantage of leisure to turn his material into a form of abiding merit. The result is this remarkable book.

For technical details on how this site is laid out, see below, following the Table of Contents.

 p. ix  Contents

Foreword by Vice-Admiral Lord Louis Mountbatten




. . . To be known as Commandos


Training for Attack


The Steel Hand from the Sea


Destruction in Their Wake


The Exploits of "Layforce"


A Stroke at the Brain: The Raid on Rommel


The Significant Adventure of Vaagso


Battle over the Fjords


An Experiment in Radio-Dislocation


Assault from the Sea: St. Nazaire


The Glorious Rendezvous of H. M. S. "Campbeltown"


"The Commandos Got Cracking"


The Storming of Diego Suarez


Reconnaissance in Force: Dieppe


The Battery Did Not Fire Again


The Canadians Go In


The Battle of the Sea‑Wall


The Triumph in the Air


"This Majestic Enterprise"


To the Day of Assault


 p9  Illustrations

Between pages 16‑17

Assault course

Baptism of fire

The split second of impact

Getting tough

Invasion rehearsal

Attack, attack, attack!

Storming the heights

Eight hundred thousand gallons of oil go up in smoke

Jerry won't use that lot

Spitzbergen goes off the air

Destruction in their wake

The German barracks blazing on Maaloy Island

The storming of Maaloy

The street fighting was bitter

"The flames and flashes that belong to a raid"

The bombs struck the runways

"So ended the adventure of Vaagso"

The Raid on Bruneval (map)

The lie of the land

Between pages 112‑113

The spirit of St. Nazaire

"There was a grinding crash"

"The escape of the M. G. B."

The great dry dock

The dock disabled

Ten months later

What the "Campbeltown" destroyed

Madagascar landing

The swift climax of assault

Skirmish in the bush

Zero feet, near zero hour

The Americans lend a hand

Rendezvous for assault

Into battle

"Strictly according to plan" (map)

The Canadians go in

Vast ramparts of water

Withdrawal under fire

Journey home

The Commandos were there

 p. xiii  Maps

The Raid on Bruneval


Attacks on the Coasts of Europe


The Lofoten Landings


Operations in the Mediterranean


Vaagso: The Points of Assault


St. Nazaire: the Raiders Go In


The Storming of Diego Suarez


Dieppe: the Double Assault by No. 4 Commando


Dieppe: the Area of Battle


* These maps, in half tone, will be found in the groups of pictures fa­cing the page stated.

Technical Details

Edition Used

The copy I used for this transcription is the first impression of the first American edition. It was © 1943 "By the Controller of His Britannic Majesty's Stationery Office" — which is not British crown copyright — and the copyright was not renewed in 1970‑1971 as then required by American law to maintain it, so that the book has been in the public domain in the United States since Jan. 1, 1972: details here on the copyright law involved. Elsewhere, the book was under copyright thru the end of 2021, since its author Hilary St. George Saunders died in 1951; but is now in the public domain.


The printed edition has 38 illustrations (32 photographs, 4 drawings, and 2 photographic maps) gathered in two signatures, as listed in the Table of Illustrations above; and 7 line maps accompanying the text at various points. I've moved all of them to appropriate places in the text; the links in the table are to those places, of course.

The quality of the photographs is middling, and a few of them, as well as a few of the maps, were printed in two-page spreads over the gutter: I scanned those and stitched them together as best I could. I colorized the line maps for readability, according to my usual scheme.

For citation and indexing purposes, the pagination is shown in the right margin of the text at the page turns (like at the end of this line); p57  these are also local anchors. Sticklers for total accuracy will of course find the anchor at its exact place in the sourcecode.

In addition, I've inserted a number of other local anchors: whatever links might be required to accommodate the author's own cross-references, as well as a few others for my own purposes. If in turn you have a website and would like to target a link to some specific passage of the text, please let me know: I'll be glad to insert a local anchor there as well.


As almost always, I retyped the text by hand rather than scanning it — not only to minimize errors prior to proofreading, but as an opportunity for me to become intimately familiar with the work, an exercise I heartily recommend: Qui scribit, bis legit. (Well-meaning attempts to get me to scan text, if success­ful, would merely turn me into some kind of machine: gambit declined.)

My transcription has been minutely proofread. In the table of contents above, the sections are shown on blue backgrounds, indicating that I believe the text of them to be completely errorfree; a red background would mean that the page had not been proofread. As elsewhere onsite, the header bar at the top of each chapter's webpage will remind you with the same color scheme.

The printed book was very well proofread. One error seemed to be somewhat consequential: I footnoted it. A few others were unimportant, and I marked them with a dotted underscore like this: as elsewhere on my site, glide your cursor over the underscored words to read what was actually printed. Similarly, glide your cursor over bullets before measurements: they provide conversions to metric, e.g., 10 miles.

Some odd spellings, curious turns of phrase, etc. have been marked <!‑‑ sic  in the sourcecode, just to confirm that they were checked. They are also few.

Any over­looked mistakes, please drop me a line, of course: especially if you have a copy of the printed book in front of you.

[image ALT: A graphic montage, in silhouette, of a submarine periscope (serving as the upright of the image), against which, from top to bottom, figure a flying eagle with wings outstretched and about ready to swoop down with its beak pointing to the viewer's left; an automatic weapon also pointing left; and forming the base, a stand with two mortar shells. The image serves as the icon on this site for the book 'Combined Operations' by Hilary St. George Saunders.]

The icon I use to indicate this subsite is the version of the Commando Operations Command badge emblazoned on the book's hard cover. A more explicit and official version of that badge is found on the dust jacket.

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Site updated: 8 Apr 22