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Bill Brown on Combined Operations

The third chapter of Bill Brown’s service memoir, in which he reflects on the birth of combined operations.


The next morning, after a hurried breakfast, I presented myself at Turner’s office, my arrival coinciding with his. “Couldn’t you sleep Bill” was his greeting. Assuring him that my early appearance on parade was not due to insomnia or to a Gun Room hangover but to a burning desire to find out what I had volunteered for. “Good show” was his only comment.

Turning to a safe he extracted a bulky file and dropped it on the table. “There you are Bill, wade through that lot, it will give you a good idea of the thinking behind the creation of Combined Operations, it’s planning and progress through to it’s fruition and emergence as the latest weapon in the Strategic Armoury of the Allied War effort”. I looked down at the file, bearing a very prominent ‘Top Secret’ stamp heading a number of notes listing the very limited readership. No doubt about it’s very high security status. I felt quite elated. Bob pushed a form across to me, “sign for the file and then take it into the next office and bury yourself into that pile of bumpf”, adding “that should keep you out of mischief for the rest of the day”.

The next office lay beyond the connecting door from Turner’s office and was at present unoccupied. It had been placed at my disposal with strict instructions that I was on no account to take the file, any bits of paper within it, or any bits of paper that could possibly be associated with the contents of the file, including any notes I may make for reference at some later date, out of the office. To ensure that these instructions did not escape my memory I found that the door from the office leading into the corridor was securely locked and the key not available. My only way out was via Turner’s office. Bob was obviously taking no chances. I sat down and for a moment re-read the notes on the front cover before opening it and settling down to digest the contents of Combined Operation.

I lay back in my chair for a moment and tried to assess my position. Here I was ‘aboard’ a Royal Navy shore based establishment, enshrouded in absolute secrecy and banished to a locked room from which all my movements would be monitored. I felt like some secret agent and in possession of highly sensitive material that could, if it fell into enemy hands, threaten the World. All in the best traditions of the Boy’s Own paper. A blood and thunder weekly that I sometimes took to school and for which I often got taken to task by my school master for reading such trash. “It won’t do your mind good to fill it with that rubbish”, he would add. I wondered what he would say if he could now see me doing it for real. I cam back to the present and addressed myself to the job in hand, to learn about something I had volunteered for, but which I knew absolutely nothing. So, the sooner I started to learn the better.

The first few pages were devoted to the security status of the file and details of who could or could not read the contents and attention was drawn to the severe penalties that faced any unauthorised person found in possession of any of the highly classified notes that followed. These severe penalties were extended to any authorised person holding the notes in safe keeping who, by carelessness or neglect, mislaid any of the documents or left them in a position that could enable any unauthorised person to see them. I now understood Turner’s insistence on my signing for the files and for the deterrents against my possibly removing the file and papers. Many of the preliminary notes I was already familiar with but I thought it as well to read them all again and any new ones that may be peculiar to Combined Operations.

Finally, I arrived at the real meat of the subject matter. Combined Operations was explained in great detail, including the various stages that had been discussed, including those that had been discarded and the reasons for such action. The description continued covering its entire history from it’s first thoughts to it’s final stage and it’s place in the future execution of the War. It made fascinating reading and this final blue print of the new and untried Command increased the flow of adrenalin. At least I was beginning to see some daylight at the end of the tunnel. I wanted to learn more.

Briefly, it was a completely new Command formed to embrace and exploit the expertise of each Service and to pool all these resources into one offensive force under one overall Commander, to whom all Service Chiefs would be answerable. To this end, all Services would be trained together and would familiarise themselves with the methods and procedures of the other Services so that they could act as an integral Force when the day of action arrived.

Explanations then followed on the thinking behind the decision that it was necessary to create such an organisation. It’s prime object and the basic thoughts that brought it into being was to eliminate Red Tape and the inevitable differing opinions and views held by the respective military hierarchy brasswork that could delay initiating and activating some specific operation resulting in some cases in completely ignoring or failing to give full thought to the integration of some essential ingredient put forward by one of the Service Chiefs that, in hindsight, could have contributed to a more successful conclusion to that operation.

To reinforce this argument, reference was drawn to an ongoing operation that had seen some spectacular and brave advances against an Elite Force of the German Army, only to have to fall back and yield all the territory so gained at such a price in men and materials due to poor communications and full all Service back-up and co-operation. These set backs were proving a very serious problem, aggravated by, to some extent, misjudgement of the situation by the Directorate of Ordnance and Supplies. Many very able Generals whose military abilities were never in doubt, had been let down by lack of efficient back up. Such was the basic analysis behind the thinking and organising behind the concept of Combined Operations.

The analysis was obviously using the conflict in the West upon which to form a base for this new Command. From this experience the Boffins, strongly backed by Winston Churchill, had come up with this completely new conception of a Command under one Supreme Commander who would ensure that all the inter-Service squabbles would be sorted out and settled before a final composition was concluded and the appropriate action decided on. These pre-Operational discussions would include, that all back-up facilities would be in place, including uninterrupted production of arms, ammunition, food and medical supplies and that all transport by land, sea and air was available in sufficient quantities to maintain a battle front in continual ongoing action, until all opposition had been overcome and the enemy had laid down their arms. The notes concluded emphasising that when, and only when all possible points had been raised, discussed and analysed and all factories producing war materials were in a position to maintain a continuous supply without any interruption, would the Supreme Commander give the order to put into action any proposed Operation. All orders would be issued direct from the Commander in Chief’s office to the appropriate Service Chiefs for action.

There followed several pages devoted to the various current procedures of the Services and how they were presently adapted to the progress of the war. These notes then dwelt on the weak links that could and did exist under separate Commands and that the creation of Combined Operations would eliminate these weak points or at least reduce their influence to virtually zero. It was a very interesting file and the whole emphasis of the proposed operation was on ‘attack’. At last we were taking the war to the enemy and we would dictate its progress to ultimate victory. It was a very satisfying proposition and gave one a glow of self pride and a morale booster.

There followed a very brief description of a hypothetical action that would be executed under a United Command. A landing on a target area would be selected and finally decided upon after receiving Intelligence Reports on Enemy Strengths in men and materials and the likely opposition we would likely to face. Also, taken into account, would be reports from underground workers, Resistance workers and other agents and undercover workers. The attitudes of the local and native population would figure largely in the final deliberations. The co-operation of the locals and natives could play a large part in the success of the operation, as could their open and possible hostile opposition.

Having received, analysed and assessed the situation based on the information to hand and available a decision would be made to activate the operation. A complete fighting force would be assembled combining all three Services under one Command who would, after coming together at various assembly points, then sail in convoy to the enemy or enemy held target area, escorted by ships of the Royal Navy and serial coverage by Fleet Air Arm aircraft and Royal Air Force aircraft.

Prior to the actual landing, the Royal Navy would engage all shore batteries manned by the enemy and would soften up the assault shoreline and continue to cover the assault personnel as they landed. The first wave of assault units would be ferried across the water from their anchored ships off shore in RN landing craft and would press home a vigorous attack on the defending troops and would continue this attack until all opposition had been overcome. A beach head would be established for the arrival and landing of the main body of the invading Army and all their military hardware – tanks, guns, and so on. Having secured the beach head, the first wave personnel would proceed inland and assist other assault units approaching from other beaches in attacking, capturing and securing the airfield or other strategic installation. The actual landings would be supervised by the Royal Navy Beach masters, whose job it would be to direct each landing craft to it’s appointed position according to it’s draft and it’s compatibility with the type of beach available.