AskDefine | Define commando

Dictionary Definition



1 a member of a military unit trained as shock troops for hit-and-run raids [syn: ranger]
2 an amphibious military unit trained for raids into enemy territory [also: commandoes (pl)]

User Contributed Dictionary



  1. A small fighting force specially trained for making quick destructive raids against enemy-held areas
  2. A commando trooper
  3. An organized force of Boer troops in South Africa; a raid by such troops

Derived terms


small fighting force
  • Finnish: sissipartio
commando trooper
  • Finnish: sissi

Extensive Definition

In military science, the term commando can refer to an individual, a military unit, or a raiding style of military operation. In some contexts, "commando" means elite light infantry or special forces. Commando units have a variety of specialist capabilities which enable them to conduct these kind of operations, most notable a broad range of deployment skills which often include parachuting, airborne rappelling or fast-roping, or amphibious landings.
In the military forces of some Commonwealth countries, there is a distinction between commando units, which specialise in offensive or assault tasks, and other special forces units, which specialise in: counter-terrorism and/or; reconnaissance and sabotage missions behind enemy lines.
Originally "a commando" was a type of military unit. In many languages, "commando" or "kommando" means "command", in the sense of a military unit.


The word commando originated in the Portuguese language (Comando in Portuguese), in which it means simply "command". The modern sense of the word stems from the Dutch/Afrikaans kommando, which was derived from the Portuguese word, as a result of contact between Afrikaner and Portuguese settlers in Africa. After the Dutch Cape Colony was established in 1652, a system known as Commando Law was created. This compelled settlers, known as Free Burgers, who had been released from their indentures with the Dutch East India Company, to equip themselves with a horse and a firearm, in exchange for the right to a piece of agricultural land. When required, a mounted militia force known as a kommando would be formed, to defend the colony. As the European population at the Cape increased it was no longer practical to make every Burger comply with the Commando Law and a voluntary militia system was introduced.
In conflicts with southern African peoples (such as the Xhosa and the Zulu during and after the Great Trek), Boer communities and farmsteads formed self-equipped, mounted commandos among themselves.
In the final phase of the Second Boer War, 75,000 Boers occupied the attention of the 450,000-strong British Empire forces. Because of the numerical imbalance, the commandos adopted guerrilla or raiding tactics, to minimise their casualties and prolong the war. These tactics gave commando its modern sense of specialised raiding forces.

World War II

Europe and the Mediterranean


In December 1939, following the success of German infiltration and sabotage operations in the Polish campaign, the German Office for Foreign and Counter-Intelligence (OKW Amt Ausland/Abwehr) formed the Brandenburger Regiment (known officially as the 800th Special Purpose Training and Construction Company). The Brandenburgers conducted a mixture of covert and conventional operations but became increasingly involved in ordinary infantry actions and were eventually converted to a Panzer-Grenadier Division, suffering heavy losses in Russia. Otto Skorzeny (most famed for his rescue of Benito Mussolini) conducted many special operations for Adolf Hitler, but no Commando organization was developed from this, and Skorzeny essentially remained a Waffen-SS Sturmbannführer (Major).
A report written by Major-General Robert Laycock in 1947 said there was a German raid on a radar station on the Isle of Wight in 1941.


Italy's most renowned commando unit of World War II was Decima Flottiglia MAS ("10th Assault Vehicle Flotilla") which, from mid-1940, were responsible for the sinking and damage of a considerable tonnage of Allied ships in the Mediterranean. After the surrender of Italy in 1943, those fighting with Germany retained the original name, and those fighting with the Allies dubbed themselves the Mariassalto.

United Kingdom

main article British Commandos In 1940, the British Army also formed "independent companies". These units were reformed as battalion sized "commandos", thereby reviving the word. It was intended that the British Army Commandos would be small, highly mobile surprise raiding and reconnaissance forces. Commandos were not intended to remain in field operations for more than 36 hours and carried all they needed. Army Commandos were all volunteers selected from existing soldiers still in Britain.
The Royal Navy also controlled Royal Navy Beach Parties, based on teams formed to control the evacuation of Dunkirk in 1940. These were later known simply as RN Commandos, and they did not see action until they successfully fought for control of the landing beaches (as in the disastrous Dieppe Raid of August 19, 1942). The RN Commandos, including Commando "W" from the Royal Canadian Navy, saw action on D-Day.
The British military intelligence organization Special Operations Executive (SOE) also formed commando units from British personnel and Europeans from German-occupied countries. Perhaps the best-known SOE unit was Norwegian Independent Company 1, which — among other operations — damaged the Norwegian heavy water facility in Norway, in 1941. Heavy water was the nuclear moderator Germany was using at the time (the Allies took a different approach with the Manhattan project).
In 1942, the British Royal Navy's nine Royal Marines infantry battalions were reorganized as commandos, numbered from 40 to 48. They joined the British Army Commandos in combined Commando Brigades. The Royal Marine Commandos, unlike the Army Commandos, were retained after the end of the war and still operate today. The 59th and 131 squadron Royal Engineers is also now part of the Royal marines 3 Commando Brigade

United States

In mid 1942 the US Army formed the Rangers, in Northern Ireland, under Bill Darby. The Rangers were designed along the similar lines to the British Army commandos, who supervised their training. The first sizeable Ranger action took place in August 1942 at the Dieppe Raid, where 50 Rangers were dispersed among the British Commandos. The first full Ranger action took place during the invasion of North West Africa in (Operation Torch) in November 1942.
The U.S. Marine Corps also developed Marine Raider commando forces during World War II. The most famous unit was under the command of Colonel Edson and was known as "Edson's Raiders". Marine forces would engage in quick assaults against Japanese forces behind the battle lines. Its missions were to gather military intelligence, disrupt enemy lines of communications, destroy Japanese supply lines and cause the enemy to avert combat forces for security purposes.


A joint Canadian-American Commando unit, the 1st Special Service Force, nicknamed the Devil's Brigade, was formed in 1942 under the command of Colonel Robert Frederick. The unit initially saw service in the Pacific, in August 1943 at Kiska in the Aleutians campaign. However most of its operations occurred during the Italian campaign and in southern France. Its most famous raid, which was documented in the film Devil's Brigade, was the battle of Monte la Difensa. In 1945, the unit was disbanded; the Canadian members were sent to the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion as replacements, and the American members were sent to either the 101st Airborne Division or the 82nd Airborne Division as replacements.

The Pacific and Asia

Following the British example, the Australian Army formed commando units, known as Australian independent companies in the early stages of World War II. They first saw action in early 1942 during the Japanese assault on New Ireland, and at the Timorese campaign. The 2/1st Independent Company was wiped out on New Ireland, but on Timor, the 2/2nd Ind Coy formed the heart of an Allied force which engaged Japanese forces in a guerrilla campaign. The Japanese commander on the island drew parallels with the Boer War, and decided that it would take a numerical advantage of 10:1 in order to defeat the Allies. The campaign occupied the attention of an entire Japanese division for almost a year. The independent companies were later renamed commando squadrons, and they saw widespread action in the South West Pacific Area, especially in New Guinea and Borneo.
During 1941, the United States Marine Corps formed commando battalions, inspired by both the British commandos and the tactics used by Chinese Communist forces, from whom they acquired the war cry "gung-ho". The USMC commandos were known collectively as Marine Raiders. On orders from President Franklin D. Roosevelt through a proposal from OSS Director Colonel William J. Donovan and the former Commander of the United States Marine Detachment Major Evans F Carlson, directed the formation of what would become The Marine Raiders. Initially this unit was to be called Marine Commandos and they were to be the counterpart to the British Commandos. The name Marine Commandos met with much controversy within the Marine Corps leading Commandant Thomas J. Holcomb to state, "the term 'Marine' is sufficient to indicate a man ready for duty at any time, and the injection of a special name, such as 'Commando,' would be undesirable and superfluous." President Roosevelt's son James Roosevelt served with The Marine Raiders The Raiders initially saw action at the Battle of Tulagi and the Battle of Makin, as well as the Battle of Guadalcanal, the Battle of Empress Augusta Bay, and other parts of the Pacific Ocean Areas. In February 1944 the four Raider battalions were converted to regular marine units.
Z Force, an Australian-British-New Zealand military intelligence commando unit, formed by the Australian Services Reconnaissance Department, also carried out many raiding and reconnaissance operations in the South West Pacific theatre, most notably Operation Jaywick, in which they destroyed tonnes of Japanese shipping at Singapore Harbour. An attempt to replicate this success, with Operation Rimau, resulted in the death of almost all those involved. However, Z Force and other SRD units continued operations until the war's end.
In 1944-45, Japanese Teishin Shudan ("Raiding Group") and Giretsu ("heroic") detachments made airborne assaults on Allied airfields in the Philippines, Marianas and Okinawa. The attacking forces varied in size from a few paratroopers to operations involving several companies. Due to the balance of forces concerned, these raids achieved little in the way of damage or casualties, and resulted in the destruction of the Japanese units concerned. Considering that there were no plans to extract these forces, and the reluctance to surrender by Japanese personnel during that era, they are often seen in the same light as kamikaze pilots of 1944-45.

After 1945

United Kingdom

The UK now maintains one brigade of Commandos (3 Commando Brigade) as part of the Royal Marines; this includes three Royal Marines Commandos (roughly of battalion size), one Army Royal Artillery Commando Regiment, one Army Royal Engineers Commando Regiment, and a Commando Logistic Regiment consisting of Royal Marines and Royal Navy personnel. 1 The Rifles is due to join the Brigade on 1 April 2008.


The German Army operates now the Fernspähkompanie (Germany's elite long range reconnaissance company), and the Kommando Spezialkräfte (KSK). The KSK is stationed in Calw in the Black forest area in southern Germany. It consists of about 1,100 soldiers, but only a nucleus of these are in fighting units. Exact numbers are not available, these information is considered to be secret. The KSK is a part of the Special Operations Division (Div. Spezielle Operationen - DSO).
The fighting units are divided into four commando companies of about 100 men each and the special commando company with veteran members, taking supporting tasks. Each of the four commando companies has five specialised platoons:
  • 1st platoon: land insertions
  • 2nd platoon: airborne operations
  • 3rd platoon: amphibious operations
  • 4th platoon: operations in special geographic or meteorologic surroundings (e.g. mountains or polar-regions)
  • 5th platoon: reconnaissance, sniper and counter-sniper operations
  • Command Platoon
There are four commando squads in every platoon. Each of these groups consists of about four equally skilled soldiers. One of each group is specially trained as weapons expert, medic, combat engineer or communications expert respectively. Additionally a group can contain other specialists, e.g. heavy weapons or language experts.
Another special unit, the Kampfschwimmer (comparable to the U.S.N. SEALS) are operated by the German Navy.


Canadian commando forces were disbanded and recreated at various times in the post-war years, and by 1979, there were three Units, with No 3 Commando established as an airborne unit. This resulted in a ceiling of about 750 members in all ranks, organized into three smaller company-sized commandos. The three infantry commandos took shape around the three regimental affiliations: No 1 Commando with the Royal 22e Régiment, No 2 Commando with Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry, and No 3 Commando with The Royal Canadian Regiment. The Canadian Airborne Regiment was disbanded after the torture and murder of Shidane Arone, a Somalia civilian, in 1993, and other allegations of wrongdoing within the Regiment. Later, parliamentary investigations would question why such an elite commando unit was sent on a peacekeeping mission. (The Canadian Joint Task Force Two, or JTF2, is also sometimes referred to as a "commando" unit, but it is technically a specialist counter-terrorist unit.)


In Australia, the Army's commando squadrons were disbanded at the end of the war. In 1954, two Citizens Military Force (reserve) units, 1 and 2 Commando Companies, were raised. A joint regimental structure for these, the 1st Commando Regiment (1CDO) was formed in the 1980s, this included a previously independent 126 Signal Squadron (Special Forces). During the 1990s, the Australian government perceived the need for a permanent commando capability; and the recently re-raised 4th Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment began the process of conversion for a commando battalion in 1997, using a cadre of 1st Commando Regiment and Australian Special Air Service Regiment (SASR) instructors. 126 Signal Squadron was reassigned to 4 RAR and 301 Signal Squadron re-raised to support 1st Cdo Regt. 1CDO and 4RAR soldiers must complete identical training and selection courses, before being awarded the coveted "Green Beret". One company of 4th Battalion is responsible for counter-terrorism operations and response in the eastern region of Australia and is officially known as Tactical Assault Group-East (TAG-E). This company mirrors its sister unit (the original Tactical Assault Group) in the West (TAG-W), which is part of the SAS. Commandos from 4RAR and 1CDO have recently been deployed to several countries including East Timor, the Solomon Islands, Iraq and Afghanistan.


The North Vietnamese produced some of the most effective commando units of the post WWII era. Called sappers, these units represented a force economy measure for the NVA (North Vietnamese Army) and the Viet Cong. With large scale conventional attacks increasingly untenable, small comando operations came into their own, particularly after the Tet Offensive and at times, inflicted severe damage to US and ARVN troops and bases.
Sappers were originally supporting adjuncts to regular formations prior to 1967, but in time, independent formations were created throughout the Vietnam arena. Sappers could operate in support of a larger regular infantry formation, or as the main spearhead themselves, with regulars as backup. In the spearhead mode, they represented their most potent threat. A typical raiding operation was divided into 4 elements: Assault, Fire-Support, Security and Reserves. Assault teams were generally broken down into 3-5 man cells. Fire-support was critical, as it forced defenders to keep their heads down, while inflitrating assault elements made their final penetrations. One of the most devastiting attacks was against the US Firebase, FSB Maryann in 1971. See chart for detailed breakdown of a typical sapper raiding party.
While small in terms of total men deployed throughout the Vietnam theater, sapper attacks had a significant impact for the NLF/PAVN effort. As one US Army history puts it:
"From the beginning of 1968 until mid-1969, sappers were essential to the enemy's effort. Although they participated in only 4 percent of all assaults, these made up 12 percent of all significant assaults-those which inflicted serious damage.. In 1969, the average raid inflicted more than $1,000,000 damage and accounted for more allied casualties."

Popular Culture

The terms "going commando" or simply "commando" are often used in the United States, Canada, Australia and Great Britain to refer to wearing no underwear under the trousers. The term originated with American soldiers who preferred not to wear underwear in field conditions because of its tendency to retain sweat and the additional laundry burden. The terms are analogous to the Scottish military term "regimental" referring to wearing no underwear under the kilt.

See also

commando in Danish: Kommando (militær)
commando in German: Kommando (Militär)
commando in Spanish: Comando (fuerzas especiales)
commando in Italian: Commando
commando in Hebrew: קומנדו
commando in Dutch: Commando (militair)
commando in Japanese: コマンド部隊
commando in Portuguese: Comandos
commando in Slovenian: Komandos
commando in Finnish: Erikoisjoukot
commando in Chinese: 突击队
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