7 amazing missions by Britain's Royal Marines

Britain is one of America’s closest allies and its service members are pretty impressive. One of its greatest forces is the Royal Marines, now known as commandos, who have fought on behalf of the British Crown since their original formation as the “Duke of York and Albany’s maritime regiment of Foot” in 1664.

Since then, they’ve proven themselves in hundreds of battles and dozens of conflicts everywhere from Massachusetts to Korea to the Falklands. Here are some defining moments from Royal Marine Commando history:

1. The Royal Marines carved out their names during the battle to take and hold the island fortress of Gibraltar.

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(Painting: The Siege and Relief of Gibraltar by John Copley)

In 1704, during the War of Spanish Succession, a combined force of 1,900 English Royal Marines and 400 Dutch marines hit the island fortress of Gibraltar in what was the largest English amphibious assault at that point in history. A large and unexplained explosion set the attackers back but the fortress was taken with relative ease.

Unfortunately, that triggered a nine-month siege, during which the marines fought valiantly. During one close call, French attackers had breached two defensive lines and had 500 men attacking 17 Royal Marines in the Round Tower. The marines held out even after 11 of them fell, leaving only six defenders.

2. Royal Marines slay bodies at Bunker Hill

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The American dying in the center of this painting is American Maj. Gen. Joseph Warren. The stabber with the bayonet was a Royal Marine. Awkward. (Painting: John Trumbull, Public Domain)

One of the Royal Marines’ prouder moments actually came in 1775 while fighting against the U.S. when British army regulars twice attacked during the Battle of Bunker Hill and failed to capture it. As the army melted back, the marine commander yelled, “Make way for the marines, break and let the marines through!”

The third assault, conducted by columns of marines instead of lines of British regulars, was successful and resulted in the British capturing the fortifications. But the losses for the regulars and the marines were high: 1,054 versus American losses of 400.

3. They give up half their strength to take Graspan in the Boer War

Illustration of the Battle of Graspan where royal Marines fought Boers

Illustration of the Battle of Graspan where royal Marines fought Boers. (Illustration: Public Domain)

Tensions between the English and the Boers in the late 1800s resulted in two Boer Wars. In 1899, Royal Marines and other troops were sent to attack Graspan in South Africa. Intelligence screw ups led the leadership to believe that the attack would be lightly opposed.

But it wasn’t. Boer riflemen and field artillery fiercely fought off the attackers. Despite heavy losses to include the commander and other officers, the marines and their compatriots rallied for a final attack and charged with their bayonets against the Boer positions, pushing the defenders off though failing to capture the enemy artillery.

4. Marines are instrumental in blocking Zeebrugge

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Royal Marines charge off the HMS Vindictive against the Mole at Zeebrugge, Belgium. (Painting: Imperial War Museums Art)

During World War I, the Royal Marines provided the landing parties and some of the gunners for a daring raid against the German U-Boats in Bruges. The plan called for ships to be sunk in the long canal from Bruges to the English Channel, but someone had to fight pitched battles against the German defenders on the coast to make it possible.

Yup, Royal Marines volunteered. They landed on the port’s mole with a specially modified ship, the HMS Vindictive. The marines and sailors landed on April 23, 1918, and wrought absolute havoc with machine guns and rifles, naval artillery, and flamethrowers.

Eight Victoria crosses were awarded to sailors and marines for their actions that night.

5. The commandos capture an entire port as well as bridges and towns on D-Day

Royal-Marine-Commandos-attached-to-3rd-Division-move-inland-from-Sword-Beach-on-the-Normandy-coast-6-June-1944.

Royal Marine Commandos move inland from Sword Beach on the Normandy coast on June 6, 1944. (Photo: Capt. J.L. Evans, Imperial War Museums)

The Royal Marines, by this point known as (RM) Commandos, were obviously a big deal at one of history’s largest amphibious assaults. Five units landed on D-Day where their biggest job was capturing Port-en-Bessin between Gold and Sword beaches, an objective the 47 (RM) Commando completed on July 8.

The four other commando units hit targets at Gold, Sword, and Juno beaches. Two units were deployed against a gap between British and Canadian units, holding back German panzers that might have otherwise counterattacked and thrown off the invading forces.

6. Commandos capture an entire island to open a Belgian port

Walcharen was an island on the coast of Amsterdam in 1944, and Germans occupying it were making logistics challenging for Allies fighting their way to Berlin. So, the Royal Marines teamed up with Canada for Operation Infatuate, a week-long attack against the island.

The air forces breached the walls of Walcharen before the commandos landed, allowing sea water to rush in and flood most of the island. The English and Canadians fought viciously against the artillery and infantry that remained, inflicting heavy casualties while suffering their own losses until the German leadership surrendered on Nov. 8, 1944.

7. Commandos capture Port Said from Egypt

British helicopters deliver royal commandos in first heliborne assault

British helicopters deliver Royal Commandos to Egypt on Nov. 6, 1956, in history’s first heliborne assault. (Photo: Imperial War Museums)

Operation Musketeer was an honest-to-God conspiracy between Israel, Britain, and France to ouster Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser. Britain’s main goal was to regain control of the Suez Canal, a strategic asset nationalized by Nasser. The plan was for Israel to initiate a conflict with Egypt. France and Britain would mediate unacceptable terms, and then they would invade.

The role of Royal Commandos was to seize Port Said through the first ship-to-shore heliborne assault in history. The two commando units involved were also backed up by a small number of tanks and armored vehicles. Their mission was successful and almost achieved its objective on the first day, but orders from Nasser kept, leading to the commandos capturing the local Egyptian commander and his staff.

Ultimately, the commandos did amazing work but political condemnation for the mission stripped France and England of most of their gains.

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