Britain formed a number of commando units in World War II that operated from Burma to India to Europe and even north of the Arctic Circle in Norway. The No. 14 (Arctic) Commando trained specifically to sink German ships, destroy infrastructure, and interrupt operations in order to cripple Axis efforts in the Atlantic.
Austro-Hungarian ski patrol on the Italian front.
(Imperial War Museum)
The unit was formed after the success of Operation Gunnerside, a British-Norwegian commando operation that saw the destruction of equipment at a Nazi-held heavy water plant, ultimately delaying German creation of a nuclear bomb or reactor (The Germans were already leaning towards the reactor over the bomb and had limited material to pursue either).
But Gunnerside had also shown a shortage of suitable transportation and experienced personnel, so British leadership allowed members of the 12 Commando unit to form the ‘Fynn Force’ as well as to create an all new commando unit, 14 Commando, in 1942.
Troops were recruited from units with experience in cold climates, especially those who already knew how to ski and canoe. Yes, canoe. The unit was to be split into two, each specialized for certain operations. One group would specialize in transiting via skis, and the other would row in canoes.
Commandos carry the wounded to landing ships.
(Imperial War Museum)
Canadians were in high demand for the unit, but British and Norwegian sailors and commandos joined as well. It was a job that required steady nerves. Most missions proposed for the Arctic commandos were obvious suicide missions. One raid scheduled for the winter of 1942-1943 called for a group of skiers to parachute in and destroy a viaduct critical for iron ore transportation.
The unit commander voted against the mission on the basis that the party would almost certainly not be able to escape, but was overruled because of the value of success even if the commandos were lost. Luckily for them, weather made the mission impossible.
But No. 14 Commando would get its chance to fight just south of Arctic Circle. Eight men were sent on a canoe raid against German ships in Operation Checkmate.
The “Cockleshell Heroes,” another group of canoe raiders who sunk ships with explosives.
(Royal Marine Museum)
They went forward on a motorboat and then split up. Four men stayed with the boat while four men went forward in two canoes. The men in the canoes were able to plant a limpet mine against the hull of ships, sinking a German minesweeper before they escaped.
But the mission fell apart there. The men on the motorboat had been forced to move from the rendezvous point, and the quartets were forced to escape and evade separately. Neither group made it out. They were captured during a massive search involving German forces and Norwegian civilians.
Thanks to the new order from Hitler to kill all captured commandos, issued just months before in October 1942, all eight were sentenced to die. Seven were executed after forced labor in concentration camps while the other died of typhus.
The rest of No. 14 Commando was later absorbed into other units after the organization was disbanded.