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J.friend Dettmer is an opinion editor at POLITICO Europe.
Hardly a day goes by without reports of another courageous raid by Ukrainian commandos against targets in Russian-occupied Ukraine – sometimes even with allusions to sabotage organized by Kiev, or even assassinations, inside the Russian Federation.
Last week, a particularly dramatic raid took place when Ukrainian commandos flew across the western Black Sea in rigid-hulled inflatable boats to recapture a few oil drilling platforms just east of the island. Snake. Nicknamed the Boyko Towers, these platforms had been seized well before the February 2022 invasion: they had been seized by Russia in 2015, after the annexation of Crimea in 2014.
Ukraine’s Defense Ministry was quick, as always, to tout the military achievements, and the country’s military intelligence stressed that the raid had strategic importance, saying: “Russia has been deprived of the capability to fully control the waters of the Black River. Sea, which brings Ukraine closer to the reconquest of Crimea.”
These Ukrainian raiders may well have been trained by the British Royal Marines and army commandos, who trained around a thousand elite Ukrainian soldiers how to carry out amphibious attacks on small boats earlier this year in Britain.
And this training was clearly put to good use – not only on the westernmost shore of the Black Sea, but also for multiple raids on the Dnipro River, as well as an incursion into the Crimean peninsula itself during which dozens of Russians were reportedly killed last month. .
But just like the British during World War II, Ukraine may be claiming greater importance and military value for its commando raids than it warrants, and assessments of their impact may be exaggerated .
The British Royal Marines and Army Commandos trace their history back to World War II.
After the evacuation of British forces from France at Dunkirk, war leader Winston Churchill wanted to see blitzkrieg attacks along Nazi-occupied coastal Europe. “Companies must be prepared, with specially trained troops of hunters, capable of bringing terror to these coasts, primarily through the policy of butcher and bolt,” he noted on June 6, 1940.
Part of Churchill’s thinking was that such coastal raids would boost British morale, while demonstrating Britain’s determination never to surrender to the enemy. With any luck, this would encourage other occupied countries to resist in turn and undermine German morale.
This was also the idea behind U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s order for the Doolittle Raid on Tokyo in 1942: he wanted to raise morale after the shameful attack on Pearl Harbor, and the best way to do that would be to fight the war to the end. in the heart of the Japanese capital – just like the Ukrainians did with the drone attacks on Moscow.
But despite the claims made in the many books and films produced over the years, Britain’s wartime commando raids arguably had varying success and military importance, even if they were daring, dangerous, inspiring and uplifting. the moral.
The most successful was Operation Chariot in 1942 – an amphibious attack on the heavily defended port of Saint-Nazaire, in German-occupied France, when an obsolete American destroyer packed with explosives was rammed in the dry dock and exploded. The installation was useless for the rest of the war, forcing German warships in need of major repairs to return to German waters and risk dangerous encounters with the powerful British Home Fleet.
But even Operation Chariot – dubbed by some “the greatest raid of all” – came at a considerable cost. Most of the 18 small landing craft that carried the commandos tasked with destroying other port installations were sunk by German fire, and with no means of escape, many of them were killed or forced to surrender when they ran out of ammunition.
Of the 612 commandos taking part in the raid, only 228 managed to return to Britain – among them, on a personal note, my father – 169 were killed, 215 were taken prisoner. And as the war progressed, the raids were gradually discontinued, as they were no longer deemed effective and led Germany to strengthen its coastal defenses.
Shortly after the training of British Army commandos began, Churchill also ordered the creation of the Special Operations Executive (SOE), tasked with carrying out espionage, sabotage and reconnaissance operations, as well as helping resistance groups in German-occupied Europe. “Go set Europe on fire,” Churchill told the minister responsible, Hugh Dalton.
But as with the Commandos, so did the SOE, which eventually grew to 13,000 agents, including 3,000 women. And while no one doubts their courage, there has been considerable debate over the actual military impact of what came to be dubbed “Churchill’s Secret Army” – or the “gentlemanless War Ministry.” .
Some historians have argued that many of the SOE’s most high-profile operations – including the assassination of the vicious Reinhard Heydrich, acting Reich Protector in Bohemia and Moravia and one of the architects of the “Final Solution to the Jewish Question” – had little practical use. objective and were potentially counterproductive.
And after the war, historians and critics within the SOE argued that these operations only resulted in massive reprisals and the breakup of resistance networks – the main goal of which was to eventually develop armies clandestine troops ready to strike and aid Allied forces when the tide was high. The war was over and liberation was near.
“The SOE was an ineffective organization, unnecessarily dangerous to work for, ineffective in the pursuit of its objectives and counterproductive in the results achieved,” concluded John Keegan, one of Britain’s leading military historians.
Others, however, are not so dismissive. In his book “The Secret War,” Max Hastings noted that by sponsoring resistance groups, the SOE “made possible the resurrection of self-respect in occupied societies,” allowing all European nations to “cherish their cadres of heroes and martyrs.”
Ukraine certainly has its heroes and martyrs. But it is only once the war is over that we will have the opportunity to assess exactly the impact of its commandos.