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The Strategic Utility of Raiding

What role does amphibious raiding play in British defence strategy?  What historical precedents can we draw upon for today’s Commando forces?

The strategic utility of amphibious raiding – the British experience

“The Strategic Utility of Raiding” may appear to be a simple topic.  It may also appear to be preaching to the choir; we all know that raiding is a ‘good’ thing because that is what we have been told and taught for decades.  Indeed, talking about this comes at the risk of re-hashing Major Peter Evans’ arguments laid out some 22 years ago.  But such is the risk of military history, doctrine and policy – with 5,000 years of experience to guide our way, history may not repeat, but it does sometimes rhyme. 1

Ancient origins and the warrior caste

Amphibious raiding does have a long pedigree in military history, especially British maritime history, which is, in itself, a danger.  History taken without context, without understanding its depth or breadth2, is often misleading and can be made to suit the argument of any curious tourist.3  Not only that danger, but the romance of raiding – the dash, derring-do and elan that it conjures in the imagination – further prejudices us.  Raiding is a good in and of itself because it encapsulates the most martial of qualities that we and wider society value.  It evokes the warrior spirit, the sense of David vs Goliath, an Achillean ideal in an era when technology and stand-off munitions has changed what it means to be a soldier.4

Indeed, raiding is Achillean.  The Iliad opens with the aftermath of a raid by Achilles and his Myrmidons and the dispute between Achilles and Agamemnon over the fate of Briseis.5  The Myrmidons were the Achaean shock troops – a warrior caste that spearheaded the assault on Troy – and to whom today’s Commando Forces have been likened.6  This vignette tells us a lot about the provenance of raiding, its origins and purpose: a tool to denude the enemy of wealth, supplies, allies and morale, and concomitantly to increase our own.

The Achillean perspective is that raids are an expression of military capability and offensive prouesse.  Indeed, such is the mystique and kudos attached to raids that they dominate public perceptions of modern battle: the Special Forces allure is seen in media as varied as comics, film, television and the explosion of biographies, manuals and campaign histories in recent decades.  The trouble with this is that it distorts our own perceptions of what modern soldiering is and who we are.  We forget that Achilles is not just a hero, but a tragic victim of his own psyche.  Achilles dies in a vainglorious quest for immortality, and yet the war continues, and continues badly for the Achaeans. Instead, it takes the intervention of another type of hero, sly Odysseus, to break the deadlock. It is a war won not by decisive strength of arms and heroic action, but by guile, deceit, and attrition.

The danger, then, is that we allow perceptions to guide our decisions.  During the Peloponnesian War, both Athens and Sparta raided each other’s territory; the Athenians by sea, the Spartans by land.  Athenian raids achieved limited effect.  In contrast, the Spartan’s fortification and holding of ground inside Attica, from which they conducted their raids deep into the enemy heartland, devastated Athens’ economy, population, and political credibility.7  The great decisive moment in the conflict came not because of a battle in the main theatre of war, but when Athens diverted its forces to besiege Syracuse in an early example of horizontal escalation.  The failed expedition bankrupted Athens and denuded it of men and material without inflicting any such cost on the Spartans;8 a classic example of operational dogma dictating policy with disastrous consequences.

Amphibious Raiding in British History

The political or policy case for raiding in British history is one of necessity: all too often, Britain had been evicted from the principal theatre of war and needed to signal its intent – to allies, enemies and the public alike – to keep fighting.  In the Seven Years War, Pitt championed descents on the French coast, in part to reassure Frederick the Great of Britain’s resolve.9  During the French and Napoleonic wars, successive governments sought to utilise raiding and limited expeditionary forces to encourage potential Continental allies that Britain was in it for the long haul.10  Evans points to Churchill’s desire for offensive action as an overt signal to the Empire, allies and enemies alike that Britain intended to carry on.11  In each case, the domestic audience saw raids, descents and expeditions as an opportunity for great strategic profit at limited risk.

The fact that raids capture the public and political imagination could also be hindrance, however.12  Syracuse was launched because Athenian democracy demanded it.13  The disastrous expedition to Cartagena des Indes in 1741 was the product of public calls for a repeat of Vernon’s successful raid on Porto Bello.14  The reasons behind Dieppe are confused and obscure, but Churchill used its outcome to ‘quell the cry for a “Second Front Now”’.15  Whilst raiding may offer ‘great rewards’, the danger is that the political or public desire for action outweighs the practical considerations.

Not only that, but the costs of these can be ruinous in terms of personnel, resources and materiel.  We’ve already mentioned Syracuse; Athens never recovered from the loss of its fleet, army, and pay chest.  Vernon and Wentworth’s Caribbean expedition resulted in 90% casualties amongst the landing force and disease decimated the fleet.16  The modern Corps of Royal Marines celebration of 20th century raids is well known, yet we often skip over the butcher’s bill: Zeebrugge had a 35% casualty rate; St Nazaire 57%; and Dieppe up to 60% amongst the Canadian formation.17  The greater the ambition of the target, the greater the potential cost; the greater the operational complexity, the greater the potential for miscalculation.  This was not helped, historically, by the conspicuous absence of professional curiosity, study, and doctrine.

Offsetting this has been a major concern for British practitioners through the ages.  Molyneux devoted his study, the first doctrinal examination of amphibious operations, to rectifying this lack.18  Callwell, writing a century and a half later, argued that it was incumbent on the army and navy to know each other’s business if Britain was to profit from its natural amphibious strengths.19  Unfortunately, without political direction from above and when left to their own devices, cooperation between the services was not always guaranteed.  Hence Churchill taking pains to personally oversee the establishment of Combined Operations on an equal level to the warring tribes in the War Office, Air Ministry and Admiralty.20  Unfortunately, with the political ambition comes an expectation of scale and reward.  Despite his demand for a ‘butcher and bolt’ campaign, Churchill abhorred the “pinprick raids”21 of early, amateurish descents on the Channel coast and Islands; raids that, in the words of Lt Col Durnford-Slater, could be accomplished by “a youth in his teens”.22  For raiding to be effective, therefore, specialist detachments needed to be developed and husbanded, and new ways of working established.

The aftermath of the Dieppe raid. It shows a burning landing craft, a wrecked Churchill tank and the bodies of several Canadian troops on the beach.
The tragic aftermath of the Dieppe raid.

The Fight for Resource

There is, here, a contradiction.  Selecting and training adequate personnel is a time-costly business and risks denuding regular units of their best and brightest.  Britain could afford to do so in June 1940 because much of the army was recuperating in England.23  Likewise, it can afford to lavish time and expense on training in peacetime.  However, when one considers the high mortality rate amongst personnel in these high-profile strikes, can it afford such expense in the midst of a larger attritional campaign?24  Such were losses amongst the Commando formations after 1943, when their role switched largely to conventional assault rather than small-scale raiding, that specialist training was shortened from 3 months to just 5 weeks.25  Even after this change in posture, casualties remained high: 47Cdo suffered a 38% casualty rate in the operation to take Port-en-Bessin.26  Of course, the question here is what value do we ascribe to the target?  And, having ascribed that value, is there a commensurate level of sacrifice that we are willing to make?  The Commando forebears regarded themselves as ‘expendable, and to accept heavy casualties, as a matter of course.’27  Does the same hold true today?  I would argue that, with an extended training pipeline and the almost unprecedented level of expense being made in equipping personnel, attrition is far from planners’ minds.  This goes against both recent experience, and that of our forebearers.

(Managing) Great Expectations

Theories and proponents of raiding justify this loss by assuming that every target is a St Nazaire.  Evans, perhaps unwittingly, succinctly characterised issues with this assumption: ‘The first pre-requisite for raiding is that the enemy has an exposed coastline that cannot be adequately defended at all points.  The second is that suitable targets must be accessible’.28  In other words, in the case of strategic striking, a unicorn.  Targets like St Nazaire or Bruneval are rare, hence why they capture our attention.  Molyneux foresaw this when he likened the raider and defender to an archer and hoplite respectively: the archer may aim at some ‘vulnerable point’ not covered by the shield but, like Paris’ arrow, hitting an Achilles heel requires divine intervention.29 Ultimately, strikes aimed at the opponent’s schwerpunkt (whether that be economic, political, military, or the court of public opinion) are likely to be heavily defended.  Of all the cases mentioned so far, Bruneval is the odd one out because there was a coherent extraction plan in place for the raiding force; or, rather, for the stolen equipment.

A second assumption is that raids act as a paralysing agent on an opponent.  However, most references to the morale-effect of raids are inferred: there is very limited objective evidence to suggest that sporadic raiding has a sustained, deleterious effect on the enemy will to fight.  Napoleon decried the paralytic effect of 30,000 men aboard ship in the Downs on his designs30, yet he was still able to launch decisive campaigns in southern, eastern and central Europe.31  Between June 1940 and August 1944, there were 58 raids on the Atlantic wall, the majority of these involving just a handful of personnel, yet apparently can be credited with tying down vast numbers of axis troops.  In each case the fear was not raids but of full-scale invasion, and the composition of the garrison and defences reflected that.  The forces that garrisoned St Malo, Cherbourg, L’Orient or Rochefort in the 1740s and 50s were not the pride of the French army, nor was the Atlantic Wall manned by Panzergrenadiers or the Waffen SS.

Moreover, prolonged raiding ultimately results in changes to an opponent’s defensive posture.  By May 1944, the impact of raids on the Atlantic coastline was deemed counterproductive – it encouraged German fortification, whilst denuding our own forces that should have been husbanded for the coming break-in battle.32   Similarly, Molyneux came to the conclusion that, owing to the fortification of the principal targets of descents on the coast of France, decisive action would only be possible with a sizable, combined-arms force.33  As seen with 41Cdo in Korea, repeated raiding of an opponent’s coastline has a shelf-like dependent on the ebb and flow of operations elsewhere.34  Once that window of opportunity closes, then the raiding force becomes a conventional asset like any other; just look at the experience of the Commando and Airborne forces in Italy, Normandy and North West Europe, or our own recent experience in Iraq and Afghanistan.35  Raiding can divert an opponent’s resource, but it also means that our own approach has to adapt and change to maintain competitive edge.  Ultimately, it is the switch to mass and conventional operations that proves decisive.

Utility Proven?

So what can raids achieve?  41Cdo’s actions in Korea36 and Sir Home Popham’s descents along the Spanish Biscay coast37 are prime examples of raids to harass lines of communication.38  Such actions are conducted in support ‘of main force operations’ rather than as discrete activities.39  Raids can, of course, be used to disrupt an opponent’s plans for use of the sea.  In 1798, Sir Henry Dundas (the Secretary of State for War) commissioned a ‘Report on the Arrangements which have been adopted…to frustrate the Designs of the Enemy by attacks on his Foreign Possessions, or European Ports, by annoying his Coasts and by Destroying his Equipments’.  That these ‘frequently failed in their objects’ was mitigated by their disruptive effect; they got inside the enemy’s planning cycle and created ambiguity in their minds, at least.40  Corbett postulated that raiding could be used to lure out an opponent’s navy41; similarly, the RAF hoped that the Dieppe raid would lure out the Luftwaffe.42  However, the result of such attempts was inconclusive at best.43  And, of course, there is the natural use of raids to deceive an opponent and gather pertinent intelligence; but none of these can be described as ‘strategic’ in their own right.

Members of 41 Independent Commando lay demolition charges in Korea.

When we look, therefore, at the strategic utility of raiding as an action, then the evidence is that it has a short shelf-life, relatively high cost, and that it comes from a position of weakness.  It is a limited, tactical, offensive action predominantly undertaken when we are on the strategic defensive.44  Geoffrey Till describes raids as having ‘tactical or operational aim[s]’45; not strategic.  Take, for example, the ‘tip-and-run raids by the thousand’ conducted by the Royal Navy in the years after Trafalgar.46  These raids were the result of tactical opportunism.  Although conducted with great elan by the Fleet’s “gallant young men”47, the history of raids on ‘minor ports did not show that they could achieve the results in proportion to the risks’, and that ‘raiding would not create an adequate diversion in favour of the eastern front’.48  Just as the Athenians deluded themselves into thinking that attacking Syracuse was the same as attacking Sparta, we risk dislocating ourselves in believing raiding offers a panacea to conventional actions elsewhere.

Yet, when we step away from considering raids in isolation from the rest of the conflict, we start to see some of the true, strategic utility come to the fore.  It is because raids fail more often than they succeed that they prove their value – failure forces introspection, adaptation and change.  The forces that descended on the French coast with ineffective results in 1757-8 were conspicuous in successful assaults on Louisburg, Quebec, Belle Ile, Martinique and Havana over the next 3 years.49  The British were able to launch and recover expeditionary forces at will along hostile littorals between 1797 and 1815 because they honed and refined the practice at every level: strategic, operational and tactical.50  Lord Mountbatten’s ascension to Chief of Combined Operations came with an instruction from Churchill “to prepare in every possible way for the great counter-invasion of Europe”51; Combined Operations HQ was to “create the machine which will make it possible for us to beat Hitler on land.  You must devise the appurtenances and appliances which will make the invasion possible”.52  Both Mountbatten and Churchill regarded Dieppe as a proving ground for the battle to come, if only in retrospect.53  In each and every case, it was raiding which brought the services together, breaking down silos, concentrating force and coordinating efforts in common aims. Raiding proved the germ of a combined, national, military strategy.

Looking Forward

Much has been made of the changes to Commando Forces, with renewed calls for the Force to be forward deployed, ready to adapt, and to balance increased tempo with the requirements of a positive lived experience.54  My own thoughts on this matter are well published55, yet there is something about learning and adaptation for which raiding is uniquely situated.  Molyneux argued that the failure of large expeditions was due to lack of learning from the successes of small ones.56  Jack Watling has described the challenge facing Commando Forces as ‘Building the Boat While Afloat’57, something that Ewen Southby-Tailyour would identify with; 539 Assault (now Raiding) Squadron was founded on the ethos of experimentation from the very start.58

The challenge for Commando Forces and the wider Navy today is to give themselves the space, and time, to reflect on the lessons identified in experimentation.59  Raiding’s requirement for specialist personnel is not solely to be found in the landing force but in the plethora of roles that enable the whole60; it forces joint awareness and knowledge, just as Callwell championed and the Integrated Operating Concept demands.  That is difficult to do if personnel, and equipment, are continuously employed proving their worth in discrete taskings such as Maritime Security, MACA, SALT etc, and maintaining individual, force element competencies.  Raiding, therefore, is a gateway activity to greater effects and outcomes.  In the current strategic climate, the role of 47Cdo Raiding Group, its constituents and partners, is as the guardians to a capability and way of warfare which is vital to the UK contribution to European security.  Just as 539 was founded as an experimental unit to evolve littoral manoeuvre in established doctrine61, so it is incumbent on all personnel to advance this operational art in the context of today – not to prepare for the battle of choice, but necessity.62  Molyneux blamed British failures on refusal to adapt new methods in the face of changed circumstance – ‘an obstinate Determination to keep our Eyes so closely shut, as to suffer no Experience or repeated Defeats ever to open them’.63  It is up to today’s Marines, sailors, and soldiers from across the Commando Force to keep the UK’s eyes open, to maintain the currency, and to act as the exemplar for joint action and integration.  That is the strategic utility of raiding to Britain, and why we fetishize its execution at our peril.


Andrew Young

Andy is Former naval officer and Corps Tutor, author of "Amphibious Genesis: Thomas More Molyneux and the birth of Amphibious Doctrine", and numerous articles for RUSI and the Naval Review. A former host of the RUSI A Call To Arms series, Andy now works for the Royal Navy Strategic Studies Centre.


  1. Young, Andrew. “History – a neglected discipline”, The Naval Review, Vol.104, No.1 (February 2016): 39-43.
  2. Howard, Michael. “The Use and Abuse of Military History”, in The Causes of Wars and other essays, (London: Unwin, 1985): 208-217.
  3. Gray, Colin S. “History for Strategists”, in Strategy and History: Essays on theory and practice, (Abingdon: Routledge, 2006): 54-73.
  4. Shaw, Martin. The New Western Way of War, (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2005).
  5. Coker, Christopher. The Warrior Ethos: Military Culture and the War on Terror. (Abingdon: Routledge, 2007): 25.
  6. Roberts, Peter. “Rise of the Myrmidons?”, Puzzle Palace, April 25, 2019. Accessed November 25, 2022: https://www.puzzle-palace.com/community-articles/the-rise-of-the-myrmidons
  7. Taylor, Martha. Thucydides, Pericles and the idea of Athens in the Peloponnesian War, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010): 157-159.
  8. Matyszak, Philip. Expedition to Disaster, (Barnsley: Pen & Sword, 2012), Kindle Edition: Locations 710-962.
  9. Corbett, Julian. England in the Seven Years War, (London: Longmans, Green & Co, 1907): 187-189.
  10. Macksey, Piers. “Problems of an Amphibious Power: Britain against France, 1793-1815”, Naval War College Review, Vol.30, No.4 (Spring, 1978): 16-25.
  11. Evans, Maj Peter. “The Value of Amphibious Raiding in the Twentieth Century: A Historical Perspective”, Defence Studies, Vol 1, No.3 (Autumn 2001): 95.
  12. Callwell, Maj Gen Charles. Military Operations and Maritime Preponderance, (London: William Blackwood & Sons, 1905): 180.
  13. Matyszak, Philip. Op cit.
  14. Rodger, Nicholas. The Command of the Ocean, (London: Penguin, 2005): 237.
  15. Schriner, Lt Col Charles W, Jr. “The Dieppe Raid, 1942” in ed. Bartlett, Lt Col Merrill. Assault from the Sea: Essays on the History of Amphibious Warfare, (United States Naval Institute: Annapolis, 1983): 247-260.
  16. Molyneux, Thomas More. Conjunct Expeditions, (London: R & J Dodsley, 1759): 183.
  17. Evans, Maj Peter. Op cit.
  18. Young, Andrew. “Amphibious Genesis: Thomas More Molyneux and the Birth of Amphibious Doctrine”, in eds Heck, Timothy & Brett Friedman, On Contested Shores: The Evolving Role of Amphibious Operations in the History of Warfare, (Quantico Marine Corps University Press, 2020): 38-54.
  19. Callwell, Maj Gen Charles. Op cit: 22.
  20. Thompson, Maj Gen Julian. War Behind Enemy Lines (Washington DC: Brassey’s, 2001): 11.
  21. Quoted in Durnford-Slater, Op cit: 32-33.
  22. Durnford-Slater, Brig John. Commando (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, reprint 1991): 2.
  23. Evans, Maj Peter. Op cit.
  24. Winter, Paul. First In, Last Out: the Post-War Organisation, Employment and Training of Royal Marines Commandos (Oxford: Casemate, 2021): lii-liii.
  25. Evans, Maj Peter. Op cit.
  26. Salt, John D. “Learning the Lessons of Port-en-Bessin, 1944”, in eds Heck, Timothy & Brett Friedman, On Contested Shores: The Evolving Role of Amphibious Operations in the History of Warfare, (Quantico: Marine Corps University Press, 2020): 253-276.
  27. Saunders, Hilary. The Green Beret: the Story of the Commandos, 1940-1945 (London: Michael Joseph, 1956): 203.
  28. Evans, Maj Peter. Op cit.
  29. Molyneux, Thomas. Op cit, Book II: 21.
  30. Macksey, Piers. “Problems of an Amphibious Power: Britain against France, 1793-1815”, Naval War College Review, Vol.30, No.4 (Spring, 1978): 16-25.
  31. Callwell, Maj Gen Charles. Op cit: 171.
  32. Messenger, Charles. The Commandos: 1940–1946, (London: Kimber, 1985): 251.
  33. Molyneux, Thomas. Op cit, Book II: 10-11.
  34. Winter, Paul. Op cit (2021): xl-xliii.
  35. Winter, Paul. “’Commando Roots’: An historical Perspective (Part Three)”, Puzzle Palace, November 6, 2011. Accessed January 20, 2023: https://www.puzzle-palace.com/community-articles/commando-roots-an-historical-perspective-part-three
  36. Winter, Paul. Op cit (2021); & Evans, Maj Peter. Op cit; & Thompson, Maj Gen Julian. “Amphibious Operations: Projecting Sea Power Ashore”, in eds Grove, Eric & Peter Hore, Dimensions of Sea Power: Strategic Choice in the Modern World (Hull: University of Hull Press): 100.
  37. Sainz, Silvia. “Sir Home Popham’s Mission in 1812: Santander, A British Logistics Centre?” in ed White, Zack. The Sword and the Spirit: Proceedings of the First ‘War & Peace in the Age of Napoleon’ Conference (Warwick: Helion & Company, 2021): 63-80.
  38. Callwell, Maj Gen Charles. Op cit: 309-310.
  39. Thompson, Maj Gen Julian. Op cit (1998): 105.
  40. Bruce, John. Report on the Arrangements which have been adopted, in former Periods.
  41. Corbett, Julian. Some Principles of Maritime Strategy (London: Longman’s Green & Co., 1911): 181.
  42. Mahoney, Ross Wayne. “The Royal Air Force, Combined Operations Doctrine and the Raid on Dieppe, 19 August 1942.” PhD diss., University of Birmingham, 2009. Accessed January 20, 2023. https://etheses.bham.ac.uk/id/eprint/445/1/Mahoney09MPhil.pdf
  43. Shelley, James. “The Germans and Air Power at Dieppe: The Raid and its Lessons from the ‘Other Side of the Hill’.” War in History 29, no. 1 (2022): 228-247.
  44. Macksey, Piers. Op cit.
  45. Till, Geoffrey. Seapower: A Guide for the Twenty-First Century (London: Routledge, 2009): 189.
  46. Syrett, David. “The Role of the Royal Navy in the Napoleonic Wars After Trafalgar, 1805-1814”, Naval War College Review, Vol.32, No.5 (September-October 1979): 71-84.
  47. Rodger, Nicholas. The Command of the Ocean, (London: Penguin, 2005): 555.
  48. Macksey, Piers. Op cit.
  49. Young, Andrew. Op cit.
  50. Macksey, Piers. Op cit.
  51. Terraine, John. The Right of the Line. The Royal Air Force in the European War 1939-1945 (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1986): p. 559.
  52. Winston S. Churchill, quoted in Till, Geoffrey. “The British and the Limits of Maritime Maneuver”, Naval War College Review, Vol. 74 no.3 (2021): 19-46.
  53. Maguire, Eric. Dieppe, August 19. (London: J. Cape, 1963): 181.
  54. Jenkins, Gen Gwyn. “’Being a Commando has never felt more important’ – CGRM outlines his vision”, January 20, 2023: Accessed January 21, 2023 https://modgovuk.sharepoint.com/sites/IntranetNavy/SitePages/being-a-Commando-has-never-felt-more-important-CGRM-outlines-his-vision.aspx
  55. See series of articles written for RUSI Defence Systems in which I discuss the challenges facing Commando Forces and the Amphibious flotilla, in particular “What Next for the Commandos?”, RUSI Defence Systems, Vol 24, 2 May 2022. https://rusi.org/explore-our-research/publications/rusi-defence-systems/what-next-commandos.
  56. Molyneux, Thomas. Op cit: 8-11.
  57. Watling, Jack. “Building the Boat While Afloat: UK Commando Forces on Exercise Cold Response 2022”, RUSI Defence Systems, Vol 24. April 5, 2022. Accessed January 20, 2023: https://rusi.org/explore-our-research/publications/rusi-defence-systems/building-boat-while-afloat-uk-commando-forces-exercise-cold-response-2022.
  58. Southby-Tailyour, Ewen. “539 ASRM – A Genesis”, Royal Marines History, March 30, 2022: Accessed January 20, 2023, https://www.puzzle-palace.com/community-articles/commando-roots-an-historical-perspective-part-three
  59. Young, Andrew. “What Next for the Commandos?”, RUSI Defence Systems, Vol 24. May 2, 2022. Accessed January 21, 2023: https://rusi.org/explore-our-research/publications/rusi-defence-systems/what-next-commandos
  60. Thompson, Maj Gen Julian. Op cit (1998): 100.
  61. Southby-Tailyour, Ewen. Op cit.
  62. Winter, Paul. Op cit (2019).
  63. Molyneux, Thomas. Op cit: 11, 29.

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