The Royal Marines are not just a smash-and-grab raiding corps, but are the go-to force whenever the Royal Navy needs reinforcing, or whenever it needs to perform tasks that are slanted towards an army skillset to a degree where sailors may struggle to manage. And yes, like SWAT, they’re the ones you call when everything goes a bit haywire.
Originally, the Royal Marines was not a corps at all, but a series of regiments. In the first instance they were raised by Charles II, on 28th October 1664, and dubbed the Duke of York and Albany’s Maritime Regiment of Foot, AKA the Admiral’s Regiment. Initially there really wasn’t a fantastic need for such a unit, but what the regiment did have was a fantastic uniform. Picture Royal Marines guarding an embassy in a foreign country; now add to that picture a knee-length and beautifully detailed yellow coat with red lining and cuffs, red breeches, stockings, a black hat with yellow braiding, and black shoes topped with red bows. Today’s Marine would have to be tough indeed to live down such a get-up!
It was over a century before the Marines were really given a chance to prove their worth, and in the meantime the regiment limped through various guises, with its name, number of regiments and general usefulness all fluctuating in quite an arbitrary fashion, though it did take part in the War of Jenkins’ Ear and the Battle of Cartagena de Indias. However, the unit proved to be efficient and reliable in whatever field it was sent to join, and in 1755 went from a regiment – one of several similar formations making up a branch of the Army – to a corps, i.e. a specialised body of troops, representing the sole accredited repository of expertise in their field. As the threat of Napoleon loomed and war by sea seemed imminent, the corps was dubbed ‘Royal’ with First Lord of the Admiralty, Earl St Vincent, proclaiming, “I never knew an appeal made to them for honour, courage or loyalty that they did not more than realise my highest expectations. If ever the hour of real danger should come to England, they will be found the country’s sheet anchor.”
When that hour came and the Napoleonic Wars hit, The Marines were ready to prove their worth as both security men for prominent figures and fighters, whether on the boats as gunners or as part of daring amphibious actions.
From then on, the unit never looked back, despite a few more alterations (your Royal Marine ancestor could well be found listed as part of the Royal Marine Light Infantry or the Royal Marine Artillery during the 19th and early 20th centuries, though these two units merged in 1923 to form the Corps of the Royal Marines). It played a key role in the Crimean War, with three men earning the new Victoria Cross in their roles as ‘skirmishers’ preparing the ground for landing forces, and the Opium Wars with China, as well as the Boxer Rebellion.
In the First World War the Corps played a massive part in battles on land as well as at sea. It was part of the Royal Naval Division that landed to help defend Antwerp in 1914, and soon the men of the Royal Marines were set to man the guns of the Howitzer Brigade on the Western Front, as well as the Anti-Aircraft Brigade. Additionally, the men of the Corps took part in every major amphibious landing, including those at Gallipoli in 1915, and Ostend and Zeebrugge in 1918. These raids were especially costly, and the Corps lost nearly 6,000 out of 55,000 men in the Great War.
In the Second World War the Corps went from strength to strength. They successfully landed in Iceland in May 1940, securing a launch-pad from which to attack Norway, and later made a failed attempt to land on Crete, and aided the successful capture of Madagascar. Dieppe, in 1942, was a painful hour for the Corps as, despite securing some gains, many of the unit were gunned down like lambs to the slaughter. It was test-operation that taught those in Command what not to do on D-Day.However, Lt Col Peter Picton Phillips, Royal Marine Commando’s Commanding Officer, demonstrated all that was best about the Corps when he heroically stood on stern of his launch, wearing the white gloves that spelled his doom, to warn 200 following men to turn back from danger; he was cut down where he stood.
Royal Marines went on to help lead the invasions of Sicily and the rest of Italy, and played a very active role in the invasion of Normandy; after all, who better to know now what to do, than those who had already lived through the tester op? They helped push the way across Germany, and were still heavily engaged in fighting the Japanese when Victory in Europe was declared. All in all, the Corps can rightfully claim to have been among the first in and the last out of the war, in which 3,999 out of their 78,500 were killed. They also took part in some of the most gutsy operations of the war, for example Operation Frankton, in which 2 men out of a crew of 12 survived after placing limpet mines on German ships based at Bordeaux.
After World War Two, assignments during the Korean War, Suez Crises and the Falklands War awaited them, with the Corps playing a huge role in the latter. Really, this crack unit is one whose work is never done.
As a final demonstration of the Corps’ heroics, here are just three accounts of how Royal Marines earned the Victoria Cross, reproduced by kind permission from Kevin Brazier’s ‘The Complete Victoria Cross’, out now from Pen & Sword Books:
Corporal JOHN PRETTYJOHNS (sometimes spelt PRETTYJOHN) INKERMAN 5 November 1854 He was 31 years old and serving in the Royal Marine Light Infantry. His platoon had used up all its ammunition in clearing enemy snipers from some caves, when Prettyjohns noticed some parties of Russians creeping up the hillside towards him. He ordered his men to collect as many stones as they could carry, and then seized the leading Russian and threw him back down the hill. The other Russians came under a shower of stones and were forced back down the hill. He died on 20 January 1887. The Royal Marines hold a procession each autumn to honour the memory of Corporal John Prettyjohns.
Major FRANCIS HARVEY, Denmark 31 May 1916 He was 29 years old and serving in the Royal Marine Light Infantry aboard HMS Lion when, despite being mortally wounded by a shell which exploded in the gunhouse, he displayed sufficient presence of mind to order the magazine to be flooded. His action saved the ship and over a thousand lives. Winston Churchill said of his actions: ‘In the long, glorious history of the Royal Marines there is no name and deed which in its character and consequences ranks above this.’
Temporary Corporal THOMAS PECK HUNTER, Lake Comacchio, Italy 2 April 1945 He was 22 years old and serving in No. 43 Commando, attached to Special Service Troops, in charge of a Bren gun section. Advancing in the open, he saw the enemy were holding a group of houses. Realising his men were too good a target to be missed, he rushed forward alone to draw the enemy fire. He attracted most of the machine-gun fire, but so determined was his charge and so accurate his firing from the hip that the enemy became demoralised. Showing complete disregard for the enemy fire, he ran through the houses, clearing them. Six Germans surrendered and the remainder fled. His men now became the target for enemy machine-gun fire. Again offering himself as a target, he lay in full view of the enemy and fired at the concrete pillboxes. He again drew most of the fire, but by now the greater part of his troop had made it to the safety of cover. Calling for more magazines, he continued to engage the enemy until he was killed by a burst of machine-gun fire. Throughout the action his magnificent courage, leadership and cheerfulness had been an inspiration to his comrades. He is the only Royal Marine to be awarded the Victoria Cross during the Second World War.