Special Operation Force
iPhoneOgraphy – 13 Nov 2016 (Day 318/366)
A commando is a soldier or operative of an elite light infantry or special operations force often specializing in amphibious landings, parachuting or abseiling.
Originally “a commando” was a type of combat unit, as opposed to an individual in that unit. In other languages, commando and kommando denote a “command”, including the sense of a military or an elite special operations unit.
In the militaries and governments of most countries, commandos are distinctive in that they specialize in assault on unconventional high-value targets. However, the term commando is sometimes used in relation to units carrying out the latter tasks (including some civilian police units).
In English, occasionally to distinguish between an individual commando and the unit Commando, the unit is capitalized.
The word stems from the Afrikaans word kommando, which translates roughly to “mobile infantry regiment”. This term originally referred to mounted infantry regiments, who fought against the British Army in the first and second Boer Wars.
The Dutch word has had the meaning of “a military order or command” since at least 1652; it likely came into the language through the influence of the Portuguese word commando (meaning “command”). (In Dutch, “commando” can also mean a command given to a computer, e.g., “het mkdir-commando” (= “create a directory”).) It is also possible the word was adopted into Afrikaans from interactions with Portuguese colonies. Less likely, it is a High German loan word, which was borrowed from Italian in the 17th century, from the sizable minority of German settlers in the initial European colonization of South Africa.
The officer commanding an Afrikaans kommando is called a kommandant, which is a regimental commander equivalent to a lieutenant-colonel or a colonel.
The Oxford English Dictionary ties the English use of the word meaning “a member of a body of picked men …” directly into its Afrikaans’ origins:
“1943 Combined Operations (Min. of Information) i. Lt. Lieutenant-Colonel D. W. Clarke… produced the outline of a scheme…. The men for this type of irregular warfare should, he suggested, be formed into units to be known as Commandos…. Nor was the historical parallel far-fetched. After the victories of Roberts and Kitchener had scattered the Boer army, the guerrilla tactics of its individual units (which were styled ‘Commandos’)… prevented decisive victory…. His [sc. Lt.-Col. D. W. Clarke’s] ideas were accepted; so also, with some hesitation, was the name Commando.”
During World War II, newspaper reports of the deeds of “the commandos” led to readers thinking that the singular meant one man rather than one military unit, and this new usage became established.
After the Dutch Cape Colony was established in 1652, the word was used to describe bands of militia. The first “Commando Law” was instated by the original Dutch East India Company chartered settlements and similar laws were maintained through the independent Boer Orange Free State and South African Republic. The law compelled Burghers to equip themselves with a horse and a firearm when required in defense. The implementation of these laws was called the “Commando System”. A group of mounted militiamen were organized in a unit known as a commando and headed by a Commandant, who was normally elected from inside the unit. Men called up to serve were said to be “on commando”. British experience with this system lead to the widespread adoption of the word “commandeer” into English in the 1880s.
During the “Great Trek”, conflicts with Southern African peoples such as the Xhosa and the Zulu caused the Boers to retain the commando system despite being free of colonial laws. Also, the word became used to describe any armed raid. During this period, the Boers also developed guerrilla techniques for use against numerically superior but less mobile bands of natives such as the Zulu who fought in large complex formations.
In the First Boer War, Boer commandos were able to use superior marksmanship, fieldcraft, camouflage and mobility to expel an occupying British force (poorly trained in marksmanship, wearing red uniforms and unmounted) from the Transvaal. These tactics were continued throughout the Second Boer War. In the final phase of the war, 75,000 Boers carried out asymmetric warfare against the 450,000-strong British Imperial forces for two years after the British had captured the capital cities of the two Boer republics. During these conflicts the word entered English, retaining its general Afrikaans meaning of a “militia unit” or a “raid”. Robert Baden-Powell recognised the importance of fieldcraft and was inspired to form the scouting movement.
In 1941, Lieutenant-Colonel D. W. Clarke of the British Imperial General Staff, suggested the name Commando for specialized raiding units of the British Army Special Service in evocation of the effectiveness and tactics of the Boer commandos. During World War II, American and British publications, confused over the use of the plural “commandos” for that type of British military units, gave rise to the modern common habit of using “a commando” to mean one member of such a unit, or one man engaged on a raiding-type operation.