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Combined Operations Headquarters

Page Created
January 13th, 2024
Last Updated
April 21st, 2024
British Flag
Additional Information
Order of Battle
Badge Combined Operations
July 17th,1940
April 1st, 1948
Theater of Operations
  • Norway
  • France
Organisational History

Prior to World War II, a comprehensive doctrine and policy for joint military operations involving all branches of the armed services are delineated in the “Manual of Combined Operations.” Admiral Sir Sydney Fremantle principally craft this document. Despite the strategic importance of these guidelines, there is initially no dedicated organisation to implement them effectively. As a result, the concept of “combined operations” largely remains an academic topic, discussed in theoretical terms at staff colleges and seen as practically unfeasible by institutions such as the Imperial Defence College, which serves as a senior training facility for service practitioners.

The lack of practical application changes under the directive of the Prime Minister, who insists on the feasibility of these operations. Beginning with a nominal advisory capacity, the Combined Operations Directorate gradually evolves, increasing in scope and significance under the Prime Minister’s guidance.

The practical implementation of combined operations begins to shift significantly following the intervention of the Prime Minister, who is adamant about their feasibility. Initially, the Combined Operations Directorate holds a limited advisory role but gradually evolves under the Prime Minister’s directives, expanding its scope and influence to become a more central part of military strategy.

This transformation proves particularly timely and critical in the wake of pivotal early World War II events. Following the French armistice with Germany on June 22nd, 1940, and the consequential evacuation of British forces from the continent, notably during the Dunkirk evacuation, there is an urgent need for a new approach to military engagements. In response, a modest organization is formed specifically to oversee raiding operations against enemy territories and to formulate strategies for combined assaults.

On June 14th, 1940 the Chiefs of Staff appoints Lieutenant-General Alan Bourne to the significant role of “Commander of Raiding Operations on coasts in enemy occupation, and Adviser to the Chiefs of Staff on Combined Operations.” At 58 years old, Bourne has been leading the Royal Marines for approximately a year.

His extensive experience in both land and sea operations play a crucial role in his selection for this pivotal position. Additionally, his background, including attendance at the Imperial Defence and Army Staff Colleges, further underscore his suitability for the role. This new and challenging position require a leader with a comprehensive understanding of military strategy and operations, qualities that Bourne possesses in abundance due to his distinguished career in the military. His appointment is a strategic move in strengthening the capabilities and effectiveness of the Allied forces in conducting raiding operations and combined military efforts.

This newly established group focuses on innovating and improving tactics that allow British forces to effectively engage the enemy beyond the confines of conventional warfare. This shift marks a strategic pivot towards more aggressive and coordinated efforts across all branches of the military, aiming to regain momentum and initiative in the conflict.

The complexities involved in launching such operations are substantial, encompassing technical, tactical, transport, and administrative difficulties. The necessity for mere cooperation among the services evolves into a demand for full integration in terms of thought, planning, experimentation, and execution. This integrated approach is essential not only for large-scale operations but also for the development of tactics and technologies for smaller-scale actions such as raids and expeditions. These smaller operations are aimed at disrupting enemy installations, interdicting shipping, and gathering intelligence on enemy defenses.

Combined Operations Headquarters

This leads to the creation of the Combined Operations Headquarters (COHQ), staffed by personnel from all three services yet independent of them, and headed by a Director of Combined Operations.

On July 17th, 1940, Prime Minister Winston Churchill appoints Admiral of the Fleet Roger Keyes as the Director of Combined Operations. Keyes, renowned for his distinguished naval career, is tasked with leading the newly formed department responsible for planning and executing amphibious warfare and raiding operations. Commodore Lord Louis Mountbatten, is appointed as Adviser on Combined Operations.

A Combined Training Centre is established in Inveraray, Argyllshire, in August 1940.

On October 27th, 1941, Lord Louis Mountbatten takes over the reins of the Combined Operations Headquarters from Admiral of the Fleet Keyes. Mountbatten, a member of the British Royal Family and a naval officer, brings a fresh perspective and dynamic leadership to the role. He expands and redefines the scope of the department, overseeing numerous critical operations during World War II.

In March 1942, the title is revised to Chief of Combined Operations, with Mountbatten attending Chiefs of Staff meetings as a full member for major issues and whenever his own operations or specific matters of interest are discussed.

Combined Operations Headquarters is strategically located in Richmond Terrace, situated between Whitehall and the Embankment in London. This location becomes a bustling center of activity, where a dedicated group of military and civilian specialists from diverse backgrounds convene. The team includes members from all three branches of the British Services, Army, Navy, and Air Force, along with American military personnel and a variety of civilian experts. The presence of underperformers or “drones” is notably minimal in this dynamic environment.

Leadership at Combined Operations Headquarters is robust, with Brigadier G.E. Wildman-Lushington, a seasoned Royal Marine officer with extensive experience in both naval and aerial operations, serving as the Chief of Staff. His unique background makes him an exemplary figure for the inter-service cooperative nature of Combined Operations Headquarters. The Royal Marines, known for their versatility and expertise in amphibious operations, play a significant role throughout the organization. Key figures include Colonel Robert Neville, the Chief Planning Coordinator, and Lieutenant-Colonel Cyril Horton, who leads a team of Royal Marine planners. Additionally, Captain the Hon. David Astor, who later becomes the editor of ‘The Observer’, is part of the public relations team, highlighting the diverse talents and backgrounds contributing to the efforts at Combined Operations Headquarters.

Within the organisational structure of Combined Operations Headquarters, numerous committees each hold specific roles crucial for the successful planning and execution of military operations. Among these, two committees are particularly vital due to their impact on operational dynamics and strategic decisions.

Intelligence unit. This unit plays a crucial role, meticulously gathering and analysing information from myriad sources. Additionally, representatives from the Special Operations Executive (SOE), a highly secretive organization tasked with supporting resistance movements in enemy-occupied territories, are actively involved, adding another layer of strategic depth to the operations.

Search Committee: The first significant committee is the Search Committee, a smaller group tasked with the accelerated identification of potential raid targets. Following a directive from Lord Louis Mountbatten, who emphasises the importance of consistent pressure on enemy defenses, the policy is established that small raids should occur roughly bi-weekly. The Search Committee’s primary responsibility is to develop these raid plans and also to evaluate proposals submitted by others. This committee is essential in maintaining a steady pace of operations, ensuring that enemy forces are regularly engaged and tested.

Examination Committee: More critical in the hierarchy is the Examination Committee. This committee, presided over by Brigadier G.E. Wildman-Lushington, undertakes the review of proposals that have been initially vetted by the Search Committee. After these proposals are submitted to Colonel Robert Neville, they are rigorously assessed by the Examination Committee. The endorsement by the Examination Committee is crucial as it is a prerequisite for further approval processes.

Operational Approval Process: Once a plan receives the Examination Committee’s approval, it progresses to the Council of Combined Operations Headquarters, also referred to as the Executive. This council represents the apex of the decision-making process within Combined Operations Headquarters. Approved projects are then assigned to a specialised ‘syndicate’ responsible for crafting a detailed operational plan. This plan outlines the tactical methods and logistics necessary for the operation’s execution. The final phase of approval involves the Chiefs of Staff Committee, which provides the ultimate sanction for the operation to proceed.

This structured approach allows Combined Operations Headquarters to manage and streamline the planning and approval of operations efficiently. The collaboration between different levels of committees ensures that each proposed operation is thoroughly scrutinized and optimized before execution, reflecting the complexity and strategic depth of wartime planning within Combined Operations Headquarters.

The intellectual energy within Combined Operations Headquarters is palpable as teams tirelessly explore and refine countless military strategies and innovative ideas, likened to bees meticulously organising their hive. Under the guidance of Professor J.D. Bernal, the scientific team engages in extensive experimentation and testing, contributing significantly to the development of new operational techniques. These innovations are destined to be proven in forthcoming military engagements across various theaters including Africa, Italy, France, and the Far East.


The Combined Operations Headquarters sees rapid expansion both in Great Britain and abroad, notably in the Middle East and India. In 1942, a permanent representative is sent to the Joint Staffs Mission in Washington, and the same year sees the formation of a Combined Operations Experimental Establishment in Appledore, Devon. This facility focuses on problems related to beach landings during a European invasion, particularly concerning the landing of armoured vehicles, stores, and supplies.

Mountbatten’s tenure lasts until October 1943, when he is appointed to a new role in Burma. After Mountbatten’s departure, Major General Robert Laycock assumes the post of Director of Combined Operations. Laycock, a distinguished commando officer, continues to lead the department through the latter stages of the war. His leadership is pivotal in the ongoing strategic operations of the Allied forces.

Combined Operations Headquarters has various specialised units operational. These include:

  • Small Scale Raiding Force (SSRF): A specialised unit for conducting reconnaissance and raids.
  • No 1 Commando: One of the first commando units, known for its versatility and adaptability.
  • No 4 Commando: Specialised in assault operations, especially in coastal areas.
  • No 5 Commando: Focused on amphibious raids and reconnaissance.
  • No 9 Commando: Conducted operations in the Mediterranean and European theatres.
  • No 11 (Scot) Commando: A commando unit with a specific Scottish component, known for operations in the Middle East.
  • 30 (Commando) Assault Unit: A unit specialising in intelligence-gathering and targeted raids.
  • 50 Middle East Commando: Conducted operations in the Middle East region.
  • 52 Middle East Commando: Another unit focused on the Middle East, performing similar roles as the 50 Middle East Commando.
  • W Commando (Canada): A Canadian commando unit, contributing to the broader Allied efforts.
  • 45 Royal Marine Commando (1): A Royal Marine unit known for its amphibious capabilities.
  • 45 Royal Marine Commando (2): Similar in function to the other 45 Royal Marine Commando, providing additional strength.
  • Royal Navy Commandos: Units drawn from the Royal Navy, specializing in amphibious assaults.
  • 574 Field Security Section, Burma: A security unit operating in the Burma theatre.
  • Combined Operations Pilotage Parties: Specialised units responsible for reconnaissance and guiding assault forces during amphibious operations.
  • Royal Marine Boom Patrol Detachment: A specialised unit for developing waterborne raiding equipment and conducting waterborne raids.

These units, each with their specialised roles and expertise, were integral to the success of numerous raiding and combined operations during World War II, contributing significantly to the Allied war effort.

Following the successful Normandy invasion in 1944, a similar establishment is set up in India to address different conditions in the Far East.

Combined Operations Headquarters maintains close, though sometimes strained, relations with the Admiralty, which establishes various combined operations branches within its departments. Raiding forces such as commandos are typically commanded by the Combined Operations Headquarters, except when part of larger operations.

Post War

Post-war, the Admiralty proposes that Combined Operations Headquarters should become a joint Combined Operational Planning Staff within the Chiefs of Staff organisation. Laycock holds his position until 1947, playing a significant role in the evolution of combined operations strategy during his command. However, in 1947, it is decided to retain Combined Operations Headquarters for policy, training, and technique in amphibious warfare under the Chiefs of Staff’s direction. The title is changed to Chief of Combined Operations Staff, and responsibility for Combined Operations estimates moves to the new Ministry of Defence.

On April 1st, 1948, Combined Operations Headquarters came under the Ministry of Defence’s administration and was renamed Amphibious Warfare Headquarters in 1951.