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Raider Battalions

Page Created
February 26th, 2024
Last Updated
February 26th, 2024
United States
Additional Information
Order of Battle
Theater of Operations
Organisational History

Throughout the 1930’s, the Uniyted States Marine Corps are trialling the concept of raider-type units, typically as components of broader operations. The yearly Fleet Landing Exercises (FLEXs) see the deployment of raiding and patrolling teams, often working from rapid transports and destroyers, landing ashore using rubber boats. The sustained interest in these formations is evident with the establishment of “Provisional Rubber Boat Companies” from Companies A, E, and I of the 7th Marines during FLEX-7 in February 1941. Reconnaissance patrols and landing raids are extensively deliberated upon in the initial “Tentative Landing Manual” drafted in 1935. This concept matures in the two years leading up to the United States’ entry into World War II.

The British commandos are conducting operations against German installations across Europe and in Africa. These actions showcase a boldness that resonates strongly in the United States, particularly post-Pearl Harbor, during the period of heightened adversity. President Roosevelt is among those captivated by the notion of establishing a U.S. equivalent of the commandos. Merely a month after Pearl Harbor, Captain James Roosevelt, United States Marine Corps Reserve, the President’s son, corresponds with the Commandant of the Marine Corps proposing the formation of a unit “for purposes akin to the British Commandos and the Chinese Guerrillas.” Roosevelt highlights the achievements of the British in Europe and the guerrillas aligned with the Chinese (Communist) Eighth Route Army in northern China. Particularly in China, it is observed that these tactics prove devastating as the Japanese lines become stretched. The string of Japanese-occupied islands in the Pacific, which threatens U.S. interests with Australia-New Zealand, serves as an obvious parallel and an enticing target for raider operations. Roosevelt further suggests: “It is submitted that the position of our forces in the Pacific would be greatly aided by similar action on Japanese positions in the Mandated Islands, and perhaps later the Philippines by units based to the South; even more devastating action frontly by landing on Japan proper from Mito north to Aomori would certainly demoralise the enemy.”

At that moment, the Marine Corps is already taking steps to initiate such a programme. On January 6th, 1942, the 1st Battalion, 5th Marines is redesignated as the 1st Separate Battalion and is reassigned from the 1st Marine Division to the Amphibious Force, Atlantic Fleet, to be readily available for conducting individual raids or to operate as part of larger formations. Major General Thomas Holcomb, Commandant of the Marine Corps, observes the similarity to the British commandos but directs that the term “Marine” alone is sufficient “to indicate a man ready for duty at any time and that the injection of a special name, such as Commando, would be undesirable and superfluous.” General Holcomb goes on to state: “The organisation, equipment, and training of infantry units of the Marine Divisions should, in practically all respects, be identical to that of the ‘Commandos’…. In general, it may be stated that the training of all units in the two Marine Divisions prepares them to carry out either offensive operations on a large-scale, or small-scale amphibious raids of the type carried out by ‘the Commandos.'”

On January 14th, 1942, the Commandant of the Marine Corps informs the Commanding General, Amphibious Force, Atlantic, Major General Holland M. Smith and the Commanding General, Department of the Pacific, Major General Charles F. B. Price of a proposal to appoint Colonel William J. Donovan, to Brigadier General, United States Marine Corps Reserve with duty as commanding officer of the raider project. Both generals are requested to comment on the proposal, and both use the opportunity to comment generally on the entire raider concept. General Smith recommends against Donovan’s appointment on grounds that the Marine Corps should not have to seek leaders from outside its ranks. He also opposes the raider concept on philosophical grounds, noting that all Amphibious Force, Atlantic Marines could be trained in raiding techniques by their own officers if it were deemed important. General Smith notes that there are enough “by-products” in the Corps and that “all Amphibious Force Marines are considered as commandos,” thereby expressing a view that would become increasingly common among senior Marine officers, namely, that there is no task that the “elite” raider units could perform any more effectively than regular line units. General Price’s reply notes that the rapid expansion of the Marine Corps is resulting in an extreme shortage of qualified officers and senior Non-Commissioned Officers with the requisite command experience. He therefore concurs with the raider concept only if the personnel are recruited directly rather than by drawing on already thin Corps resources.

On February 4th, 1942, the Commanding General, Amphibious Force Pacific Fleet, in response to a directive from the Commander in Chief Pacific Fleet, orders the formation of four company-strength raider units. Concurrently, the Commandant of the Marine Corps orders the organisation of the 2nd Separate Battalion on the west coast. The designation of the 2nd Separate Battalion is thus assigned to the then-organising raider companies.

To comply with Commanding General, Amphibious Force Pacific Fleet’s instruction to form four companies, a reinforced company is detached from the 1st Separate Battalion at Quantico and reassigned to the 2nd Separate Battalion. In early February, General Holcomb writes to General Smith, acknowledging the latter’s letter, and provides some details regarding the appointment of Donovan. It seems that the push for this appointment came from a “very high authority,” and only the Commandant’s “complete disapproval” halted the process. It is clear that the Marine Corps’ heightened interest in raider units is, at least in part, due to significant political pressure from high levels. General Holcomb emphasises: “We must act swiftly. We must particularly prepare ourselves for one of our most critical missions, namely, the execution of amphibious raids…. given the current circumstances, it is crucial that we intensify this form of training.”

In a similar letter to Major General Clayton B. Vogel, Commanding General of the 2nd Joint Training Force (later redesignated Amphibious Force, Pacific), the Commandant remarks: “I am confident that you and all other concerned parties will recognise the importance of promptly initiating this project. It is a matter of great concern to me, as it could significantly influence our future.”

Partly motivated by a desire to avoid a political appointee as leader of the raider units, Lieutenant Colonels Merritt A. Edson and Evans F. Carison are chosen to command the two battalions. Edson, a World War I veteran who has served in France, was a Marine pilot, captain of the Marine Rifle and Pistol Team, and an observer of the Sino-Japanese hostilities in Chapel, China. Carison has extensive experience with the Chinese (Communist) Eighth Route Army guerrillas and observed their tactics and organisation. Major Samuel B. Griffith, who observed the British commando training programme, is appointed as the executive officer of Edson’s 1st Raider Battalion.

The primary mission of the two new raider units encompasses three main objectives:

  • to serve as the vanguard of larger amphibious landings on beaches typically deemed inaccessible.
  • to execute raiding expeditions requiring significant elements of surprise and rapid movement.
  • and to undertake guerrilla-style operations for extended durations behind enemy lines.

On February 16th, 1942, the 1st Separate Battalion is redesignated as the 1st Raider Battalion, Amphibious Force, Atlantic Fleet. Initially, it is structured with a headquarters company and four rifle companies; however, in a reshuffle two days later, a fifth rifle company is established, though the total reverts to four in a subsequent reorganisation. Lieutenant Colonel Edson assumes command.

Meanwhile, the 2nd Separate Battalion, stationed at Camp Elliott in San Diego, is redesignated as the 2nd Raider Battalion, Amphibious Force, Pacific Fleet on February 19th, 1942. Lieutenant Colonel Carlson assumes command with Major James Roosevelt as his executive officer. Throughout the spring, the 2nd Raider Battalion remains in California for training.

During this period, high-level interest in the raider project persists. In a personal note dated March 17th, 1942, the Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Ernest J. King, requests information from General Holcomb regarding the status of the raider units. The Commandant is able to report significant progress. The 1st Raider Battalion divides into forward and rear echelons. The former, consisting of 29 officers and 638 men with full equipment, departs Quantico on April 1st, 1942, bound for Samoa via San Diego. Embarking on the U.S.S. Zeilin (AP-9) on April 12th, 1942, it arrives in Samoa on April 28th, 1942. The rear echelon, under Major Griffith, remains at Quantico until June when, after conducting extensive landing exercises, it moves to San Diego and embarks on the U.S.S. Heywood (AP-12) for Samoa. By early July 1942, all elements of the 1st Raider Battalion are in Samoa and prepared for assignment.

The 2nd Raider Battalion completes its basic training by mid-April. On April 23rd, 1942, Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, Commander in Chief, Pacific, notifies Admiral King that the battalion is trained and ready to proceed to Hawaii for advanced instruction in rubber boat operations and submarine landings. Arriving and disembarking at Pearl Harbor on May 17th, 1942, the battalion, minus Companies C and D, is detached and dispatched to reinforce the Marine units on Midway, where they participate in the Battle of Midway from June 4th, 1942 to June 6th, 1942, while attached to the 6th Defense Battalion.

After the raiders completed their training in the United States, various opinions arose about the necessity of these units and how they should be organised and deployed. Reflecting on the events later, General Alexander A. Vandegrift, who is Commanding General of the 1st Marine Division at the time, remembered the formation of the raider units:

“We progressed well in further filling, equipping, and training the units. But now the first blow fell. Merritt Edson, armed with ap-propriate orders, arrived to comb our units for officers and men deemed suitable for his 1st Raider Battalion—a new organisation. I had known about the raiders in Washington. Neither General Holcomb nor I favoured forming elite units from units already elite. But Secretary of the Navy Colonel Frank Knox and President Roosevelt, both of whom fancied the British commandos directed us to come up with a similar organisation.”

In addition to disrupting personnel and training in regular units, the formation of raider battalions resulted in various requests for new and unusual equipment. Typical requests included riot-type shotguns, Lewis machine guns, collapsible bicycles, chain saws, scaling ropes, rubber boats, Bangalore torpedoes, and enough automatic pistols to issue one per raider. Edson discussed the armament of raider battalions in a letter to the Commandant in April. He compared the 81 millimeter mortar with the 60 millimeter, generally favouring the latter. He noted that including an 81 millimeter mortar platoon would exceed the high-speed transport capacity. A key consideration in raider organisation. Exceeding this capacity would require splitting companies among several ships, leading to disadvantages. Moreover, due to its greater weight, the 81millimeter mortar would be less suitable for the envisaged operations. The supply of ammunition would pose a particularly severe problem in fast-moving actions. Edson suggested that, if the 81 millimeter mortar was deemed indispensable, it be carried in the Weapons Company without personnel. It could then be operated by the 60 millimeter personnel when needed in stable situations. Edson also proposed replacing the Browning Automatic Rifle (BAR) used by squad leaders in the 60 millimeter mortar platoon with pistols or M1 carbines because the weight of the BAR plus ammunition would be too great if the squad leaders were also carrying the mortar base plate, cleaning brush, and field glasses.

During his time with the rear echelon of the 1st Raider Battalion at Quantico, Major Griffith engages in discussions about battalion organisation. Drawing comparisons between the setups of the 1st and 2nd Raider Battalions, Griffith noted that the latter’s structure, with six line companies and a headquarters company, appears more conducive to raider operations, particularly due to the inclusion of a weapons platoon in each company.

Griffith envisions an ideal raider battalion with six line companies and a headquarters and service company, each adaptable to division among the companies. This envisioned structure entails each company housing two rifle platoons, a weapons platoon, and a company headquarters, with each platoon further divided into three squads. These squads, lead by squad leaders, are to be armed with a Browning Automatic Rifle (BAR), an M1 rifle, and a Thompson submachine gun, allowing for engagement of enemies at varying distances and terrains.

Such considerations highlighted the flexibility and adaptability crucial to the raider battalions. The continuous evaluation of troop organisation and readiness to adjust forces for specific objectives are emblematic of their operational ethos. As preparations for missions continue, the raider units hone their tactics and weaponry, with a particular focus on company-level strength, aligning with the envisioned requirements of raider operations.

By the summer of 1942, both raider battalions are primed for action. Shortly thereafter, the 1st Raider Battalion undertakes the Tulagi landings during the Guadalcanal campaign on August 7th, 1942, while the 2nd Raider Battalion executes a diversionary raid on Makin Island on August 17th, 1942.