Commando Order (German: Kommandobefehl) was issued by the OKW, the
High Command of the German armed forces, on 18 October 1942 stating
that all Allied commandos encountered in
Africa should be
killed immediately without trial, even if in proper uniforms or if
they attempted to surrender. Any commando or small group of commandos
or a similar unit, agents, and saboteurs not in proper uniforms, who
fell into the hands of the German forces by some means other than
direct combat (through the police in occupied territories, for
instance), were to be handed over immediately to the Sicherheitsdienst
(SD, Security Service). The order, which was issued in secret, made it
clear that failure to carry out these orders by any commander or
officer would be considered to be an act of negligence punishable
under German military law. This was in fact the second "Commando
Order", the first being issued by
Generalfeldmarschall Gerd von
Rundstedt on 21 July 1942, stipulating that parachutists should be
handed over to the Gestapo. Shortly after World War II, at the
Nuremberg Trials, the
Commando Order was found to be a direct breach
of the laws of war, and German officers who carried out illegal
executions under the
Commando Order were found guilty of war crimes.
1.1 Dieppe Raid
1.3 German response and escalation
2 In effect
2.1 Allied casualties
2.2 War crime
4 See also
7 External links
Commandos during Operation Archery.
Commando Order mentioned violations of the
Geneva Conventions by
Allied commando troops and cites these violations as justification for
the order. It is widely believed that occurrences at Dieppe and on a
small raid on the
Channel Island of
Sark by the Small Scale Raiding
Force (with some men of No. 12 Commando) brought Hitler's rage to a
Main article: Dieppe Raid
On 19 August 1942, during a raid on Dieppe, a Canadian brigadier took
a copy of the operational order ashore against explicit
orders.[page needed] The order was subsequently discovered on
the beach by the Germans and found its way to Hitler. Among the dozens
of pages of orders was an instruction to "bind prisoners". The orders
were for the Canadian forces participating in the raid, and not the
commandos. Bodies of shot German prisoners with their hands tied were
allegedly found by German forces after the battle.
Main article: Operation Basalt
On the night of 3–4 October 1942, ten men of the British Small Scale
Raiding Force and No. 12
Commando (attached) made an offensive raid on
the occupied isle of Sark, called Operation Basalt, to reconnoitre,
and take some prisoners.:26
During the raid, five prisoners were taken. To minimize the task of
the guard left with the captives, the commandos tied the prisoners'
hands. According to the British personnel, one prisoner allegedly
started shouting to alert those in a hotel, and was shot dead.:28
The remaining four prisoners were silenced by stuffing their mouths,
according to Anders Lassen, with grass. En route to the beach, three
prisoners made a break. Whether or not some had freed their hands
during the firefight has never been established, nor is it known
whether all three broke at the same time. Two are believed to have
been shot and one stabbed. The fourth was conveyed safely back to
England. Officially sanctioned German military accounts of the time
assert unequivocally that the dead German soldiers were found with
their hands bound, and later German military publications make many
references to captured
Commando instructions ordering the tying of
captives' hands behind them, and the use of a particularly painful
method of knotting around the thumbs to enable efficient, coercive,
single-handed control of the captive.
German response and escalation
Canadian prisoners being led away through Dieppe after the raid.
Credit: Library and Archives
Canada / C-014171
A few days after the
Sark raid, the Germans issued a propaganda
communiqué implying that at least one prisoner had escaped and two
were shot while resisting having their hands tied. They also claimed
this "hand-tying" practice was used at Dieppe. Subsequently, on
Berlin announced that 1376 Allied prisoners (mainly
Canadians from Dieppe) would henceforth be shackled. The Canadians
responded with a like shackling of German prisoners in Canada.
This tit-for-tat shackling continued until the Swiss achieved
agreement with the
Canadians to desist on December 12, and with the
Germans some time later after they received further assurances from
the British. However, before the
Canadians ended the policy, an
uprising of German POWs occurred at Bowmanville POW camp. At any rate,
by this time many German camps had abandoned the pointless practice or
reduced it to merely leaving a pile of shackles in a prison billet as
On October 7, Hitler personally penned a note in the
In future, all terror and sabotage troops of the British and their
accomplices, who do not act like soldiers but rather like bandits,
will be treated as such by the German troops and will be ruthlessly
eliminated in battle, wherever they appear.
On October 18, after much deliberation by High Command lawyers,
officers and staff, Hitler issued his
Commando Order or Kommandobefehl
in secret, with only 12 copies. The following day Army Chief of Staff
Alfred Jodl distributed copies with an appendix stating that the order
was "intended for commanders only and must not under any circumstances
fall into enemy hands". The order itself stated that:
For a long time now our opponents have been employing in their conduct
of the war, methods which contravene the International Convention of
Geneva. The members of the so-called Commandos behave in a
particularly brutal and underhanded manner; and it has been
established that those units recruit criminals not only from their own
country but even former convicts set free in enemy territories. From
captured orders it emerges that they are instructed not only to tie up
prisoners, but also to kill out-of-hand unarmed captives who they
think might prove an encumbrance to them, or hinder them in
successfully carrying out their aims. Orders have indeed been found in
which the killing of prisoners has positively been demanded of them.
In this connection it has already been notified in an Appendix to Army
Orders of 7.10.1942. that in future,
Germany will adopt the same
methods against these
Sabotage units of the British and their Allies;
i.e. that, whenever they appear, they shall be ruthlessly destroyed by
the German troops.
I order, therefore:— From now on all men operating against German
troops in so-called
Commando raids in
Europe or in Africa, are to be
annihilated to the last man. This is to be carried out whether they be
soldiers in uniform, or saboteurs, with or without arms; and whether
fighting or seeking to escape; and it is equally immaterial whether
they come into action from Ships and Aircraft, or whether they land by
parachute. Even if these individuals on discovery make obvious their
intention of giving themselves up as prisoners, no pardon is on any
account to be given. On this matter a report is to be made on each
case to Headquarters for the information of Higher Command.
Should individual members of these Commandos, such as agents,
saboteurs etc., fall into the hands of the Armed Forces through any
means – as, for example, through the Police in one of the Occupied
Territories – they are to be instantly handed over to the SD
To hold them in military custody – for example in P.O.W. Camps,
etc., – even if only as a temporary measure, is strictly forbidden.
This order does not apply to the treatment of those enemy soldiers who
are taken prisoner or give themselves up in open battle, in the course
of normal operations, large-scale attacks; or in major assault
landings or airborne operations. Neither does it apply to those who
fall into our hands after a sea fight, nor to those enemy soldiers
who, after air battle, seek to save their lives by parachute.
I will hold all Commanders and Officers responsible under Military Law
for any omission to carry out this order, whether by failure in their
duty to instruct their units accordingly, or if they themselves act
contrary to it.
Commando Order was invoked to order the death of an unknown number
of Allied special operations forces and behind-the-lines operators of
the OSS, SOE, and other special forces elements.
"Commandos" of these types captured were turned over to German
security and police forces and transported to concentration camps for
execution. The Gazette citation reporting the awarding of the G.C. to
Yeo-Thomas describes this process in detail.
The first victims were two officers and five other ranks of Operation
Musketoon, who were shot in Sachsenhausen on the morning of 23 October
In November 1942, British survivors of
Operation Freshman were
In December 1942, Royal Marine commandos captured during Operation
Frankton were executed under this order. After the captured Royal
Marines were executed by a naval firing squad in Bordeaux, the
Commander of the Navy Admiral
Erich Raeder wrote in the
Seekriegsleitung war diary that the executions of the Royal Marines
were something "new in international law since the soldiers were
wearing uniforms". The American historian Charles Thomas wrote
that Raeder's remarks about the executions in the Seekriegsleitung war
diary seemed to be some sort of ironic comment, which might have
reflected a bad conscience on the part of Raeder.
On 30 July 1943, the captured seven-man crew of the Royal Norwegian
Navy motor torpedo boat
MTB 345 were executed by the Germans in
Norway on the basis of the
January 1944 British Lt. William A. Millar escaped from Colditz Castle
and vanished; it is speculated he was captured and killed in a KZ
In March 1944, 15 soldiers of the U.S. Army, including two officers,
landed on the Italian coast as part of an OSS operation code-named
Ginny II. They were captured and executed.
After the Normandy landings, 34 SAS soldiers and a
USAAF pilot were
Operation Bulbasket and executed. Most were shot, but
three were killed by lethal injection while recovering from wounds in
In September 1944 seven
British Commandos (along with 40 Dutch members
of Englandspiel) were executed over two days at KZ Mauthausen
On 21 November 1944 US airman and prisoner of war Lt. Americo S. Galle
was executed at Enschede, Holland by SS
Germoth by order of SS General Karl Eberhard Schöngarth.
On 9 December 1944, five US airmen of the 20th Bombardment Squadron
were captured and executed near Kaplitz, Czechoslovakia. Franz
Strasser was tried and executed on 10 December 1945 for participation
in the murders.
On 27 December 1944, US airman and prisoner of war Lt. Lester J.
Epstein was captured near Bastogne, Belgium. His shallow grave was
found in January 1945; his head had been smashed in by rifle
Between October 1944 and March 1945, nine men of the United States
Army Air Corps were summarily executed after being shot down and
captured in Jurgen Stroop's district. Their known names were Sergeant
Willard P. Perry, Sergeant Robert W. Garrison, Private Ray R. Herman,
Second Lieutenant William A. Duke, Second Lieutenant Archibald B.
Monroe, Private Jimmie R. Heathman, Lieutenant William H. Forman, and
Private Robert T. McDonald. When Moczarski reminded him that the
killing of POWs was defined as criminal under the Hague and Geneva
Conventions, Stroop responded, "It was common knowledge that American
flyers were terrorists and murderers who used methods contrary to
civilized norms ... We were given a statement to that effect from the
highest authorities. It was accompanied by an order from Heinrich
Himmler." As a result, he explained, all nine POWs had been taken
to the forest and given "a ration of lead for their American
On 24 January 1945, nine OSS men, including Lt. Holt Green of the
Dawes mission, others of the Houseboat mission, four British SOE
agents, and AP war correspondent Joseph Morton, were shot at
Mauthausen by SS Hauptsturmführer
Georg Bachmayer on orders of Ernst
Kaltenbrunner. Joseph Morton was the only Allied correspondent to
be executed by the Axis during World War II.
In 1945, Lt. Jack Taylor USNR and the Dupont mission were captured by
the men of
Gestapo agent Johann Sanitzer. Sanitzer asked the
instructions on a possible deal that Taylor proposed, but
Kaltenbrunner's staff reminded him "of Hitler's edict that all
captured officers attached to foreign missions were to be
executed". Taylor was convicted of espionage, though he claimed to
be an ordinary soldier. He was sent to Mauthausen. He survived,
barely, but gathered evidence, and was eventually a witness at the war
On 13 February 1945, eight survivors of a B-17 crash in Austria were
captured; four survived the war and four were executed.
The laws of war as they stood in 1942 were unequivocal on this point:
"it is especially forbidden ... to declare that no quarter will
be given". This was established under Article 23 (d) of the 1907 Hague
Convention IV – The Laws and Customs of War on Land. The Geneva
Convention of 1929, which
Germany had ratified, defined who should be
considered a prisoner of war on capture — that included enemy
soldiers in proper uniforms — and how they should be treated. While
at the time under both the Hague and Geneva Conventions, it was legal
to execute "spies and saboteurs" disguised in civilian clothes
or uniforms of the enemy, insofar as the
applied to soldiers in proper uniforms, it was in direct and
deliberate violation of both the customary laws of war and Germany's
treaty obligations.[b] The execution of Allied commandos without trial
was also a violation of Article 30 of the 1907 Hague Convention IV –
The Laws and Customs of War on Land, provided that: "A spy taken in
the act shall not be punished without previous trial." This
provision only includes soldiers caught behind enemy lines in
disguises, and not those wearing proper uniforms. Soldiers in proper
uniforms cannot be punished for being lawful combatants and must be
treated as prisoners of war upon capture, except those disguised in
civilian clothes or uniforms of the enemy for military operations
behind enemy lines.
The fact that Hitler's staff took special measures to keep the Order
secret, including the limitation of its printing to only twelve
copies, strongly suggests that they knew it to be illegal. He also
knew the order would be unpopular with the professional military, in
particular the part of the order that stated that the order would
stand even if captured commandos were in proper uniforms (in contrast
to the usual provision of international law that only commandos
disguised in civilian clothes or uniforms of the enemy could be
treated as insurgents or spies, as stated in the Ex parte Quirin, the
Hostages Trial, and the Trial of
Otto Skorzeny and others). The order
included measures designed to force military staff to obey despite
their lack of enthusiasm.
Some commanders like
Rommel had refused to relay this order to their
troops, considering it to be contrary to honourable conduct.
Anton Dostler tied to a stake before his execution
After the war, German officers who carried out executions under the
Commando Order were found guilty at war crimes trials, including the
General Anton Dostler, who ordered the execution of 15 American
soldiers of the Ginny II operation in Italy, was sentenced to death
and executed on 1 December 1945. His defence that he had only relayed
superior orders was rejected at trial.
Commando Order was one of the specifications in the charge against
Generaloberst Alfred Jodl, who was convicted and hanged.
Likewise, Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel's endorsement of the Commando
and Commissar Orders was one of the key factors in his conviction for
war crimes; for the same reason, his request for a military execution
(by firing squad) was denied, and he was instead hanged, like Jodl.
Another officer charged with enforcing the
Commando Order at Nuremberg
was the Commander of the Navy Erich Raeder. Under cross-examination,
Raeder admitted to passing on the
Commando Order to the Kriegsmarine
and to enforcing the
Commando Order by ordering the summary execution
of captured British Royal Marines after the
Operation Frankton raid at
Bordeaux in December 1942. Raeder testified in his defense that he
believed that the
Commando Order was a "justified" order, and that the
execution of the two Royal Marines was no war crime in his own
opinion. The International Military Tribunal did not share
Raeder's view of the
Commando Order, convicted him of war crimes for
ordering the executions, and sentenced him to life imprisonment; he
was released in 1955 and died in 1960.
Another war crimes trial was held in Braunschweig, Germany, against
Colonel-General Nikolaus von Falkenhorst, Supreme Commander of German
Norway 1940–44. The latter was held responsible, among
other things, for invoking the
Commando Order against survivors of the
unsuccessful British commando raid against the
Vemork heavy water
plant at Rjukan,
Norway in 1942 (Operation Freshman). He was sentenced
to death in 1946; the sentence was later commuted to 20 years'
imprisonment, and he was released in 1953 for reasons of health. He
died in 1968.
Le Paradis massacre
Adolf Hitler's directives
German High Command orders for Treatment of Soviet Prisoners of War
German commando operations
Gleiwitz incident, 1939
Operation Greif, 1944
^ Taylor was forced to work on a crew that built a crematorium. His
weight fell to 112 pounds and he developed dysentery. Taylor tried to
memorize atrocities told to him by other prisoners, in the mutual hope
that he could eventually bring justice to the perpetrators. He
survived the camp only because a friendly Czech "trustee" of the Nazi
guards, Milos Stransky, had seen his execution order and burned it.
After liberation, he returned to the camp to document and gather
evidence, including the "death books" that recorded made-up and true
versions of each prisoner's death. The evidence was later used at
war crimes trials. He was also a witness at those trials. The rest of
the mission, Graf, Ebbing, and Huppmann, were not technically "foreign
soldiers" so the
Commando order probably did not technically apply to
them, although they were sentenced to death for being traitors. They
escaped and survived.
^ The Hague regulations were found to be customary law by the judges
sitting at the Nuremberg Trials
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