John Durnford-Slater

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Brigadier John Durnford-Slater DSO & BAR - The First Commando

Major John Durnford-Slater, founder of No3 Commando

Picture Courtesy and Copyright of Allied Assortment


The more I find out about the history of the members of this extended family, the more interesting this subject becomes.  The name John Durnford-Slater appears in our history as he was married to Ethel Gladys (or Gladys Ethel) Ferdinando.  The name had always intrigued me as I had recognised it from a book I was reading about the Long Range Desert Group.  He had been mentioned in there as a fleeting reference and then, shortly afterwards, there was a Television programme all about the Commandos and  up came the name again.  After some research and a general trawl of the internet I found that he had written a book "Commando" recounting his part in the second World War and this article is a combination of the information from that book and the other references I have found.

I am also indebted to John Durnford -Slater's Daughter and Granddaughter for their very kind assistance and corrections to the family tree and for confirmation that, John Durnford-Slater was indeed who I thought he might have been.  

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A Little Biography

John Durnford-Slater was born in 1909, The Son of Captain L F Slater and C D Durnford Slater.  He lived in the village of Instow in North Devon and last saw his father on the 5th August 1914 when he was 5½ years old, for a month later Leonard Slater died in the Great War. He was 38 years old and he died on the 14th September 1914.  John's father was Captain in the 2nd Bn., Royal Sussex Regiment and he is commemorated on Grave reference or panel I. C. 12 at Vendresse British Cemetery, Aisne, France.

John tells us very little about his early life and we pick up his story after he had entered Woolwich at the age of 18½,  six months later his Army Career began in the Royal Artillery (1929). He served in India for six years and returned to the UK in 1935.  There are a number of anecdotes in John's book including one where he met the actor Captain David Niven who was a Staff Officer at Combined HQ who provided one of the early briefings for a raid.

The book "Commando" gives us few insights into the private man, this being a book specifically about the war and No.3 Commando's place in History.  The remaining sections are some highlights from that book.  At the end are a few more notes sent to me by Chuck and Ann Flanders.  These quotes from a contemporary of John Durnford-Slater give a little more insight into his character.  

The Commandos - Shock Troops

Barely had Winston Churchill been made Prime Minister and the Dunkirk evacuation was underway when it was decided to form a group that would "take the fight" to the enemy.  It was envisaged that the UK would not be able to undertake major landings in Europe for some considerable time and whilst there were fronts in Africa, it would be useful to have a Commando operation used to carry out small scale raids anywhere along the enemy front.

John Durnford-Slater was chosen to command No. 3 Commando and they were set up in Largs in Scotland.  John Durnford-Slater's book, "Commando" provides a detailed account of how the troops (volunteers all) were trained, how they were treated differently to the to those in the general Army and of the necessary qualities each needed to possess in order to continue to be part of this elite group.  The volunteers had to find their own accommodation, be supremely fit and had a highly developed team spirit, failure to meet the standards set would result in summary dismissal from No. 3 Commando and having to rejoin their previous unit with all the shame that would bring on them.   

Early in their history, No 3 Commando took part in a raid against the Channel Island of Guernsey.  The experiences of this raid made John Durnford-Slater more determined than ever to perfect the formula for future raids.  There were many hard learnt lessons including the need for better cooperation and communication between the services to be worked on and the disappointment of this first raid was soon put behind them as they went on to attack Lofoten and Vaagso Islands, destroying factories and taking those who wished back to England.  Here Durnford-Slater was to be awarded his DSO and a number of other men in his unit were also decorated for their courage.

Dieppe was a bit of a non event for John as the boat he was travelling in was attacked before they reached their main objective causing him to miss the main action which was, unfortunately, far from a success.  Casualties were heavy and the objectives were not all met.

After Dieppe, No.3 Commando went to Sicily as part of the invasion force.  John Durnford-Slater recounts in his book meetings with Montgomery and the naming of a bridge after the Commandos after a highly successful raid by them. They operated ahead of the Allied advance in Italy.  In Northern Europe, the Commandos spearheaded the D-Day landings in Normandy and were in the forefront of the action through the final campaign of the War.  In the 5 years the men of No. 3 Commando won 8 DSOs, 30 MCs, more than 30 MMs and 5 DCMs.

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A Précis of No.3 Commando and its part in WW2

The Following Information is from the Allied Assortment Web Site Click here for their site.  Allied Assortment are a re-enactment group and have been most helpful in providing the photograph at the head of this page and the following information:

Formed in July 1940 from volunteers for Commando service under the command of Brigadier John Durnford-Slater, No3 Commando took part in one of the first Commando raids of the war attacking the Channel Island of Guernsey.  The raid turned out to be poorly planned, but a number of useful lessons were learned and applied to future operations. The unit also took part in a large number of raids during the remainder of World War II for instance the very successful raids on the Lofoten islands and Vaagso islands.


In 1942 No3 Commando took part in a raid on the Dieppe area, aimed at destroying the shore defences to the south of that port. On this raid a small detachment from the 2nd Rangers were to accompany them. Unfortunately this raid was a complete failure on the Canadian side where over 500 men were lost and twenty-nine of the latest Churchill tanks fell in to German hands. For the first time in Commando history they used the American M1 Grande self-loading rifle, finding this was a very useful weapon through the aspects of laying down fire. One drawback was that the Grande only held a clip of eight rounds, compared to the ten rounds in the magazine of the Lee Enfield.

In 1943 they fought in Sicily where a bridge was dedicated to them by Field Marshal Montgomery, in recognition of their tenacious fighting. No3 Commando also landed on the Italian mainland, but were unable to contain German counter-attacks due to poor logistical support.   

Upon their return from Italy, No3 Commando re-grouped at their home station of Largs, where they recruited, and then trained heavily in time for the Invasion of Normandy.

D-Day (Operation Overlord)

Operation Overlord (the codename for the Normandy landings) was the biggest military operation ever launched.  No3 Commando were attached to the 1st Special Service Brigade, under the command of Brigadier-General Lord Lovat.

The plan was to land the Brigade on Sword Beach, with the objective of moving inland to relieve the British 6th Airborne Division at Pegasus Bridge near Caen.

Some months later, as the war in Europe was entering its final stages, No3 Commando was used in the final allied push across the Rhine. 

After this short, but glorious career, the unit was finally disbanded in 1946, deemed surplus to requirements in the post-war world.

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Further Biographical Information

Chuck and Ann Flanders - In Sunny British Columbia, Canada - sent me the following information (Thanks)

"In your e-mail you mention that you are waiting for some information on John Durnford-Slater. We checked out bookshelves and found the following references to him in the book "March Past", a memoir by Lord Lovat., who was the Commander of the First Commando Brigade (published by Weidenfeld and Nicolson, London 1978). The book is not a detailed history, but it has many stories, some funny, that give an insight into the working of the Commando and the persons involved. It also indicates that Durnford-Slater has had some work published. The following are some excerpts from the Lovat book:

Page 148

There is an official history, and lively accounts of all the big raids and subsequent campaigns have been published by close personal friends - Derek Mills-Roberts, Peter Young and John Durnford-Slater - all men of ability and sound good sense. I have made full use of their work.

Page 201

That night the wind dropped sufficiently for a motor launch to take a few senior officers on a round of visits, first to Geoffrey on Beatrix and the rest of the raiding force: No. 3 Commando and its commander, Lieutenant-Colonel John Durnford-Slater. In an age when panegyric is frowned upon, it is difficult to describe this genial sportsman. No one would have been more indignant if presented as a paragon of virtue, and such he was not, though all his faults were of a loveable kind. No beauty in appearance, going bald, stocky and of medium height, with a jerky, short-stepping kind of action, John Durnford-Slater spoke in a high voice, but the restless energy and drive were immediately apparent. He knew what he wanted, and damned the hindmost into heaps with a cheerful smile. John got the best out of his men and went down well with the navy. A Devon man, he must have had hollow legs, for he could drink all night in the mess, parade the next day as fresh as a daisy, train for the morning and play a good game of Rugger in the afternoon. Sea-sickness was his only weakness.

What constitutes a leader? My dictionary says, ‘A man of deserved influence; one who shows official initiative; front horse in tandem; a top shoot on a tree or a newspaper article’! There must be different answers for different situations. For a soldier, leadership is that power to inspire confidence in battle, or unforeseen crisis, where others fail: the quality possessed by the individual of whatever rank, whose courage lifts lesser men with the certainty that all will go well as long as he is there. John was such a person. A regular in the Gunners, he had served in India, where, riding with ten necks to spare, he reached the final heat of the Kadir Cup. Living on his pay, with champagne tastes and a beer income, he somehow managed to ride and train his own steeplechase horse. Flutters on the turf were to prove his eventual downfall.

Page 216

If Colonel Lister continued to live on his nerves, John Durnford-Slater had discovered a cure for sea-sickness. The recipe: quantities of cheese and pickled onions washed down an hour before sailing with a bottle of beer. Should weather conditions become rough this panacea was to be tried out ‘on the home run through the Minches by those with queasy stomachs’."

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Commando, Brigadier Durnford-Slater D.S.O. & BAR.  "The Epic Account of a Famous Fighting Unit" Published by Universal Tandem Publishing Co. Ltd, 1973

The Second World War, 1939-1945.  "A Popular Military History by various Authors in Eight Volumes.  Norway, The Commandos & Dieppe by Christopher Buckley.  London.  His Majesty's Stationery Office 1951

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John Durnford-Slater's Daughter and Granddaughter for their very kind assistance & Chuck and Ann Flanders - In Sunny British Columbia, Canada for their interest and sending through the details they had.

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