The Comandos are a special forces unit in the Portuguese Army. Their motto is “Audaces Fortuna Juvat” (The Luck Protects the Bold) and their war cry is “MAMA SUMAE” (it can be translated as “here we are, ready for the sacrifice” – it’s taken from a Bantu tribe of southern Africa). They were created as Counter-Guerrilla Special Forces, thus responding to the need of the army to have units specially adapted to the type of war that, in 1961, started in Angola and later in Portuguese Guinea (current Guinea-Bissau) and Mozambique – the Portuguese Colonial War.
The army needed units with the ability to:
- conduct special actions in Portuguese territory or abroad
- fight as assault infantry / shock troops
- provide the high political and military commands with a force able to conduct irregular operations
The first objective that the army set out to achieve was that of building a force specially prepared for Counter-Guerrilla operations, but the Portuguese commandos also participated in irregular operations, with units specially organized for each operation, and in assault operations, with conventional warfare characteristics, especially in the last years of the war, when they operated in battalion strength, backed up by artillery and the Air Force.
The history of the Portuguese commandos begins in June 25, 1962, when, in Zemba (Northern Angola), the first 6 groups of those that would be the predecessors of the commandos, were formed. For the preparation of these groups it was created the CI 21 – Centro de Instrução de Contraguerrilha (Counter-Guerrilla Instruction Centre) commanded by Lieutenant-Colonel Nave, and had as instructor, the photographer and former French Foreign Legion Sergeant, the Italian Dante Vachi, with experience in the Indochina and Algerian wars.
The six groups prepared in this center achieved excellent operational results. Nonetheless, the military command in Angola decided to re-evaluate the instruction and integration of these units in the army’s organic and, in 1963 and 64, the 16 and 25 Instruction Centres (CI 16 and CI 25) were created, in Quibala (Angola). For the first time, the term “Comandos” (Commandos) was applied to the troops instructed there.
In February 13, 1964, the first Mozambique Commandos Course was initiated in Namaacha (Lourenço Marques, now Maputo) and in 23 July of the same year, in Bra (Guinea-Bissau), the first Guinea Commandos Course.
In Portugal, the commandos were born in war and to do war. The instruction had the objective of preparing them and had two characteristics – the practice and realism – based on two aspects: the combat technique and the psychological preparation. All this having as foundation the physical and psychic selection with high standards, although these decreased as the war dragged on.
The psychological preparation to war was perhaps the aspect that most distinguished the commandos. Its objective was to transform the man into a self-disciplined soldier, competent and effective in combat, able to fight in any situations and conditions. The psychological component was, probably, the most striking component of the instruction, assuming that its main weapon was one’s will.
To perfect the will’s domain over all other instincts, the commando instruction’s physical demands reached the limits of the recruit’s resistance, aspiring to make each one the master of his own will.
Organization and Evolution
In its first phase, the commandos organized into independent groups composed of volunteers from Infantry battalions, forming their intervention units. The success of these groups meant that rapidly they started to be used under commander-in-chief’s and military commanders’ orders, to conduct special operations. The Groups’ organization (example):
- one command team (one officer, one signaler, one medic, two soldiers)
- three maneuver teams (one NCO, four soldiers)
- one back-up team (one NCO, one RPG soldier, one ammunition soldier, two soldiers)
This organization of a group to five teams and each team to five men suffered adaptations, but the base-cell, the five-men team, remained throughout the war.
The war’s evolution revealed the necessity of more commando soldiers and independent units, capable of operating during longer periods and being self-sustained: reasons that led to the creation of commando companies. The first company was formed in Angola and its instruction started in September 1964. Its commander, Captain Albuquerque Gonçalves, received the unit’s banner on February 5, 1965. The second company had as its destination Mozambique, commanded by Captain Jaime Neves.
The organization and organizational principles of the Portuguese commandos, inspired by the French Foreign Legion and in the Belgian Para-Commandos, are established in great mobility and creativity and in Counter-Guerrilla combat techniques, very well defined and able to support permanent innovation.
The composition and organization of the commando companies were always adapted to the circumstances and situations, although throughout the war it’s possible to verify two main models, that originated what we can call light companies and heavy companies. The former were composed by four commando groups, each one with four sub-groups, constituting 80 men and with little back-up components. These companies had little capability to maintain themselves, independently, during long periods of time, because they were meant as temporary reinforcements to units in small square, like intervention forces, and received from those units the necessary support. In these companies, the mobility and flexibility were privileged, and were initially used in Guinea and Mozambique. The heavy companies had five, five-team commando groups, in a total of 125 men, together with a formation of service personnel, of about 80 men, with medics, signalers, transport soldiers and cooks. Another type of organization was adapted to the companies of African commandos, formed in Guinea and composed of metropolitan soldiers when needed, a bit like the American special forces did in Vietnam with the “advisers”.
The war’s evolution, the necessity that started to exist of fighting in big units in Guinea and Mozambique and to, sometimes simultaneously, conduct special and irregular actions, led to the creation of commando battalions in those two theatres. This function of mother-unit was, in Angola and since its foundation, performed by the Centro de Instrução de Comandos (Commando Instruction Centre), that also needed to adapt, separating the instruction activity and gathering the operational units in a base in Campo Militar de Grafanil (Grafanil Military Camp), near Luanda, although it was never completely independent the operational use under a specific command. As big commando units the Centro de Instrução de Comandos (Commando Instruction Center), in Angola, the Batalhão de Comandos da Guiné (Guinea Commando Battalion) and the Batalhão de Comandos de Moçambique (Mozambique Commando Battalion) were formed.
Although Angola’s Commando Instruction Centre was the home and it was in that centre that the main core of doctrine of use and mystique of the commandos were formed, all battalions gave instruction to their staff and formed units to intervene in the operations theatre. Beyond this centre, that prepared units meant for Angola and Mozambique and the first commandos of Guinea, also in Portugal a commando centre was created in CIOE – Centro de Instrução de Operações Especiais (Special Operations Instruction Centre), in Lamego, that instructed units mobilized to Guinea and Mozambique.
In its history, the commandos were formed in Zemba (Angola) after June 25 1962, in Quibala (Angola) since June 30 1963, in Namaacha (Mozambique) since February 13 1964, in Bra (Guinea) since July 23 1964, in Luanda (Angola) after June 29 1965, in Lamego (Portugal) since April 12, 1966 and in Montepuez (Mozambique) after October 1, 1969. After the Colonial War, Portugal gave independence to all of its colonies and all the commandos started to be instructed in Amadora (Portugal) since July 1, 1974. The CIOE remains active to this day and, tasked with training and instructing the Special Operations soldiers; a whole different unit, created in the 1980s and popularly known in Portugal as Rangers. The CIOE also gives special operations training and instruction to various units of the Portuguese military and Police forces and, as of 2006, it is called CTOE.
After the War
Portuguese commando soldiers that participated in active operations: more than 9000 men (510 officers, 1587 NCOs and 6977 soldiers) that integrated 61 companies.
- 357 KIAs (killed in action)
- 28 MIAs (Missing In Action)
- 771 wounded
The commandos constituted about 1% of all the forces present in the Colonial War, but the number of their deaths is about 10% of the total of the casualties; a percentage ten times more than that of regular forces. It’s also generally known that the commandos eliminated more guerrilla fighters and captured more weaponry than the other forces. These characteristics made them the only ones to get a mystical aura that remained after the war.
After the war, the commandos continued to develop their skills until 1993 when they were disbanded. This decision was influenced by a number of deaths during instruction. The commando soldiers were merged with the Paratroopers and these were transferred from the Air Force to the Army. But in 2002, the commandos were reactivated as an independent unit and the Batalhão de Comandos (Commando Battalion) was created. They are now based in the Centro de Tropas Comandos (Commando Troops Centre) in Mafra. They were deployed to Afghanistan in 2005, where a Sergeant was killed by a roadside bomb; the first commando KIA since the end of the Portuguese Colonial War.
- Must be a Portuguese citizen
- Must be at least 18 years-old
- Pass a medical and psychological exam
- run 2500m under 12 minutes
- 47 sit-ups under 2 minutes
- 5 continuous chin-ups (palms forward)
- 20 push-ups
- jump a 3 meter ditch
- jump a 90 cm-high wall
- walk a 5 meter-high portico
- swim 15 meters
The physical tests are easy to complete, which allows the commandos to have large numbers of recruits; useful because there will be a lot of drop-outs during the instruction. After passing all the tests, the recruits will start the instruction.
Most of the instruction’s schedule or nature is unknown to the recruits. That means that they must be constantly ready and, to the smallest indication, present themselves on the parade ground or where they are ordered to, and follow whatever the instructors say. It might happen that they stay un-interrupted in instruction for more than a day, or that they have to conduct their daily lives during the night. The unforeseen and surprise are fundamental characteristics of the instruction. Each recruit must also be self-controlled: they have to dominate the reactions that, otherwise, might be normal if they were not future Comandos. All the demands made in the instruction are not obligations: each recruit has the right to refuse to do whatever he is ordered to. Obviously, doing this means that he is off the course.
When a recruit successfully completes the instruction he is badged as a commando and receives the famous red beret. The badging ceremony (like other traditions of the Comandos) is inspired by old Portuguese military orders (these were forces that, in medieval Portugal, were tasked with surveillance and intelligence in peacetime; first resistance in the defensive and first attack in the offensive; they were also the strongest forces during wartime).