Another unknown secret unit of WWII





Date Founded: January 1943

Mission When Founded: Reconnaissance of harbour and beach conditions prior to landings of Allied forces. Guiding of Allied invasion forces to designated landing sites.

Mission During the War: Unchanged

Jurisdiction: Mediterranean, NW Europe, SE Asia

# of Personnel: 174 all ranks (1944)


History/Profile: The Combined Operations Pilotage Parties were a wartime secret whose existence was not acknowledged by the Ministry of Defence until 1959 when their cover was blown by an American researcher. The reason for this secrecy was that each Coppist (a member of a COPP) had access to Allied invasion plans ahead of their launch. As such the existence of the COPPs fell strictly within the terms of the Official Secrets Act: the COPPs’s existence was never referred to in newspapers, BBC broadcasts or internal services communications not stamped MOST SECRET. Many senior Allied commanders below the rank of commander-in-chief did not know their true role.


COPPs COs had their orders personally signed by Lord Mountbatten, Chief of Combined Operations, orders that were to be produced if challenged by a higher rank. Every man going on a beach reconnaissance had to have a cover story if captured, and some men chose to drown rather than face capture. The COPPs serving in the Far East were also issued cyanide tablets in case of capture.


Lieutenant-Commander Nigel Clogstoun Wilmott RN was selected to command the new unit. He was summoned to meet Mountbatten personally in September 1942, and ordered to take a recce team to North Africa ahead of the Operation TORCH landings in Algeria. Wilmott managed to find 18 men; virtually all trained navigators in the Royal Navy, RNVR or experienced SBS officers. These would be the foundation of the COPPs. Codenamed Party Inhuman, the team did submarine periscope surveys of the Operation TORCH landing beaches, but didn’t do any actual beach reconnaissance due to lack of training.


After the successful participation of the recce team in Operation TORCH Mountbatten, officially brought the COPPs into being in the beginning of 1943. Mountbatten had been motivated by the failure of the Dieppe landings in August 1942. Mountbatten put his proposal direct to Churchill, who told him to put the proposal before the Chiefs of Staff but supported the idea ensuring its success.


The first official COPP teams were sent out recce Sicily in January 1943 in preparation for landings in March. These recces suffered five missing, presumed dead men and seven captured men out of sixteen men, although some beach reconnaissances were completed successfully. It was concluded that the men were ill-equipped and ill-trained. Willmott insisted that without proper training and equipment any COPP missions were doomed to failure. With the results of the Sicily recces Mountbatten demanded that the Chief of Staffs give the COPPs their full backing, which they did by issuing Willmott an ‘ace of trumps’, making training and equipment requisition a Top Priority of the war. Further losses were much reduced by improved training and better equipment gained by the Top Priority ace of trumps.


A survey team would be dropped off about two miles from the recce site by submarine or vessel in a canoe. The canoe would paddle to around 200 metres from the beach where the reconnaissance officer would slip into the water. The paddler would remain in the canoe maintaining a stable position and keeping camouflaged or conduct offshore reconnaissance. The swimmer would record every possible detail of use in pinpointing the most useful landing site, with a profile and description of the geological nature of the beach to assist beachmasters bring ashore landing craft and establish piers and breakwaters.


Whole assault area would be examined in great detail: gradients of underwater approaches, obstacles, sand-bars, rocks, beach consistency, land surfaces, mined areas, beach defences, beach exits, natural hazards (cliffs, hills, etc), lookouts, sentry posts, gun emplacements, enemy positions. These details would be mapped and charted for invasion troops. Then at the time of invasion the Coppists would return to guide the ships to the right beach or landing place by torchlight.


COPPs participated in every landing in Algeria, Sicily, Italy, the Adriatic, the Normandy landings (where X-Craft mini-subs were used), the Rhine crossings, and the invasion of Malaya and Arakan. In the Far East four COPPs served with the Special Operations Group, set-up in 1944. Mini-subs were also used in the Far East.


Ten COPPs were formed and trained between 1943 and 1945. These were numbered 1 to 10. Nos.1-6 and No.10 had 12 officers and men; Nos.7-9 had 11 officers and men. Each COPP consisted of a lieutenant-commander or lieutenant RN or RNVR (trained as a navigation or hydrographic specialist) as Officer in Charge; a major or captain from the Royal Engineers as the military recce officer; two lieutenants RNVR (one the OC’s assistant, the other maintenance officer); four seamen ratings (Able Seaman and above) acting as three paddlers and one maintenance officer’s assistant; one electrical mechanic; one Commando corporal paddler and guard to the RE officer; and from late 1943, a RE draughtsman. 50% of recruits were officers. Two thirds of Coppist recruits were Royal Navy men, one third were Royal Engineers, Commandos and SBS men.


The COPPs were reduced to four after the Japanese surrender, and three were disbanded in 1946. The remaining COPP transferred to control of the Royal Marines.



Occupational Templates


COPPIST: Boating, Cartography, Demolitions, Handgun, Knife, Military Science, Navigate (Sea/Air), Spot Hidden, Swim; plus 2 skills from the following: Hide, Pilot: Boat, Pilot: Mini-Sub, Sneak



Standard Uniforms & Equipment


Uniforms: Rubberised swimming suit


Weapons: Fairbairn-Sykes Commando knife, Enfield No.2 Mk.I or Webley Mk.IV or S&W Victory revolver


Equipment: Underwater writing tablet and chinagraph pencil, 2 waterproof torches, oil-immersed waterproof prismatic compass, RG infra-red gear, auger tube, bong stick, sounding lead and line, beach gradient line (fishing line attached to 1’ brass rod), SUE (Signal Underwater, Explosive: No.36 Mills grenades), 2-days emergency rations



Sample Character


Chief Petty Officer Albert Buckley

Race: Caucasian

STR: 09 DEX: 11 CON: 18 SIZ: 10 INT: 14

APP: 13 POW: 10 EDU: 15 SAN: 50 HP: 14

Damage Bonus: None


Education: Elementary school, Royal Navy training

Occupation: Coppist, No.1 COPP

Skills: Boating 50%, Cartography 30%, Demolitions 30%, Dodge 40%, Fast Talk 27%, Geology 10%, Handgun 40%, Hide 25%, Knife 50%, Listen 30%, Military Science 40%, Navigate (Sea/Air) 25%, Operate Heavy Machinery 20%, Pilot: Boat 20%, Pilot: Mini-Sub 25%, Sneak 20%, Spot Hidden 35%, Sub-machine Gun 25%, Swim 70%

Languages: English 75%


F-S fighting knife 50%, 1d4+2+db

Webley Mk.IV revolver 40%, 1d10

Fist/Punch 55%, 1d3+db

Grapple 30%, Special

Kick 35%, 1d6+db




Written by Adam Crossingham



Original content for this page is copyright 2003 Adam Crossingham and may be freely copied, posted on other websites, or used in other media in whole or in part with the following mandatory conditions imposed on usage: (1) any usage must respect and protect copyrights on all material, and specifically must obey restrictions placed on use by Pagan Publishing on its copyrighted material, and (2) regardless of alterations or additions, Adam Crossingham must be credited as author of parts © Adam Crossingham.





Ah, learned something new today. Very interesting Larry. Thanks a ton for taking the time for posting it here for all of us. :armata_PDT_37:


Those were indeed brave and courageous men!

Marion J Chard
Proud Daughter of Walter (Monday) Poniedzialek
540th Engineer Combat Regiment, 2833rd Bn, H&S Co, 4th Platoon
There's "No Bridge Too Far"

Here is a link to a book on the subject. I don't know anything about the book other than what I saw on the Amazon site. I had never heard of COPPs. That's one of the reasons I love to study WWII; there's always more things to learn.

Maj Todd O. USMC, Retired
Grandson of LTC John O'Brien

Excerpt from Carlo D'Este, Fatal Decision, P-486, Note #4 (the beachhead commandos):


What few have known is that a great debt was owed to the men who had taken great risks to reconnoiter the beaches at Anzio. Some of the most dangerous operations of the war were carried out by what were known as Combined Operations Pilotage Parties, or COPPs. The acronym COPP was used to disguise their real and more descriptive title of Beach Reconnaisance and Assault Pilotage Parties—whose task, in the case of Shingle, was to lay the groundwork for the Anzio landings.


Operating at night in collapsible canvas canoes called "folbots," two-man teams were launched from submarines, and while one would remain several hundred yards offshore, the other would swim ashore to reconnoiter enemy defenses and record important details such as the gradients and composition of the beaches. Often it was either impossible to locate the submarine again or the fragile folbots capsized in rough seas. In December 1943, during the preparations for Shingle, at least two two-man teams were lost off Anzio. Prior to the Sicily landings the COPPs suffered grievous losses to more than half the operational teams in the Mediterranean. In one instance it was believed that the two officers, whose boat probably capsized, deliberately swam out to sea where they were lost without a trace. Both men sacrificed their lives in order to preserve the security of Husky.


During the Shingle landings a folbot manned by a U.S. Navy ensign marked Yellow Beach for Darby's Ranger force and, at zero hour minus 10 minutes, turned on a yellow battle lamp that guided the Rangers to their target.


Disbanded after the war, the COPPs and their secret remained virtually unknown until 1954, when several veterans wrote about them. Only then did the world learn of their unheralded work.




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