After the fall of Dunkirk, Winston Churchill ordered that a special army unit be created to take the war back to the enemy, and the famous Commandos were formed. Among the first to join up was Hampshire trooper Jimmy Dunning. Now aged 80, the Romsey veteran tells IAN MURRAY his story

The moment was not lost on 22-year-old Sergeant Major Jimmy Dunning. As he looked out on the blitzed skyline of Southampton from his vantage point on board HMS Prince Albert, the memories of a childhood in the city came flooding back.

He glanced towards Shirley, just a mile and a half away, where he knew that his widowed mother was going through the routines of life oblivious to the fact that her son was so near.

Certainly, he was relieved to think, she had no idea he was about to embark on one of the most ambitious raids of the Second World War.

Jimmy and his fellow Commandos had just been visited on board ship by Lord Louis Mountbatten. He had informed them that their destination was Dieppe. Less than a day later, 4,000 of those allied soldiers who joined Jimmy on the beaches of Northern France would be dead, wounded or captured.

But for Jimmy and No. 4 Commando there would be glory and a letter of congratulations from King George himself after their galantry that day. Indeed, it would be a single shot from Jimmy's mortar that would hit the ammunition dump in the centre of the German cliff-top coastal battery 'Hess', silencing the six guns in one terrible explosion. It was to be the only success of the operation.

Later, Jimmy would call it his "lucky shot, the luckiest shot in the war". Certainly it saved many men's lives. Probably even his own.

Meeting Jimmy Dunning today in his neat home in Romsey, it's hard to imagine that this charming, quietly- spoken man helped train thousands of men to become some of the most efficient killing machines these islands have produced.

Jimmy's reluctance to talk about his own actions in battle, the "death and glory stuff" as he disarmingly puts it, makes the task of imagining him as a trained killer even more difficult.

Interviewing the former Commando is like chatting to a John Mills character from a smashing British war movie of the era.

The tale that emerges is true Boy's Own Adventure stuff - how he became one of the founding members of Britain's Commando forces, how he survived the war despite serious injury, and how his famous commanding officer, Brigadier Lord Lovat, remained in contact until his own death a few years ago. With chaps like Jimmy fighting for us, how could we lose

Except chaps like Jimmy didn't always come back. And chaps like Jimmy, now, at 80, one of few original survivors, know just how serious it truly was, and just how close we really came.

Ironically, it was the death of Lord Lovat in 1995 that finally inspired Jimmy to commit to paper his memories of the guts, courage, ingenuity and not a little blood that was required to train the first Commandos.

"'When are you going to finish that book' he kept saying to me when we spoke or he wrote," said Jimmy.

"After he died I said 'well, it's about time I did finish it'."

Jimmy's memories of his time with the Commandos during the war are now published in It Had To Be Tough (Pentland Press).

True to his wishes, the book does not dwell on the engagements of the famous Green Berets. Those stories have been told before, he says. The work concentrates on the formation of the Commandos, or Special Service (never abbreviated to the SS, for obvious reasons), their early years, and the rigours of their training regimes.

It's a story of make and do on an almost farcical level. But it lifts the lid on the germination of a fighting force that went on to be the role model for the SAS, SBS and every elite fighting force around the world today.

For Jimmy, being one of the first meant a fighting career that followed closely the development of the force Winston Churchill had ordered to be created after Dunkirk. It's said that it was the Prime Minister who also decided on the name Commando after the Boer fighters of an earlier conflict of his.

James Dunning had entered his father's profession as a butcher after finishing his schooling in Southampton but, with war approaching, he volunteered to join the Hampshire Regiment as a trooper.

With the fall of France came the call for volunteers for a special force and Jimmy applied.

"In my case, the unit orders had specified, 'able to swim, not prone to sea-sickness, prepared to parachute or travel in a submarine, and able to drive a motor car and ride a motor cycle'," said Jimmy.

"Of course, men were so eager to join they lied about whether they could swim or not and we had some difficult moments when it came to training in the sea."

In fact, there were drownings, especially before the men were equipped with their Mae West life jackets.

Men who didn't make the grade for whatever reason were returned to their units (RTU), and no request to leave the Commandos was ever refused. But for those, like Jimmy, who passed the initial stages and were determined to stay on, their training was to be a unique experience for any fighting force of the time.

One of the first surprises was the decision not to organise logistics support within the Commandos. It was realised that up to 20 per cent of men making up a typical infantry battalion of the time were employed in non-combatant duties, from cooks to clerks.

If the Commandos could do without this support then all of their manpower could be directed towards training to fight the enemy. Instead of providing the men with barracks, the Commandos were given a weekly allowance and a ration card and told to find their own accommodation.

So it was that Britain's finest body of fighting men would go home each evening after a day's training to their seaside landladies who would serve up a hearty meal.

But not too hearty. There was a war on, and, in a strange twist, the Commandos were given less rations than regular serving forces. To make up for the loss they were actively encouraged to forage for food in the towns and countryside.

For Jimmy, foraging meant liberating the odd chicken from a farmer's coop around Weymouth where he was now training.

"The MoD would always contact the farmer and try to compensate them for their loss, but a lot of the time they were given up for the war effort," he grinned.

Foraging also came in useful for finding transport, as Jimmy explained.

"We were a mobile force but we didn't have any official transport. We would simply be told where we were to meet up in so many hours and be expected to find our own way there.

"After one invasion scare we were all of us sent out to find any transport we could lay our hands on in the area. We returned with a strange assortment of cars, vans, motorbikes and all sorts.

"Of course, we were made to give them all back and the police spent the next few days calming down some very irate owners."

But behind the Boy Scout-style adventures lay training in resourcefulness that would serve the Commandos well in the years of conflict to come behind enemy lines.

As their training progressed and targets were identified, the Commandos were provided with better equipment and specific training grounds.

Training took place at Hillhead, on the Hampshire coast, which was convenient for the submarine base at Gosport. Freshwater on the Isle of Wight was ideal for cliff training. There was even jungle training in the New Forest.

One camp was at Winchester where, as Jimmy recalls, the training followed the normal Commando programme: early morning runs and PT, intensive weapon training, unarmed combat sessions, field firing, 48-hour exercises, night training, and being near the sea they took the opportunity to do some canoeing on the River Itchen and Southampton Water.

Southampton provided specific training grounds as well. Blitzed buildings near the bombed-out Supermarine aircraft factory at Woolston, where the pre-war Schnieder Trophy S6 seaplane had been built, were secured as training grounds for fighting in towns and villages.

"We practised house-clearing using live ammunition and grenades, plus token explosive charges and devices to blast holes in walls through which to lob grenades - a technique known as 'mouse-holing'.

"Improvised snap targets - body silhouettes or heads and shoulders - were sited in rooms and corridors, wherever possible some were connected to ropes and pulleys, so that they could pop up for a second or two."

Often the Home Guard would be pressed into acting as a defence force for the war games, although in these situations live ammunition was replaced with blanks.

Southampton's King George V Dock also provided the Commandos with their most realistic training ground of the war to prepare them for one of their service's best known raids: St Nazaire.

In 1942 with the U-boat crisis in the Atlantic growing ever deeper, there were real fears the Germans would move their formidable ships of the line to the captured French ports. St Nazaire was the most important of these fortresses and the decision was taken to storm the port, destroy everything of any use to the enemy and leave, smashing the destroyer HMS Campbeltown into the dock gates to cause permanent damage.

The results of the raid are well documented. A complete British victory with St Nazaire knocked out of the war. What is not so well documented is the vital role Southampton played in the raid's success.

The King George V Dock had been modelled on St. Nazaire as an almost complete copy. What's more, despite heavy bombing by the Luftwaffe the docks were unscathed and not even in use. They provided the perfect training ground for the Commandos who even attacked the British docks blindfold to prepare themselves for a night raid.

Engineers employed on the building of King George V Dock were able to give the Commandos vital information on how to wreck its sister port, insight that proved crucial to the success of the raid in March of that year.

But the raid accomplished much more than just knocking out the port. It boosted morale both at home and in Europe. After the war the French Prime Minister was to tell visiting survivors of the attack: "You were the first to give us hope."

After being involved in raids in Norway and Dieppe, Jimmy Dunning was posted to Scotland to train Commando reinforcements. After 20 months he requested a return to active duty but during a training parachute jump he fractured his spine and spent time in hospital during which Germany surrendered. He was undertaking Far East training when Japan surrendered.

After the war, promoted now to captain, he returned to the Royal Hampshires and was sent to Palestine where he fought against the IZL terrorists, on one occasion defusing two 50lb bombs left at his barracks.

At the outbreak of the Korean War Jimmy was posted to the Far East. He returned to England after the tragic death of his first wife Clara through cancer to look after their daughter Morag.

Posted to Cyprus, he met Jane, who was to become his second wife, with whom he has two children, Graham and Sarah. He later joined the Parachute Regiment as a major and saw service in Suez.

Jimmy retired from the Army in 1958 and trained as a teacher. He will be known to thousands of Southampton school children for his time as deputy headmaster at Swaythling Primary School for 13 years.

Since retiring from teaching he has written 21 guide books and is quick to thank his wife Jane for her help with those and his new history of the Commandos. He has been national president of the Commando Association and is now its vice- president.

His role with the association has kept him in contact with many old comrades, and a few old enemies.

Among Jimmy's prized possessions are a collection of photographs taken of the German battery before he destroyed it with his "lucky shot" during that fateful raid on Dieppe. They were sent to Jimmy by one of the few German survivors who had pretended to be dead when the Commandos stormed the cliff-top.

Only men like Jimmy know just how lucky he had been.

It Had To Be Tough, Pentland Press, £9.99. Contact: 01388 776555. To order by the internet:

Converted for the new archive on 25 January 2001. Some images and formatting may have been lost in the conversion.