• swwresearch

Research Group Seminar – Failure or Precursor? Independent Companies and Special Forces 1940-42

Updated: Jan 8, 2019


The next Second World War Research Group Seminar at the Joint Services Command and Staff College will be:


Professor Brian P. Farrell

(National University of Singapore)

Failure or Precursor? Independent Companies and Special Forces 1940-42

Abstract: Few arms of British service during the Second World War have received as much attention as special operations forces. This is not surprising, considering how they proliferated in multiple forms across the globe and all three major branches of service; wartime controversies over all aspects of their existence; and legacies that stretch into today’s fully integrated, if overused, descendant units. Arguably, however, the earliest iteration of what we might now call special operations forces, the Independent Companies the British Army formed in the spring of 1940 - and their offspring at home, in Malaya and Australia - have been relegated to either footnote status or brief mention as an early but rapidly superseded experiment. None of this is ‘wrong,’ but it is perhaps a bit hasty. Raising and employing special operations forces involved problems of status, resources, training and equipment, command and control, role and mission, and utility. These questions continued to shape the larger wartime development of such forces, eventually on a considerable scale. Can the early experience of the single service Independent Companies shed no light on this larger wartime experience? Was it no more than a footnoted flash of the moment? This paper will address those questions, by examining two things: the concept of the Independent Company and how it did or did not fit into wider British Army and joint service operations; the importance of contingency and circumstances, and how they affected both employment and the transmission of ideas, practices, and lessons learned. It will do this by examining the three principal Independent Company operational experiences: in Norway, in Malaya, and the Australian Independent Companies.


Brian P. Farrell is Professor of Military History at the National University of Singapore, where he has been teaching since 1993. His principal research interests are the history of imperial defence in the British Empire, the Western military experience in Asia, and the history of grand strategy. He is the author of The Basis and Making of British Grand Strategy 1940-1943: Was There a Plan? (1998), The Defence and Fall of Singapore 1940-1942 (2005; 2015), co-author of Between Two Oceans: A Military History of Singapore from 1275 to 1971 (1999; 2010), Malaya 1942 (2009), and editor of several volumes, including contributing Series Editor of Empire in Asia: A New Global History (2018).


The seminar will take place on 21 May 2018. Seminars are held from 13:00-14:00 and meet in the Ramslade Room, Joint Services Command and Staff College, Shrivenham, Wiltshire.


For information about how to attend this event, please contact the seminar convenor, Dr Andrew Stewart (andrew.stewart@kcl.ac.uk)


#BritishArmy #AustralianArmy #NorwegianCampaign #MalayaCampaign #SouthwestPacificArea #IndependentCompanies #SpecialForce #SecondWorldWarResearchGroupSeminar #SecondWorldWar #ProfessorBrianPFarrell #NationalUniversityofSingapore

© 2019 by the Second World War Research Group.

Background Image: Units of the 21st Australian Infantry Brigade marching along a winding track in the foothills of the Finisterre Ranges on their way to the Ramu Valley after being relieved, November 1943. Photograph by Norman Stuckley. (Source: Australian War Memorial)

  • Facebook Social Icon
  • Twitter Social Icon
  • LinkedIn Social Icon
  • YouTube Social  Icon