Valor Friday

| June 9, 2023

Brigadier Derek Mills-Roberts

Have you ever heard the story of the British Commando who beat a Nazi Luftwaffe field marshal about the head with the marshal’s own baton of rank to the point of literally breaking his skull? I hadn’t, but it’s a great story.

Derek Mills-Roberts was born in England in 1908. He was schooled at Liverpool College and then studied to be a barrister at Oxford. While there he met fellow future Commando legend Simon Fraser. Fraser was born into the Scottish nobility and soon became the 15th Lord Lovat, 4th Baron Lovat, and head of the Clan Fraser of Lovat.

Mills-Robers and Lovat initially had a rivalry that once came to blows. As you’d imagine with two men who soon became Commandos, they developed a mutual respect after the brawl and became good friends.

After university, Mills-Roberts was commissioned a reserve officer in the Irish Guards Regiment of the British Army in 1936. He went to work in his father’s law practice, and several records can be found in the London Gazette of Mills-Roberts giving notice on the death of a client that he was representing the estate.

When the Second World War broke out, Mills-Roberts was brought to active duty. His good friend Lord Lovat was in command of No. 4 Commando Unit, and Mills-Roberts was able to join him.

No. 4 Commando first saw combat in a raid on the German-occupied Norwegian Lofoten Islands on 3 March 1941. It was one of the early special operations missions conducted in the war by the Brits. The small commando unit succeeded in destroying several fish oil factories, fuel dumps, and damaged 11 ships. They also recovered German code books and encryption gear.

In addition to all of that militarily significant success, the Commandos returned to Britain with 216 captured German troops and more than 300 Norwegians decided to go with and escape the Nazi occupation of their lands.

Two more planned raids were canceled due to weather, so No. 4 Commando’s next active operation was the infamous Dieppe Raid.

The Dieppe Raid of 19 August 1942 would see 6,000 infantrymen (mostly Canadian) make an amphibious landing, supported by tanks, and special operations commandos. They were to take the German port at Dieppe, France and hold it for a time. It was to be a practice for the eventual full-scale invasion of France (which is better known today as D-Day).

The Dieppe Raid was a disaster. Despite some tactical successes, heavy losses from the well-prepared German defenders forced the Commonwealth forces to retreat inside 10 hours. One of those tactical successes was by No. 4 Commando.

During Dieppe, with Lord Lovat in command, No. 4 Commando landed on the right flank of the amphibious assault. They assaulted, silenced, and took over a German coastal defense gun battery.

Military Cross

For his actions at Dieppe, Lieutenant Mills-Roberts was awarded the Military Cross for “recognition of gallant and distinguished services in the combined attack on Dieppe.” At the time, the Military Cross (MC) was the second-level bravery decoration for commissioned officers, placing it as roughly equivalent to an American Distinguished Service Cross.

By the time Derek’s MC was gazetted (which is to say published and officially awarded by notice in the London Gazette) he was a substantive lieutenant in rank, a temporary captain, and an acting major.

In late 1942, Mills-Roberts was promoted to lieutenant colonel and given command of No. 6 Commando. No. 6 Commando had seen action first in late-1941 in operations off Norway. When Mills-Roberts joined his new men, they had just come to great acclaim in support of Operation Torch.

Torch were the Allied landings in North Africa. The first large-scale ground offensive in the European-African-Middle East Theater for the Americans. The very successful amphibious invasion of Algeria saw No. 6 Commando acquit themselves splendidly.

Mills-Roberts joined his new command in early January 1943. This placed him in command when they were attacked on 26 February by two battalions of German parachute infantry with armored support.

Outnumbered 2-to-1, the Commandos (with elements from the Reconnaissance Regiment) held off the superior numbers of enemy soldiers for five hours. Even with the enemy’s using armor, Mills-Roberts and No. 6 Commando held the line. Long enough that reinforcements were able to come up. Their steadfast defense prevented the Germans from encircling the 1st Army.

No. 6 Commando didn’t come out of the engagement unscathed. They lost a full 40% of their strength. Casualties were 11 killed, 34 wounded, and 55 missing. When the Germans eventually retreated in the face of the Allied push, some of the missing were recovered.

Due to their losses, No. 6 Commando was put into the mobile reserve. They conducted sporadic patrol operations, but saw no large-scale combat again. By April it was decided they were done in North Africa. The battalion-sized unit was down to only 150 men. They weren’t considered combat effective any longer.

Distinguished Service Order

For his “gallant and distinguished services in North Africa,” Mills-Roberts was made a Companion to the Distinguished Service Order (DSO). The DSO at the time was the highest award for combat leadership given to officers. It was awarded for acts nearing, but not to the level, of those befitting the Victoria Cross (Britain’s highest honor). In that context, it too would be considered the equivalent of an American Distinguished Service Cross. Less than 5,000 DSOs would be awarded during WWII.

Over the remainder of 1943 and into 1944, No 6 Commando was moved with commandos of the Royal Marines into a unified 1st Special Service Brigade. They trained for and would be part of the Invasion of Normandy come 6 June 1944.

The 1st Special Service Brigade was under the command of Mills-Roberts’ good friend and former commander, now-Brigadier Lord Lovat. They landed as part of the second wave of troops into France on 6 June starting about 0840 hours.

The No 6 Commandos were the first large element of the brigade to come ashore. As they landed, Lord Lovat had, against explicit orders not to, had his personal bagpiper play the Commandos ashore. The piper, a private, demurred as it was against regulations to pipe in action combat. Lovat replied, “Ah, but that’s the English War Office. You and I are both Scottish, and that doesn’t apply.”

They moved quickly to their objectives, fighting off of Sword Beach and into France. By the end of the day, three men of No 6 Commando lay dead and 32 wounded.

On 12 June, the 1st Special Service Brigade was tasked with the Attack on Breville. The village had been used by the entrenched Germans to launch brutal artillery barrages onto the Allies. The brigade was fighting alongside the British 9th Battalion, Parachute Infantry Regiment. While observing artillery barrages, Lord Lovat was among several high ranking casualties when a British shell landed short. Critically wounded, he was evacuated and relinquished command.

Though Mills-Roberts had been wounded in action on 12 June, he accepted command of 1st Special Service Brigade. Less than two weeks later, he was awarded a bar (to indicate a second award) to his DSO “in recognition of gallant and distinguished services in North-West Europe.” His was one of only 947 first bars awarded to men during WWII.

Under Mills-Roberts, the 1st Special Service continued fighting until returned to the UK for replenishment in early September. After recruiting and training replacements, the brigade was slated to go to the Far East. That plan changed when the German offensive in December and January (what came to be known as the Battle of the Bulge) forced their allocation back to the continent. By this time, Special Service Brigades were renamed Commando Brigades.

Back in Northern Europe, they saw action after the Battle of the Bulge. The rapid advances in the spring of 1945 saw the Allies steamroll over the Germans until the Fuhrer committed suicide, and, says later, Victory in Europe Day as Germany surrendered. The 1st Commando Brigade, under the command of Colonel Mills-Roberts, crossed the rivers Rhine and Weser and ended the war in Lübeck.

No. 6 Commando were the first Allied troops to come to the aid of the survivors of the prison ship Cap Arcona in the Bay of Lübeck. It had been attacked mistakenly by RAF fighters and sunk, taking many of the prisoners down with her on 3 May.

In April, Mills-Roberts and his men were part of the liberation of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. It was surrendered by Heinrich Himmler (in exchange for the safe passage of most of his SS troops running the camp) on 15 April 1945.

What the liberators saw in the camp was the very worst of the inhumanity man can unleash upon man. There were 13,000 unburied dead within the camp. In the camp and the surrounding satellite camps were 60,000 prisoners. Typhus was killing 500 people per day before and immediately after the liberation.

BBC’s Richard Dimbleby, who accompanied the troops freeing the survivors described the scene:

“…Here over an acre of ground lay dead and dying people. You could not see which was which… The living lay with their heads against the corpses and around them moved the awful, ghostly procession of emaciated, aimless people, with nothing to do and with no hope of life, unable to move out of your way, unable to look at the terrible sights around them … Babies had been born here, tiny wizened things that could not live … A mother, driven mad, screamed at a British sentry to give her milk for her child, and thrust the tiny mite into his arms, then ran off, crying terribly. He opened the bundle and found the baby had been dead for days. This day at Belsen was the most horrible of my life.”

In response to the horrors at the camp, the SS guards who had remained behind were forced by the Brits to bury their dead victims. They were put on starvation rations, prohibited from wearing any protective clothing, and constantly yelled at to ensure their constant working.

Over the next few weeks, tens of thousands of survivors were deloused, evacuated, and provided the first quality medical care in months or years. The camp was then burnt to the ground with flame throwers to prevent the spread of typhus and the bug and rodent infestations.

On 4 May 1945, as the Nazi rats were fleeing Germany (some were trying to escape while others preferred surrender to the western Allies) the paths of two men would cross. Mills-Roberts would accept the surrender of a Luftwaffe Field Marshal when the latter got caught by British Commandos as he fled across the Baltic coast.

Erhard Milch was a very highly placed officer for most of the war. He was a field marshal by rank, and so carried the symbol of that office in the form of an ornate baton. This is a common accoutrement for field marshals in European armies. He served as State Secretary in the Reich Ministry of Aviation and Inspector General of the Air Force. In these roles he was responsible for the manufacture of all military aircraft. During the war, the Germans made extensive use of slave labor to build aircraft and other war materiel.

Milch was an interesting historical figure. He was a veteran of the Great War, but his father was a Jewish pharmacist. You might be wondering just how did one of the most powerful men in the Reich, serving just below and at the right hand of Hermann Goehring himself, survive if he was half-Jewish?

Milch’s mother was a Gentile, so by Jewish tradition (which follows the matrilineal line) he was not Jewish. Under the Nuremberg Laws of Nazi Germany though, he was of mixed blood. Once rumors of this started to swirl around Milch in the mid-1930s, his mother testified to the Gestapo in a sworn written statement that Milch’s actual father was her uncle. If true, then Milch was the product of an adulterous and incestuous relationship.

Whatever the actual parentage of Milch was, his position with Goehring helped him avoid the camps. Goehring personally intervened and Milch was given a German Blood Certificate to confirm his pure German bloodline.

There’s nothing I can find terribly redeeming of the personal characteristics of Marshal Milch. When it came to quelling riots among the forced labor in his factories, he said,

“I spoke to Himmler recently about this, and told him his main task must be to see to the protection of German industry if unrest breaks out among this foreign scum.

“If, for instance, there is a mutiny at X, an officer with a couple of men, or a lieutenant with thirty troops, must appear in the factory and let fly with their machine-guns into the mob. The object is to lay out as many people as possible, if mutinies break out. This is the order I have issued, even if the people are our own foreign workers.

“Every tenth man is to be picked out, and every tenth man will be shot in front of the rest.”

With his wartime record making him a prime target for any of the Allies, Milch tried to escape just days before the end of the war, and right after Hitler’s suicide. He didn’t make it far before men of the 1st Commando Brigade found him.

Tradition dictates that the surrender of an officer should only be done to another officer. In the case of a flag officer such as Milch, the highest ranking officer accepts the surrender. So it was that Milch would present his marshal’s baton to Mills-Roberts in surrender.

Mills-Roberts chose the moment to discuss with the Nazi the conditions he’d recently seen at Bergen-Belsen. Milch, who spoke English, said something like, “These people are not human beings in the same way as you and I!”

Enraged, the British Commando, who had faced off against the Nazis on two continents and just seen the atrocity that was the concentration camp system, ripped the marshal’s baton out from under Milch’s arm. He then began to mercilessly beat the defeated airman.

Mills-Roberts unleashed only a small measure of the violence Milch had wrought to Europe. He wailed the baton about Milch’s head so much that the baton finally broke. He then grabbed a champagne bottle from nearby and continued to pummel Milch.

When Mills-Roberts was finally done, Milch wasn’t dead. He might have wished he were though. He had several contusions and a fractured skull. Milch remained a prisoner of the Allies, and was one of the first Nazis to be tried for war crimes at Nuremberg. He was found guilty in 1947 and sentenced to life in prison. As with virtually all of the war criminals not sentenced to death, his sentence was eventually commuted. In 1951, at age 59, Milch’s prison term was reduced to 15 years. He was paroled in 1954 and died in 1972 as the last living Luftwaffe field marshal.

After serving up some good old fashioned street justice to the field marshal, Mills-Roberts reported the next day to the ranking officer. He presented himself to Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery. He intended to apologize for losing his temper, but when he approached Montgomery, the elder officer put his hands up over his head in mock defense. He said, “I hear you’ve got a thing about Field Marshals.” Nothing more was said of the matter.

Mills-Roberts’ batman (the British word for his personal assistant or aide-de-camp) recovered the pieces of the busted baton and eventually gave them to Mills-Roberts’ wife. She had it restored, but the restorer made it a bit longer than it was originally. In her later years she sold it at auction. The Milch family sued to prevent the sale. They had the balls to say that it was stolen from him, but a British magistrate ruled against such a claim. It was legitimate war booty.

In June 1945 Mills-Roberts was ranked a brigadier (acting). Post-war he left active duty but commanded 125 Infantry Brigade in the Territorial Army (the British Army reserve) until 1951. I can’t find much on what he did after the military. He wrote Clash by Night: A Commando Chronicle, published in 1956.

Among Mills-Roberts other awards and decorations were a mention in dispatches in 1945, which is equivalent to an American Bronze Star Medal. In the 1951 New Years Honours, King George VI gave Mills-Roberts an appointment as a commander in the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (CBE).

Mills-Roberts died in 1980.

Category: Army, Historical, UK and Commonwealth Awards, Valor, We Remember

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A good thrashing given to the Field Marshall. Many more like him should have felt the wrath of allied soldiers for the deed they did before and during the war.

Skivvy Stacker

To put a British spin on it; “Those Jerrys behaved abysmally in that war”…

President Elect Toxic Deplorable Racist SAH Neande

I was not there (obviously).
I would not WANT to have been there.
But when I read the words “Bergen-Belsen concentration camp”, I wept.

Last edited 1 year ago by President Elect Toxic Deplorable Racist SAH Neande
President Elect Toxic Deplorable Racist SAH Neande

Erhard Milch….
Let’s see……a close American translation of the name might be…..Eddy Milk?
Can you imagine being named “Milk”?
Think of the derogatory spinoffs.
“Milk toast” “Panty waist” “Nancy pants” (all very insulting to men back-in-the-day) (I think you can add more on your own imagination)

From his picture, he doesn’t look to be the most hardened of soldiers, Nazi or otherwise.
And saying, “These people are not human beings in the same way as you and I!”
No wonder Mills-Roberts beat the hell out of him.

Hate to observe we named a ship after a Milk.

My father was one of the folks who liberated Dachau. He wouldn’t talk about it.


A Warrior’s Warrior that just needed a bat to go along with his balls. SALUTE!

Another great story, Mason. Thanks!