Bickleigh Camp was built by A French & Co. in early 1940. The site was originally designated as a sewage disposal farm, but the Plymouth Emergency Hostels Society needed an evacuee camp; in fact the first occupants were Free French and Polish servicemen.
The following year the camp was taken over by the Canadian Fire Fighting Service until the end 1942 when it was returned to the Civil Defence Organisation for its original purpose of housing refugees. The camp was called the General Evacuation Centre (South West).
By the end of the war Polish Naval personnel once again occupied the camp but it was empty when the first Royal Marines arrived, namely the advanced elements of 27 (RM) Training Battalion in 1945.
In Burma during January 1945, following the capture of the Myebon Peninsular, 3 Commando Brigade was given the task of making a further landing near Kangaw, with the intention of cutting Japanese lines of withdrawal down the coast.
On 22 January 1945, 42 Royal Marines Commando (Lt Col H H Dales) together with No 1 Commando landed and occupied positions in the mangrove swamp.
Subsequently the Commando was ordered to capture a heavily wooded ridge known as Hill 70. Two days of hand-to-hand fighting were necessary before the Japanese could be driven from the ridge, and no sooner were they dislodged than they subjected it to heavy artillery fire.
After a lull of several days, the Japanese counterattacked at dawn on 31 January 1945. The enemy attacked repeatedly. In spite of heavy casualties to the Commando, the Japanese were finally beaten off and withdrew leaving their dead lying thickly among forward Commando positions.
In a Special Order of the Day to 3 Commando Brigade, Lt Gen Sir Philip Christison, Commander of XV Corps, concluded. "The Battle of Kangaw has been the decisive battle of the whole Arakan campaign, and that it was won was very largely due to your magnificent defence of Hill 170".
On 1 April 1946 an Infantry Training Cadre was established, part of the Royal Marines Training Group (Devon), and the camp soon developed into the Infantry Training School with Officer Cadet Training Wing, a Commando School and Cliff Assault Wing (base at St. Ives).
In 1950 Bickleigh was redesignated the Commando School Royal Marines, which it remained until 1960 when the school moved to Lympstone.
The value of Bickleigh as a military training area lies in its close proximity to Dartmoor, with its ideal training areas and ranges, coupled with its proximity to Plymouth for easy maritime access. However, during the 1950's, despite continuing as the Royal Marines Commando School, a number of operational tasks fell to its occupants.
The government decided to send a small Commando Force when the Korean War broke out. 41 (Independent) Commando Royal Marines, which formed up at Bickleigh on 16 August 1950, included many members of the staff. This unit disbanded at the Royal Marines Barracks Stonehouse on 22 February 1952.
In September 1954, 42 Commando returned to the UK after the draw-down of the British forces in Malta, and remained there as an operational nucleus till they were reactivated to become the first commando to embark in a Commando Carrier, HMS Bulwark in March 1960.
During the intervening years, the unit was brought up to strength for the Suez crisis, rejoining 3 Commando Brigade in Malta and was the initial landing force across the beaches of Port Said in November 1958 for the Lebanon crisis.
It was during this time that the decision was taken to move the Commando School to the newly developed Lympstone and in early 1960 the school redeployed there, just in time to allow Bickleigh to be used for the deactivation of 41 Commando. This unit formed on 31 March 1960 and remained there as part of the UK Strategic Reserve, taking part in exercises as far away as Norway and the West Indies. It was operationally deployed to Tanganyika and Kenya in February 1964 returning to Bickleigh on 7 April.
A large redevelopment programme got under way that year; the wooden and nissen huts were replaced by a permanent brick barracks, which was finally completed in 1971. By this time 41 Commando, having carried out two operational tours in Northern Ireland, moved to Malta as garrison troops on 3 September 1971. This coincided with the withdrawal of 3 Commando Brigade from the Far East and 42 Commando once again took over occupation of Bickleigh, where they have remained until this day.
During the initial landings on the Falkland Islands on 21 May 1982, 42 Commando RM (Lt Col N F Vaux RM) were Brigade Reserve at Port San Carlos, before seizing Mount Kent in a night move by helicopter. By 4 June the unit had moved forward, mostly under cover of darkness, to positions west of high ground overlooking Stanley and the last Argentine stronghold. After days of probing reconnaissance, a Brigade assault took place on the night of 11/12 June in which the Commando's task was to secure Mount Harriet on the Brigade right flank.
By moonlight and in freezing temperatures, 42 Commando moved undetected through enemy minefields in a 9 kilometre right-flanking movement to surprise the enemy in their rear. Consecutive assaults by "K" and "L" Companies followed, up steep slopes onto company positions amongst the crags at either end of the feature. Careful planning, resolute leadership and the boldness and determination of marines against initially strong resistance and continuous artillery bombardment, eventually prevailed. By first light more than 30 enemy had been killed and over 300 prisoners taken as 42 Commando consolidated on Mount Harriet.
Apart from many operational deployments to Northern Ireland, deploying troops to the New Hebrides in 1980 and exercising regularly overseas, the commando has recently seen operational service in South Georgia, Montserratt in 1995 and South Armagh in 1998/99.