A British Special Boat Squadron Corporal sharpens his knife before a raid in the Aegean, July, 1944
Also known as: formerly Folboat section, 101 Troop, Z Group, M Detachment;
latterly Special Boat Squadron, Special Boat Service
Date Founded: 1 SBS – late 1940; 2 SBS – 14 April 1942
Mission When Founded: To conduct sea-borne sabotage and reconnaissance
Mission During the War: To conduct sea-borne sabotage and reconnaissance
Theatre(s) of Operation: NW Europe, North Africa, Mediterranean, Italy, SE Asia
Headquarters: 1 SBS – Athlit, Palestine; Schooner ‘Tewfik’ moored at Kastellorizon (1943), Zara (present day Zadar, Croatia) (1945);
2 SBS – Lee-on-Solent, Hants (1944)
# of Personnel: 19 all ranks (1 SBS, March 1941), 47 all ranks (2 SBS, March 1942), 180 (December 1943), 72 (June 1944)
The SBS began life as the Folbot section of 8 Commando. Its commanding officer Captain Roger ‘Jumbo’ Courtney had demonstrated the effectiveness of kayak raiding to his superior officers by a series of practical demonstrations against ships in harbour. All the special service Commandos were meant to have a boat section in due course, but only 6 Commando’s 101 Troop was created.
In February 1941, 8 Commando was detached to Layforce being sent to the Middle Eastern theatre. Once in the Mediterranean the Folbot section officially became the Special Boat Section and began training aboard Royal Navy submarines. Operating in two man groups they conducted recces, sabotage raids on high-value communications targets, and agent drops amongst the Mediterranean islands and the Italian coast. Equipment was primitive – unsuitable boats, no radios, improvised torches, no wetsuits or drysuits – but the SBS was resourceful and cunning, and were scoring successes. The SBS was 60 all ranks in size by December 1941; Courtney was promoted to Major and ordered back to Britain to establish a second special boat unit.
The SBS continued raiding, reconnaissance and agent insertions along the North African coast Courtney’s departure as an independent entity, using RN submarines out of Alexandria, and later MTBs. However, the growing success of David Stirling’s SAS drew all of the Middle Eastern raiding forces including the SBS closer to the SAS. After a disastrous raid on Rhodes when only two men returned from 10, the SBS was absorbed into the 1st SAS Regiment in September 1942. The SBS ended up in 1 SAS’s D Squadron together with troops from the Greek Sacred Squadron. 1 SAS was subdivided into two units on David Stirling’s capture in January 1943, and D squadron became the Special Boat Squadron under the command of Major Lord George Jellicoe.
The Special Boat Squadron was divided in three operational detachments (L, M and S) and base group. Each detachment consisted of six fighting patrols of one officer and 12 other ranks. The SBS continued to wear the SAS’s beige beret and wings after the UK-based SAS were forced to wear airborne maroon and wings in 1944. In time training at Athlit (Haifa, Palestine) consisted of weapons familiarisation, boating, swimming, high-speed marching, unarmed combat, parachuting and skiing.
Initial raids on Crete and Sardinia by S and L detachments in support of the Sicily landings were failures. The SBS’s move to the Aegean would prove more successful although the initial deployments saw SBS teams on islands that fell to German occupation after the Italian surrender in September 1943. Unlike regular British formations caught on the islands the SBS were able to withdraw. The SBS were able to escape the fall of Leros in November 1943 unlike the garrison, most escaping to Palestine via Turkey.
The SBS became part of Raiding Forces Middle East in October 1943, and this is where Jellicoe’s men earned their reputation – storming out of the night to shoot up German garrisons, demolish installations and generally cause havoc. The SBS detachments operated in rotation from a secret base which was a large schooner moored off the Turkish coast. Transport to and from the target was courtesy of the Royal Navy or a caïque (1) of the Levant Schooner Flotilla (2). Raiding parties landed by canoe, collapsible Goatley boat, inflatables or sometimes by caïque. The SBS’s raiding kept six German divisions in the Aegean islands when they could have been redeployed to Italy or Europe. The SBS’s biggest and last raid killed or captured the entirety of the 180 strong garrison, 19 caïques and two patrol boats on Simi in July 1944 for two dead and six wounded.
After that the SBS moved to Italy and started operating in the Adriatic. Operations here were not as successful: sea-mines were more prevalent, defences were tougher and the local guerrillas uncooperative. The SBS participated in the German retreat in Greece, but were unable to cut the retreat off but beat it back to the Albanian border. The Greek Royalist/Communist conflict nullified SBS efforts afterwards.
The SBS became the Special Boat Service in early 1945, and was now fighting in the Italian campaign, acting as pathfinders and shock troops to allied Commando assaults. It was at Lake Comacchio that Major Anders Lassen, Military Cross and two Bars, was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross on 8 April 1945 for saving his patrol from heavy machine gun fire. Lake Commachio was the SBS’s last operation of the war; it was preparing for redeployment to the Far East when the war ended.
Major Courtney established 2 SBS on 1 March 1942. 2 SBS absorbed 101 Troop of 6 Commando which had seen action in Norway and reconnaissance of the France coast. From 47 all ranks 2 SBS quickly grew. Recruits underwent a 17-week training course followed by parachute training. Successful recruits wore the green Commando beret, and a “Commando SBS” shoulder title. The first action 2 SBS saw was in Algeria in November 1942, though part of 2 SBS deployed. The remainder stayed in the UK for landing agents in France and reconnaissance. One of 2 SBS’s secret missions was to smuggle American officers ashore for discussions with French commanders before the invasion, and then recced and guided landing forces onto the beaches of Operation TORCH in conjunction with the COPPs as Party Inhuman. A sub-unit of 2 SBS, Z Group remained in theatre raiding and assisting the COPPs.
2 SBS had become simply the Special Boat Section after 1 SBS’s absorption into the 1 SAS Regiment. It raided the German-occupied coasts of Norway and France but these were generally unsuccessful due to sea conditions and stronger coastal defences, and small teams served with RN submarines all over the world. At Mountbatten’s insistence elements of 2 SBS were sent out to India in February 1944 in preparation of operations in Burma. First Z Group was transferred to Ceylon. A, B and C Groups followed shortly afterwards arriving in India. Each SBS operational group consisted of 20 all ranks (4 officers plus 16 other ranks) under the command of a Major. By 1944 equipment and boats had greatly improved, mostly due to the efforts of the RM Boom Patrol Detachment (RMBPD), who effectively created the British combat frogman.
The SBS joined the COPPs, Detachment 385 and the Sea Reconnaissance Unit in the Small Operations Group (SOG) operating in Burma. The SBS saw the end of the war waiting for new operations to be assigned. SBS members who were not “Hostilities Only” personnel were posted back to the UK and transferred to Royal Marines, who would have responsibility for all future amphibious operations. Whatever was left of the SBS became the School of Combined Operations, Beach and Boat Section in 1946.
There were many small boat and amphibious British units in World War II and what they actually did can be confusing. However, they all specialised in specific areas. These can be summarised as follows:
RMBPD – ship attack and harbour sabotage
COPP – beach survey and reconnaissance
SBS – sabotage and reconnaissance above the high-water mark
(1) A caïque is a fishing boat ranging in size from 80 to 20 tons that is used around the Mediterranean. Used by both Axis forces for resupply and Allied for smuggling/raiding purposes. Allied caïques were mostly re-used abandoned ships, fitted with Matilda tank engines for extra stealth and speed.
Caïques were armed with a 20mm cannon forward, Browning MGs on each bow and Vickers K MGs on the quarters. Generally crammed with ammunition, grenades and plastic explosives below decks, the crew of five or six lived on the open deck.
Neutral Turkey allowed Allied craft carrying stores and personnel through its waters; however, caïque skippers carried an emergency supply of gold sovereigns to “divert” local officials’ attention away from their cargoes.
(2) The Levant Schooner Flotilla was formed in 1942 and operated until 1945. Its task was transporting SBS, LRDG, and Greek Sacred Squadron raiding parties in and out of enemy territory, in total secrecy, under cover of darkness. During the day caïques laid up under camouflage netting to avoid aerial patrols. Night time operations required a high level of navigational skill and seamanship, and volunteers from all three British armed services, mostly Royal Navy, crewed the caïques.
Ladd, James – 1978. Commandos and Rangers of World War II. St. Martin’s Press.
Messenger, Charles – 1985. The Commandos 1940-1946. William Kimber.
Parker, John – 2000. Commandos. Headline Book Publishing.
Thompson, Julian – 1998. The Imperial War Book of War behind Enemy Lines. Sidgwick & Jackson.