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The Special Boat Service

At the end of the Second World War, the Special Operations Group, in the Far East, was returned to the UK, but many stayed on and moved to non-amphibious units, because conventional commanders and politicians saw little use for Special Forces in the post-war Atomic Age. The War Office Tactical Investigation Committee decided to raise and train short term, shallow penetration, Special Forces under the Royal Marines, while the other Special Forces' units were disbanded altogether.

Those sections of SOG which remained intact were transferred to the Royal Marines, and the men who formed the new sections were from SOG, including the Special Boat Section, RM Detachment 385, Sea Reconnaissance Unit, Combined Operation Pilotage Parties and Boom Patrol detachments. Only a small number of these men stayed on, reporting to Westward Ho! Hotel, which had been the wartime headquarters of Combined Operations Experimental Establishment. The men numbered fewer than 60, under the command of Blondie Hasler.

In early 1946, the Admiralty gave approval for the opening of the School of Combined Operations, Beach and Boat Section, (SCOBBS) at Fremington, Devon. Hasler produced a paper outlining his vision of the future, defining the role of modern amphibious Special Forces.

SCOBBS would train a core of men for beach surveying, intelligence gathering and sabotage, and within a year was placed under the command of the Royal Marines and merged with RMBPD and renamed COBBS (Combined Operations Beach and Boats Section). At the end of August the two units of 39 men and their stores moved to the RM base at Eastney, Portsmouth. By the summer of 1948 COBS had been renamed the Small Raids Wing of the Royal Marines Amphibious School at Eastney. Their first mission being ordnance removal in Palestine and removing limpet mines from ships in Haifa harbour.

At this point the guidelines for the SAS and SBS were laid down, a row ensued about the title of SBS while the RM won and was able to use SBS as a functional title. SAS were responsible for recce at division level, deep penetration raids, behind-the-lines harassment and training partisans. The SBS were responsible for operations against ships and coastal installations, shallow waterborne penetration raids, beach recon, landing preparation and ferrying agents.
Either could carry harassment of coastal targets, landward recon, capture of prisoners and eliminating undesirable people. However, at this time, the SBS were regulars and the SAS remained part of the Territorial Army.

When the Russians began to threaten Western Germany and the Western occupied centres of Berlin, a detachment of the SRW was formed as part of the Royal Navy Rhine Flotilla based at HMS Royal Prince at Krefeld on the Dutch border, this detachment was originally known as the RM Demolition Unit. The Unit was shortly reformed as 2 SBS, and in 1951 3 SBS was formed and the SRW section at Eastney renamed Special Boat Wing. In the event of war, the SBS would form stay behind parties to gather intelligence and carry out harassment of Russian troops before they reached the Rhine. Both 2 SBS and 3 SBS were part of the Rhine Squadron, with the SBS taking part in the major BAOR exercises each year, and their numbers were bolstered by the temporary inclusion of 4 SBS and 5 SBS formed from the RM Force Volunteer Reserve.


In Korea, the SBS joined 41 Independent Commando, RM, and US troops to lead sabotage teams blowing up railways and vital installations along the North Korean coastline. The SBS teams and Royal Marines were among the first British units into action, operating from the USS Perch, Bass and Wontuck. Launching from the submarine USS Perch they attacked coastal railways.  Activity of No.41 Independent Commando, RM, continued with nighttime raids against enemy coastal targets with US support, the Commando being reassigned to the US Marines when China entered the war. SBS reinforcements joined the force at Japan.

The force operated off bases in the islands off Wonsan along the eastern coast of Korea some 60 miles behind enemy lines, using two-man canoes, rubber inflatable boats and motor boats. Mainland reconnaissance was conducted from these island bases, and in December 1951 No.41 Independent Commando, RM, was formally stood down and returned to England to be disbanded.


In 1952, the SBS were called upon to carry out a reconnaissance of the harbour by King Farouk's palace, near Alexandria, in preparation for an evacuation of British residents from Egypt. The teams' canoes were delivered by submarine and the swimmers made their reconnaissance, although one swimmer missed the rendezvous, was picked up by the Egyptians, and handed over to RN Naval Intelligence at Fayid. If Nasser had chosen a violent coup, a raiding party may have been sent into rescue Farouk, but this wasn't necessary.

In the mid-1950s, 6 SBS was hurriedly formed to support NATO navies in the Mediterranean against any breakout of Russian submarines from the Black Sea.

Suez Crisis

At Poole, 1 SBS had been placed on alert and within days was ordered to the Mediterranean for Operation Musketeer. 1 SBS were tasked with cutting cables laid across the Suez Canal to prevent passage by ships. 1 SBS flew to Malta, but before they could begin their part, the operation was cancelled and 1 SBS returned to the UK. 6 SBS were mobilized to prepare a detailed reconnaissance of the beach landing sites, but the task was again cancelled before they could get away. Instead 6 SBS boarded HMS Ocean bound for Port Said with 3 Commando Brigade

In 1959, 6 SBS was alerted to be prepared to evacuate King Idris from Libya, but some gunboat diplomacy achieved the desired effect and the SBS were stood down. The SBS did not waste the journey, conducting reconnaissance along the coast from Tobruk to Tripoli.

Indonesian Confrontation

In 1961, a section of SBS was formed from the ranks of 3 Commando Brigade, specifically to find and capture a guerrilla leader, and played a part in freeing hostages taken by Indonesian backed guerrillas.

2 SBS joined 42 Commando from Malta to Singapore, where they were later reinforced by 1 SBS and remained in the theatre until 1971. Despite the limiting and specific rules of engagement, the SBS fought a successful campaign with no air support or large scale operations, which were not necessary except in an extreme emergency.

CanoesThe SBS were used to provide reconnaissance in the most inhospitable terrain where the guerrillas were most active. Both SAS and SBS parties participated in the 'hearts and minds' campaign wining the support of the villagers with medical attention or supplies. The teams of three of four men would be sent into the jungle or swamps to scout for the army patrols. In the jungle they would build hides and stay for three to five days, radioing back with hourly reports when the radios were working.

Avoiding firefights, the teams monitored guerrilla activity, providing information that the assault force would use to attack the guerrillas. SBS operations lasted for five years under the command of Captain David Mitchell, who was awarded an MBE for gallantry in 1965. See Strike from the Sea


New Developments

In 1965, Singapore found itself hosting SBS courses to train Malaysian troops to defend their land, as well as selected forces from the South Vietnamese Army and later US Marines during the Vietnam War. Trials were also carried out in submarine-launched raids in attempting to launch SBS teams underwater instead of on the surface to preserve the element of surprise. The Commander of 7th Submarine Squadron provided invaluable help in these experiments that were code named 'Goldfish' experiments. The escape towers present on the submarines were used for the ingress and egress of SBS teams that involved Paddy Ashdown, who was a member of the SBS at the time. This type of operation, however, was laden with problems at the time The submarines had no way to receive up-to-date intelligence from the SBS teams, and their gear and the men took up valuable space within the submarine, which was already cramped.

One way to alleviate the intelligence problem was developed in airdropping the SBS team at a pre-arranged rendezvous where the submarine would pick them up for the last leg of their journey. The trials were all carried out successfully with rubber inflatable craft.

Later, John Moore got hold of RN engineers to adapt a Mark XXIII torpedo into an underwater tug and added extra batteries. Paddy Ashdown was one of the test drivers and designs of similar craft were produced and codenamed 'Archimedes'. Later designs remain in service today, although 'Archimedes' itself was not successful.

Alongside the Borneo and Far East operations, the SBS were active in the Mediterranean conducting coastline surveys, intelligence gathering and operations throughout the area.

6 SBS, based in Malta, sent a detachment to Bahrain, from where they would deploy throughout the Arab southern regions, active in all the trouble shots throughout the area. With the threat of Iraq invading Kuwait in 1961, the SBS permanently based a detachment at Bahrain. Exercises were conducted throughout the Middle East including amphibious landings, developing new procedures and formats for signals.

Prior to the revolution in Iran, the SBS provided training and advice to Iranian Special Forces and in several other countries throughout the region.

When India and East Pakistan began to threaten each other in 1971, HMS Albion was detached to assist with the evacuation of British nationals, if conflict began, from the regions of East Pakistan that may have come under threat. A ceasefire was negotiated and the SBS were never needed in this instance, although they were aboard HMS Albion.

This was the end of the SBS involvement in the distant corners of Britain's shrinking empire, and events and circumstances would see them limited to Europe for a while before circumstances changed their role once more.

With Gibraltar remaining the only British bastion in the western Mediterranean, itself under blockade by Spain, 6 SBS was deployed to the colony where it conducted reconnaissance around the Rock to ensure Spain was not planning an assault on the colony. Once again, Special Forces came up against the problem of no tasks. The SAS moved into training bodyguards for VIPs and preparing anti-terrorist tactics. The SBS offered a similar service including training the Iranian SBS.

In the early 1970s, the SBS began taking on support of civilian police forces in drug enforcement roles in the Caribbean.

1972 saw the SBS involved in the mid-Atlantic parachute drop to deal with a bomb threat on the QE2, which was later, proved to be a hoax. This operation was dissected and an operational model drawn up for future operations. Terrorist groups were coming to the fore across the face of Europe and the Middle East, bringing new challenges to the repertoire of the SBS and Special Forces across the world.

SBS in the Falklands War and the Gulf War are covered on Britain's Small Wars.

Plans were created for QE2-style operations, counter-terrorist ops and oilrig assaults in the event that a terrorist group should take control of one of the North Sea oilrigs and it's volatile cargo. In 1979 the Admiralty and Chiefs of Staff approved the formation of a new counter-terrorist force, that was called Comacchio Company and was a new independent company of 300 ranks based at RM Condor Arbroath, which was charged with the additional responsibility of fast reaction for nuclear weapons protection both in transit and on site. This was the Company charged with the oilrig and ship protection duties at sea. The SBS deployed a counter-terrorism-dedicated team to Comacchio, which became 5 SBS. In 1987, 5 SBS and 1 SBS (based in Poole and counter-terrorism dedicated) were merged to form M Squadron of the SBS dedicated to Maritime Counter Terrorist operations and by 1990 had three troops.

Plans to counter any future attack or invasion of the Falklands by the Argentineans were drawn up, and Belize was also planned for as Guatemala was making threatening gestures towards the colony, which they claimed as their own.

Following the Falklands War, defence priorities saw a quick turn around from the state of the previous months, plans to scrap the amphibious role and aircraft carriers being quickly dropped and new systems introduced. The ongoing debate in the Commons finally resolved the role of Special Forces in 1987, when the Special Forces Group was formed, which would coordinate all the Special Forces from all three services.

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