Picture this …
Just after sunset on an Autumn’s Sunday evening, a group of 16 SBS Commandos fast-rope onto the deck of a 42,000-tonne oil tanker from a hovering Merlin helicopter. Soon after, they detain seven suspected hijackers. Security to the southern coast of England is assured.
From start to end, the operation takes nine minutes.
Of course, to the onlooking world tuned in via the contemporary nature of round-the-clock news, the activities seem anything but normal, but for the highly trained men and women involved in the operation, the speed, confidence and enigmatic nature of their success suggests a set of circumstances easily overcomable.
The operation demonstrates the readiness of Britain's special forces and is later described as “textbook” by security experts and politicians alike.
But who are they?
Here, BFBS looks at what is factually known about one of the UK’s most secret armed units, exploring everything from the way it recruits its personnel to the type of operations it is known to have conducted. We also examine the strange nature of its formation and how the clandestine organisation has evolved over the decades since.
This is all the (known) gen on the Special Boat Service …
Section … Squadron … Service …
The SBS is often referred to as the sister unit of the SAS. While this might be fair, it would perhaps be more accurate to describe it as its ‘slightly older’ sister in lieu of the fact the SBS can trace its origins back to a whole year before the formation of the better-known Special Air Service.
The origins of the SBS trace back to 1940.
At its formation, the SBS was instead called the Special Boat Section and its coming about was thanks to the bravado of its founding officer, a Marine Commando called Roger Courtney.
Courtney, who had become a Commandos recruit in mid-1940, was convinced that small, folding Kayak-based teams of Commandos would be an invaluable element in the sort of operations that could be conducted against Britain’s enemies during the second world war. But initially his views were not shared by the powers that be within the Commandos hierarchy, perhaps part of which was due to the upstart nature of the person those ideas originated from. And so, he set out to disprove his doubters.
One night during his recruit training, Courtney single-handedly infiltrated the infantry cargo ship HMS Glengyle by paddling under darkness to the Clyde-anchored vessel.
Unbeknown to her crew, once there he climbed aboard deck and succeeded in reaching the Captain’s cabin door, which he duly graffitied his initials upon. He then managed to steal a deck gun cover before making his escape, all in utter stealthiness.
When he later presented the gun cover to those officers who had initially doubted him, Courtney was promoted to Captain and given command of a 12-man section – the Special Boat Section … and so the organisation was established.
By the close of the war, the SBS had grown in size, branched into different parentages (No 1 SBS sat under the SAS but was later absorbed into it after an operation in Rhodes saw significant losses … it latterly became known as the Special Boat Squadron) and had seen action in several theatres including Alexandria, Crete and Kos.
No 2 SBS (which had been formed in 1941 – a year after Courtney’s initial 12 men made up the SBS) remained named the Special Boat Section throughout the conflict and conducted operations in places such as Algiers, but largely spent the the war in the Far East … most notably Burma.
However, in 1946 both No 1 and 2 SBS were disbanded. In their place was created a new SBS unit within the Royal Marines (Special Boat Section). Over the next two and a half decades the section took part in many operations including during the Korean War, the Suez Crisis and Northern Ireland. Notably, and in scenes not too dissimilar to the operations seen recently off the southern coast of England and in the Thames Estuary, in 1972 members of the section, in tandem with colleagues in the SAS, parachuted into the Atlantic and staged an operation onboard the QE2 (RMS Queen Elizabeth). Their task was to investigate a bomb threat that had been made, and in doing so attempt to make the situation safe.
It would turn out to be a hoax. However, the aptitude of those involved in the mission could not be doubted and the operation served to put British special forces highly on the map … although their existence remained a secret, at least officially.
“By strength and guile” – the motto of the SBS.
In 1973, the Special Boat Section became the Special Boat Squadron (the name No 1 SBS had used during the war). Nine years later, the squadron deployed to South Georgia following the invasion of the Falkland Islands by Argentina. Here, there were losses for the SBS following a blue on blue incident involving the SAS.
1987 saw the organisation go through a final name change … it became the Special Boat Service – a name it maintains to this day.
United Kingdom Special Forces Group (UKSFG)
The SBS formed part of the UKSFG upon its creation in 1987. Back then, UKSFG was made up of the Special Air Service, the Special Boat Service and 14 Intelligence Company. Today, UKSFG is comprised of the SAS, SBS, the Special Reconnaissance Regiment (SRR), Special Forces Support Group (SFSG), 18 Signal Regiment and the Joint Special Forces Aviation Wing.
In command of all these assets is the Director of Special Forces.
Want To Join?
The Royal Navy’s own website says this of the SBS and its members:
"Most of the operations carried out by the SBS are highly classified; consequently, little is known about the individuals who make up the unit. Most of them are drawn from the Royal Marines Commandos, and all show exceptional physical and mental aptitude. In short, they’re the best of the best.
“They are among the most elite and capable soldiers in the entire British military.”
Entry into the SBS can only be secured via joining the Armed Forces and serving for a number of years in a regular branch. However, once eligible anybody from the wider military can apply to join the SBS.
The SBS and SAS have a common selection process which is called UKSF Selection. This process is split into three phases:
Phase One – Endurance – is also known as “the hills” and takes place at the Brecon Beacons in South Wales. Lasting three weeks, recruits are challenged on their physical and mental stamina. One of the more famous elements of SF selection occurs during this phase, the infamous Fan Dance, a 24 km tab incorporating Pen Y Fan (886 m).
Phase Two – Jungle Training – takes place in the thick natural jungle of Belize. This gruelling element of both training and tests sees recruits shedding, on average, up to 14 pounds of weight during the 6 weeks they are based at the British Army Jungle Warfare School.
Phase Three – Escape & Evasion and Tactical Questioning – is the final phase before successful recruits secure their coveted beige beret (SAS). Those joining the SBS are usually already Commandos qualified, and as such SBS personnel wear the famous green beret. During this final stage, recruits are given a simulation of capture and interrogation and are only permitted to give their name, rank, number and date of birth to his or her captors. Any other information that is given represents a fail of the course and the recruit’s selection process ends unsuccessfully.
It is said that less than 10% of recruits are successful in completing all three stages of selection. Recruits who fail are permitted to try a further two times.
Famous Members Of The SBS
The identity of members of the SBS is secret … and that secrecy extends to those who have left the service. However, there are one or two famous examples of former members of the Special Boat Service whose identities are known. One such example is TV star Ant Middleton.
Ant Middleton, 39, spent four years in the SBS having previously served in both 40 Commando and 9 Parachute Squadron Royal Engineers. Nowadays, he shares his Special Forces knowledge by figure heading Channel 4’s SAS: Who Dares Wins - a forces favourite on the television calendar.
A fictional example of SBS alumni is James Bond - our treasured 007.
Over the years, Bond has offered clues and contradictory insights into his career before becoming the world’s most famous secret agent. The eagle-eyed viewer will have noticed that by examining the uniform worn by Bond in Goldeneye compared to that of the one worn by the late Sir Roger Moore in The Spy Who Loved Me, he both has and has not served in either the SAS or SBS. All rather confusingly ...
But according to fan site Absolutely James Bond, the character as portrayed by Danial Craig is that of a former member of the SBS. And, due to the nature of the original character being written during the mid-twentieth century, Fleming most likely wrote him with a backstory that could have included either the SBS, SAS or SOE (Special Operations Executive) … but we are talking about a made up person here after all, so it does not really matter.
So similar in expertise are the SBS and SAS that during the 1991 Gulf War, a line was drawn down the centre of a map of Iraq and the SAS were given the area to the west of it as their AO and the SBS were given the area to the east.
During that conflict, 36 members of the SBS successfully mounted an op to destroy a 40-metre section of fibre optic cable that provided the Iraqi military with communications – vital to their internal intelligence networks – in what was a heavily enemy occupied area. Later in the war, the SBS also carried out a high-profile operation on the British Embassy in Kuwait.
The most recent operation to make the news involving the SBS was on Sunday, October 25, 2020, when members of the organisation successfully, and with ease, raided an oil tanker involved in a suspected hijacking off the coast of the Isle of Wight.
Due to the significant coverage of the event by news on TV and social media, it is probable that the oil tanker raid will become one of the more famous examples of SBS counter terrorism activities. People are still quick to recall the Iranian Embassy siege when discussing the SAS even with the passage of 40 years. But, perhaps this is not a bad thing?
If so much of the work organisations like the SBS and SAS carry out has to remain secret as to not cause wider security incidents, events like the oil tanker and the embassy siege serve to remind the world in non-compromising manner that Britain’s special forces are not to be messed with and are, probably, the best in the world.