Military Wiki
Special Boat Service
File:Special Boat Service badge.gif
Emblem and Motto of the SBS[1]
Active 1940–present
Country  United Kingdom
Branch Naval Service[1][2]
Type Special forces
Role Special operations
Size One Regiment
Part of United Kingdom Special Forces
Garrison/HQ RM Poole
Motto(s) "By strength and guile"[2]

World War II
Korean War
Indonesian Confrontation
Falklands War
Persian Gulf War
Operation Barras
War in Afghanistan

Iraq War

Captain-General HRH The Duke of Edinburgh (Captain-General, Royal Marines)[3]
Colonel of
the Regiment
Admiral The Lord Boyce[4]
George Jellicoe, 2nd Earl Jellicoe
Anders Lassen
Blondie Hasler
Paddy Ashdown

The Special Boat Service (SBS) is the special forces unit of the Naval Service. Together with the Special Air Service, Special Reconnaissance Regiment and the Special Forces Support Group they form the United Kingdom Special Forces and come under joint control of the same Director Special Forces.

The SBS can trace their origins to the Second World War, when they were formed as the Special Boat Section in 1940. They became the Special Boat Squadron after the Second World War and the Special Boat Service in the 1980s.

The SBS is manned by ranks drawn mostly from the Royal Marines and carries out a role similar to the Special Air Service, but with a traditionally stronger focus on amphibious operations. Two of the SBS's four squadrons, C and X, are configured for general operations. S squadron specialises in the use of minisubs and small boats and M squadron specialises in Maritime Counter Terrorism. The SBS also operates on land, with recent operations in the mountains of landlocked Afghanistan and in the deserts of Iraq. Their main tasks include intelligence gathering, counter-terrorism operations (surveillance or offensive action), sabotage and the disruption of enemy infrastructure, capture of specific individuals, close protection of senior politicians and military personnel, plus reconnaissance and combat action on foreign territory.


Second World War

The Special Boat Section was founded in July 1940 by a Commando officer, Roger Courtney. Courtney became a commando recruit in mid-1940, and was sent to the Combined Training Centre in Scotland. He was unsuccessful in his initial attempts to convince Admiral of the Fleet Sir Roger Keyes and later Admiral Theodore Hallett, commander of the Combined Training Centre, that his idea of a folding kayak brigade would be effective. He decided to infiltrate HMS Glengyle, a Landing Ship, Infantry anchored in the River Clyde. Courtney paddled to the ship, climbed aboard undetected, wrote his initials on the door to the captain's cabin, and stole a deck gun cover. He presented the soaking cover to a group of high-ranking Royal Navy officers meeting at a nearby Inveraray hotel. He was promoted to captain, and given command of twelve men, the first Special Boat Service/Special Boat Section.[5]

It was initially named the Folboat Troop, after the type of folding canoe employed in raiding operations, and then renamed No. 1 Special Boat Section in early 1941.[6] Attached to Layforce they moved to the Middle East,[7] they later worked with the 1st Submarine Flotilla based at Alexandria and carried out beach reconnaissance of Rhodes, evacuated troops left behind on Crete and a number of small-scale raids and other operations.[6] In December 1941 Courtney returned to the United Kingdom where he formed No2 SBS,[6] and No1 SBS became attached to the Special Air Service (SAS) as the Folboat Section.[8] In June 1942 they took part in the Crete airfield raids. In September 1942 they carried out Operation Anglo, a raid on two airfields on the island of Rhodes, from which only two men returned. Destroying three aircraft, a fuel dump and numerous buildings, the surviving SBS men had to hide in the countryside for four days before they could reach the waiting submarine.[9] After the Rhodes raid the SBS was absorbed into the SAS due to the casualties they had suffered.[10][nb 1]

In April 1943, 1st SAS was divided into two with 250 men from the SAS and the Small Scale Raiding Force, forming the Special Boat Squadron under command Major the Earl Jellicoe.[12] They moved to Haifa and trained with the Greek Sacred Regiment for operations in the Aegean.[13]

File:Anders Lassen 1920-1945.jpg

Major Anders Lassen, VC, MC and two bars, the only UKSF recipient of the VC, was a SBS commander during the Second World War.

They later operated among the Dodecanese and Cyclades groups of islands in the Dodecanese Campaign and took part in the Battle of Leros and the Battle of Kos. In August 1944 they joined with the Long Range Desert Group in operations in the Adriatic, on the Peloponnese, in Albania, and, finally, Istria. So effective were they that by 1944 200–300 SBS men held down six German divisions.[14]

Throughout the war, the No2 SBS did not use the Special Boat Squadron name but instead retained the name Special Boat Section. They accompanied Major General Mark Clark ashore before the Operation Torch landings in November 1942.[15] Later one group, Z SBS, which was based in Algiers from March 1943, carried out the beach reconnaissance for the Salerno landings and a raid on Crete, before moving to Ceylon to work with the Special Operations Executives, Force 136 and later with Special Operations Australia. The rest of No2 SBS became part of South-East Asia Command's Small Operations Group, operating on the Chindwin and Irrawaddy rivers, and in the Arakan, during the Burma campaign.[16]


In 1946, the SBS, whether of Commando or SAS parentage, were disbanded. The functional title SBS was adopted by the Royal Marines. It became part of the school of Combined Operations under the command of "Blondie" Hasler.[17] Their first missions were in Palestine (ordnance removal) and in Haifa (limpet mine removal from ships). The SBS went on to serve in the Korean War deployed on operations along the North Korean coast as well as operating behind enemy lines destroying lines of communication, installations and gathering intelligence. It was during the Korean War that the SBS first started operating from submarines. In 1952, SBS teams were held at combat readiness in Egypt in case Gamal Abdel Nasser's coup turned more violent than it did. The SBS were also alerted during the Suez Crisis of 1956 and coup against King Idris I of Libya (1959), but in both cases they did not see action. In 1961, SBS teams carried out reconnaissance missions during the Indonesian Confrontation (see Operation Claret).[18] In the same year, Iraq threatened to invade Kuwait for the first time, and the SBS put a detachment at Bahrain. In 1972 the SBS and SAS came into prominence when members of a combined SBS and SAS team parachuted into the Atlantic Ocean after a bomb threat on board the cruise liner RMS Queen Elizabeth 2. A thorough search of the ship found no evidence of any device drawing the conclusion that it was a hoax.[19]

Special Boat Squadron

In 1977, their name was changed to the Special Boat Squadron and in 1980 the SBS relinquished North Sea oil rig protection to Comacchio Company.[20] In 1982 after the Argentinian invasion of the Falkland Islands they deployed to South Georgia. The only losses to the SBS during the Falklands War occurred when the SBS and SAS were operating behind the lines and two members of the SBS were shot by the SAS patrol, who had mistaken them for Argentinians.[21]

Special Boat Service

In 1987, they were renamed Special Boat Service, and became part of the United Kingdom Special Forces Group alongside the Special Air Service and 14 Intelligence Company. In the first Gulf War the SBS carried out one of its most high profile operations when it liberated the British Embassy in Kuwait, abseiling from helicopters hovering above the embassy.[22] They were also responsible for carrying out diversionary raids along the Kuwaiti coast which in effect diverted a number of Iraqi troops to the SBS area of operations and away from the main thrust of the coalition build up.[21] In September 1999 the SBS were involved in operations in East Timor. A small SBS team landed and drove out the back of a C-130 Hercules transport aircraft in Land Rover Defenders at Presidente Nicolau Lobato International Airport in Dili.[23]

21st century

In September 2000 the SBS were involved in Operation Barras, a hostage rescue operation in Sierra Leone.[24] In November 2001 the SBS had an extensive role in the invasion of Afghanistan and were involved in the Battle of Tora Bora.[25] The SBS were used in vital phases of the invasion of Afghanistan. A small SBS contingent secured Bagram Airbase prior to the deployment of larger forces that would become the main staging area for allied forces during Operation Enduring Freedom.[1] Members of the SBS helped quell an Afghan prison revolt during the Battle of Qala-i-Jangi near Mazar-i-Sharif, in November 2001.[26]

In the invasion of Iraq in 2003 Corporal Ian Plank was killed when his patrol was engaged by Iraqi insurgents during a house-to-house search for a wanted high-ranking militia leader. On 27 June 2006 Captain David Patten SAS and Sergeant Paul Bartlett, SBS, were killed and another serviceman seriously injured in a Taliban ambush in Helmand province, southern Afghanistan. It was reported that the ambushed vehicle was part of an SBS patrol.[27][28] On 12 May 2007 a joint SBS and Special Forces Support Group (SFSG) team killed the Taliban leader Mullah Dadullah in Helmand province after a raid on a compound where his associates were meeting.[29] On 18 February 2008, Taliban leader Mullah Abdul Matin and one of his sub-commanders, Mullah Karim Agha, were travelling through the desert on motorbikes when they were ambushed and killed by an SBS unit dropped into his path by helicopter.[30]

On March 8, 2012, a small Special Boat Service (SBS) team along with members of the Special Forces Support Group (SFSG) attempted to rescue two hostages, Chris McManus (British) and Franco Lamolinara (Italian), being held in Nigeria by members of Boko Haram terrorist organisation loyal to al-Qaeda. The two hostages were killed before or during the rescue attempt. All the hostage takers were reportedly killed.[31]

Present day


The Ministry of Defence does not comment on special forces matters, therefore little verifiable information exists in the public domain.[32] The SBS are under the Operational Command of Director Special Forces and are based in Hamworthy barracks, Poole, Dorset.[24]

In 1987 when renamed the Special Boat Service, the SBS was also reformed along SAS lines, with 16 man troops instead of the traditional sections.[33] About 200–250 men make up the SBS at any one time,[34][35] and once qualified, personnel are known as "Swimmer Canoeists". They are experts in swimming, diving, parachuting, navigation, demolition and reconnaissance.[36]

There are four active squadrons and a reserve unit:

  • C Squadron – responsible for swimmer and canoe operations.[22]
  • M Squadron – responsible for maritime anti-terrorism and ship boarding operations. The Black Group, counter–terrorist team who specialise in helicopter assault are included in M Squadron.[22]
  • S Squadron – specialises in small water borne craft and mini-sub operations.[22]
  • X Squadron – in June 2004 it was reported that a new squadron had been formed from volunteers from the SAS and the SBS. This is believed to be the first phase of an expansion of Britain’s Special Forces ordered by the Government because of an increased threat to national security.[37]
  • SBS Reserve or SBS(R) – provides individual reservists to serve with the regular SBS rather than forming independent teams. Only candidates with military experience will be eligible to enlist. The SBS(R) are located at locations throughout the United Kingdom, but training is carried out in the South of England.[38]

Recruitment, selection and training

In the past the SBS was staffed almost entirely by the Royal Marines. Volunteers for the SBS are now taken from all the British Armed Forces although volunteers still predominantly come from the Royal Marines Commandos. Candidates wishing to serve with SBS must have completed two years regular service and will only be accepted into the SBS after completion of the selection process.[39]

Until recently, the SBS had its own independent selection program in order to qualify as a Swimmer Canoeist but its selection program has now been integrated into a joint UKSF selection alongside candidates for the SAS. All members of the United Kingdom armed forces can be considered for special forces selection,[nb 2] but historically the majority of candidates have an airborne forces background.[41] There are two selections a year, one in winter and the other in summer,[40] and all the instructors are full members of the Special Air Service Regiment.[40] Selection lasts for five weeks in Sennybridge, Powys in the Brecon Beacons and normally starts with about 200 candidates.[40] On arrival candidates have to complete a Basic Fitness Test (BFT) and an infantry Combat Fitness Test (CFT).[nb 3] They then complete a series of cross country marches against the clock, with the distances covered increasing each day and including a 14-mile (23 km) march with full equipment on Pen-y-Fan, known as the Fan dance, which must be completed in four hours.[40] By the end of the hill phase candidates must be able to run four miles in 30 minutes and swim two miles in 90 minutes.[40]

Those who successfully complete the hill phase move onto the jungle phase which can take place in Belize, Brunei or Malaysia.[43] In the jungle phase candidates are taught navigation, moving in patrol formation and how to survive in the jungle.[44]

After successfully completing the jungle phase candidates return to Hereford for training in battle plans, foreign weapons, and take part in a combat survival exercise.[45] The final test is an escape and evasion exercise; the remaining candidates are formed into patrols, and carrying nothing more than a tin can filled with survival equipment they are dressed in old Second World War uniforms and told to head for a point by first light. The exercise lasts for one week and is followed by the final selection test resistance to interrogation (RTI), which lasts for 36 hours.[46]

At the end of the resistance to interrogation phase the surviving candidates are transferred to an operational squadron.[47]

For SBS(R) selection, candidates are required to complete the following tests over the four-day initial selection course:

  • Combat Fitness Test (CFT) – 12.8 km (8.0 mi) carrying 25 kg within 1 hour 50 minutes
  • Swim test – 0.5 km (0.31 mi) using any stroke in uniform and retrieve an object from 5m
  • Gym tests
  • Advanced CFT 1 – 15 km (9.3 mi) carrying 25 kg
  • Advanced CFT 2 – 24 km (15 mi) carrying 30 kg[38]

The Special Boat Service wear the green commando beret but with their own cap badge.

See also

Notes and references


  1. The events of the raid were portrayed in the movie They Who Dare in 1954 starring Dirk Bogarde[11]
  2. The regular elements of United Kingdom Special Forces never recruit directly from the general public.[40]
  3. BFT – Sit ups, press-ups and a 1.5-mile (2.4-km) run, all carried out against the clock. This tests individual fitness generally. The minimum fitness goals are: 54 continuous sit ups (with feet supported) and a 1.5-mile (2.4-km) run in 11 minutes 45 seconds.
    CFT – A distance of three miles as a squad carrying 56 pounds of kit each, including their personal weapon. Timed to be completed in one hour, individuals must stay with the squad, or be failed.[42]


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 "Col Richard Pickup — Obituary". London: The Daily Telegraph. 11 May 2009. Retrieved 9 April 2010. 
  2. 2.0 2.1 Kay, John (21 May 2007). "SBS motto". The Sun. London. Retrieved 9 March 2010. 
  3. "The Captain General". Royal Marines. Retrieved 9 March 2010. [dead link]
  4. "Lord Boyce". The White Ensign Association. Retrieved 9 March 2010. 
  5. Breuer, pp.46–47
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 Richards, p.240
  7. Chappell, p.15
  8. Molinari, p.25
  9. Haskew, p.54
  10. "Obituary,Colonel David Sutherland". London: The Times. 16 March 2006. Retrieved 17 March 2010. 
  11. "Obituary,Commander Michael St John". London: The Daily Telegraph. 22 March 2009. Retrieved 17 March 2010. 
  12. Morgan, p.15
  13. Thompson, p.55
  14. Thompson, p.56
  15. Jackson, p.112
  16. I. C. B. Dear and M. R. D. Foot. "Special Boat Section." The Oxford Companion to World War II. 2001.
  17. Paul, James; Martin Spirit (2000). "The Special Boat Service" (Web). Britain's Small Wars Site Index. Retrieved 9 March 2010. 
  18. Kennedy, p.209
  19. "QE2 History". Chris' Cunard Page. Retrieved 5-January -2010. 
  20. "Other Marine units". Ministry of Defence (United Kingdom). Retrieved 16 March 2010. 
  21. 21.0 21.1 van der Bijl & Hannon, p.16
  22. 22.0 22.1 22.2 22.3 "The secretive sister of the SAS". BBC. 16 November 2001. Retrieved 10 March 2010. 
  23. "British troops start work in East Timor". BBC News. 1999-09-20. 
  24. 24.0 24.1 Rayment, Sean (1 August 2004). "End your rift, SAS and SBS are told". London: The Daily Telegraph. Retrieved 9 March 2010. 
  25. Sengupta, Kim (3 December 2001). "British forces to take part in assault on cave complex". London: The Independent. Retrieved 9 March 2010. 
  26. Smith, Michael (11 January 2003). "US honours Briton in Afghan raid". London: The Daily Telegraph. Retrieved 10 March 2010. 
  27. "Hero killed in Taliban ambush". London: newspaper. 28 February 2008. Retrieved 16 March 2010. 
  28. "Killed NI soldier 'was due home". BBC News. 6 July 2006. Retrieved 9 March 2010. 
  29. Leithead, Alastair (25 June 2007). "Long haul fight to defeat the Taliban". BBC News. Retrieved 9 March 2010. 
  30. "Mullah Abdul Matin". The Scotsman. 22 February 2008. Retrieved 16 March 2010. 
  31. Watt, Nicholas; Norton-Taylor, Richard; Vogt, Andrea (8 March 2012). "British and Italian hostages killed in Nigeria". The Guardian. Retrieved 8 March 2012. 
  32. "Special forces quitting to cash in on Iraq". The Scotsman. Retrieved 9 March 2010. 
  33. "The arrested development of UK special forces and the global war on terror". Cambridge University Press. Retrieved 17 March 2010. 
  34. MacErlean, Neasa (13 May 2002). "The Special Boat Service". London: The Guardian. Retrieved 10 March 2010. 
  35. Almond, Peter; Elliott, John (20 March 2005). "Fallen SBS leader set up jungle rescue". London: The Times. Retrieved 10 March 2010. 
  36. "Career Specialisations". Ministry of Defence (United Kingdom). Retrieved 9 March 2010. 
  37. "X-Men lead war on terror". London: The Sun. 21 May 2007. Retrieved 17 March 2010. 
  38. 38.0 38.1 "Special Boat Service (Reserve)". Ministry of Defence (United Kingdom). Retrieved 8 March 2010. 
  39. "How do you join the SBS (Special Boat Service)? - Royal Navy — Royal Marines — Careers Website".*/changeNav/7137. Retrieved 7 June 2009. 
  40. 40.0 40.1 40.2 40.3 40.4 40.5 Ryan, p.17
  41. Ryan, p.15
  42. "Recruiting Selection and Training". Retrieved 20 March 2010. 
  43. Ryan, p.19
  44. Ryan, p.21
  45. Ryan, p.23
  46. Ryan, p.24
  47. Ryan, p.25


  • Breuer, William B. (2001). Daring missions of World War II. John Wiley and Sons. ISBN 978-0-471-40419-4. 
  • Bijl van der, Nick; Hannon, Paul (1995). The Royal Marines 1939-93. Osprey Publishing. ISBN 1-85532-388-5. 
  • Chappell, Mike (1996). Army Commandos 1940–1945. Elite Series # 64. Osprey Publishing. ISBN 1-85532-579-9. 
  • Haskew, Michael E (2007). Encyclopaedia of Elite Forces in the Second World War. Pen and Sword. ISBN 978-1-84415-577-4. 
  • Jackson, Ashley (2006). The British Empire and the Second World War. Continuum International Publishing Group. ISBN 1-85285-417-0. 
  • Kennedy, Greg (2005). British naval strategy east of Suez, 1900-2000: influences and actions. Routledge. ISBN 0-7146-5539-2. 
  • Molinari, Andrea (2007). Desert Raiders: Axis and Allied Special Forces 1940-43. Osprey Publishing. ISBN 978-1-84603-006-2. 
  • Morgan, Mike (2000). Daggers drawn: Second World War heroes of the SAS and SBS. Sutton. ISBN 0-7509-2509-4. 
  • Richards, Brooks (2004). Secret Flotillas: Clandestine sea operations in the Mediterranean, North Africa and the Adriatic, 1940-1944. Routledge. ISBN 0-7146-5314-4. 
  • Ryan, Chris (2009). Fight to Win. Century. ISBN 978-1-84605-666-6. 
  • Thompson, Leroy (1994). SAS: Great Britain's elite Special Air Service. Zenith Imprint. ISBN 0-87938-940-0. 

External links

  • Special Boat Service at Britain's small wars [1]
  • Video of SBS in action at Qala-i-janghi.[2]

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