Special Boat Service: A force never far from the front line of controversy

Formed during the Second World War, the naval fighters have been carrying out covert missions ever since

It was a piece of enterprising insubordination that led to the creation of the Special Boat Service. A commando officer, Roger Courtney, had learnt how quickly and silently he could cross hostile territory while paddling from Lake Victoria to the Nile on big-game hunting expeditions in the 1930s.

When war broke out in Europe he returned to the chillier climes of Scotland in defence of his country. Having failed to convince his superiors with his vision of a folding kayak brigade, he decided to demonstrate its benefits by paddling out to HMS Glengyle, which was lying at anchor in the River Clyde.

Courtney is said to have boarded the vessel undetected, written his initials on the captain's door and stolen a deck-gun cover, which he delivered to his startled superiors as they dined at a nearby hotel. He was promoted to captain and given charge of a dozen men.

The potential of Britain's amphibious special forces became apparent in 1942 when Churchill demanded the closure of the Nazi-occupied port of Bordeaux, home to the German U-Boat and merchant fleet.

Five teams of what later became known as the Cockleshell Heroes paddled their canoes up the mouth of the Gironde, though only two made it into the port. There they attached limpet mines to the moored ships – sinking one and destroying four others.

Despite the loss of life – only two escaped while six were executed and two drowned – Churchill sealed their reputation by claiming the men had hastened the end of the war by six months.

Much of the Special Boat Section's (SBS's) war-time operations took place in the eastern Mediterranean and the Adriatic although it was not always glorious. Its involvement in the ill-fated Operation Anglo, in which eight SBS officers sought to destroy German and Italian bombers on Rhodes, inspired the film They Who Dare but left the force so depleted that it was absorbed into its better-known sister unit, the SAS.

As the tide of war turned in the Allies' favour the new SBS, with its emblem of frog paddles and parachute, helped roll back the Axis powers in Italy and later Asia. After the war, the unit was active in Palestine and Korea. Among those to serve the unit in the Far East in the 1960s was a young officer called Paddy Ashdown.

SBS divers also spied on Soviet shipping and stood in for the Spetznaz, their Soviet counterparts, in training operations with the SAS. One of its most celebrated missions came in 1972, in the wake of the Black September attacks on Jewish targets at the Munich Olympics, when officers were parachuted into the Atlantic to search the QE2 after the captain was told there was a bomb aboard.

The organisation also took responsibility for protecting Britain's offshore oil rigs and nuclear power plants.

The SBS was the first unit to be dispatched to the Falkland Islands in 1982, earning it bragging rights over the SAS. It helped secure South Georgia and played a leading role in the final assault on Port Stanley. A decade later, having been placed on standby to rescue "human shield" hostages held by Saddam Hussein in Iraq, the SBS was once again the first British force on the ground. A 36-strong team dropped by helicopter into the desert outside Baghdad destroyed underground communications for the feared Scud missiles.

In 2000 the SBS also rescued a group of British soldiers kidnapped by Sierra Leone's West Side Boys. But less comfortable times lay ahead as Britain's overseas military role grew after 9/11. In Iraq its officers were accused of having "panicked and fled" in the face of enemy fire during one of the most intense engagements of the conflict.

The row overshadowed successful operations preventing the torching of the Iraqi oil wells. However the unit took the leading special forces role in Afghanistan, helping secure the Bagram air field before joining US colleagues to hunt down al-Qa'ida and Taliban leaders. Today qualified "swimmer canoeists" train at Poole in Dorset under the operational command of the director of special forces. Four squadrons are deployed throughout the British military.

Secret weapon: History of the SBS

1940 Founded in Scotland under the name Folboat Troop

1942 Kayak mission on the harbour at Bordeaux earns the unit the title 'Cockleshell Heroes'

1943 Carries out reconnaissance for Salerno landings in Italy

1950 Operates behind enemy lines in North Korea during Korean War

1972 Parachutes into the Atlantic to find a bomb feared to be aboard the QE2

1982 Helps liberate South Georgia during Falklands conflict

1991 Destroys control systems for Iraqi Scud missiles during Gulf War

2000 Rescues British troops held captive in Sierra Leone

2001 Secures Bagram airfield in Afghanistan. Takes part in battle of Tora Bora

2008 Ambushes Taliban leader Mullah Abdul Matin

2012 Ill-fated bid to rescue British and Italian hostages in Nigeria

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Store Manager & Store Supervisor

£19000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Case Liaison Officer / Administrator

£13000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This Pension Specialist based in Rochest...

Recruitment Genius: Business Development Manager / Sales - OTE £45,000

£35000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company is a solutions / s...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive - OTE £45,000

£18000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Sales Executive is required t...

Day In a Page

Sepp Blatter resignation: The beginning of Fifa's long road to reform?

Does Blatter's departure mean Fifa will automatically clean up its act?

Don't bet on it, says Tom Peck
Charles Kennedy: The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

Charles Kennedy was consistently a man of the centre-left, dedicated to social justice, but was also a champion of liberty and an opponent of the nanny-state, says Baroness Williams
Syria civil war: The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of this endless conflict

The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of Syria's endless civil war

Sahar Qanbar lost her mother and brother as civilians and government soldiers fought side by side after being surrounded by brutal Islamist fighters. Robert Fisk visited her
The future of songwriting: How streaming is changing everything we know about making music

The future of songwriting

How streaming is changing everything we know about making music
William Shemin and Henry Johnson: Jewish and black soldiers receive World War I Medal of Honor amid claims of discrimination

Recognition at long last

Jewish and black soldiers who fought in WWI finally receive medals after claims of discrimination
Beating obesity: The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters

Beating obesity

The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters
9 best women's festival waterproofs

Ready for rain: 9 best women's festival waterproofs

These are the macs to keep your denim dry and your hair frizz-free(ish)
Cycling World Hour Record: Nervous Sir Bradley Wiggins ready for pain as he prepares to go distance

Wiggins worried

Nervous Sir Bradley ready for pain as he prepares to attempt cycling's World Hour Record
Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Reds baulk at Christian Benteke £32.5m release clause
On your feet! Spending at least two hours a day standing reduces the risk of heart attacks, cancer and diabetes, according to new research

On your feet!

Spending half the day standing 'reduces risk of heart attacks and cancer'
With scores of surgeries closing, what hope is there for the David Cameron's promise of 5,000 more GPs and a 24/7 NHS?

The big NHS question

Why are there so few new GPs when so many want to study medicine?
Big knickers are back: Thongs ain't what they used to be

Thongs ain't what they used to be

Big knickers are back
Thurston Moore interview

Thurston Moore interview

On living in London, Sonic Youth and musical memoirs
In full bloom

In full bloom

Floral print womenswear
From leading man to Elephant Man, Bradley Cooper is terrific

From leading man to Elephant Man

Bradley Cooper is terrific