History Of The SBS – The UK’s Naval Special Forces
The history of the SBS spans over 6 decades, seeing the unit go through many a transformation – from Army commando units of World War 2, to an elite sub-unit of The Royal Marines to its present day incarnation as a highly specialised element of UK Special Forces (UKSF).
Beginnings – World War 2
The SBS began its history during World War 2 as the Special Boat Section, an Army commando unit tasked with amphibious operations. The men of the fledging unit were not particularly well trained or equipped but they were enthusiastic, resourceful and cunning. Usually working in 2 man groups, paddling ashore on canoes launched from submarine motherships, the teams would seek out and sabotage high value targets such as rail and communication lines. The first of such raids took place along the shores of Italy and the Mediterranean islands.
The fledging special operations force also developed anti-shipping skills, using canoes to sneak into harbors and plant limpet mines on the hulls of enemy ships. In November 1942, one group of Royal Marines, who were to become known as ‘The Cockleshell Heroes’, carried out an audacious attack on German shipping, a raid that took them far up the Gironde river where they sank 4 enemy ships.
Their expertise at clandestine infiltration made the SBS the perfect choice for inserting and extracting secret agents in the European theatre and this was a task they carried out many times throughout the course of the war.
1950s – Korea
The Korean war saw the SBS teaming up with specially formed 41 Independant Commando Royal Marines and the US Army to create a joint raiding force. Operation Double Eagle was to conduct sabotage missions along the Korean coast, launching raids from submarines and warships. Railway lines, tunnels, bridges and general targets of opportunity were all blown up by the raiding parties, damaging the North Korean’s lines of supply and communications.
The Cold War
The Special Boat Squadron, as it was now known, was kept busy during the long standoff between East & West. Known activities include :
- Inserting and extracting agents from Eastern Bloc coastlines.
- Intelligence gathering on Russian naval capabilities. An example of this is when a pair of SBS divers covertly photographed and examined the hull of a new Russian Battlecruiser when it docked in the port of Gibraltar.
- Role playing – along with the SAS, SBS would frequently play the role of Soviet Spetznaz (Special Forces) troops in mock attacks on Nato installations. Some believe that these exercises caused an overestimation of the Spetznaz’s capabilities.
- Coastline Reconnaissance – beaches and harbors of potential hotspots around the world were clandestinely examined with the aim of preparing the way for amphibious landings.
- Training – SBS teams passed on their expertise to cold war allies and strategic friends. Amongst those instructed included the U.S. Navy Seals and the Sha of Iran’s Naval Special Forces.
1970s/80s/90s – Northern Ireland
The low intensity conflict in Northern Ireland was an ideal arena for the SBS to operate in. The main role was covert surveillance and apart from its own operations, many SBS operators joined 14th Intelligence Company, or ‘the Det’ – a branch of Military Intelligence specially created for surveillance ops ‘over the water’.
The SBS was also used to monitor and interdict gun running along the coastline and on inland waterways and lakes.
1970s – Protecting The QE2
1972 – Members of the SBS, along with an SAS officer and Army bomb disposal expert, parachuted into Atlantic waters in order to board the QE2 passenger liner which was the center of a bomb threat. These extraordinary measures proved to not be necessary as no bomb was found.
1972 – A QE2 carrying a sizable jewish contingent on a cruise to Israel was put under SBS guard. Tensions were high following the Black September terrorist attacks at the Munich Olympics and the QE2 cruise was seen as a tempting target for Arab terrorists. In the end, the cruise went ahead without incident.
1976 – Another QE2 cruise to Israeli again necessitated the protection of the SBS. Members of the unit posed at tourists aboard the liner, their Browning 9mm pistols concealed under their t-shirts. Some SBS wives even joined their husbands on the trip, adding to the mission’s cover. As before, the cruise was completed without incident.
1970s – Counter Terrorism
The seventies saw a dramatic rise in terrorism throughout the world with politically motivated attacks in the Middle East and Europe. In 1975 Britain resolved to be ready to react to and prevent any acts of terrorism against its interests. The SBS were given the maritime counter terrorism role (MCT), with responsibility for protecting sea ports, ferries, cruise ships and oil platforms. The Special Air Service (SAS) would respond to all other incidents. In the event of very large installations being taken by terrorists, such as nuclear power plants, a combined response of SAS/SBS would be mustered.
In 1979 the increase in off-shore oil installations prompted the formation of ‘Commachio Company’, 300 Royal Marines trained to respond to terrorist incidents amongst North Sea oil fields. The SBS provided a section, 1SBS, to Commachio Company, whilst another stayed at Poole to cover all other MCT responsibilities.
1982 – The Falklands Conflict
The SBS saw action in the South Atlantic in 1982 when Britain retook the Falklands from the Argentineans. They carried out reconnaissance weeks ahead of the arrival of the main task force, laying up in hides cut into the barren landscape. The SAS were also carrying out similar missions on the islands and there was an unfortunate ‘blue on blue’ or ‘friendly fire’ incident when an SBS patrol was mistakenly ambushed by the SAS.
The SBS, along with the SAS and Royal Marines were responsible for retaking South Georgia, which although militarily insignificant, was a great morale boost for both the approaching task force and the British public.
The night before the planding landing of British forces at San Carlos, the SBS cleared Fanning Head, a hill that overlooked San Carlos Bay. The Argentinian defenders were shelled up by Naval Gunfire whilst the SBS assault force were flown in. After calls for the Argentinians to surrender were answered with gunfire, the SBS attacked, killing 12 and taken more prisoners. This was a small but vital operation. The Argentinians on Fanning Head were manning heavy weapons that could have been brought to bear on the landing force.
Another notable incident occurred when a force of SBS assaulted an Argentinean spy trawler that had been shadowing the British fleet. The ship had been damaged by bombs and cannon fire from an earlier attack by Navy Sea Harriers and was listing badly when the assault force arrived in 2 Seaking helicopters. Using techniques developed for maritime counter terrorism, the SBS assault team fast-roped onto the deck and quickly secured the ship without any shots fired. Along with the shaken crew, vital intelligence documents were also retrieved and flown back to the fleet. This was the first air-to-ship storming of a hostile vessel in military history.
Towards the end of the conflict, with British forces closing on the capital, Port Stanley, a joint SBS/SAS mission was launched against Stanley harbor. The plan was to put in a diversionary attack from the sea, to draw Argentinean forces and attention away from the main defensive line. The assault force approached the harbor on rigid raiders, attempting to slip in behind a hospital ship, but were spotted by troops on board the vessel who shone a spotlight onto the teams. Coming under heavy fire from the hospital ship, the SBS/SAS teams were forced to withdraw, managing to escape without serious injury.
1987 – Formation Of M Squadron
The SBS’s counter terrorism role is expanded with the amalgamation of 2 existing SBS sections into M squadron which now took over the MCT role from Commachio Company.
1987 – SBS Renames and Joins UKSF
The SBS becomes the Special Boat Service and is taken under control of UKSF, an organisation comprising the SAS, SBS and 14th Intelligence Company. All 3 services come under control of the Directorate of Special Forces (DSF).
1991 – Desert Storm
August 1990 – Saddam Hussein’s army invades oil-rich Kuwait. In the build up to the West’s inevitable military response, Saddam’s regime took hostage western civilians as so-called ‘human shields’ in an attempt to deter any attacks by the US-led coalition. Hasty plans were drawn up to rescue these people. The rescue force would most likely have been made up of special operations troops from the US, the UK and possibly France. The SBS would have played a significant role in any rescue. Fortunately the plans were never put into play as Saddam relented and released all the westerners. It is likely that such an operation would have been a disaster. There was poor intelligence on the locations of the hostages and the disposition of any guarding forces. Saddam had dispersed them around the country and it’s unlikely that all or even most of them could have been found and rescued.
With the human shield crisis averted, the SBS was tasked with severing the Iraqi’s command and control communications lines, which they did with typical aplomb (as described here).
Other tasks included scouting potential amphibious landing sites on the Kuwaiti coastline, exploding demolition charges on the beaches to fool the Iraqis that an amphibious landing was imminent and, as the war came to a close, securing the British Embassy in Kuwait City.
1998 – Testing Nuclear Security
SBS teams took part in security excerises involving mock attacks on Britain’s nuclear power installations. Controversary arose when accounts of several successfull infiltrations of these highly sensitive sites were leaked to the public.
1999 – East Timor
Marines of the Special Boat Service were the first British forces sent into East Timor as part of UN peace keeping operations. News reports showed the SBS arriving at the main airport and venturing out into the city. Later bulletins captured a SBS squad entering an Indonesian army base to investigate reports of gunfire. For much of the British public, these news reports were the first ever glimpse of the secretive special forces unit at work.
2000 – Sierra Leone
In 2000, men from The Special Boat Service joined their SAS colleagues in a daring rescue mission deep in the jungles of war torn Sierra Leone. The ‘West Side Boys’, a ragtag group of rebels had captured a group of british soldiers from the Royal Irish Regiment. A combined force of SAS & SBS troops put the rebel camp under surveillance and began feeding intelligence back to those planning the rescue.
A plan was soon developed. At dawn, mixed fire teams of SAS/SBS operators were flown into the rebel camp by RAF Chinooks. The fire teams fast-roped from the choppers and rushed to their tasks : clearing the various buildings, engaging the rebel troops, securing the hostages and taking the rebel leader into custody. Simultaneously, a force of Paratroopers were flown in to attack the rebel base across the lake from were the SAS/SBS mission was taking place.
The fighting was intense but the mission was a success. All the hostages were rescued, the rebel leader was captured and all stolen British equipment was retrieved. One SAS trooper was killed in action and several Paras were wounded. These tragic losses aside, ‘Operation Barras’ was an outstanding success. As is often the case, the British media trumpeted the actions of the SAS while the SBS elements of the operation were hardly mentioned, if at all.
2001 – Present Afghanistan
UK special forces played an active part in the early days of the Global War On Terror. SAS and SBS teams carried out a range of tasks as part of the campaign to oust the Taleban and Al Qaeda from Afghanistan. These tasks included linking up with Northern Alliance forces, coordinating airstrikes with the advance of ground units. UKSF also carried reconnaissance of Al Qaeda hideouts and movements around Tora Bora, and assisted in the effort to flush Osama Bin Laden out from his hiding place. A force of 100 SBS operators flew into Bagram airport to pave the way for coalition reinforcements. Later, one team of SBS got drawn into one of the bloodiest actions of the whole campaign as they helped to put down the uprising at the ancient fort of Qala-i-Janghi.
2001 – Raid On The MV Nisha
In November 2001, UK intelligence services were tipped off that the MV Nisha, a Mauritian cargo ship, headed for a London port, was carrying ‘terrorist materials’. Before the ship could reach the UK, a Royal Navy frigate intercepted it, launching SBS teams to board and secure the vessel.
2002 – Present – The Caribbean
The SBS have been involved in a series of caounter-narcotic operations in The Caribbean. working closely with local and international law enforcement, the unit is understood to have carried out both intelligence-gathering and interception operations.
2003 – Iraq
The Special Boat Service where at the vanguard of the invasion of Iraq. SBS troops joined up with the U.S. Navy Seals to secure the beaches of the Al Faw Peninsula, opening the door for the coalition ground forces. They were also instrumental in securing the southern oil fields, preventing Saddam from igniting the wells as he did in Kuwait in 1991.
One mobile landrover patrol of SBS engaged in one of the most ferocious Special Forces actions of the war when they were double crossed by their interpreters/guides and led into an ambush. In the engagement that followed, the SBS fired thousands of rounds at their attackers. The fighting was so intense that the SBS column were forced to abandon some of their equipment, including a landrover and quad bike. Conflicting accounts of the incident appeared in the press with the SBS drawing some criticism from their SAS colleagues about how things played out. It may be a long time before the full truth is known.
SBS commandos were also active in the southern city of Basra. One known activity was to call in U.S. airstrikes in a bid to kill senior Iraqi figures including “Chemical Ali” (details in links section below). It is also belived that they worked with MI6 operatives to disrupt and destabilize the Baathist regime in Basra, leading to its successfull capture by British forces.
2004 – Athens Olympics
Members of the SBS advised and trained Greek naval special forces in maritime counter terrorism techniques, with focus on protecting Athen’s sea ports. It is also believed the SBS advised and assisted in securing the Queen Mary 2 cruise liner and other ships which were in port for the games.
2005 – SBS Commander Dies In Minisub Accident
In March 2005, the commanding officer of the SBS, Lt-Col Richard van der Horst, died when exiting a minisub during an exercise off the Norwegian coast.
2009 – SBS Rescue Journalist
September 2009 – The SBS rescued a British journalist from Taliban kidnappers near Kunduz, Afghanistan.
2009 – SBS Rescue Op Bungled
November 2009 – A mission to rescue 2 britons held by pirates fails when the SBS team arrive too late
2011 – SBS Evacuate British Workers From Libya
Febuary 2011 – Over 2 subsequent days, RAF Special Forces C-130s and SBS commandos evacuated western oil workers from several remote desert facilties.
2011 – SBS Carry Out Somalia Surveillance Ops
July 2011 – SBS commandos carry out covert operations along the Somali coast as part of counter-piracy operations.
2012 – SBS Protect Olympic Games
July / August 2012 -elements of the Special Boat Service were deployed to protect Olympic sailing events on the south coast of England.
2012 – Nigeria Hostage Rescue Attempt
In March 2012, a joint SBS-Nigerian forces attempted to rescue 2 western hostages from radical Islamic kidnappers in the Nigerian city of Sokoto. Sadly, both hostages, a British and Italian citizen, were killed by their captors duing the operation.