Saturday, September 8, 2018

The Soldiers of The IX
The Special Boat Service

The Special Boat Service
Less well-known than their army counterparts, the Special Boat Service is the UK's naval Special Forces unit. Although the SBS is part of UK Special Forces – along with the SAS, SRR and SFSG – and its application can be made from members of the Army, Royal Air Force of Royal Navy, the vast majority of SBS operators tend to come from the Royal Marine Commandos.


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 Independent 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 then 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 - 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 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 planned landing of British forces at San Carlos, the SBS cleared Fanning Head, a hill that overlooked San Carlos Bay. The Argentinean defenders were shelled up by Naval Gunfire whilst the SBS assault force were flown in. After calls for the Argentineans to surrender were answered with gunfire, the SBS attacked, killing 12 and taken more prisoners. This was a small but vital operation. The Argentineans 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 Sea King 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. 

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.
The SBS becomes the Special Boat Service and is taken under control of UKSF, an organization comprising the SAS, SBS and 14th Intelligence Company. All 3 services come under control of the Directorate of Special Forces (DSF).

Since then, the SBS have been active at many garden spots around the world.

You might be wondering what it takes to join such an elite force? Here’s a condensed prĂ©cis of the selection procedure:


To be eligible for selection, a candidate must be male, and must have have served in the military for at least 18 months and have 3 years left to serve.

Joint Selection

Stage 1 - Special Forces Briefing Course (2 Days)

Candidates are shown what to expect as a Special Forces soldier with a series of lectures and tests. Basic skills such as swimming, map reading and basic fitness are tested.

Stage 2 - Endurance (4 Weeks)

Kicking off endurance is a Battle Fitness Test which weeds out anyone without a basic level of fitness.
Designed to test fitness and determination, the first 3 weeks of selection take place amongst the barren hills of the Brecon Beacons in Wales. A series of timed marches is undertaken. Wearing heavy bergens, candidates must navigate themselves over the steep hills along a series of way points. Endurance not only tests stamina, but also the ability to keep going whilst suffering inevitable blisters, cramps and the tender affections of the frequently harsh climate. Over the 3 weeks, the marches get progressively longer, and the bergens get heavier. The climax of this phase is known as 'the long drag' - a 40 km march that must be completed in less that 20 hours.

Stage 3 - Initial Continuation Training (4 Weeks)

Basic SF skills of weapon handling, patrolling and demolitions are taught. Candidates who can't absorb and apply these skills are RTU'd. (Returned to Unit).

Stage 4 - Jungle Training

In the heart of thick rainforests in Belize, UKSF jungle training pushes the candidates to their limits of endurance. The particular skills needed to meet the demands of navigating, patrolling, fighting and surviving in dense jungle are taught and practiced. A series of exercises tests the student's ability to apply what they have learned.
Stage 5 - Combat Survival (4 weeks)
Combat survival features a series of lectures on escape and evasion techniques, followed by exercises in which the candidates are hunted down and captured by other troops (often Royal Marines or Parachute Regiment). Once captured, students are subjected to intense interrogation. Whilst waiting for tactical questioning (TQ), candidates are placed in stress positions, deprived of food and water and sleep and subjected to white noise. They are then interrogated and must only give their name, serial number, date of birth and rank. All other questions must be answered with a stock reply : 'I cannot answer that question'.

After Joint Selection

The few that make it through the 1st 5 stages of selection have achieved a major milestone. And this is where our candidates’ part ways. Those wishing to join the SAS are awarded their beige beret and then assigned a squadron and troop.

However, SBS candidates go on to face a final – and extremely rigorous – section which tests their ability in the water.

Swimmer Canoeist (SC3) Training Course

The SC3 course involves training in diving in all conditions, canoeing (often over long distances), underwater demolitions, beach reconnaissance and surveying techniques. Any man that has reached this stage of selection is technically in the SBS but is considered under probation and subject to being RTU'd if he fails to measure up.
If he passes that probation . . . the world is his oyster!

That completes our roundup of the soldiers of The IX. I hope you enjoyed the tour. Be sure to look out for aspects of the details we've discussed the next time you read any of the current books from the IX Series, as I'm sure you'll be delighted to spot them in the way each group of soldiers operate under the harsh conditions they face. 

And remember - Fight or Die! Death is only the beginning of the adventure. . .

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