All About the SBS: The Special Boat Service

People all around the world have heard of the elite SAS and countless bad people are no longer around because of them.  The SAS though are the special forces for the Army; less well known is the SBS which are the special forces for the Royal Navy and the men are drawn from the Royal Marines.

They made the news two weeks ago after a suspected hijacking of a tanker by Nigerian stowaways just off the coast of the Isle of Wight.  Having been tipped off by the Ships Master, the SBS arrived by helicopter just around the headland and waited until nightfall when they landed upon the ship and seized control in just 9 minutes.

Modern tankers are often vast ships, made up of myriad corridors and passageways, hiding spots amongst cargo or equipment. The bridge is the main target – retake that and you retake control of the ship.


The origins of the SBS go back to WW2 when they were formed as the Special Boat Section, an army commando unit tasked with amphibious operations. Unlike today, the weren’t particularly well-equipped or qualified, but they were enthusiastic, resourceful, and cunning. Operators usually worked in pairs, paddling ashore in canoes launched from submarines to sabotage high-value targets such as railways and communications systems. The original raids took place along the coasts of Italy and the Mediterranean islands.

One of their early unique skillsets was in using canoes to creep into harbours and plant mines on the hulls of enemy ships. In November 1942, one group of Royal Marines, who came to be known as the Cockleshell Heroes, carried out a courageous raid on German shipping that took them far up the Gironde estuary where they sank four enemy ships. Expertise in clandestine infiltration made the SBS the ideal choice for inserting and extracting secret agents in the European theater, a task they carried out many times throughout the course of the war.

In 1987, the SBS was renamed to the Special Boat Service and moved under the supervision of the UKSF; an organisation that today includes the SAS, SBS, and the Special Reconnaissance Regiment or SRR.

The SBS has been involved in every British military campaign since WWII, as well as in a number of counterterrorism operations, counternarcotics missions, and hostage rescue operations. With deployments in all of the U.K.’s current theaters of operation, the SBS maintains a high operations tempo and has been forced to rely on its reserve element to backfill troops.

Some of the modern aspects of warfare you learn when you join the SBS include

  1. Diving
  2. Submarine infiltration
  3. Underwater reconnaissance
  4. Beach reconnaissance
  5. Underwater demolitions
  6. Close-quarters battle (CQB)
  7. Parachuting
  8. Wet jumping
  9. Fast-roping
  10. Arctic warfare

The selection process is completely arduous just like their more well known SAS colleagues and from an average intake of 125 candidates, the gruelling selection process results in only 10 men making it through.

They have been involved in every major and several less known actions since WW2, we just don’t know about them and because of them they are often overlooked compared to their SAS brethren.

About Stephen Liddell

I am a writer and traveller with a penchant for history and getting off the beaten track. With several books to my name including several #1 sellers. I also write environmental, travel and history articles for magazines as well as freelance work. I run my private tours company with one tour stated by the leading travel website as being with the #1 authentic London Experience. Recently I've appeared on BBC Radio and Bloomberg TV and am waiting on the filming of a ghost story on British TV. I run my own private UK tours company (Ye Olde England Tours) with small, private and totally customisable guided tours run by myself!
This entry was posted in history, Life, News, WW2 and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to All About the SBS: The Special Boat Service

  1. padresteve says:

    They are too often forgotten. Thank you for sharing.


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