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Declining to mention the SBS by name (the unit, like all our Special Forces, does not officially exist), Boris Johnson praised the “police and armed forces” for a “fantastic job” and thanked them for keeping our shores safe.
In reality, the SBS is conducting an ever-increasing tempo of covert operations around the world to protect our way of life. Yet, unlike their “noisier” colleagues in the SAS, they never court publicity and prefer to take “a more discreet approach”.
The SBS insist: “While some prefer the limelight, we prefer the twilight.”
Yet now, for the first time, the SBS has pulled back the curtain just a little by opening their secret archive and authorising me to write the history of how it all began during the Second World War.
Founded in 1940, as Winston Churchill looked for ways to strike back at the Nazis, the SBS started as a small and inexperienced outfit that leaned heavily on volunteers’ raw courage and boyish enthusiasm.
It went on to change the course of the war ‑ and has served as a model for special forces ever since.
The acknowledged “father” of the SBS is Roger “Jumbo” Courtney, a 38-year-old former big game hunter with a “bashed-in kind of face” and a “blunt, no-nonsense manner”, who in October 1940 came up with a new way to take the fight to the enemy: using two-man folding canoes (known as folbots) to deliver teams of highly-trained commandos deep behind enemy lines.
Having provided his superiors with proof of concept ‑ by paddling up to and then sneaking aboard a heavily guarded ship in Inveraray harbour in the Scottish Highlands ‑ he was allowed to form the Folbot Troop, later renamed the Special Boat Section.
Deployed to the Middle East, Courtney quickly joined forces with Lieutenant Commander Nigel Willmott, a 30-year-old Royal Navy navigator, who was convinced that secret beach reconnaissance was vital if the amphibious landings needed to defeat the Nazis were to succeed.
His conundrum was how to land on beaches silently. Courtney’s canoes provided the answer.
It was an unlikely partnership. Courtney was a big-picture person “with a flair for improvisation in a tight corner”, while Willmott was a details man. This combination of vision and precision would be the making of the SBS.
In March 1941, the two men were transported by submarine from Alexandria in Egypt to a point off the coast of the Italian-held Rhodes where they paddled in by canoe and took it in turns to swim ashore and carry out a clandestine survey of the closely guarded shore as preparation for an amphibious assault.
The mission, undertaken with improvised equipment in wild and unpredictable weather, almost resulted in their capture or drowning. Yet each time they returned safely to the submarine with vital information and proved, beyond doubt, that folbots could make a difference.
The two men soon went their separate ways: Courtney to develop the SBS whose multiple roles included landing secret agents, assisting commando operations, and destroying ships and coastal infrastructure; and Willmott to create, in December 1942, the brilliant maritime special operations unit known as COPP (Combined Operations Pilotage Parties) that provided beach intelligence for the great amphibious landings in Sicily, Italy, Normandy and later the Far East.
The training regime in Courtney’s SBS was brutal and relentless. One punishing exercise lasted three days and nights, remembered recruit Stan Weatherall, as they paddled the more than 80 miles across the Firth of Clyde where they “effected a landing at Craignish Point”.
Next day they paddled a further 20 miles up the Sound of Scarba to the Isle of Kerrera, and, “after making a panorama sketch of the seaplane base”, headed back to where Courtney was waiting with trucks to take them back to their base.
The total distance covered was 140 miles, a feat that rivals anything tackled in modern special forces selection.
There were, however, lighter moments. Determined to train his men how to live off the land, Courtney invited an elderly eccentric called Jim Branson, the great-uncle of Virgin founder Sir Richard Branson, to show his men how to survive on plants. A week later, a “gnome-like old gentleman” arrived at Ardrossan on an ancient bicycle.
“He must have been about 70 years old,” recalled Courtney, “and had a brown leathery wiriness remarkable in a man of that age. He had come about 500 miles in a week, but he apologised mildly for being late; he stated that he had stopped once or twice along the coast to sample the seaweed.”
Branson Sr showed the men how to make a tasty meal out of chickweed, vinegar and bran. It looked and tasted revolting, but was certainly filling.
“I stopped all our normal rations,” recalled Courtney, “and in three days the boys were screaming for steak. [Branson] offered to initiate us into the mysteries of seaweed, but we shook him by the hand, thanked him fervently, and he pedalled off back to London.”
Two of Courtney’s best operators were Lieutenant Robert “Tug” Wilson and Marine Wally Hughes who would, over eight months in 1941, execute a succession of daring operations.
Both were slight and unassuming, “the complete opposite of the commando of fiction, usually portrayed by post-war journalist-authors as rip-roaring, bloodthirsty thugs ever ready to slit a throat”.
Hughes, a man of few words, was “short, lean, tough and ready to tackle anything”; Wilson his “suave, sophisticated opposite”. Their nerve-wracking missions ‑ carried out at night, deep behind enemy lines ‑ involved their transport in submarines to the coasts of Sicily and mainland Italy where they paddled ashore and laid explosive charges that destroyed trains, railway lines and bridges.
On their last operation together, Wilson almost drowned in freezing water. “Wetsuits were in the future,” commented a submarine officer.
Wilson’s reign of terror was finally brought to an end the following September when he and a new partner, Bombardier John Brittlebank, were captured after trying to sink a ship in Crotone harbour, southern Italy, with mini hand-operated torpedoes.
A hard man to replace, Wilson has been a model for SBS operators ever since: small-framed but deceptively strong, a team player but capable of independent action, an intelligent problem solver, eager to embrace new technology and as brave as a lion. Another prominent early SBS man was Major Gerald
Montanaro who, on April 12, 1942, pulled off one of the most astonishing missions of the war. Tasked with sinking a German tanker filled with copper ore in Boulogne Harbour, Montanaro and his paddler Sergeant Freddie Preece were dropped off by motor launch three miles from the harbour entrance just after midnight.
Struggling against a strong tide and headwind, they took more than an hour to reach the outer harbour where they paddled in a prone position to avoid being spotted. A party was in progress and they were almost hit by a beer bottle thrown into the water.
But the real crisis came when the canoe was holed on a rock. Montanaro might have aborted the mission. Instead he ordered Preece to stem the leak by ramming his cap-comforter into the hole, and then start the chemical time-delay fuses on the eight limpet mines, the point of no return.
They eventually placed seven limpets on the tanker’s stern before making their getaway, arriving at their rendezvous more than an hour late, and with the canoe so filled with water that it would have sunk within 15 minutes.
Montanaro’s diary entry was typically understated: “Attacked Boulogne. 7 limpets on Tanker! Sailed w[ith] Preece and nearly sank. Picked up by ML very successfully. First-rate show!!”
Nigel Willmott’s Coppists did vital war work, losing several men in the process. But their finest hour was in preparing the ground for D-Day. First, during the night of New Year’s Eve 1943, two of Willmott’s best men ‑ Major Logan Scott-Bowden and Sergeant Bruce Ogden-Smith ‑ swam ashore in a highly risky mission to take samples from Gold Beach in Normandy to confirm the sand was firm enough for Allied vehicles to land.
Narrowly avoiding detection, they returned with evidence it was. A fortnight later, the same pair scouted Omaha Beach, swimming ashore from a midget submarine. Once again they brought back vital intelligence, particularly on Omaha’s defences, and advised American commander Lieutenant General Omar Bradley that “this beach is a very formidable proposition indeed”.
Partly as a result of the Coppists’ report, the number of invasion beaches was raised from three to five. Nervous about giving the game away, the Americans chose not to accept the Coppists’ offer to signpost their beaches ‑ Omaha and Utah ‑ on D-Day.
The decision had disastrous consequences. “They could have done with that offer of markers,” wrote one historian. “The whole assault force set its predetermined course for the unseen shore from its start point 12 miles out to sea.
“Immediately the weather and the powerful tidal set took hold of the mass of boats and swept them steadily, innocent and unknowing, to the east… The whole assault force on ‘Omaha’ had slipped sideways.”
Put ashore in the wrong place, the American troops were massacred. More than 2,000 died on Omaha on June 6, 1944. The value of beach markers was demonstrated a short way to the east of Omaha where Coppist teams in two midget submarines ‑ X20 and X23 ‑ successfully guided in British and Canadian landing craft.
Though it would not be acknowledged publicly for years, Willmott’s top-secret Coppists had played a key role in the success of D-Day.
They were the first to set foot on the beaches, and their dangerous vigil ensured that, on the British and Canadian beaches at least, Allied assault troops landed in the right place.
SBS: Silent Warriors ‑ The Authorised Wartime History by Saul David (William Collins, £25) is out now. For free UK delivery, call Express Bookshop on 020 3176 3832.
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