Thursday, March 10, 2016
A British Special Boat Squadron Corporal sharpens his knife before a raid in the Aegean, July, 1944
Also known as: formerly Folboat section, 101 Troop, Z Group, M Detachment;
latterly Special Boat Squadron, Special Boat Service
Date Founded: 1 SBS – late 1940; 2 SBS – 14 April 1942
Mission When Founded: To conduct sea-borne sabotage and reconnaissance
Mission During the War: To conduct sea-borne sabotage and reconnaissance
Theatre(s) of Operation: NW Europe, North Africa, Mediterranean, Italy, SE Asia
Headquarters: 1 SBS – Athlit, Palestine; Schooner ‘Tewfik’ moored at Kastellorizon (1943), Zara (present day Zadar, Croatia) (1945);
2 SBS – Lee-on-Solent, Hants (1944)
# of Personnel: 19 all ranks (1 SBS, March 1941), 47 all ranks (2 SBS, March 1942), 180 (December 1943), 72 (June 1944)
The SBS began life as the Folbot section of 8 Commando. Its commanding officer Captain Roger ‘Jumbo’ Courtney had demonstrated the effectiveness of kayak raiding to his superior officers by a series of practical demonstrations against ships in harbour. All the special service Commandos were meant to have a boat section in due course, but only 6 Commando’s 101 Troop was created.
In February 1941, 8 Commando was detached to Layforce being sent to the Middle Eastern theatre. Once in the Mediterranean the Folbot section officially became the Special Boat Section and began training aboard Royal Navy submarines. Operating in two man groups they conducted recces, sabotage raids on high-value communications targets, and agent drops amongst the Mediterranean islands and the Italian coast. Equipment was primitive – unsuitable boats, no radios, improvised torches, no wetsuits or drysuits – but the SBS was resourceful and cunning, and were scoring successes. The SBS was 60 all ranks in size by December 1941; Courtney was promoted to Major and ordered back to Britain to establish a second special boat unit.
The SBS continued raiding, reconnaissance and agent insertions along the North African coast Courtney’s departure as an independent entity, using RN submarines out of Alexandria, and later MTBs. However, the growing success of David Stirling’s SAS drew all of the Middle Eastern raiding forces including the SBS closer to the SAS. After a disastrous raid on Rhodes when only two men returned from 10, the SBS was absorbed into the 1st SAS Regiment in September 1942. The SBS ended up in 1 SAS’s D Squadron together with troops from the Greek Sacred Squadron. 1 SAS was subdivided into two units on David Stirling’s capture in January 1943, and D squadron became the Special Boat Squadron under the command of Major Lord George Jellicoe.
The Special Boat Squadron was divided in three operational detachments (L, M and S) and base group. Each detachment consisted of six fighting patrols of one officer and 12 other ranks. The SBS continued to wear the SAS’s beige beret and wings after the UK-based SAS were forced to wear airborne maroon and wings in 1944. In time training at Athlit (Haifa, Palestine) consisted of weapons familiarisation, boating, swimming, high-speed marching, unarmed combat, parachuting and skiing.
Initial raids on Crete and Sardinia by S and L detachments in support of the Sicily landings were failures. The SBS’s move to the Aegean would prove more successful although the initial deployments saw SBS teams on islands that fell to German occupation after the Italian surrender in September 1943. Unlike regular British formations caught on the islands the SBS were able to withdraw. The SBS were able to escape the fall of Leros in November 1943 unlike the garrison, most escaping to Palestine via Turkey.
The SBS became part of Raiding Forces Middle East in October 1943, and this is where Jellicoe’s men earned their reputation – storming out of the night to shoot up German garrisons, demolish installations and generally cause havoc. The SBS detachments operated in rotation from a secret base which was a large schooner moored off the Turkish coast. Transport to and from the target was courtesy of the Royal Navy or a caïque (1) of the Levant Schooner Flotilla (2). Raiding parties landed by canoe, collapsible Goatley boat, inflatables or sometimes by caïque. The SBS’s raiding kept six German divisions in the Aegean islands when they could have been redeployed to Italy or Europe. The SBS’s biggest and last raid killed or captured the entirety of the 180 strong garrison, 19 caïques and two patrol boats on Simi in July 1944 for two dead and six wounded.
After that the SBS moved to Italy and started operating in the Adriatic. Operations here were not as successful: sea-mines were more prevalent, defences were tougher and the local guerrillas uncooperative. The SBS participated in the German retreat in Greece, but were unable to cut the retreat off but beat it back to the Albanian border. The Greek Royalist/Communist conflict nullified SBS efforts afterwards.
The SBS became the Special Boat Service in early 1945, and was now fighting in the Italian campaign, acting as pathfinders and shock troops to allied Commando assaults. It was at Lake Comacchio that Major Anders Lassen, Military Cross and two Bars, was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross on 8 April 1945 for saving his patrol from heavy machine gun fire. Lake Commachio was the SBS’s last operation of the war; it was preparing for redeployment to the Far East when the war ended.
Major Courtney established 2 SBS on 1 March 1942. 2 SBS absorbed 101 Troop of 6 Commando which had seen action in Norway and reconnaissance of the France coast. From 47 all ranks 2 SBS quickly grew. Recruits underwent a 17-week training course followed by parachute training. Successful recruits wore the green Commando beret, and a “Commando SBS” shoulder title. The first action 2 SBS saw was in Algeria in November 1942, though part of 2 SBS deployed. The remainder stayed in the UK for landing agents in France and reconnaissance. One of 2 SBS’s secret missions was to smuggle American officers ashore for discussions with French commanders before the invasion, and then recced and guided landing forces onto the beaches of Operation TORCH in conjunction with the COPPs as Party Inhuman. A sub-unit of 2 SBS, Z Group remained in theatre raiding and assisting the COPPs.
2 SBS had become simply the Special Boat Section after 1 SBS’s absorption into the 1 SAS Regiment. It raided the German-occupied coasts of Norway and France but these were generally unsuccessful due to sea conditions and stronger coastal defences, and small teams served with RN submarines all over the world. At Mountbatten’s insistence elements of 2 SBS were sent out to India in February 1944 in preparation of operations in Burma. First Z Group was transferred to Ceylon. A, B and C Groups followed shortly afterwards arriving in India. Each SBS operational group consisted of 20 all ranks (4 officers plus 16 other ranks) under the command of a Major. By 1944 equipment and boats had greatly improved, mostly due to the efforts of the RM Boom Patrol Detachment (RMBPD), who effectively created the British combat frogman.
The SBS joined the COPPs, Detachment 385 and the Sea Reconnaissance Unit in the Small Operations Group (SOG) operating in Burma. The SBS saw the end of the war waiting for new operations to be assigned. SBS members who were not “Hostilities Only” personnel were posted back to the UK and transferred to Royal Marines, who would have responsibility for all future amphibious operations. Whatever was left of the SBS became the School of Combined Operations, Beach and Boat Section in 1946.
There were many small boat and amphibious British units in World War II and what they actually did can be confusing. However, they all specialised in specific areas. These can be summarised as follows:
RMBPD – ship attack and harbour sabotage
COPP – beach survey and reconnaissance
SBS – sabotage and reconnaissance above the high-water mark
(1) A caïque is a fishing boat ranging in size from 80 to 20 tons that is used around the Mediterranean. Used by both Axis forces for resupply and Allied for smuggling/raiding purposes. Allied caïques were mostly re-used abandoned ships, fitted with Matilda tank engines for extra stealth and speed.
Caïques were armed with a 20mm cannon forward, Browning MGs on each bow and Vickers K MGs on the quarters. Generally crammed with ammunition, grenades and plastic explosives below decks, the crew of five or six lived on the open deck.
Neutral Turkey allowed Allied craft carrying stores and personnel through its waters; however, caïque skippers carried an emergency supply of gold sovereigns to “divert” local officials’ attention away from their cargoes.
(2) The Levant Schooner Flotilla was formed in 1942 and operated until 1945. Its task was transporting SBS, LRDG, and Greek Sacred Squadron raiding parties in and out of enemy territory, in total secrecy, under cover of darkness. During the day caïques laid up under camouflage netting to avoid aerial patrols. Night time operations required a high level of navigational skill and seamanship, and volunteers from all three British armed services, mostly Royal Navy, crewed the caïques.
Ladd, James – 1978. Commandos and Rangers of World War II. St. Martin’s Press.
Messenger, Charles – 1985. The Commandos 1940-1946. William Kimber.
Parker, John – 2000. Commandos. Headline Book Publishing.
Thompson, Julian – 1998. The Imperial War Book of War behind Enemy Lines. Sidgwick & Jackson.
1943 Beautiful Italian Fleet is Back from Malta
When Roosevelt, Churchill and their military staffs met at Casablanca for a war planning conference (Symbol) in mid-January 1943 they did so believing that a dramatic change had recently taken place in the fortunes of those involved in the global struggle for supremacy. It was not hard to detect that the operational momentum in virtually every theatre of the war had begun swinging from what had been an assertive Axis presence – and in many a dominant position – to one that had the Allies beginning to dictate the pace of the encounters, taking the bold initiatives, or responding far more adequately to Axis interventions than they had been able to do in the past. It was a strange and comforting reality and it led them to think of a time when the Axis threat would not just be contained but actually beaten. At sea and in amphibious operations either ongoing or recently concluded, the sense that the Allies were in the ascendancy could hardly be denied. Their resurgence was one thing, but victory was still a long way off. None of the principal enemy combatants had yet been forced out of the war and enormous problems thrown up by their continued participation in this unremittingly dour conflict still had to be overcome. Casablanca was no more than an opportunity, therefore, for both the American and British leaders and their planning staffs to revise their grand strategy for the year ahead preserving the `Europe First’ principle, but not at the risk of ignoring the war in the Pacific; agreeing upon a concerted campaign to beat the U-boats in 1943 in order to safeguard their supply chain; allowing the invasion of Sicily to take place after the conquest of Tunisia and before the launching of any `Second Front’ invasion of northern France; and planning for the re-conquest of Burma as a step on the road to the relief of the Chinese. It was apparent to everyone present that all of these plans to wear down their enemies were going to take time to mature. As such, Casablanca represented a compromise between what the American and the British service chiefs wanted. Each gained some, but by no means all, of what they wanted out of the eleven-day conference. A general outline was set for the year and an ultimate goal – the unconditional surrender of Germany – but few, if any, present at this gathering were under any illusions about the enormity of the task still before them. Peace was, therefore, unlikely to return to the world any time soon.
As Casablanca had shown, the British remained wedded to knocking the weakest link out of the Axis chain and committed to a furtherance of the campaign in the Mediterranean to bring this about. Unfortunately, the Eighth Army’s success at El Alamein in November 1942 had not led on to the immediate seizure of Tunisia and the sweeping away of Rommel’s Panzerarmee from North Africa. It was clear to all concerned that no attack on any part of Italy could be countenanced until Rommel had been finally defeated and if Bernard Montgomery was to be believed that operation couldn’t even begin in earnest until he had consolidated his own forces in their Libyan redoubt. While Montgomery took stock of the situation and gathered his reinforcements, Rommel made a series of strategic retreats westward to avoid encirclement and defeat and looked to fall back upon an improved military position in Tunisia itself. Ultimate defeat was never really in doubt given the Torch landings on 8 November, but Rommel’s main task was to try to stall the Allied advance for as long as possible. In this way, the Allies would have to delay their invasion of Europe until later in the year – and the later that took place the better it would be from an Axis perspective – as the weather could be relied upon to deteriorate during the autumn and early winter making the whole undertaking much more problematic than it would be if it were undertaken during the height of summer.
As a result, both sides sought to reinforce their positions and disrupt the supply effort for the enemy. Axis attacks on Allied shipping in Algerian waters by a mixed combination of submarines, MTBs and Ju-87s continued in January with the destruction of ten vessels and the damaging of nine more, for the loss of an Italian submarine and a solitary U-boat. For their part, the Allies began the year with an adventurous Latin flourish – sending in a team of specialists on two-man submersibles (`Chariots’) to penetrate the harbour at Palermo and attach limpet mines to some of the Italian ships anchored there. It would be fair to admit that only modest, rather than stunning, success greeted these daring activities. A far more effective response at jolting the Italian psyche was administered by Force K and the British submarines from Malta which hounded the Italian convoys that were still sailing defiantly to and from Tripoli with supplies for Rommel’s retreating forces. Over the course of a fortnight they combined to sink a total of over thirty vessels on this route ranging from steamers and minesweepers to sailing vessels and submarines before Tripoli was finally evacuated on 23 January. Thereafter, a collection of forty-eight Italian destroyers, torpedo boats and corvettes were employed in escorting convoys of retreating Panzerarmee troops from Zuara (Zuwa – rah) and bringing reserve troops to Tunis and Bizerte, as well as evacuating the wounded and the POWs to the island of Marettimo off the coast of Sicily. While their assistance undoubtedly helped the Axis cause, they were unable to stop the Allies from engaging in a continued wave of destruction against this shipping.
While the Atlantic had taken most of Dönitz’s attention in the first quarter of 1943, the situation in the Mediterranean could not be totally ignored even though it was more in the nature of a holding operation rather than a progressive theatre-changing undertaking. After all, the Allies were in North Africa to stay and there was nothing now that Rommel and the Panzerarmee could do about it. They could delay the inevitable by attacking the Allied supply network by submarine and aircraft, but they couldn’t reverse the process as they had been able to do in 1941. Moreover, when these attacks were resorted to in February and March 1943 a low average level of destruction was actually achieved by the Axis forces at an unacceptably high attrition rate. In truth, whatever was thrown at it by the enemy, the British `Inshore Squadron’ largely prevailed, landing 115,137 tons of supplies for the Eighth Army during the month of February alone.
Far more effort was devoted by the Italians to supplying reinforcements for the German and Italian troops that had been forced to retreat from Tripolitania into Tunisia in late January leaving much of their supplies behind them. In order to shore up their position and delay the moment when the Allies could clear North Africa of Axis troops, a series of troop and supply convoys sailed from Sicily to Tunis and Bizerte over the next three months escorted by Italian destroyers, torpedo boats and on occasion by a German submarine-chasing flotilla. All kinds of efforts were made by the Allies from the outset to destroy these convoys, but while a mixture of bombs, mines and torpedoes destroyed forty-nine vessels of various kinds, they were quite unable to put a stop to these sailings. From the Allied perspective, however, once their nemesis, Rommel, had been replaced at the head of the Afrika Korps and had flown out of Sfax for Rome on 9 March, victory was never in doubt. It remained no longer a question of if but purely of when. Even so, it would take another two months to the day for the Allied armies to secure their hard earned victory in Tunisia.
Rommel had left Tunisia in early March. His departure had been taken as a sign that the game was almost up for the Axis forces in North Africa. It soon was. In the Mediterranean the last rites of the Tunisian campaign had been observed from late April onwards with a series of crushing attacks by Allied aircraft and destroyers on the Italian supply convoys. Most of the vessels engaged in making these trips from Sicily to Tunis and Bizerte (a mix of destroyers, torpedo boats and transports) never made it beyond Cape Bon and once an Allied naval blockade had been established by a network of destroyers from Malta and Bone on 7 May, any spectre of replenishment from the Italian mainland was at an end.
Feeling both elation and relief, Churchill, his COS and their planning staffs left for Washington to attend the ninth Anglo-American staff conference. Designated Trident, the conference opened on 12 May and lasted nearly a fortnight. As one might expect, the strategic blueprint thrashed out at the Symbol conference in January was subject to detailed discussion in the light of the latest developments in the war. Churchill led from the front as usual and informed his American hosts that his interpretation of the `Europe First’ commitment was influenced by his genuine belief that the best way to deliver the `Second Front’ against Germany in 1944 was to knock Italy out of the war in 1943.
For him, therefore, Operation Husky (the invasion of Sicily) should not be an end in itself but the springboard for a major attack on the Italian mainland to exploit what he believed was the soft underbelly of the Axis. His proposals, though eloquently presented, failed to convince the American representatives in the audience. They had seen how dislocative the Torch offensive had been both in terms of the diversion of resources from the build up of US forces in the United Kingdom (Bolero) and in the time spent on clearing the Axis troops out of North Africa. This experience had illustrated the problems of investing scarce resources in a subordinate theatre of war. For them the prime focus of the war and the grand strategic vision they remained committed to was the launching of a cross- Channel attack on Germany at the earliest opportunity. They were, therefore, very wary about becoming sucked into a full-scale Italian campaign and other Mediterranean-related adventures, such as an Aegean campaign, which might well end up in retarding rather than advancing the cause of the `Second Front’. After a series of increasingly acrimonious discussions, an eventual compromise strategy was thrashed out that owed much to the influence exerted by General George C. Marshall within the CCOS. This allowed Eisenhower, the Supreme Allied Commander, to do more than merely wrest Sicily from the grasp of the Italians. At this stage, however, it was not known whether the invasion of the mainland would prove to be the springboard that Churchill had envisaged or become an uncomfortable sofa from which all movement was slow and painful. Time would prove that the latter metaphor was far more appropriate than the optimistic notion engendered by the former.
Nineteen mostly British submarines were prowling the Mediterranean, the southern Adriatic and the Aegean. While their tonnage yield was not comparable to the rich harvest once enjoyed by Dönitz’s crews in their `Happy Time’ in the Atlantic, it reflected a larger reality – a growing sense of Allied naval superiority throughout this theatre that could not be denied. This impression was reinforced by a series of heavy air attacks carried out on the Italian naval bases in Sardinia (La Maddalena) and in Sicily (Cagliari) in April and May. Unlike the futility of their repeated bombing campaign against the U-boat bases on the French Atlantic coast, these massed Allied air attacks actually caused some harm to something other than the buildings and infrastructure of the ports and the cities that supported them.
These results encouraged the Allies to pursue the aerial option in preparation for their attack on Pantelleria, the island fortress situated off the northeast coast of Tunisia which had once posed a real military threat to the safety of the Mediterranean convoys and to Malta itself. While no longer cast in that role, the Italian military forces on Pantelleria still needed to be cleared out of the way (Operation Corkscrew) before any concerted attempt was made to invade Sicily (Operation Husky). As was usual in these matters, the island was subject to severe bombardment before any amphibious operation was mounted. Apart from an opening burst administered on the night of 12-13 May by the light cruiser Orion, and five other occasions when a varying combination of light cruisers and destroyers shelled Pantelleria from 31 May to 8 June, Allied aircraft did most of the damage by flying 5,285 sorties over the island and dropping a total of 6,200 bombs on those parts of it that were thought to be of any further military value to the Italians. Once the enemy troops had been softened up by this firestorm, Rear-Admiral Rhoderick McGrigor, on board the Headquarters ship Largs, landed the 1st British Division during the night of 10-11 June. Allied Commander-in-Chief General Dwight D. Eisenhower witnessed the uncontested invasion from the bridge of the light cruiser Aurora and was on hand a few hours later to see Rear-Admiral Gino Pavesi, the Italian C-in-C, surrender Pantelleria to the Allies without any further loss of blood.