In Depth

Meet the SBS: one man strangled nine Germans with his bare hands

Like the SAS, the tough-as-nails Royal Marines section dates back to Winston Churchill's day

Special Boat Service

RIGHTLY or wrongly, the reputation of the Special Boat Service has suffered as a result of the failed operation to rescue British hostage Christopher McManus and his Italian colleague Franco Lamolinara from the hands of their Nigerian captors.

Until more details of the raid are released it's impossible to state with any certainty what went wrong.

One thing that is certain, however, is that the Special Air Service won't have too much sympathy for their sister regiment, whose men they refer to disparagingly as the 'Val Doonicans' on account of the white polo-neck sweaters they sport.

The SAS recruit from the Army, the SBS predominantly from the Royal Marine Commandos, with each regiment believing itself to be the best.

It has been asked why the SBS, who specialise in amphibious operations, were used in Nigeria and not the SAS. The answer, as The Daily Telegraph explains, is that it was the SBS's turn as the current 'Stand-By Squadron' for counter-terrorism.

This post is rotated through the four SAS and four SBS squadrons every six months. In any case, the SBS and SAS are trained to the same high standards, as they have been since the early days of their existence in World War Two.

Both the SAS and SBS sprang from No 8 Commando, a unit established in the summer of 1940 on the  instructions of Prime Minister Winston Churchill. While No 8 Commando achieved little before its disbandment in 1941, it inspired Roger Courtney to form the Special Boat Section (as it was first called) and David Stirling the Special Air Service.

The SBS used canoes in their training, the SAS parachutes. It was the former who struck first when two of their number landed on the Italian coast in June 1941 and blew up a munitions train. Five months later the SAS launched their first operation, dropping by parachute into the Libyan desert to raid German airfields. The mission was a disaster with only 21 of the 55 soldiers returning, and Stirling had to deploy all his ingenuity to ensure the unit's survival in the following months.

In 1942, following Courtney's return to the UK, the SBS was attached to the SAS under the command of Stirling. For a few months they operated in tandem but, when Stirling was captured in January 1943, the SBS once again become a separate entity under the command of Lord George Jellicoe and was renamed the Special Boat Squadron.

Its first operation on Crete in June 1943 was a stunning success: 30 SBS soldiers landed by submarine on the German-held island, marched 60 miles north over rugged terrain and blew up fuel dumps and aircraft.

A week later another SBS operation, this one on Sardinia, ended in disaster when the raiders were betrayed to the Italians by their American interpreter.

At around the same time, on the Mediterranean island of Lampedusa, an SAS detachment was also experiencing failure. One of the men on that raid, Captain Tony Greville-Bell, told me years later: "SAS operations never go according to plan, I can't remember one that ever did. But you have to sort of make up ways to get round that."

The SBS officer most effective at making up ways to circumvent operational setbacks was Anders Lassen, a Dane who throughout 1944 led SBS raiding parties (above) against the German-held islands of the Dodecanese. One of the men who served under Lassen was Doug Wright who, according to his 2008 obituary in The Daily Telegraph, "strangled nine Germans with his bare hands" during the war.

When I interviewed Wright in 2002 he remembered: "There was a lot of killing in the Dodecanese. Sometimes we'd bring one [a German] back for interrogation but mostly we'd just kill them. We didn't really have much respect for them." Such was the sustained ferocity of the SBS attacks in the Dodecanese that the Germans were forced to garrison the islands with an additional 4,000 troops in early 1944, men that were desperately needed in France and in Russia.

Anders Lassen was killed leading an SBS attack in northern Italy in April 1945 and for his gallantry he was awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross, the only occasion that the medal has been bestowed on a member of the British special forces.

Within weeks of Lassen's death the war in Europe was over and the SBS was disbanded, to be reformed post-war and renamed the Special Boat Service.

The failure to rescue the two hostages in Nigeria will hurt David Cameron more than it will the SBS, who according to The Times were unable to carefully pre-plan the operation because it "was launched in response to a perceived emergency". Nevertheless the SBS are reported to have killed or captured the kidnappers and suffered no casualties themselves.

What the SBS won't be able to escape, however, are the smirks from their SAS rivals.

Gavin Mortimer is the author of The SAS in World War II, published by Osprey, and the upcoming The SBS in World War II


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