British Special Operations

Special Boat Service (SBS)

The Special Boat Service (SBS) is the British Royal Navy’s special forces unit. The service’s motto is “By Strength and Guile”. It forms part of the United Kingdom Special Forces, alongside the Special Air Service (SAS) and the Special Reconnaissance Regiment (SRR).

The SBS is an independent unit of the Royal Marines and is based with 1 Assault Group Royal Marines and the British Army’s 148 Commando Forward Observation Battery in Royal Marines Poole, in Poole, Dorset.


To be eligible for SBS selection, a candidate must have at least two years regular service. Formerly candidates were from the Royal Marines or the Royal Navy, but now volunteers are taken from any arm of the services. In order to qualify as a Swimmer Canoeist, Candidates must first undergo Special Forces Selection with the SAS before continuing to SBS selection.

There is also an SBS Reserve (SBS(R)), and candidates must have previous military experience or have served at least two years in the Royal Marines Reserve before attending a Specialist course and gaining the specialist qualification of swimmer canoeist. SBS(R) provides individual reservists to serve with the regular SBS rather than forming independent teams.


The SBS’s role is not confined to seaborne and maritime operations; their responsibilities do not end at the tide line. The SBS usually provides the special forces element of 3 Commando Brigade Royal Marines and is responsible for Maritime Counter-Terrorism operations, including the protection of oil rigs and vessels at sea.

It also has the responsibility for conducting coastal reconnaissance before amphibious operations. This involves conducting hydrographic surveys (surveying beaches and coastal waters to determine their suitability for amphibious landings) and landing small teams ashore covertly, to conduct reconnaissance patrols or set up coast-watch observation posts; as the SBS and Boat Troops of the SAS did in the Falklands war in 1982.


Qualification as an SBS Swimmer Canoeist involves an extensive training course, building on the skills gained during SF Selection at Hereford. Training includes:

-Diving both closed and open circuit – candidates swim underwater for miles in poor visibility completing complex navigational tasks and employment exercises

-Parachuting both HALO and HAHO


-Infiltration of ships, in harbour and whilst under way, and oil platforms

-Canoeing – Use of the Klepper canoe during selection is extensive

-Further survival training in the wilds of Scotland

-Beach reconnaissance including photography

-Maritime Counter-Terrorism activities

Those who pass the selection course qualify as a Swimmer Canoeist (SC3) and are then probationers.

Being trained as parachutists, SBS marines are distinguishable by wearing the Special Forces Parachute badge on the shoulder of the right sleeve on their uniforms.


The SBS is thought to have a complement of around 100 “Swimmer Canoeists” at any one time. These are split into four operational squadrons and the training wing which conducts selection and continuation training.

C and X squadrons rotate through three specialist roles.

M squadron is the maritime counter-terrorism and shipboard operations unit. Within M-Squadron is the Black Group, the counter-terrorism team that uses helicopter-borne assaults.

Z squadron takes care of small watercraft and mini sub insertions.

Personnel have previously been required to return to the main Commando force after the first three year tour, potentially returning again after a short period, it is thought that this requirement has been relaxed with some personnel remaining with the service as required.


1941: The Special Air Service was formed in World War II during the north African conflict. The SAS later formed a unit comprising eight-man sections of divers and canoeists to reconnoiter enemy fortifications from land or sea, raid enemy ports, and conduct sabotage operations against merchant shipping. Originally this unit was named the Special Boat Section to fool German radio operators listening in on British military communications. It was assumed that Wehrmacht operators would have little interest in a “Special Boat Section” when there was so much else going on.

1942 April: The British Royal Navy formed a frogman and manned torpedo unit called “Experimental Submarine Flotilla”: see British commando frogmen for more about them and their deeds in 1942 to 1945.

1946: The SBS became part of the Royal Marines. It became part of the School of Combined Operations under the command of Blondie Hasler.

1951: Another two squadrons were formed from British troops in West Germany. Two volunteer squadrons were later added. Their first missions were in Palestine (ordnance removal) and in Haifa (limpet mine removal from ships).

1950-1953: In the Korean War the SBS were in action along the North Korean coast. They gathered intelligence and destroyed railways and installations. The SBS operated first from submarines, and later from islands off Wonsan, behind enemy lines. They used two-man canoes and motorised inflatable boats.

1952: SBS teams were held at combat readiness in Egypt in case Gamal Abdal Nasser’s coup turned more violent than it did.

1956: The SBS were alerted during the Suez Crisis, but did not see action.

1969 September: The SBS were alerted during a coup against king Idris I of Libya, but did not see action. Similar situations followed.

1961: SBS teams carried out reconnaissance missions during the Indonesian Confrontation.

1961: The SBS primarily gathered intelligence and trained other special forces during the Vietnam War.

1961: Iraq threatened to invade Kuwait for the first time, so the SBS put a detachment at Bahrain. later: The SBS was stationed in Gibraltar, where they gathered intelligence in case Franco’s Spain decided to invade.

The SBS were involved in anti-drug operations in the Caribbean.

1972: The SAS and SBS came into the spotlight for a moment during their involvement with a bomb threat (which later proved to be a hoax) onboard the Cunard liner RMS Queen Elizabeth II, in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.

1977: The SBS changed its name to Special Boat Squadron.

1979: 5 SBS became part of the Comacchio Company, which protected North Sea oil rigs.

1980: SBS members played a part in the 1980 Iranian Embassy Siege.

1982 March-June: In the Falklands War, 2 SBS took part in the liberation of South Georgia and 6 SBS reconnoitered in East Falkland. Their only losses were to friendly fire from the SAS.

1987: The SBS became part of the UK Special Forces group alongside the Special Air Service and 14 Intelligence Company.

1987: The SBS changed its name to Special Boat Service and was brought under the command of the Director of Special Forces.

1991: During the Gulf War, the SBS made raids on the Kuwaiti coast to draw Iraqi troops away from the land attack. The liberation of the British embassy in Kuwait was one of their most high-profile operations.

1999 or later: The SBS were involved in operations in East Timor.

2001 October: The SBS took part in the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, where they secured Bagram Airbase.

2003: The SBS took part in the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

2005 March 14: The commanding officer of the SBS was killed in a training accident in Norway.

2006 June 27: One SBS Marine and one seconded Parachute Regiment officer were killed and one seriously injured in a Taliban ambush in Helmand province, southern Afghanistan.

Throughout the Cold War, the SBS was organized to perform a “conventional ” special forces role for the 3 Commando Brigade Royal Marines. However, in recent decades the SBS’s role has become more and more devoted to counter-terrorist operations.


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