“It was astonishing bravery – and cold-blooded bravery, too”: Saul David on the Special Boat Service
Saul David speaks to Rob Attar about his new authorised history of the Special Boat Service in the Second World War, explaining how the secretive maritime operations unit played a pivotal role in Allied victory
Rob Attar: Could we begin by discussing the genesis of this book? The story of how it came about is a little unusual.
Saul David: It’s very unusual. A couple of years ago I was contacted by my agent, who asked me if I would be interested in writing the authorised history of the Special Boat Service (SBS). And of course my initial reaction was: who wouldn’t? But the reason my agent asked me is that they also happened to represent Paddy Ashdown, who was a former member of the SBS and had been commissioned to write the book. Very sadly, Paddy died rather suddenly towards the end of 2018, before the book was finished. So the question was: what happens next? Does someone finish Paddy’s text or write a new version?
My agent approached me with both possibilities, and sent me the manuscript. It was very good but it was not what I would have written. Paddy came from the perspective of a practitioner – he was very close to the unit. His writing was very emotive, whereas I’ve always tried to keep an objective distance, as any historian does. Having read his early chapters, I decided it would make more sense to start from scratch. So we agreed that I would write the book in my own way, but would give due acknowledgement to Paddy in terms of the genesis.
This is an authorised history of a secretive organisation. How much access did you get? Were any aspects off limits?
They weren’t, actually. If there was a problem at all it was that the archives could have been fuller. One thing about a secret organisation is that it doesn’t encourage its members to keep first-hand accounts – certainly not at the time. Writing diaries and even letters during operations is considered a bit of a no-no. But, as far as the unit was concerned, and in terms of access to its archives down in Poole, I was given carte blanche to see everything.
The other important thing is that I decided what to put in the book. There was no “You can’t put that in” from the SBS’s perspective. Even so, I did get good access to documents and also to people, which was invaluable because it helped me understand where the unit is today and how it takes its bloodline from the Second World War very seriously.
Saul David will be talking about SBS: Silent Warriors in a virtual HistoryExtra LIVE event on Thursday 21 October, at 7pm BST.
A basic but important question: what exactly is the SBS?
Today it’s known as the Special Boat Service. In the Second World War, it went by a number of different names. If we go back to the beginning, a key player in the story was Roger “Jumbo” Courtney, recognised today by the SBS as the father of the unit. He’s the one who, towards the end of 1940, created the first maritime special operations unit, known as the Folbot Troop. (Folbots are folding canoes, which are incredibly useful for special operations because they allow you to move very low to the water and stealthily into your objective.) Gradually, as the war developed, not only was the SBS created, but also sister organisations: the COPPists [Combined Operations Pilotage Parties] and, later, the RMBPD [Royal Marines Boom Patrol Detachment].
Why was the SBS needed in the Second World War?
It came directly out of the Army Commandos, so we have to first explain why they were needed. If you think about the situation in June 1940, Britain was really in a hole. We’d been chased off the continent, so how on Earth were we going to stop the Germans from dominating Europe on the one hand and invading the UK on the other?
Churchill, being the pugnacious and rather optimistic character he was, quickly came to the understanding that we needed a force to strike back. Even if it wasn’t going to achieve huge material damage, it would be a major psychological and PR success if we could show that we were still taking the fight to the enemy. So he came up with this idea of Army Commandos – this huge force of raiders who you could land on the coast anywhere around Europe. One of them was “Jumbo” Courtney, who thought: “OK, we can land in big groups and we can do a lot of damage, but we can also land in small groups – really small groups.” Because if you think about it, a canoe has at most two people in it. And those canoes would enable people to get in and get out almost unseen. He believed that, even with a small number of people, you could create an awful lot of havoc.
What kind of men joined the SBS?
The type of person Courtney was looking for then is very much the type of person the SBS recruits today. You want unshowy, determined problem-solvers. They’re not big, muscular, shouty, punching types; rather, they are the type of people you wouldn’t notice in a crowd, but they have a very particular skill set. They are very self-disciplined.
Listen: Saul David discusses his new history of the Special Boat Service – a daring maritime unit that played a crucial role in Allied victory in WW2:
When was the SBS first properly tested?
The unit was formed towards the end of 1940 and, a few months later, it was taken out into the Mediterranean with the rest of 8th Commando. Courtney was looking around for opportunities, and he came across a man called Nigel Willmott. Now, Willmott is the second of the three key figures in the story of the SBS. Having been a veteran of the Narvik Operation in Norway, he always realised the importance of beach reconnaissance. In the early days, Courtney was thinking of SBS soldiers as saboteurs – as people who were going to cause havoc on a coastline. But Willmott was of the opinion that you go in quietly, you get information and then you leave. He told Courtney what he was planning and that he’d been given the job of getting as much information as possible about the beaches on Rhodes, because a big operation was planned to land there. And Courtney said: “I think we can do it with canoes.”
So the first operation, in the spring of 1941, was carried out by Courtney and Willmott, these two giants of the story. They accomplished the mission, though it was daredevil stuff. Courtney almost drowned, they almost got bumped by German sentries, but they came back with this amazing cache of material that allowed the British to begin to prepare the invasion. Now, as it happened, the invasion never took place, but that didn’t matter – it was proof of concept. They could now use canoes launched off submarines – and, of course, submarines could get anywhere in the world.
Operation Frankton must be the most dramatic episode in the story of the SBS. What happened there?
I’d better say a word first about the leader of the operation, Herbert “Blondie” Hasler, the third of the giants in the story. He was a regular Royal Marine who was very fit, very determined and very single-minded. Hasler was interested in blowing up ships in harbour, and in mid-1942 he was given the go-ahead to create the RMBPD. It was effectively a cover name for a secret Royal Marine commando unit whose job was to destroy shipping.
Frankton was an unbelievably optimistic operation. They were going to drop off six canoes, each manned by two people, at the entrance to the Gironde estuary [near Bordeaux, then in occupied France]. They would then paddle, over a period of three days in December 1942, 60 miles up the estuary, deep into enemy territory. And when they got to Bordeaux harbour they would sink some fast merchant ships that had been moving vital supplies back and forth between Axis ports.
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Only five pairs of men started the mission from the submarine, about five miles off the coast, because one of the canoes got damaged. And only two got all the way to Bordeaux. The fate of the others didn’t become known until after the operation: two of those canoes had overturned, and another pair were captured on their way in.
So just two pairs reached Bordeaux. When it got dark, they began their attack. It was an incredibly dangerous operation: they were almost spotted on a number of occasions, and there were moments when they almost gave the game away – but they didn’t, and they managed to put limpet mines on five ships. And then they began their exfiltration.
This was where things got particularly tricky, because they had to escape through occupied France into Spain. Given that very few of the men could speak foreign languages, there was little chance of success. And so it proved: of the two crews who carried out the operation, only Hasler and his canoeist, Bill Sparks, after more amazing drama, managed to get to Spain.
Does this highlight just how dangerous SBS missions were?
It was arguably one of the most dangerous things to do in the Second World War. Just imagine being on one of these canoes, one of two men heading to lonely shores to carry out missions, with no backup and hardly any firepower. And, from October 1942 [following Adolf Hitler’s Commando Order], they faced the likelihood that if they were caught, they would be executed – which is exactly what happened to six of Hasler’s men.
Yet I haven’t found a single instance, all the way through the Second World War, in which someone said: “Do you know what? I’m not doing it.” It was astonishing bravery – and cold-blooded bravery, too. There was rarely a big firefight; you were just moving slowly into a coast.
The beach reconnaissance aspect came to the fore in the invasions of Sicily and Normandy. What was the role of the SBS in those two operations?
This was really the job of the COPPists. By the end of 1942, Nigel Willmott was given authorisation to create a dedicated unit that would be involved in beach reconnaissance. He’d argued that we needed proper information about what was on the beaches, the exits, the firmness of the beaches, and of course the gradients leading into the beaches and any defences that were there.
So they created this amazing unit, COPP. Within COPP there were navigators like Willmott, but also SBS-trained engineers who would go in and get all the military information from the beaches. It was an all-purpose unit that began to prove its worth in Sicily, which was its first deployment.
Though the invasion of Sicily took place in July 1943, the COPPists had been on the coast as early as March. They need to be doing this work months in advance and, though a lot of them were lost in the early operations – they drowned, they were captured, they were killed in firefights – there was very much a sense that it worked. If it was done properly, it could get the information to guarantee, as far as possible, that the huge landings planned for D-Day would succeed.
How much did the SBS shape the planning for D-Day?
This would be the greatest amphibious invasion in history, so the Allies needed to know that those beaches were firm enough to take all the wheeled transport and tanks that would be rolling over them within hours of the first troops landing. So the first and most crucial job given to the COPPists was to land on a couple of those beaches – the ones at the intersection between Juno and Gold, where the Canadian and British soldiers were going to land – and find out whether the beaches were firm enough. There was a suspicion they might not be, and until they knew for sure, all planning was on hold.
Willmott picked two of his best people – Major Logan Scott-Bowden and Sergeant Bruce Ogden-Smith – to swim into the heavily guarded beaches of Normandy and gather information during the night of New Year’s Eve 1943. They did a pretty good survey of the beaches and their defences, and obtained the most important information of all: that those beaches would hold the wheeled traffic.
A month later, they carried out a second beach reconnaissance surveying the defences at Omaha. There they got crucial information about the sophistication of the German defences.
As well as gathering information in advance, COPP also guided in the forces during the actual landings, both as pilots on the landing craft and also, even more importantly, using Midget submarines to put up markers to show the landing craft the right way to go.
On D-Day itself, in places where they used these Midget submarines – that is, in the Canadian and British sectors – everyone got to the right place and landed properly. But the carnage on Omaha, in my view and in the view of the SBS at the time, was partly the result of the Americans not trusting the SBS to put up markers prior to the arrival of their landing craft. The result of this, combined with the bad weather and strong tides, was that enormous numbers of American troops at Omaha landed at the wrong place.
The carnage on Omaha, in my view and in the view of the SBS, was partly the result of the Americans not trusting the SBS to put up markers prior to the arrival of their landing craft
The Americans were worried that these markers would give the game away, which of course was a very serious danger. But there was a calculation among the British in their planning for D-Day that it was better to get to the right place and risk the chance of the operation being discovered. And they were proved right.
Overall, how important was the SBS to the Allied war effort?
It is a hugely underestimated contribution that made a real difference in a number of ways. In a psychological sense, it really gave the British a chance to strike back, from the earliest days. These operations were happening all the time, and they were heavily publicised: if there was a major success, you can be damn sure people were told about it. And there was also the material effect they had, particularly in the Mediterranean, where a lot of railways and coastal infrastructure was destroyed.
But the single most important contribution was the beach reconnaissance, because it had a major impact on all the big landings – Sicily, Italy, Normandy – and also in the far east. If there’s one thing I hope my book does, it’s to give due recognition, particularly to the COPPists but to all those who come under the broader SBS banner, for the contribution they made, which has not been properly recognised up to now.
That’s an interesting point – because an equivalent service, the SAS, is very well known today. Why do you think the SBS seems to have lived in that unit’s shadow?
It’s partly because of the ways they operated. There’s this great comparison between the SAS and the SBS, then and now: the SAS likes to burst in through the front door, making a lot of noise, whereas the SBS comes in the back door – stealthily, and leaving without being known. I think the sort of people who go into a unit like that are the sort of people who don’t like shouting about their achievements. They didn’t in the Second World War, they didn’t after the war, and arguably they still don’t even today.
I think one of the reasons this book has been authorised is because the SBS certainly does want its history to be acknowledged. It’s been long enough now. They want to be recognised for what they did then, and I think there’s a sense that there will be a bit of reflected glory for what they do now.
Saul David is a historian, broadcaster and author of several acclaimed works of fiction and non-fiction, including Crucible of Hell: Okinawa. The Last Great Battle of the Second World War (William Collins, 2020) and Operation Thunderbolt (Hodder & Stoughton, 2015)
This article was first published in the October 2021 issue of BBC History Magazine
Saul David is a historian, broadcaster and author of several acclaimed works of fiction and non-fiction, including SBS Silent Warriors: The Authorised Wartime History (William Collins, 2021)