Key Point: The Special Boat Service has a controversial history, but it conducted some of the most daring operations of World War II.
“We were to be terrorists. Our job was to terrorize the Germans,” one former member said dramatically. Another more prosaically likened it to poaching: “Creep in, set the traps, hang about, collect the spoils, and get away without being caught.”
Both descriptions were equally appropriate in describing one of the least known special forces units of World War II. Although British, it owed its origin, ironically, to the Germans. They had designed a collapsible sporting canoe, effective for both shallow water and deep, rougher seas, called a Folbot. A British officer, Major Roger Courtney, discovered it paddling the length of the Danube on his honeymoon, and he went on to organize a unit of the craft to raid Mediterranean ports. It caught the eye of the legendary founder of the Special Air Service, Colonel David Stirling, and he brought it into the SAS as its Folboat Section.
The Folboat Section “carried out many brilliant operations,” according to Stirling, none more so than during the run-up to Operation Torch, the Allied landings in North Africa in November 1942.
It landed General Mark Clark on an Algerian beach for his critical meeting with Vichy French officers, smuggled French General Henri Giraud out of occupied France, laid marker guides for the landings, and raided Oran Harbor. After Stirling’s capture, the SAS was broken up. The Folboat Section was established as its own independent unit, the Special Boat Squadron, later the Special Boat Service (SBS), on March 17, 1943. Its first commander was 24-year-old Lt. Col. George, 2nd Earl Jellicoe, son of the World War I Admiral John Jellicoe, who commanded the Royal Navy forces during the pivotal Battle of Jutland.
Jellicoe organized and trained the SBS at a base at Haifa, Palestine, with never more than 100 men under his command at any time. Starting with Folboats launched from submarines, the SBS moved up to caiques, Greek fishing schooners the SBS valued for their range, endurance, and the fact that there were too many of them in use for the Germans to attempt to search them all, and finally to fast motor launches.