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Special Boat Squadron

Page Created
March 17th, 2024
Last Updated
March 31st, 2024
Great Britain
British Flag
Additional Information
Order of Battle

Badge Special Boat Squadron
July 1940
September 1945
Theater of Operations
Middle East
Dodecanese and Cyclades Islands
Organisational History

Roger James Allen Courtney had a background as a professional hunter and gold prospector in East Africa during the interwar period, and later as a sergeant in the Palestine Police. One remarkable journey sees him navigating the Nile armed with nothing more than a sack of potatoes and an elephant spear.

It is this wealth of experience that leads Courtney to the realisation that small canoes could be pivotal for stealthy landings on enemy shores during wartime. This innovative military strategy first comes to him in the wake of Dunkirk, a moment that profoundly disrupts traditional military thought. In this new era, where unconventional warfare begins to gain traction, ideas such as the Independent Companies and Commandos are not just accepted but encouraged, paving the way for Courtney’s visionary use of canoes in combat operations.

Courtney, at the time a subaltern in No. 8 Commando, under Lieutenant-Colonel Robert Laycock, finds his enthusiasms encouraged to such an extent that over the ensuing months, approximately twenty officers and men, including Wilson and Hughes among the most fervent, devote numerous long, frigid, and gruelling hours to mastering their unruly vessels in the tempestuous waters surrounding the rocky shores of Arran. Their training also encompasses the use of every weapon left in the British arsenal after the disaster at Dunkirk, as well as those which President Roosevelt has managed to obtain from his reluctant service quartermasters, along with specialised instruction in demolitions. Consequently, six of them find themselves unexpectedly attached to No. 12 Commando during the initial raid on the Lofoten Islands in November 1940.

Following the fall of France, he puts his theory to the test before Admiral Sir Roger Keyes, then chief of the newly formed Combined Operations Command. The demonstration involves a challenge by this gentleman, who proposes that he can board the commando ship Glengyle unnoticed by night and depart, leaving unmistakable proof of his visit. Although initially dismissed by the Navy, they maintain strict vigilance.

To their surprise, the following morning reveals several crosses chalked along the hull, simulating limpet mines, and three Oerlikon covers and two breech-blocks missing. Meanwhile, to underscore his point, the intrepid gentleman, clad in bathing trunks, crashes unceremoniously into a high-level naval conference at the local hotel, attended by the Captain of the Glengyle, and tosses down her after-pom-pom cover.

Impressed yet cautious, the Admiral orders another test against the nearest submarine depot-ship. Once again, the gentleman and his companion manage to approach undetected and mark crosses around the hull. However, their attempt to climb a rope ladder ends abruptly when they are intercepted by the Master-at-Arms and two Marines with fixed bayonets, likely forewarned by the previous incident.

As a result of these exploits, the Admiral promptly instructs him to form the first special boat section comprising twelve men, initially known as the Folboat Troop. He is tasked with training them on the Isle of Arran in western Scotland. Here, they start an intensive training program.

At the beginning of the year 1941, General Wavell launches operations to eliminate the Italian Tenth Army from Cyrenaica, likened to a sweeping action over a vast area. This campaign fuels optimism in Whitehall and Cairo for a North African coast free of Axis control by Easter 1941. Consequently, the idea of attacking the Italian mainland or Sicily gains traction, with the capture of the strategically positioned island of Pantelleria identified as a beneficial operation for the newly formed assault units, offering a significant tactical advantage.

However, the development of events in Greece and the unexpected introduction of German panzer units in Tripolitania quickly put a stop to these plans. Yet, these changes also highlight new potential targets for specialist forces, with the Dodecanese Island of Rhodes emerging as a significant point of interest. In response to General Wavell’s requests, No. 7 Commando, No. 8 Commando, and No. 11 Commando, combined as Layforce under Brigadier Laycock, departs from Scotland on January 31st, 1941. The folboat section also attached to Layforce, leaves with the commandos for Cairo.

Middle East

Around mid-March, the troops arrive in the Suez area and immediately start intensive training on the Bitter Lakes, preparing for the Rhodes operation. However, a considerable time will pass before any of them set foot on the rocky, ruin-dotted island of Rhodes. Following British setbacks once Generalfeldmarschall List and his forces reach Athens and the Peloponnese, many of Layforce’s assault craft are destroyed. The initial reason for the Commando’s deployment in the Middle East becomes obscured by subsequent events. This leads to questions about the force’s continued relevance, beyond serving as a pool of reinforcements for more traditional military formations, causing the force to begin disintegrating.

As the force starts to fall apart, some members rejoin battalions from their original regiments already active in the theatre. Others are reassigned as reinforcements to units that have suffered heavy losses in recent battles. A few integrate into the newly established Middle East Commando, in response to Mr. Churchill’s decree that the Commando concept should not fade away in the theatre due to a lack of immediate use. Additionally, some are persuaded by a tall subaltern from the Scots Guards to join a “Private Army,” aimed at conducting raids on enemy supply lines and communications deep behind the front lines in the desert.

Roger Courtney, unwilling to remain idle and determined not to see his valuable folboats and their crews go to waste or be absorbed into potentially unsuitable units, seeks out and secures a meeting with Admiral Maund, the Director of Combined Operations in Alexandria. Admiral Maund is very receptive and willing to assist. Since submarines under his command regularly patrol off enemy coastlines to target hostile ships, he sees no reason why they can’t also transport one or two army experts. These experts could extend their attacks deeper into enemy ports and harbours or even onto enemy coastlines, further than the submarines could themselves.

1st Submarine Flotilla

By mid-1941, Courtney and No. 1 Special Boat Section find a new base on H.M.S. Medway, serving as the depot ship for the 1st Submarine Flotilla. They quickly embark on a range of assignments. Along the coasts of Albania and Crete, they are tasked with deploying agents, embark on perilous journeys inland. Several Special Boat Section members also acquired firsthand submarine experience, taking on roles as additional machine-gunners.

Operation Flipper

By early October 1941, six officers and fifty-three men from No 11 Commando assemble in the Canal Zone, under the leadership of Lieutenant-Colonel Geoffrey Keyes. They plan to strike at Italian and German headquarters in Cyrenaica, targeting Cyrene, Appollonia, and Beda Littoria. Although an initial objective includes General Rommel’s personal residence, this target is quickly abandoned. Despite this, media coverage later dubs the operation ‘The Rommel Raid’.

The Special Boat Section plays a crucial yet minor role in the operation. Their task is to ensure the landing beaches are secure for the main force, deploying from H.M. Submarine Torbay and H.M. Submarine Talisman in folboats. Despite horrendous weather complicating the landing, the Special Boat Section successfully completes their mission. Lieutenants Ingles and Allott, along with their teams, hide the commandos’ boats and then return to Torbay, waiting anxiously for news of the operation’s outcome.

The return to the beach is fraught with challenges due to the rough sea, resulting in a failed attempt to launch a folboat and a harrowing return to the submarine with only one paddle. Despite the operation’s limited success, the Special Boat Section’s efficiency in executing their role showcases the importance of perseverance and adaptability. Colonel Laycock, observing alongside Keyes, is one of the few to return safely, while Keyes is killed during the attack and posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross.

No. 2 Special Boat Section

In November 1941, Roger Courtney’s health starts to decline, leading him to return to the Great Britain where he quickly forms the core of what will become the No. 2 Special Boat Section. Major Courtney founds No. 2 Special Boat Section (2 SBS) on March 1st, 1942, integrating 101 Troop of No. 6 Commando, veterans of operations in Norway and reconnaissance missions along the French coast. Starting with forty-seven personnel, No. 2 Special Boat Section rapidly expands, with recruits undergoing a comprehensive 17-week training course, followed by parachute training. Those who completed training were awarded the green Commando beret and adorned with a “Commando SBS” shoulder title.

No. 2 Special Boat Section first operational engagement comes in Algeria in November 1942, although only a portion of the unit deploys for this mission. The rest remains in Great Britain, tasked with landing agents in France and performing reconnaissance missions. They play a pivotal role in assisting U.S. Major General Mark Clark during the preliminary phases of the Operation Torch landings in October 1942, as part of Operation Flagpole. Additionally, No. 2 Special Boat Section conducts reconnaissance and guided landing forces onto the beaches for Operation Torch, working closely with the Combined Operations Pilotage Parties (COPPs) under the codename Party Inhuman. Z Group, a sub-unit of No. 2 Special Boat Section continues to carry out raids and support the Combined Operations Pilotage Parties in North African theatre. Together they conduct beach reconnaissance for the Salerno landings and a raid on Crete.

No. 1 Special Boat Section

When Roger Courtney leaves in November 1941, he leaves behind a team consisting of fifteen officers and forty-five other ranks, led by Major M.R.B. Kealy. Tug Wilson leaves on what is supposed to be a temporary detachment, but he never rejoins the Special Boat Section, unlike Wally Hughes. Several other ranks are selected for officer commissions and leave for reassignment training. Their spots are rapidly filled, mostly by individuals who have served in Layforce and maintain contact with their ex-comrades. Among the newcomers are Lieutenants David Sutherland and Eric Newby from the Black Watch, and Captains “Tramp” Allott, Duncan, and Grant-Watson from various units. The No 2’s, also known as “half-portions” or “muckers”, now include Corporals Riley, Barr, Pomford, and Booth. These men and their folboats are constantly tasked with missions.

Submarines of the 1st Flotilla seldom leave Alexandria without Special Boat Section teams; these teams undertake a range of missions from deploying agents and scouting beaches for potential large-scale landings to sabotaging enemy vessels. Their actions increasingly vex the Kriegsmarine while garnering admiration from the Royal Navy, with submarine crews sharing their rum with the Special Boat Section men in recognition of their successful missions.

Moreover, the military, particularly David Stirling’s newly formed L Detachment, Special Air Service Brigade, begins to take note of the Special Boat Section’s capabilities. By the end of 1941, Stirling leads over one hundred operatives disrupting Axis supply lines and command structures. With the Eighth Army’s advance in January 1942, Stirling identifies a new target for sabotage in Buerat, necessitating expertise beyond his team’s.

Captain Duncan and Corporal Barr attempt to transport a folboat for an operation in Buerat, but the journey proves too harsh, damaging the boat beyond use. Regardless, they engage in land-based operations, effectively striking enemy resources. This showcase of the Special Boat Section’s adaptability on land catches Stirling’s eye, prompting a larger Special Boat Section involvement in further raids on Benghazi. These missions underscore the challenges of navigation and logistics, with Lieutenant Allott openly critiquing the steep learning curve involved. During this time, the No. 1 Special Boat Section starts working with Stirling’s L Detachment, Special Air Service Brigade. Together, they go on several missions in the Benghazi area and although unsuccessful they learn valuable lessons from it.

David Stirling, driven by expansive ambitions and unaffected by previous setbacks at Buerat and Benghazi, aims to integrate more closely with the No. 1 Special Boat Section and establish his own maritime section.

In May 1942, with Axis forces threatening Malta with a blockade, Cairo Headquarters proposes that Stirling’s L Detachment distract Luftwaffe attention with raids on airfields to aid a convoy to Malta. Despite the drain on resources targeting airfields in Benghazi, Derna, and Barce, No. 1 Special Boat Section agrees to attack three airfields on Crete. Though Stirling’s political maneuvering ensures his teams target the prime site at Heraklion with international operatives and Captain Lord Jellicoe’s guidance, much to some Special Boat Section officers’ chagrin.

Despite various challenges, including cultural tensions and logistical issues during their journey to Heraklion, Jellicoe’s team faces a treacherous approach and a demanding trek across Crete’s rugged terrain. Their operation observes numerous aircraft but faces setbacks, including an unexpected Royal Air Force raid complicating their mission. Despite these obstacles, they achieve significant sabotage at Kastelli, led by George Duncan, causing substantial enemy losses.

Concurrently, Stirling’s other teams face challenges of their own, including abandoned airfields and heavily guarded targets, underscoring the complexity of such raids. Jellicoe’s team’s return journey is fraught with danger, including betrayal and capture of part of the team, but ultimately, they make a successful escape, contributing to the overall impact of the raids, which include significant Axis losses.

A series of events drastically alters the Special Boat Sections impacting both team dynamics and target choices. Despite relatively few casualties up until this point, the following period sees inevitable hardships. In July 1942, George Duncan and Eric Newby’s capture in Sicily marks the start of a challenging phase. The following month, a Special Boat Section team attempting a raid near Alamein finds the mission compromised by the alertness of front-line German soldiers, leading to more captures, including highly skilled operatives Corporal Gurney and Mike Alexander.

Later in August, Sutherland, along with Tramp Allott and a team, sets out for Rhodes with the aim of disrupting Luftwaffe and Regia Aeronautica airfields. Embarking on His Hellenic Majesty’s Submarine Papanikolis, they face cramped conditions and the physical toll of submarine confinement. Landing under ideal conditions, they confront the reality of terrain and physical fatigue, significantly slowing their advance.

September 1942 witnesses a bold but costly operation along the Syrian coast. Initially, Tommy Langton, Eric Newby, and David Sutherland conduct reconnaissance of Syrian beaches, anticipating potential guerrilla warfare scenarios should Axis forces break through to the Persian Gulf. Though the immediate threat dissipates, the experience cultivates an interest in the Eastern Mediterranean.

Into the Special Air Service

In September 1942, General McCreery, Chief of Staff to General Harold Alexander, Commander-in-Chief of Middle East Command, writes to his superior regarding a small special forces unit active in North Africa. He praises the unit for its notable past successes and high morale, attributing much of this to the leadership of the current commander of L Detachment Special Air Service Brigade. McCreery suggests that L Detachment Special Air Service Brigade, the 1st Special Service Regiment, and the Special Boat Section be amalgamated under the command of Major D. Stirling, recommending his promotion to lieutenant-colonel.

General Alexander agrees with this proposal, and on September 28th, 1942, General Headquarters Middle East Forces issues an order promoting David Stirling to Lieutenant-Colonel, authorising him to expand his unit into a regiment. Stirling plans for the Special Air Service regiment to consist of five squadrons, A, B, C, D, and Headquarters. D Squadron being the former members of No. 1 Special Boat Section. The unit has a total establishment of 29 officers and 572 other ranks. He is immediately faced with the challenge of filling his expanding regiment with suitable personnel while also contributing to the Eighth Army’s upcoming offensive against Axis forces at El Alamein.

Stirling assigns his most experienced men from L Detachment to form A Squadron, led by the formidable Blair ‘Paddy’ Mayne. Their mission is to launch attacks on targets along the coast between Tobruk and the rear of the enemy front line. As A Squadron ventures into the desert to confront the Germans, Stirling heads back to the Special Air Service base at Kabrit, situated about 145 kilometres east of Cairo, to carry on with recruitment and oversee the training of the new soldiers. He must create his regiment from the units assigned to his new command.

First, there is, L Detachment, Special Sir Service Brigade. It transforms into the 1st Special Air Service Regiment in October 1942. It aims to comprise five squadrons with about fifty officers and 450 other ranks. At that time, the regiment hasn’t achieved full strength, having approximately forty officers and 350 other ranks. Stirling plans to supplement these numbers with members from the Middle East Commando. When Stirling takes command of the Middle East Commando around November 1942, he finds the unit to be of excellent quality but underutilised and poorly led. Initially consisting of about thirty officers and three hundred other ranks, Stirling’s plan is to disband the majority of the unit, retaining only ten officers and one hundred other ranks to bring the 1st Special Air Service Regiment up to its intended strength.

The French unit under his command is by January 1943, transformed into a French Special Air Service Squadron, expanded to fourteen officers and eighty other ranks. Stirling envisions this squadron as the core of a prospective French Special Air Service Regiment, envisaged to conduct operations in France in anticipation of, and during, the expected Second Front in Europe.

Besides the French towards the end of 1942, Stirling has assumed command of the Greek Sacred Company. His intention is to deploy the Greek Sacred Squadron for raiding operations in the Eastern Mediterranean, where their local expertise would be highly valuable.

Operating independently until August 1942, No. 1 Special Boat Section is known for numerous successful missions, Stirling’s intention is to incorporate them into the 1st Special Air Service Regiment as D Squadron, providing them with comprehensive Special Air Service training, including parachuting, in the meantime. They comprise about fifteen officers and forty other ranks.

One marginal unit under Stirling’s command Captain Buck’s Special Interrogation Group, ceases to exist due to recruitment challenges and casualties.

In January 1943, David Stirling instructs Sutherland of D Squadron to lead a detachment of 50 men to Beirut to train in seamanship and guerrilla warfare tactics. Initially, Sutherland resists, eager to join the Special Air Service in pushing the Germans out of North Africa. Stirling’s response is immediate and emphatic, highlighting the invaluable small boat operational experience possessed by the Special Boat Section.

Sutherland arrives in Beirut on the early morning of January 20th, 1943. Four days post Sutherland’s arrival, Stirling is captured, which precipitates Sutherland’s return to Kabrit. With Stirling captured, the Special Air Service finds itself without clear direction or leadership. Paddy Mayne, who is Stirling’s nominal successor, has an even more profound disdain for bureaucracy than Stirling, leaving the complex administrative tasks at Kabrit to the regiment’s adjutant, Captain Bill Blyth. Blyth now sits, surrounded by piles of files, facing the administrative challenges head-on, symbolising the Special Air Service’s momentary state of limbo.

Special Boat Squadron

Despite Stirling’s absence, Middle East Headquarters is actively deliberating over the future role of the Special Air Service. The Desert War is on the brink of conclusion, significantly reducing the need for the Special Air Service’s renowned hit-and-run raids as Axis forces retreat from North Africa. This situation leads Middle East Headquarters to consider how to effectively utilise the unique skill set of the Special Air Service moving forward. D Squadron remains occupied throughout February and early March, their future undecided. They undertake various training sessions, including courses at the British Parachute School in Ramat David, Palestine, practising canoeing, explosives laying, and participating in training exercises near the Cairo–Suez Road. One such exercise involves a mock attack on an Anglo-Egyptian oil refinery, though the men sense these activities are merely to keep them busy.

The resolution involves disbanding the regiment. The French Squadron is sent back to Great Britain to form two separate regiments. The Greek Sacred Company heads to Palestine to start gearing up for operations in the Mediterranean. The war diary indicates the Special Boat Squadron is actually formed on March 19th, 1943, On this day, the regiment restructures into two components. Four out of the five Special Air Service squadrons are merged to establish the Special Raiding Squadron under Paddy Mayne. The leftover D Squadron, a blend of new recruits and seasoned members from what Stirling had dubbed the Folboat Section, is rebranded as the Special Boat Squadron (SBS), under the leadership of Captain the Earl George Jellicoe. Jellicoe divides the squadron into three Squadrons, named after the commanders’ surnames. L Squadron led by Tommy Langton, M Squadron is commanded by Fitzroy Maclean and S Squadron by David Sutherland. Each squadron is divided into four patrols, comprising ten men, with at least one signaller allocated to each of the patrols.

The first elements of the newly formed Special Boat Squadron move to their new base at Athlit, south of Haifa, Palestine, on March 23rd, 1943. Athlit offers a picturesque setting with a crescent-shaped beach, a Crusader castle ruin, and the steep Carmel hills behind. The official inception date of the Special Boat Squadron is often quoted as April 1st, 1943. This date, possibly chosen for its alignment with April Fool’s Day, reflects the unit’s mischievous essence.

On April 13th, 1943, Fitzoy Maclean arrives from Persia with four officers and one hundred men. This changes the squadron’s dynamics. Maclean’s stringent approach to discipline contrasts with the more relaxed attitude of Jellicoe and Sutherland, affecting both the daily routines and the officers’ mess atmosphere. This period marks a significant development phase for the Special Boat Squadron, blending intense training with diverse leadership styles. By April 17th, 1943, the squadron, rapidly augmented with new recruits, grows to thirteen officers and 118 other ranks.

From the start, the training becomes more rigorous. Courses include, physical exercises, weapons training, boating, navigation, musketry, camouflage, demolition, map reading, hill climbing, parachute training and the pistol course in Jerusalem by notorious Leonard Hector Grant-Taylor. All these skills aim at identifying the strongest members.

During this period, there are frequent competitive matches with the Special Raiding Squadron and other units. Training resumes, amidst widespread hangovers. A signal that more intense activities loom is the dispatch of some Special Boat Squadron personnel to Beirut to test the new Davis submarine escape apparatus.

On May 4th, 1943, Captain Langton’s L Squadron sets off from Athlit towards Lake Tiberias, covering 72 kilometres across rough terrain. The men describe the march as horrible, noting the intensifying heat as they moved inland, lacking any sea breeze’s relief. The experience serves as a stern lesson in water discipline.

Simultaneously, S Squadron gears up for Operation Bronx, a training manoeuvre with the imminent invasion of Sicily in view. On May 5th, 1943, Captain Milner-Barry is briefed on his role to support a company of paratroopers targeting the Cyprus coast. Meanwhile, another S Squadron patrol is to test the local defences around the Syrian coastal town of Latakia on the night of May 14th, 1943.

Meanwhile Milner-Barry’s patrol sails towards Cyprus, anchoring near Famagusta’s old battlements, believing themselves unseen. Their cover is blown when a searchlight spots their vessel, leading to a brief confrontation with local military and their eventual detention. Similarly, the Latakia raid runs into trouble, highlighting the challenges of covert operations and providing invaluable lessons in seaborne raiding, despite its apparent mishaps.

During this Campaign, the Special Boat Squadron, is tasked with executing a series of high-impact, clandestine operations aimed at undermining Axis control and facilitating a broader strategic objective championed by Winston Churchill. Churchill’s vision involves a bold campaign to seize control of the airfields on Rhodes and across the Dodecanese, aiming not just to disrupt Axis operations but also to pivot Turkey from its stance of neutrality to actively join the Allies, potentially bringing forty divisions to the Allied side.

The strategic role of the Special Boat Squadron is critical in achieving this objective. The unit’s operations focus on direct action and sabotage against enemy targets, including airfields, communication systems, fuel storage facilities, barracks, and other key installations. This approach is designed to cripple the Axis logistical and operational capabilities in the region, thereby facilitating the broader goals of the Allied forces.

The formation of the Headquarters Raiding Forces in the Middle East in the beginning of 1943, under the marks a pivotal consolidation of the raiding forces, like the Greek Sacred Squadron (GSS) alongside other elite units such as the Special Boat Squadron (SBS), the Long Range Desert Group (LRDG), and the Raiding Support Regiment (RSR). Emphasising an increased operational scope and strategic significance. All diverse units are amalgamated into H.Q. Raiding Forces, which consists of a streamlined team of staff officers, essential personnel, Signals, Royal Engineers (R.E.), Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers (R.E.M.E.), and Physical Training (P.T.) Staff. The entire operation is overseen by the Commander of the Raiding Forces, Colonel D.J.T. Turnbull, showcasing a unified command structure designed to enhance operational efficiency and strategic execution.

Aegean Sea Campaign

During the critical phase of the Dodecanese campaign in World War II, Churchill’s strategy involves deploying specialised units to secure a foothold in the region ahead of the Italian armistice, aiming to facilitate the surrender of key islands such as Kos and Rhodes to British forces. This approach highlights the strategic importance of the Dodecanese islands in the broader context of the Mediterranean theatre and the Allied efforts to undermine Axis control.

On the brink of the Armistice with Italy, Colonel Turnbull, accompanied by a select group of officers, hastens to the Aegean via aeroplane and high-speed launch, tasked with a crucial mission. He aims to land on Rhodes to convince Admiral Campioni, the Italian Commander, to oppose the Germans and transfer the Dodecanese Islands to the Allies. Such an action would significantly disrupt German operations in Crete, reducing its strategic threat to North African victories, oil pipeline ports, and the vital Levant route to the oilfields of Iraq and Iran.

In a daring move, two of Brigadier Turnbull’s officers, Major Lord Jellicoe and Major Dolby, parachute onto Rhodes to persuade Admiral Campioni to negotiate with the Brigadier. Despite a hostile welcome from the island’s garrison, neither officer is wounded, although Major Dolby sustains a broken leg upon landing. Deciding to surrender to gain an audience with Admiral Campioni, their strategy proves successful, and the Admiral consents to meet them.

Meanwhile, Brigadier Turnbull is en route to Simi on a captured Italian seaplane, planning to wait for the outcome of this pivotal meeting, while the rest of his team stands by off Rhodes Harbour.

During their meeting with Admiral Campioni, the officers encounter a man overwhelmed by fear of German retribution, firmly refusing to engage with Brigadier Turnbull or consider any form of surrender, loyal to his former allies, the Nazis. The Admiral’s fear of German reprisal overshadows any possibility of cooperation, despite the risks he has taken in meeting the British officers. This refusal marks the end of their mission, as Major Jellicoe and Major Dolby are hastily removed from Rhodes, their attempt to sway the Admiral ending in urgency and disappointment.

With the Italians rejecting the peace offer, the Allies have no choice but to force surrender through the invasion and capture of key islands, a tactic understood by the Axis powers. The Special Boat Service (S.B.S.) initiates by landing on Kos, while Brigadier Turnbull and the Long Range Desert Group (L.R.D.G.) target Leros. Soon after, Major George Gilchrist and parachutists from the 11th Battalion, the Parachute Regiment, land on Kos and receive a warm welcome from the Italians, influenced by the S.B.S.’s actions. The closest encounter to combat involves British parachutists entering the Italian Garrison Officers’ Club on Kos, where they enjoy champagne before leaving, much to their hosts’ astonishment.

Meanwhile, thousands of British infantrymen, alongside various support units including Field and A.A. detachments, sappers, signals, R.A.S.C., and even a N.A.A.F.I., are escorted to the islands by the Free French and British Navies. Staff officers, poised to become Military Governors, are part of this force, ready to administer the islands once they are secured. Leading these operations are the Raiding Forces detachments, with Kos and Leros quickly falling without opposition as the Italian Garrisons join the Allies.

Colonel Tsigantes and the Greek Sacred Squadron deploy on Samos, becoming the first unit of the Raiding Forces to engage, setting an example for the L.R.D.G. and S.B.S. parachutists. Despite a period of uneasy calm on Kos and Leros, with the Greeks staying on Samos, a German counterattack is expected.

The Germans launch their assault on October 3rd, 1942, with a combined airborne and sea attack. Despite optimistic defences, the Italian gunners’ lack of live ammunition training, due to an Italian government economy policy, favours the Germans. Kos falls to the Germans six days after their initial landing. Leros is next, with the island being divided and ultimately capitulating on November 16th, 1942. Throughout these events, Raiding Force patrols remain active.

Major Jellicoe is pivotal during the surrender negotiations on Leros. Convincing a German officer of his need to communicate surrender instructions to his troops, he uses this opportunity to organise a daring escape for not only S.B.S. and L.R.D.G. personnel but also other troops outside the German P.O.W. net, demonstrating remarkable ingenuity and bravery in the face of adversity.

George Jellicoe, leading the Special Boat Squadron, plays a pivotal role in these operations. His mission to infiltrate behind enemy lines on Rhodes is part of a larger strategy to negotiate the surrender of the island in anticipation of the Italian armistice. This operation is a testament to the agility and effectiveness of Allied special forces in executing high-stakes missions under challenging circumstances.

Simultaneously, David Sutherland and his men of S Detachment make their way to Kastellorizo, the southeasternmost island of the Dodecanese, strategically located near the Turkish coast. The arrival of Special Boat Squadron, the Long Range Desert Group, and the Greek Sacred Squadron in the Dodecanese marks a significant escalation in Allied operations, aimed at disrupting Axis control and securing the islands.

The joint operations of Special Boat Squadron and Greek Sacred Squadron, conducting raids across the enemy-occupied Dodecanese and beyond, underscore the collaborative nature of these efforts. Jellicoe’s swift action in Leros, where he successfully persuades the Italian Governor to ally with the Allied forces, leads to the strategic takeover of the island by September 15th, 1943. This success is quickly followed by the occupation of Kastellorizo and Simi, further demonstrating the effectiveness of Allied strategy and the critical role of special forces in these operations.

The occupation of Samos by Captain Tsigantes of the Greek Sacred Squadron, who is parachuted onto the island, highlights the audacity and precision of Allied strategies in securing strategic locations across the Aegean. Tsigantes’ rapid success in taking control of Samos with the support of Greek Sacred Squadron members is a crucial step in establishing Allied presence in the Dodecanese.

German Counter Offensive Aegean Sea

However, the German response to these developments is swift and determined. The Germans, recognising the strategic significance of the Dodecanese islands, are not inclined to relinquish control without a fight. The ensuing battles for Kos and Leros underscore the intense contest between Britain and Germany over these critical Mediterranean assets. Both sides understand the strategic value of the Dodecanese, not only as a military prize but also as a potential factor in influencing Turkey’s stance in the conflict.

As the campaign progresses into late September 1943, the German forces begin organising counter-offensives against the recently Allied-occupied islands of Kos and Leros. This escalation marks a critical phase in the Dodecanese campaign, showcasing the determination of both Allied and Axis forces to assert control over this strategically vital region. The outcome of these confrontations will not only affect the balance of power in the Aegean but also impact the broader dynamics of the war in the Mediterranean.

During the Allied campaign, the Royal Navy has been leveraging the neutral territorial waters of Turkey for strategic movements, such as navigating ships during the night and conducting patrols. This practice, however, comes to a sudden halt when Luftwaffe aircraft bomb and sink two stationary Allied destroyers, the H.H.M.S. Queen Olga of the Royal Hellenic Navy and the H.M.S. Intrepid of the Royal Navy, inside Leros port on September 26th, 1943. Aware of the Kriegsmarine’s naval firepower being inferior to that of the Royal Navy and without access to the airfield on Kos, the Germans opt not to directly engage with the Allied naval forces. Instead, their focus shifts towards occupying the Cyclades group in the Aegean Sea. Utilising U-Boot-Jäger’s (submarine chasers), they discover and occupy islands previously held by Italy, including Syros, Tinos, Andros, Naxos, and Kea, all of which quickly fall under German control.

This strategic maneuvering makes it relatively easy for the Germans to invade Kos, which they successfully do by landing troops using Landing Ship, Tank’s and F-lighters (small naval vessels). With the occupation of Kos on October 2nd, 1943, the Allies lose their last airfield in the Aegean, granting the Germans a suitable airbase to launch their offensive against Leros. It becomes apparent that a British defeat is imminent. However, before advancing further, the Germans lay sea mines outside Kalymnos Island to block any potential passage for British destroyers and to capture Simi. Thanks to the efforts of Special Boat Squadron M Detachment led by Major Ian “Jock” Lapraik, the German attempt to invade Simi is thwarted. On October 10th, 1943, Simi undergoes heavy dive-bombing, after which Major Lapraik is ordered to establish a base for future raids.

The British face significant challenges in reinforcing and supplying Leros, leading to the establishment of two additional supply stations at Kastelorizo and Samos. With the S Squadron of the Special Boat Squadron under David Sutherland concentrated on Leros and lacking sufficient forces and air cover, the Allies ultimately lose Leros on November 16th, 1943, marking the end of the broader campaign in this theatre of war.

However, a German report compiled during the campaign acknowledged the pivotal role and achievements of British raiding forces, noting their establishment of outposts on Seriphos and Mykonos islands and their effectiveness in reporting German movements in the Aegean.

In Retreat

In the wake of the Dodecanese campaign, the Allied forces, acknowledging the strategic setbacks, regroup with an eye towards future operations. As the situation on the ground shifts, Churchill and the Allied command anticipate further German advances, particularly against the island of Samos where the Greek Sacred Squadron is stationed. This foresight leads to a strategic withdrawal from Samos and, broadly, the Aegean on November 18th, 1943, with the Greek Sacred Squadron departing for the Middle East the following day under General Headquarters orders.

The fall of Leros has a domino effect, precipitating the withdrawal from Samos and leaving Kastelorizo as the sole remnant of the Dodecanese under British influence. This transition marks a shift in strategy; with the islands now considered hostile territory, they become prime targets for Allied raids, signifying a pivot to unconventional warfare tactics.

In this context, Major Ian Lapraik’s Special Boat Squadron, M Detachment and Allied Hellenic Schooner Flotilla caïques operating from Simi, demonstrate resilience and adaptability. On November 22nd, 1943, they execute a daring raid on Nisiros, sabotaging the wireless telegraph station, although their caïques are subsequently captured by German forces in the island harbour. Undeterred, the next day sees another operation on Tilos where they not only destroy the wireless telegraph station but also disarm the Italian garrisons, showcasing the tenacity of the Allied raiding forces in continuing their engagements against Axis control.

Simi, not fully secured by raiding forces, continues to witness the efforts of Lapraik’s M Detachment in combating Italian and German presence. These operations culminate in the last raid of 1943 in the Aegean, marking a year of intense and varied military engagements.

Despite the setbacks in the Dodecanese, Churchill’s strategic vision for the region remained unshaken. Plans for reacquiring the Dodecanese began to take shape, reflecting a long-term commitment to the area. Meanwhile, British, and Greek raiding forces regrouped and reorganized in the Middle East, preparing for the next phase of clandestine operations. This period of regrouping and planning underscored the Allies’ resilience and their determination to adapt and continue their efforts against Axis forces in the Mediterranean theatre.

Back in the offensive

1944 is celebrated as the year of raids. Brigadier Turnbull develops a plan to separated Aegean in two sectors. In this plan the Greek Sacred Squadron concentrated on the northern islands, leaving the south Aegean to the Special Boat Squadron. At that moment, the three Special Boat Squadron detachments, commanded by Sutherland, Patterson, and Lapraik, are active throughout the Aegean, often collaborating with the Greek Sacred Squadron. Jellicoe and Tsigantes orchestrate joint raiding operations in the Dodecanese, utilising previously mentioned hideouts. The raiding float base of the Special Boat Squadron, Jellicoe’s Headquarters, the caïque LS 31 or AHS 31 i.e. Tewfik remains deep, Turkish side, in the Kos channel. The Greek Sacred Squadron also maintains a floating base, the caïque LS 33 or AHS 33, Thalia, while its commander, Colonel Tsigantes, uses the yacht Elliki as his Headquarters to oversee operations.

In early 1944, the Greek Sacred Squadron continues its training by the Special Boat Squadron with a focus on seaborne raids, leading to its reorganisation into three raiding sections and one administration section. Andreas Kalinskis, Trifonas Triantafyllakos, and Pavlos Dimopoulos are appointed commanders of the first, second, and third raiding sections, respectively, bringing the squadron’s strength to four hundred twenty-three men. The Greek Sacred Squadron marks its return to action in the Aegean theatre with a raid on Samos on March 7th, 1944.

In February 1944, Major George Jellicoe, the commanding officer of the Special Boat Squadron, assigns S Detachment for a mission in the Aegean Sea. This decision comes during a time of strategic reassessment for the unit. Captain Walter Milner-Barry, stepping in for David Sutherland due to a bout of jaundice, takes temporary command of the squadron. The operation focuses on the Cyclades.

The detachment embarks on their journey from Haifa, which is situated in the current territory of Israel, on March 2nd, 1944. The departure is marked by concerns over adverse weather conditions, specifically a gale warning, as recorded by Milner-Barry. After a six-day voyage, the team reaches Port Dereman in the Gulf of Kos, located on the Turkish mainland. There, they relieve the members of L Detachment, who have been conducting operations to disrupt the German military presence on the islands for several weeks.

Milner-Barry sets up his command post on the the caïque LS 31 or AHS 31, Tewfik, while his team finds accommodation on another schooner, the Takiarkis. Nearby, in the same bay, is the command ship of the Levant Schooner Flotilla, LS 9, under the command of Lieutenant-Commander John Campbell.

Adverse weather conditions throughout March delay Special Boat Squadron operations, leading to widespread frustration. Captain Walter Milner-Barry is notably disappointed when, just as the weather starts to improve in April, Sutherland recovers from jaundice. Milner-Barry, finds it inconvenient as he receives orders to return to England for leave, handing command back to Sutherland.

Early April 1944, Brigadier Turnbull’s plan to separate the Aegean in two sectors is approved. On April 13th, 1944, David Sutherland, the S detachment commander of the Special Boat Squadron, requests from Kalinskis one English-literate officer and five men to conduct raids against Ios, Amorgos, and Santorini in the central Aegean Cyclades group. The Greek commander responds positively, offering officer Macris and soldiers Katsikas, Vardoulakis, Berdalis, Paliatsaras, and Korkas. These men are attached to the Special Boat Squadron and Force 133.

A joint unit, comprising members of the Greek Sacred Squadron and Special Boat Squadron as well as their transport, a Levant Schooner Flotilla or Allied Hellenic Schooner Flotilla caïque, is established. This team makes landfall on Ios on April 28th, 1944, successfully disarming the German garrison there. Following this, they proceed to destroy ammunition and explosives, scuttle a Greek caïque pressed into German service, and provide essential food and supplies to the island’s hungry inhabitants. Subsequently, on the night spanning April 30th, 1944, to May 1st, 1944, the unit executes a similar operation on Amorgos, targeting the naval wireless telegraph station, disarming the garrison, and again distributing aid to the local population. Tragically, during a similar operation in the town of Santorini, Greek Lieutenant Stefanos Kasulis and Sergeant Frank Kingston members of Lassen’s group, are fatally wounded by enemy fire.

On May 9th, 1944, Sutherland and Lassen plan an operation targeting Paros. A team of three Greek Sacred Squadron men, led by Sophoulis, is placed under Lassen’s command to raid the island just after midnight on May 12th, 1944 to May 13th, 1944. Adverse weather conditions cause a delay, diminishing the element of surprise against the enemy. Despite this, the team is able to gather valuable intelligence regarding the airfield under construction, fuel dumps, ammunition stocks, wireless telegraph station, and anti-aircraft positions across the island. Moreover, the Special Boat Squadron successfully uses explosives to destroy the German garrison installation, resulting in German casualties.

On May 11th, 1944, Brigadier Turnbull arrives at the advanced base of Port Deremen, where he and Kalinskis discuss future raids against Samos, Ikaria, Chios, Psara, and Lesvos. The upcoming expedition against Samos is assigned to Greek Sacred Squadron officer Siapkaras. The force comprises thirty Greek Sacred Squadron members, one British officer, one British wireless telegraph operator, and one American war correspondent, accompanied by a local guide. The entire unit lands on May 17th, 1944, in Marathocambos Bay, Samos, and then moves inland to hide. On the night of May 23rd, 1944, to May 24th, 1944, the men under Officer Karademos attacks the German garrison at Marathocambos, killing the governor and a soldier, and capturing two others. Following this, with support from Force 133 operating on Samos, they manage to return to the Deremen base, each arriving separately.

Towards the end of May 1944, the second section of the Greek Sacred Squadron, led by Triantafyllakos, departs from Haifa, taking over from Kalinskis’s first section. The plan for this second section involves dividing it into two smaller groups. The first group is tasked with reaching the base ship at Deremen, navigating via caiques and patrol boats with stops at Cyprus and Kastelorizo. The second group, armed with heavy machine guns and mortars, makes its way directly to Kastelorizo. During this time, the British special forces, including units from the Special Air Service, the Special Boat Squadron, and the Long Range Desert Group, withdraw from the northern Aegean, leaving the Greek Sacred Squadron solely in charge of the sector. However, members of the British raiding units who remain in the Aegean come together to form Force 142. By the end of May 1944, the Greek Sacred Squadron primarily focuses its activities in the northern Aegean Sea.

During the latter part of the northern Aegean campaign, specifically until September 1944, strategic raids target Chios and Lesvos. Initial reconnaissance missions provide detailed information on the targeted areas. Subsequently, a specialised team from the Greek Sacred Squadron, comprising forty-nine members and led by Commander Kalinskis, departs in three caïques for Chios. They arrive under the cover of night between May 30th, 1944, and May 31st, 1944, with objectives including the disruption of shipyard operations, the destruction of the caïques at the port, and the severance of an underwater communication cable. Team leaders Dimitriadis, Vafeiopoulos, and Stathatos successfully complete these objectives. There is an expectation for Royal Air Force support to target a local German base, but due to the base’s proximity to a hospital, the Royal Air Force mission is called off, and the team withdraws on the night of June 5th, 1944, and June 6th, 1944.

Further operations see Stathatos and a small contingent returning to Chios, where they engage and neutralise a German observation post. Later, on the night of June 20th, 1944, and June 21st, 1944, a combined operation with another Greek Sacred Squadron team attacks Geras Bay using two Landing Craft, Tanks, targeting, and destroying enemy caïques and infrastructure. They conclude their operations and return to base on the night of June 21st, 1944, and June 22nd, 1944.

Throughout the Samos and Chios raids, Special Boat Squadron member Harold Chevalier conducts patrol operations aboard a Levant Schooner Flotilla caïque, inspecting and intercepting vessels between the islands, leading to the capture of a German vessel and its crew.

This series of raids in 1944 significantly contributes to the operational experience of the Greek Sacred Squadron, laying a foundation for future large-scale operations.

Expansion and conclusion of the Aegean Sea Campaign

In June 1944, the Greek Sacred Squadron expands and transforms into the Greek Sacred Regiment (GSR) under Colonel Tsigantes in Palestine, growing to a force of 1,084 through rigorous training. This restructured unit, now divided into three sections led by Ketseas, G. Roussos, Papadopoulos, and Manetas, starts collaborating with Force 133, the Royal Navy, and the Royal Air Force on various raids.

A significant operation on June 29th, 1944, sees the Greek Sacred Regiment and British raiders from Force 133 targeting Kalymnos with two Landing Craft, Tanks, guided by Special Boat Squadron Captain Jimmy Lees. Although the British contingent achieves the mission’s goals, the forces withdraw on July 2, 1944, after also scouting Ai Stratis on June 22nd, 1944, then under the friendly control of the Greek National Liberation Movement, EAM.

Simultaneously, Special Boat Squadron’s Bob Bury reconnoitres the Sporades for German activity, eventually towing captured caïques back to base from Yioura. Following this, a planned attack on Kalymnos is led by a Greek Sacred Regiment officer, Kasakopoulos, marking a first for the Special Boat Squadron. Despite their efforts, stiff German resistance thwarts the mission’s success.

The culmination of these efforts is the significant joint operation Tenement against enemy-occupied Simi, marking the end of Special Boat Squadron’s active Aegean engagement. This operation emphasises the importance of stealth, with raiders concealed in Turkish waters for up to ten days.

Facing the challenge of German destroyers in Leros, Brigadier Turnbull secures Royal Marine Boom Commando troops to mitigate the threat, enabling a sabotage team to inflict severe damage on the ships in June 1944, thus paving the way for the Simi raid. The operation on Simi aims to neutralise the garrison, destroy enemy installations, and simulate German occupation tactics to draw out enemy reinforcements for a strategic Allied counterstrike. Following reconnaissance, 220 Special Boat Squadron and 154 Greek Sacred Regiment members launch the main assault, leading to the garrison’s surrender and the destruction of enemy facilities. Despite heavy enemy bombardment, the Greek Sacred Regiment achieves significant victories, including disrupting communications between Simi and Rhodes.

Post-July 1944, the Greek Sacred Regiment assumes primary responsibility for Aegean raids. In August, the Greek Sacred Regiment executes operations on Tilos and Karpathos, with a team triggering a minefield on the latter, resulting in casualties and captures by German patrols. Despite these challenges, Kostoletos escapes from captivity, demonstrating the resilience and determination of the Greek Sacred Regiment.

By September 1944, the Special Boat Squadron wraps up its operations in the Dodecanese as a unit, handing over control of the region to the Greek Sacred Regiment. The remaining members of the British raiding units still in the Aegean are consolidated to establish Force 142.


In the final months of World War II, specifically on April 9th, 1945, the Special Boat Squadron conducts its last operation against German defences in Italy, targeting pillboxes and machine gun posts. This mission is led by Anders Lassen, known for his direct approach to combat. Despite the Special Boat Squadron’s history of successful stealth tactics, this mission represents a straightforward infantry assault, which Leslie Stephenson, Lassen’s sergeant major, believes is highly risky for a unit specialised in covert operations.

Despite the clear dangers of such a frontal assault and after a period of inactivity, Lassen is eager to participate in combat once again. Before the operation, he expresses a sense of foreboding about his survival.

During the operation, Lassen demonstrates his usual bravery, attacking enemy positions aggressively with grenades. However, his approach to one of the pillboxes, after hearing a call of surrender, leads to him being shot and critically wounded after he instructs his team to stay back.

After being wounded, Lassen is found by his team. In his final moments, he is aware of his critical condition and instructs Stephenson to withdraw the team to safety, understanding that his injuries are fatal. These instructions are his last words.

Lassen’s death and the circumstances of the mission lead to a sense of loss and frustration within the SBS, particularly because the war is nearing its end and the operation’s strategic value is questionable. This event marks a sombre close to the SBS’s actions in World War II, emphasising the unpredictable and hazardous nature of combat.

Special Boat Section

Following the integration of the No. 1 Special Boat Section into the 1st SAS Regiment, the No. 2 Special Boat Section henceforth operates as the Special Boat Section. This unit engages in operations targeting German-occupied Norway and France. However, these efforts often fall short of their objectives due to challenging sea conditions and formidable coastal defenses. Additionally, select Special Boat Section teams support Royal Navy submarines on global missions.

Commanded by a Major, each Special Boat Section operational group comprises 20 members, including four officers and sixteen other ranks. By 1944, the Special Boat Section sees significant advancements in its equipment and boats, a development largely credited to the efforts of the Royal Marines Boom Patrol Detachment (RMBPD), which plays a crucial role in evolving the British combat frogman.

At Lord Mountbatten’s behest, elements of the Special Boat Section head to India in February 1944, preparing for operations in Burma. This deployment begins with the relocation of Z Group to Ceylon, to collaborate with the Special Operations Executive’s Force 136 and later with Special Operations Australia. The remainder of No. 2 Special Boat Section, A, B, and C Groups making their way to India to join the South-East Asia Command’s Small Operations Group. Here they engage in operations along the Chindwin and Irrawaddy rivers, and in the Arakan, as part of the Burma campaign.

As the war nears its end, the Special Boat Section awaits new assignments. Members enlisted for “Hostilities Only” return to Great Britain and transfer to the Royal Marines, underscoring the Marines’ oversight of future amphibious operations. What remains of the Special Boat Section transitions into the School of Combined Operations, specifically within the Beach and Boat Section, in 1946.

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