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Silent Warriors: The SBS in World War Two by Saul David (Some very scary folks)

Saul David has written a new authorised history of the SBS and has uncovered some of the most extraordinary stories of World War Two.

Silent Warriors

Britain’s SBS – or Special Boat Service – was the world’s first maritime special operations unit. Founded in the dark days of 1940, the SBS started as a small and inexperienced outfit that leaned heavily on volunteers’ raw courage and boyish enthusiasm. It went on to change the course of the Second World War – and has served as a model for special forces ever since.

The fledgling unit’s first mission was a daring beach reconnaissance of Rhodes in the spring of 1941. Over the next four years, the SBS would carry out many more spectacular operations in the Mediterranean, the Atlantic, the Channel and the Far East. These missions – including Operation Frankton, the daredevil attempt by the “Cockleshell Heroes” to paddle up the Gironde River, deep behind enemy lines, and sink Axis ships in Bordeaux harbour – were some of the most audacious and legendary of the war. 

Paddling flimsy canoes, and armed only with knives, pistols and a few submachine guns, this handful of brave and determined men operated deep behind enemy lines in the full knowledge that if caught, they might be executed. Many were.

Yet their many improbable achievements – destroying enemy ships and infrastructure, landing secret agents, tying up enemy forces, spreading fear and uncertainty, and most importantly, preparing the ground for D-Day – helped to make an Allied victory possible.

An Unlikely Partnership

The acknowledged “father” of the SBS is Roger “Jumbo” Courtney, a 38-year-old former big-game hunter with a “bashed-in kind of face” and a “blunt, no-nonsense manner”, who in October 1940 came up with a new way to take the fight to the enemy: using two-man folding canoes (known as folbots) to deliver teams of highly trained commandos deep behind enemy lines. Having provided his superiors with proof of concept – by paddling up to and then sneaking aboard a heavily guarded ship in Inveraray harbour in the Scottish Highlands – he was given permission to form the Folbot Troop, later renamed the Special Boat Section (or SBS). Thus was born “a new style of warfare: a Special Force who came from the sea”.

Deployed to the Middle East, Courtney quickly joined forces with Lieutenant Commander Nigel Willmott, a 30-year-old Royal Navy navigator who was convinced that secret beach reconnaissance was vital if the amphibious landings needed to defeat the Nazis were to succeed. Willmott’s conundrum was how to land on beaches silently; Courtney’s canoes provided the answer. It was an unlikely partnership. Courtney was a big picture person “with a flair for improvisation in a tight corner”, Willmott a details man. This combination of vision and precision would be the making of the SBS.

In March 1941, the two men were transported by submarine from Alexandria to a point off the coast of the Italian-held island of Rhodes. From there they paddled in by canoe and took it in turns to swim ashore and carry out a clandestine survey of the closely guarded shore as preparation for an amphibious assault.

The dangerous mission – undertaken with improvised equipment and at a time of year when the weather was wild and unpredictable – almost resulted in their capture or drowning. Yet, each time they returned safely to the submarine with vital information and proved, beyond doubt, that folbots could make a difference. Together they had pioneered a new technique – close beach reconnaissance – that would save thousands of Allied lives in the years to come.

The two men soon went their separate ways: Courtney to develop the SBS whose multiple roles included landing secret agents, assisting Commando operations, and destroying ships and coastal infrastructure; and Willmott to create, in December 1942, the brilliant maritime special operations unit known as COPP – or Combined Operations Pilotage Parties – that provided beach intelligence for the great amphibious landings in Sicily, Italy, Normandy and later the Far East. Both units are forerunners of the modern SBS.

The Men and Their Missions

Two of Courtney’s most effective operators were Lieutenant “Tug” Wilson and Marine Wally Hughes who would, over the course of eight months in 1941, execute a succession of extraordinarily daring and successful operations that made them the scourge of the Italian military. Yet, both were slight and unassuming types, “the complete opposite of the Commando of fiction, usually portrayed by post-war journalist-authors as rip-roaring, bloodthirsty thugs ever ready to slit a throat”. Hughes, a man of few words, was “short, lean, tough and ready to tackle anything”; Wilson his “suave, sophisticated opposite”.

Their nerve-wracking missions – carried out at night, deep behind enemy lines – involved their transport in submarines to the coasts of Sicily and mainland Italy where they paddled ashore and laid explosive charges that destroyed trains, railway lines and bridges.

On their last operation together, a failed attempt to use a limpet mine to sink an Italian destroyer in the Greek harbour of Navarino in December 1941, Wilson almost drowned in freezing water. “Wetsuits were in the future,” commented a submarine officer, “and Wilson was a skinny man; a plumper operator might have managed.”

Wilson’s long reign of terror was finally brought to an end in September 1942 when he and a new partner, Bombardier John Brittlebank, were captured after they tried to sink a ship in Crotone harbour in Southern Italy with mini hand-operated torpedoes. A hard man to replace, Wilson has been a model for SBS operators ever since: small-framed but deceptively strong, a team player but capable of independent action, an intelligent problem solver, eager to embrace new technology and as brave as a lion.

Another prominent SBS man was Lieutenant Ted Wesley who, in late 1944, took part in a daredevil mission to destroy a railway bridge in northern Sumatra in the Dutch East Indies (modern Indonesia). Dropped off by submarine, four pairs of canoeists – two officers and six men – lost their way because of a faulty compass, blundered around in the dark jungle, and had to abort the first attempt. Undeterred, they tried again the following night and, having avoided a Japanese bicycle patrol, got to the bridge where they attached 400lbs of explosives and set off their pencil fuses.

Observed by some locals, they took one prisoner and attempted to force him into a canoe to be quizzed later. He resisted and thus began a comical struggle as Ted Wesley tried to subdue the captive by punching him, hitting him with the butt of his luger, and, in a final act of desperation, forcing him under the water ‘to drown some of the life out of him’. The captive responded by biting Wesley’s hand. It was the final straw. Exhausted by the struggle and unwilling to inflict any more harm on the local, Wesley let him go and ‘patted him on the back – a poor atonement for all that bullying!’

Late for their rendezvous with the submarine, they were paddling furiously when a huge explosion heralded the destruction of the bridge.

Preparing for D-Day

Nigel Willmott’s Coppists did vital work throughout the war, losing several men in the process. But their finest hour was in preparing the ground for D-Day. First, during the night of New Year’s Eve 1943, two of Willmott’s best men – Major Logan Scott-Bowden and Sergeant Bruce Ogden-Smith – swam ashore in a highly risky mission to take samples from Gold Beach in Normandy to confirm the sand was firm enough for Allied vehicles to land. Narrowly avoiding detection by German sentries, they returned with the evidence that it was. “On these operations,” wrote Admiral Bertram Ramsay, commanding D-Day naval forces, “depends to a very great extent the final success of operation ‘Overlord’.”

A fortnight later, the same pair scouted Omaha Beach by swimming ashore from a midget submarine. Once again, they brought back vital intelligence, particularly on Omaha’s intimidating defences, and advised American commander Lieutenant General Omar Bradley that “this beach is a very formidable proposition indeed”.

Partly, as a result of the Coppists’ report, the number of invasion beaches was increased from three to five. But nervous about giving the game away, the Americans chose not to accept the Coppists’ offer to signpost their two beaches – Omaha and Utah – on D-Day. The decision had disastrous consequences. “They could have done with that offer of markers,” wrote one Coppist history. “With no inshore signal to guide them, the whole assault force set its predetermined course for the unseen shore from its start point twelve miles out to sea. Immediately the weather and the powerful tidal set took hold of the mass of boats and swept them steadily, innocent, and unknowing, to the east…The whole assault force on ‘Omaha’ had slipped sideways and was surging straight for catastrophe.”

Put ashore in the wrong place, weighed down by weapons and kit, the American troops were massacred. More than 2,000 died on Omaha on 6 June 1944.

Operation Gambit

The value of beach markers was demonstrated a short way to the east of Omaha where Coppist teams in two midget submarines – X20 and X23 – were tasked with guiding British and Canadian landing craft into their respective beaches. The mini-subs were needed for D-Day because the shallow depths and stormy seas off of Normandy were unsuitable for normal submarines and canoes.

The plan, Operation Gambit, was for the two mini-subs – just 50 feet long and each with a 5-man crew – to depart Portsmouth on the night of 2 June 1944, cross the Channel and wait submerged off their respective beaches until just before dawn on 5 June (the original date for D-Day) when they would surface and begin flashing signals.

It was the toughest and most important job on D-Day. To pull it off required perfect timing, nerves of steel and no small amount of luck. Failure was not an option: their premature discovery, they knew, would jeopardise the whole invasion.

Arriving off the Normandy coast in the morning of 4 June, they remained submerged for most of the next two days as bad weather forced a 24-hour postponement of the invasion. This meant another torturous 18-hour oxygen-starved stint beneath the waves on 5 June. From which, they finally emerged at 11.15 p.m. to the “worst hangover in the world” and the news that the invasion was a go for the morning of the 6th.

X23 surfaced off Sword Beach at 4:45 a.m. on Tuesday 6 June and its crew began rigging the signals that would guide the invasion fleet. These lights began flashing seawards at 5.07 a.m. With dawn fast approaching, it was only a matter of time before they were spotted by the shore defences.

Suddenly, recalled 22-year-old Sub Lieutenant Jim Booth, a Coppist on his first mission, the “light must have changed because we saw a huge host of ships coming towards us. Thousands of them. It was incredible. The landing craft came incredibly close to us.” Booth and the others cheered and yelled as the landing craft ploughed past them, a curious sight to the helmeted soldiers as, with most of the submarine underwater, it must have seemed as if they were walking on water.

Though it would not be acknowledged publicly for years, Willmott’s top-secret Coppists had played a key role in the success of D-Day. They were the first to set foot on the beaches, and their lonely and dangerous vigil in X-craft from 4–6 June 1944 would ensure that on the British and Canadian beaches, at least, the assault troops landed in the right place at the right time.

The success of the hazardous operation, wrote Admiral Ramsay, had “materially assisted the greatest landing of British forces on any enemy coast that has ever taken place in the history of the world”.

Saul David is an award-winning historian and the author of SBS: Silent Warriors, which is now out in paperback.

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One of the Grunts best friend!

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Remembering a Giant: Uncle Bill by Robert Lyman

Slim should be remembered as the greatest British general of World War Two.

Even the most sketchily educated Briton today will nevertheless recognise in the murky depths of their consciousness the name of that great British general of World War Two, Montgomery of Alamein.  To an older generation perhaps another name resonates equally and perhaps more strongly, the name of a man Montgomery airily dismissed as a mere ‘sepoy general’, and yet someone whose military legacy has arguably outlasted even that of the great ‘Monty’ himself.

That the name of Field Marshal William Slim is remembered by only a few old soldiers and interested military buffs today is a tragedy of enormous proportions, when one assesses in the great weighing scales of history his contribution to Britain’s success in the Second World War and his more longer lasting contribution to the art and science of war as a whole.

The war in the Far East is easy to forget, given that it took place far from home and in the shadow of the titanic struggle against Nazism in Europe. Yet the war against Japan in Burma, India and China was no less titanic, as two competing empires collided violently, with profound implications for the future of the post-war global order, not just in the Pacific but also for the whole of Britain’s creaking empire.  Slim played a significant part in the whole story.

Slim was, first and foremost, a born leader of soldiers.  It would be inconceivable to think of Monty as ‘Uncle Bernard’, but it was to ‘Uncle Bill’ that soldiers in Burma, from the dark days of 1942 and 1943, through to the great victories over the Japanese in 1944 and 1945, put their confidence and trust.

He inspired confidence because he instinctively knew that the strength of an army lies not in its equipment or its officers, but in the training and morale of its soldiers.  Everything he did as a commander was designed to equip his men for the trials of battle, and their interests were always at the forefront of his plans.

He knew them because he was one of them, and had experienced their bitterest trials.  Brigadier Bernard Fergusson (later Earl Ballantrae and Governor General of New Zealand), believed that Slim was unlike any other British higher commander to emerge in the Second World War, ‘the only one at the highest level in that war that… by his own example inspired and restored its self-respect and confidence to an army in whose defeat he had shared.’

Not for him the aristocratic or privileged middle class upbringing of some many of his peers, but an early life of industrial Birmingham, relieved only by the opportunities presented for advancement by the upheavals of the First World War.  The 100 day 1000 mile retreat from Burma to India in 1942, the longest in the long history of the British Army was, whilst a bitter humiliation, nevertheless not a rout, in large part because Slim was put in command of the fighting troops.

He managed the withdrawal through dust bowl, jungle and mountain alike so deftly that the Japanese, though undoubtedly victorious, were utterly exhausted and unable to mount offensive operations into India for a further year.  In time Slim was given the opportunity no British soldier has been given since the days of Wellington: the chance to train an army from scratch and single-handedly mould it into something of his own making, an army of extraordinary spirit and power against which nothing could stand.

By 1945 Slim’s 14th Army, at 500,000 men the largest ever assembled by Britain, had decisively and successively defeated two formidable Japanese armies, the first in Assam in India in 1944 and the second on the banks of the great Irrawaddy along the infamous ‘Road to Mandalay’ in Burma in 1945.

Slim’s victories in 1944 and 1945 were profound, and yet were quickly forgotten by a Britain focused principally on the defeat of Germany, and by a United States gradually pushing back the barriers of Japanese militaristic imperialism in the Pacific.  In late 1943 the 14th Army had begun to call itself the ‘Forgotten Army’, because of the apparent lack of interest back home of their exertions.

Sadly, from the time of the last climactic battles and the dash to seize Rangoon in May 1945 Slim’s achievements as the leader of this great army have equally been forgotten, although not of course by those who served under him who were all, as Mountbatten declared, ‘his devoted slaves’, nor indeed by their children and grandchildren who together make the Burma Star Association the only old soldiers’ association that actually continues to grow, rather than diminish.

What were these achievements?  In terms of his contribution to Allied strategy in Burma and India between 1942 and 1945 they were threefold.  First, he prevented, by his dogged command of the withdrawal from Burma the invasion of India proper in 1942 by a Japanese Army exulting in its omnipotence after the collapse of the rest of East Asia and the Pacific rim.

Second, he removed forever any further Japanese ambitions to invade India proper by his destruction of Mutaguchi’s legions in the Naga Hills around Kohima and the Manipur Plain around Imphal in the spring and early summer of 1944, and in so doing he decisively shattered the myth of Japanese invincibility that had for so long crippled the Allied cause.

Third, despite the prognostications of many, and subtly influencing Mountbatten to conform to his own strategy, Slim drove his armoured, foot and mule-borne and air-transported troops deep into Burma in late 1944 and 1945, across two of the world’s mightiest rivers, to outwit and outfight the 250,000 strong Burma Area Army of General Kimura and in so doing engineer the complete collapse of Japanese hegemony in Burma.

Given the pattern of British misfortune in 1942 and in 1943 it is not fanciful to argue that without Slim neither the safety of India (in 1942 as well as in 1944), nor the recovery of Burma in 1945, would ever have been possible.  Slim’s leadership and drive came to dominate the 14 Army to such a degree that it became, in Jack Master’s phrase, ‘an extension of his own personality.’

Slim’s achievements need also to be examined from a more personal, professional perspective.  That he was able to defend India’s eastern borders from imminent doom, and crush both Mutaguchi and Kimura in the gigantic and decisive struggles of 1944 and 1945 was due to his qualities as a military thinker and as a leader of men.

Slim was a master of intelligent soldiering.  That a man becomes one of the most senior officer of his generation is not always evidence per se that he has mastered this most fundamental of requirements: in Slim’s case it was.

His approach to the building up of the fighting power of an army – from a situation of profound defeat and in the face of crippling resource constraints – is a model that deserves far greater attention today than it has received in the past.  It was an approach built on the twin platforms of rigorous training and development of each individual’s will to win, through a deeply thought-out programme of support designed to meet the physical, intellectual and spiritual needs of each fighting man.

Slim’s description of General Sir George Giffard, his superior for a time, can equally be applied to himself:  Giffard’s great strength, Slim commented, lay in his grasp of ‘the fundamentals of war – that soldiers must be trained before they can fight, fed before they can march, and relieved before they are worn out.’

Second, Slim was a remarkable coalition commander.  The Army that defeated the might of the Japanese in both India and Burma during 1944 and 1945 was a thoroughly imperial one, seventy-five percent Indian, Gurkha and African.  Even in the British Empire of the time it was not self-evident that a British officer would secure the commitment of the various diverse nationalities he commanded: indeed, many did not. 

In his study of military command the psychiatrist Norman Dixon considered Slim’s quite obvious ability to join many of these diverse national groups to fight together in a single cause to be nothing less than remarkable, and the antithesis of the norm.

That he did so at a time of social and political unrest in India with the anti-colonial ‘Quit India’ campaign, and in the face of some early desertions to the Japanese-sponsored Indian National Army under Subhas Chandra Bose, makes his achievements even the more remarkable.  The British soldier was also suspicious of officers of the Indian Army, but Slim succeeded effortlessly in winning them over, too.

He ‘was the only Indian Army general of my acquaintance that ever got himself across to British troops’ recalled Fergusson.  ‘Monosyllables do not usually carry a cadence; but to thousands of British troops, as well as to Indians and to his own beloved Gurkhas, there will always be a special magic in the words “Bill Slim.”

But in addition to his success in defeating the Japanese in 1944 and 1945, and in building up 14 Army to become a formidable fighting machine, Slim’s most abiding legacy was his approach to war, which at the time was singularly different to that adopted elsewhere during the war, either by Monty in Africa and North West Europe or Alexander in Italy.

Slim’s pre-eminent concern was to defeat the Japanese army facing him in Burma, not merely to recover territory, and he determined to do this through the complete dominance of the Japanese strategic plan.  Training his troops relentlessly through monsoon, mountain and jungle, joining the command and operation of his land and air forces together, so that they served a single object, and delegating command to the lowest levels possible, Slim created an army of a power and fighting spirit rarely ever encountered in the history books.

In 1944 he allowed Mutaguchi’s 100,000 strong 15 Army to extend itself deep into India, there to be met by a ruthlessly determined 4 Corps, supplied by air and attacking at every opportunity the tenuous Japanese lines of communication back to the Chindwin.  It was high risk, and more than one senior officer in Delhi and London despaired of success.

Slim, however, knew otherwise, and in the process of the climatic battles of Imphal and Kohima he succeeded in shattering the cohesion of a whole Japanese army and destroying its will to fight, a situation as yet unheard of for a fully formed Japanese army in the field.  There were a number of close calls, and Slim was always the first to admit to his mistakes, but his steady nerve never failed. He moulded the Japanese offensive to suit his own plans, and step-by-step, he decisively broke it in the hills of eastern Assam and the Imphal plain.

Many commanders would then have sat on their laurels.  Not so Slim.  He was convinced that real victory against the Japanese required an aggressive pursuit, not just to the Chindwin but into the heart of Burma itself.  Single-handedly he worked to put in place all the ingredients of a bold offensive to seize Mandalay at a time when every inclination in London and Washington was to seek an amphibious solution to the problem of Burma and thus avoid the entanglements of a land offensive.

Slim believed, however, that it could be done.  Virtually alone he drove his plans forward, winning agreement and acceptance to his ideas as he went, particularly with Mountbatten, the Supreme Allied Commander in the Far East, and went on to execute in Burma in 1945 one of the most brilliant expositions of the strategic art that warfare has ever seen.

He did this in the face of difficulties of every sort and degree.  Employing his abundant strategic initiative to the full, he succeeded in outwitting and destroying an even larger army under General Kimura along the Irrawaddy between Meiktila and Mandalay in the spring of 1945, Kimura himself describing Slim’s operation as the ‘masterstroke of allied strategy’.  In both these operations Slim prefigured the doctrine of ‘manoeuvre warfare’.

Although Slim would not have recognised the term, his exercise of command in 14 Army indicates clearly that he espoused all of the fundamental characteristics.  The modern British Army defines it as ‘the means of concentrating force to achieve surprise, psychological shock, physical momentum and moral dominance… At the operational level, manoeuvre involves more than just movement; it requires an attitude of mind which seeks to do nothing less than unhinge the entire basis of the enemy’s operational plan.’

It argues that the extreme military virtue does not lie, as Monty practised, in the direct confrontation of the enemy mass, in an attempt to erode his strength to the point where he no longer has the physical wherewithal to continue the contest, but rather in the subtlety of the “indirect approach”, where the enemy’s weaknesses rather than his strengths are exploited, and his mental strengths and, in particular his will to win are undermined without the necessity of a mass-on-mass confrontation of the type that characterised so much of Allied operations on both the Western and Eastern Fronts in Europe during the Second World War.   Slim’s exercise of command in Burma makes him not merely a fine example of a ‘manoeuvrist’ commander but in actuality the template for modern manoeuvrist command.

‘Slim’s revitalisation of the Army had proved him to be a general of administrative genius’ argues the historian Duncan Anderson: ‘his conduct of the Burma retreat, the first and second Arakan, and Imphal-Kohima, had shown him to be a brilliant defensive general; and now, the Mandalay-Meiktila operation had placed him in the same class as Guderian, Manstein and Patton as an offensive commander.’

Mountbatten claimed that despite the reputation of others, such as the renowned self-publicist, Montgomery of Alamein, it was Slim who should rightly be regarded as the greatest British general of the Second World War.  Slim’s failing was to deprecate any form of self-publicity believing, perhaps naively, that the sound of victory had a music all of its own.  The ‘spin doctors’ of our own political generation have sadly taught us something Monty knew instinctively and exploited to his own advantage, namely that if you don’t blow your own trumpet no one else will.

The final word should be left to one who served under him. ‘“Bill” Slim was to us, averred Antony Brett-James, ‘a homely sort of general: on his jaw was carved the resolution of an army, in his stern eyes and tight mouth reside all the determination and unremitting courage of a great force.

His manner held much of the bulldog, gruff and to the point, believing in every one of us, and as proud of the “Forgotten Army” as we were.  I believe that his name will descend into history as a badge of honour as great as that of the “Old Contemptibles.”  Sadly, Slim’s name and achievements have not done what Brett-James hoped, and it is now the responsibility of a new generation to understand and appreciate his achievements.’

Robert Lyman’s A War of Empires will be published by Osprey in November 2021.

————————————————————————————–Lord William Slim in the House of Lords London UK

Allies Being a Stranger in a very Strange Land Grumpy's hall of Shame You have to be kidding, right!?!

Chesty Puller, Dan Daly, Lou Diamond et al must be crying mighty hard right now!

And I thought this was some bullshit put out by the Coast Gaurd or Space Force. But No!!!!!

The “Squad Push-Up” was a product of years of illegal experiments on Marines, culminating in the obscene workout in which you stick your face up the butthole of your friends and pushup together. As one.

A… Human centipede, of sorts.

Terminal Lance


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Thank you Mr. Woods!!!!

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I’m biased so shut up

Strangling a taliban leader by sneaking into their compound at night alone

Narrowly avoiding death 4 times

Exposing yourself in a Taliban ambush to draw attention away from your boys

Running directly into enemy fire, neutralizing the enemy for your team to escape, being killed while doing so

With many more honorable actions to mention, I present to you

The Australian SASR

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