SBS – SILENT WARRIORS

Reviewed by: CHRIS O’FLAHERTY

In this intriguing, enlightening and flowing read, author Saul David has scripted a compelling ‘Authorised’ wartime history of one of our country’s finest military organisations. Over its 42 chapters, the book charts a delightful course starting with the wartime instigation of small nefarious units that became the forebears of today’s Special Boat Service. Passaging through their various missions and accompanying command metamorphoses, it culminates with the aggregation of the brave participants into our modern maritime Special Forces.

Reinforcing that history is always a great tutor, the early part of the narrative notes the qualities of the people sought during those formative years to become hazardous duties ‘Folbotists’ (named after the canoes they used):

“Are you a professional ‘tough guy’? Do you imitate the film stars, wear funny hats, or walk around carrying more weapons than a Mexican bandit … ? Or have you got the true conception of ‘tough guy’? Are you the quiet type of man who would not be ‘picked out’ in a crowd”?

Despite regular aggrandisement by the British press of those who serve today in such outfits, those who know, know!

Focussing on daring missions and clandestine activities rather than administrative machinations, it is a delightful collection of derring-do vice dreary admiralty paperwork. Carefully referenced in all the right places, its various assertions and revelations can also be appropriately cross checked or used as a basis for future deeper dives into specific controversial or heroic events.

The book is filled with delightful anecdotes and quotes that exemplify the dark humour that the Royal Marines (including the SBS) hold so dear. In one quote the founder of the SBS, Roger ‘Jumbo’ Courtney, wrote down his advice to his colleagues on how to conduct themselves when embarked in a submarine that found itself under depth charge attack:  “pay no attention, read an improving book (it might be held upside down but it doesn’t matter, it is the impression that counts), [as] everyone else is just as tense as you are and nothing can be done about it.” The irrepressible stoicism of the Corps is further exemplified when describing some ration options during training: “when no chickens were available [to pilfer] they ate hedgehogs, rats and even worms, and realised that ‘things that look repulsive can actually be quite edible.’” He even reminds us of some of the novel uses Commandos can find for condoms … not just for keeping down the population, but in one instance for waterproofing their pusser’s signalling torches.

As a serious historical work, David Saul’s examination of the infamous HMS Torbay incident is well crafted and poignant. Using original testimony, he carefully relates the circumstances in which the then Lt Cdr A C C Miers RN ordered the machine-gunning of enemy troops after his submarine had attacked their transport vessel; Torbay had a team of Folbotists onboard, who recorded the events themselves and were aghast regarding the conduct of their submariner host. This particular vignette is but one sobering reminder of the viciousness of war, concurrently reminding the reader that the basic tenets of humanity must not be allowed to be overridden by the quest to win – strength is important, guile is an equally vital quality, but never overstep into atrocity.

By way of daring corollary, Saul’s detailed account of the Operation FRANKTON raid on Bordeaux (later immortalised in the film The Cockleshell Heroes) is equally well crafted and historically valuable. His thoughtful narration benefits from his access to many original documents surrounding the planning and reporting of the raid, with considerable poignancy added by his delicate quotations from the final letters written by members of the raiding party and sent to their families when they failed to return from that ‘Brilliant Little Operation’. A later chapter builds on this absorbing narrative, retelling the story of the Operation SUNBEAM limpet-mining raid on Portolago, often regarded as equally daring – but much more successful.

Across 10 chapters, Saul charts the work of the Combined Operations Pilotage Parties (COPPs) assisting the 1943 Allied landings in Sicily, and then implementing the lessons therefrom as they delicately reconnoitred the beaches for Operation OVERLORD, using X-Craft submarines. Going on to describe very vividly some of the actual landings, he exemplifies the incredible teamwork of that operation via a great quote from COPPist Major (later Major General) Scott-Bowden’s personal account:

“Gradually with immense courage the infantry and engineers, some using man-pack flame-throwers, worked along the ridge destroying the rabbit warren of [German] bunkers as the naval gunfire moved along just in front of them. It was a magnificent display of navy and army cooperation.”

 

The last major section of the book initially transports the reader to south-east Asia, where the COPPists, the Sea Reconnaissance Unit, Detachment 385, and the Special Boat Section (as it then was) were drawn together under a unified Command. Vivid descriptions of their various raids, rivalry and reorganisations then journey the reader to the conclusion of the war, to Allied victory, and to the formation of our modern maritime Special Forces.

Saul David’s research was greatly aided by the SBS Association, a charity that supports current and past SBS personnel and their families and who also maintain a classified archive of past operations to which Saul was granted access. By way of recognition to the SBSA, it is lovely to note that 1% of proceeds from the book will go to support their charitable work.

SBS-Silent Warriors is a truly great read. It is both a gripping wartime chronicle and also a meticulous and valuable historical account of heroic littoral warfare. It is very heartily recommended.