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Special Boat Service

5 min read
Two SBS Swimmer canoeists emerge from the sea with weapons ready, c2010

Two SBS Swimmer canoeists emerge from the sea with weapons ready, c2010


The Royal Navy’s Special Boat Service traces its origins back to several units that undertook raids, sabotage and reconnaissance from small boats, canoes and submarines during the Second World War (1939-45). These included the Royal Marines Boom Patrol Detachment, the Army Commando’s Special Boat Section and the Combined Operations Pilotage Parties.

No. 2 Special Boat Section, Hillhead, Hampshire, 1943

A Combined Operations Pilotage Parties canoe, c1944

A Combined Operations Pilotage Parties canoe, c1944


After the war these units were disbanded. But their various roles, along with many of their personnel, were absorbed into the Royal Marine’s Combined Operations Beach and Boats Section (COBBS), formed in 1947. This was initially commanded by Major Herbert 'Blondie' Hasler who had led the 'Cockleshell Heroes' raid.

The COBBS formed a new Special Boat Section the following year. It went through several name changes, including the Special Boat Company (1951) and Special Boat Squadron (1974), before becoming the Special Boat Service in 1987.

Today, SBS recruits share the same gruelling selection process as the Special Air Service (SAS) and develop similar skills. But they acquire additional specialisms in underwater reconnaissance and demolition, canoeing and diving.

Badge of the Special Boat Service

Special Boat Service badge

A Chinook lowering an SBS boat

A Chinook lowering an SBS boat, c2000

Maritime counter-terror

In 1972, members of the SBS parachuted into the Atlantic to board the ‘Queen Elizabeth II’ passenger liner following a bomb scare. Soon after, the SBS were given the maritime counter-terrorism role, with responsibility for protecting ports, ferries, cruise ships and oil platforms. They subsequently developed methods of rescuing hostages in all of these environments.

The SBS recently provided security during the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic sailing competitions. It has also assisted with seaborne anti-drug smuggling operations.

A Special Boat Service Rigid Inflatable Boat, c2010

A Special Boat Service Rigid Inflatable Boat, c2010



SBS teams remove limpet mines from British ships in Haifa harbour.


Korean War

The SBS conduct sabotage missions along the Korean coast, launching raids from submarines and warships that damage the North Korean and Chinese lines of supply and communications.


Indonesian Confrontation

SBS teams carry out reconnaissance missions and amphibious raids across the border in Indonesian Kalimantan.


The Troubles

The SBS carry out several missions, including covert surveillance and an anti-gun running operation by two kayak teams near Torr Head and Garron in 1975.


Falklands War

The SBS carry out covert reconnaissance weeks ahead of the arrival of the main task force and help clear enemy troops from San Carlos Bay the night before the main landings.


Gulf War

The SBS help search and destroy mobile scud missiles, sabotage the Iraqi fibre optics communications network and secure the British Embassy in Kuwait.

Swimmer canoeist divers pictured during a night-time exercise, c2000

Swimmer canoeist divers pictured during a night-time exercise, c2000


Sierra Leone

The SBS join their SAS colleagues in a daring rescue mission deep in the Sierra Leone jungle.



The SBS target the Taleban in a series of successful operations, again often working with the SAS. One SBS patrol helps defeat an uprising of captured Taleban and al-Qaeda prisoners at a fort.



SBS teams scout and help secure the beaches on the Al Faw Peninsula, paving the way for the initial amphibious landings. Other SBS personnel capture the nearby oil fields.

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