Except the SAS weren’t technically the first special forces unit.
Roger Courtney was first. Nearly a year before Stirling created the SAS, Roger Courtney was suggesting from experience that a small force of men could carry out effective sabotage raids. Using canoes, they could land on enemy coastlines undetected and attack enemy shipping.
Technically the “SBS” started later, but Courtney started Folboat troop which went on to become the SBS, a name change (and they went through a few), doesn’t forget the creators and their hard work.
Who Was He?
Roger Courtney MC was born in 1902. He travelled from Africa – where he was big game hunting – back to the UK when World War II broke out. He was in the King’s Royal Rifle Corps before becoming an Army Commando recruit in 1940.
Spending time in Scotland at the Combined Training Centre, it was here that he suggested unsuccessfully to Admiral of the Fleet, Roger Keyes that a folding kayak brigade would work. He then moved on to try to persuade Admiral Theodore Hallett, where he was also unsuccessful.
So what would an adventurous man who was talented with a canoe do? He wouldn’t take no for an answer of course so took it in to his own hands. Courtney was rejected by the bosses. But being rejected made him want it more.
The man had the passion and the drive to get a unit going but others didn’t see it that way. Senior officers thought his ideas were ridiculous because operations like this hadn’t been done before. The officers told Courtney this to his face.
Making His Point
To make a statement he had to take action. He had to show them that it could work. There was to be no persuading the officers about this matter. He headed out in his canoe and paddled out into the Clyde Estuary. The target was HMS Glengyle, it was moored up and waiting.
Courtney entered the water. He made his way to the anchor chain of HMS Glengyle, climbing up over the guard rail, and crept past the sentry who was unaware of the “intruder”. The legend wanted to collect himself a souvenir.
The daring soldier exited the ship the same way as he entered. Paddling back – with no doubt a smug look on his face – he wanted to show how his methods would work. Senior officers that weren’t interested in his idea were in a meeting in a hotel not far away.
Disturbing the Meeting
He walked straight in to the meeting, dripping wet, placing a look of horror on the officers’ faces, and dropped a soaking wet canvas gun cover on to the table. Stick that in your pipe and smoke it.
Some said it was a fluke, that he couldn’t do it again. Courtney said he would repeat it to show it was a good tactic worth continuing with. Admiral Sir Roger Keyes, head of Combined Operations, agreed to give him another go.
Now here is what sets this man apart from most others. The sea is ice-cold. Courtney got up alongside HMS Glengyle once again wearing only bathing trunks and paddling on his own. The soldier placed chalk marks along the side to show where he would have placed mines.
The slight down side of the mission was that he was tempted by a length of rope hanging over the side of the ship. He could have just gone back and proved his point, going undetected and taking the victory. Instead he climbed up the rope and on to the ship because he wanted to make a major statement.
Courtney was captured. The ship’s captain was aware of his visit, and despite getting past the sentry, he couldn’t do as much as he wanted to do.
The captured Brit impressed Admiral Keyes. Courtney was promoted to captain before forming the first group of soldiers that were Folboat Troop. He was allowed 12 men so he started to look for suitable soldiers.
The Captain put out a request asking for men to volunteer for “special service of a hazardous nature.” Among the applicants was Tug Wilson. Wilson was currently serving with the Royal Artillery.
Courtney appointed Wilson his second-in-command after they had spent the whole night discussing tales from the past and plans for the future of the unit. Courtney had earlier given a lecture about the upcoming adventures the men would face and these included low survival odds and missions with danger as a part of the daily routine.
Training the Men
The pair made plans to train the men but this could be difficult as some of the men had never been in a canoe. Some couldn’t read a map and not many knew anything about explosives. No special equipment was available to them so they did their work in basic battle dress. They couldn’t use breathing equipment and wet suits weren’t just hanging in their HQ for them to chuck on.
It was Courtney and Wilson who conducted the first SBS mission together. They went on to conduct many more throughout the war, completing more daring missions each time as they sought to improve their capabilities behind enemy lines.