Special Boat Service

The Special Boat Service (SBS) is the special forces unit of the British Royal Navy. The service's motto is "By Strength and Guile". It forms part of the United Kingdom Elite Special Forces group, alongside the Special Air Service (SAS), Special Reconnaissance Regiment (SRR), Special Forces Support Group (SFSG) and 18 (UKSF) Signal Regiment.

The SBS is an independent unit of the Royal Marines based at Royal Marines Poole, in Poole, Dorset, co-located with 1 Assault Group Royal Marines and 148 Commando Forward Observation Battery, Royal Artillery.


The roles of the Special Boat Service are predominantly focused on, but not restricted to, the littoral and riverine waterborne domains, including:

  • Coastal reconnaissance
  • Covert beach reconnaissance (Hydrographic survey) in advance of amphibious assault
  • Recovery or protection of ships and oil installations subject to hostile state or non-state (terrorist) action.
  • Maritime Counter-Terrorism
  • Support to Police and customs
  • Offensive Action


The Ministry of Defence does not comment on special forces matters therefore little verifiable information exists in the public domain. Memoirs suggest an organisation split into four operational squadrons and a training wing, with a range of supporting personnel drawn from the Royal Marines, Royal Navy, Royal Air Force and the British Army.

The SBS is under the Operational Command of Director Special Forces, which allocates resources to the Permanent Joint Headquarters, deployed forces or other tasks as required. Qualified personnel are known as "Swimmer Canoeists" and are employed in one of the operational squadrons, training wing or elsewhere in the RM, RN, DSF or MOD.

  • Two squadrons, C and X, support general SBS tasks.
  • M squadron is the Maritime Counter-Terrorism and shipboard operations unit.
  • Z squadron conducts small watercraft and mini-sub insertions.
  • Training Wing conducts selection and continuation training and includes a concepts and doctrine capability.

Personnel have previously been required to return to the main Commando force after the first three -year tour, potentially returning again after a short period.

The special forces element of 3 Commando Brigade is usually provided by the SBS, tasked from the Directorate of Special Forces.

The SBS Reserve (SBS(R)), provides individual reservists to serve with the regular SBS rather than forming independent teams.


To be eligible for SBS selection, a candidate must have at least two years regular service in the British Armed Forces. Formerly candidates were from the Royal Marines or the Royal Navy, but now volunteers are taken from any arm of the services. In order to qualify as a Swimmer Canoeist, Candidates must first undergo Special Forces Selection with the SAS before continuing to SBS selection.

For SBS Reserve (SBS(R)) selection, candidates must have previous military experience or have served at least two years in the Royal Marines Reserve before passing the three main elements (Hills Phase @ 4 km/h / Ex Atap Hurdle / SERE) of regular UKSF selection and gaining the specialist qualification of swimmer canoeist.


Qualification as an SBS Swimmer Canoeist involves an extensive training course, building on the skills gained during SF Selection at Hereford. Training includes:

  • Diving both closed and open circuit - candidates swim underwater for miles in poor visibility completing complex navigational tasks and employment exercises
  • Parachuting static line
  • Demolition
  • Infiltration of ships, in harbour and whilst under way, and oil platforms
  • Canoeing - Use of the Klepper canoe during selection is extensive
  • Further survival training in the wilds of Scotland
  • Beach reconnaissance including photography
  • Maritime Counter-Terrorism activities

Those who pass the selection course qualify as a Swimmer Canoeist (SC3) and are then probationers, advancement to Corporal and Sergeant are predicated on qualification as an SC2 and SC1 respectively. Advancement to Sergeant also requires completion of the Senior Command Course at Commando Training Centre Royal Marines, mandatory for all Royal Marines at this stage.

On qualification Marines of the SBS wear the branch badge on the left cuff of lovat green and blue uniform jackets, the letters SC over a wreath, Officers wear no branch designators. On qualification as an advanced parachutist, personnel are awarded the SBS variant of special forces parachute wings, worn on the shoulder of the right sleeve. Marines continue to wear the commandos green beret.

Notable members

SBS veterans include:

  • Lord Paddy Ashdown - Former Liberal Democrats leader
  • Duncan Falconer - Author of 'First into Action' a factual account of SBS selection and operations.
  • Earl Jellicoe - Lord Privy Seal and Leader of the House of Lords (1970-1973)
  • Anders Lassen VC, MC** - Victoria Cross recipient, World War II
  • Paul McGough - Battle of Qala-i-Jangi[9] veteran
  • Eric Newby MC, CBE - British travel writer
  • Richard Van Der Horst - Former CO Special Boat Service