26 October 2020 22:31
The unit thought to be behind the raid on an oil tanker off the Isle of Wight is the highly covert British defence unit, the Special Boat Services (SBS). Operations by the SBS are highly classified and not officially confirmed by the Ministry of Defence. Here's what we know about the elusive military unit. What is the Special Boat Service? The SBS is an elite maritime counter-terrorism unit of the Royal Navy tasked to deal with incidents at sea.
Most of its personnel are Royal Marine Commandos and the unit is part of the UK's special forces. It is the Royal Navy's answer to the Special Air Service (SAS). The unit is based in Poole, Dorset, only a few miles from where the stricken Nave Andromeda was when the raid took place. The Ministry of Defence (MOD) says the unit specialises in "daring undercover raids that exploit the element of surprise." Operatives are trained to seize control of ships, tankers or rigs, typically by fast-roping down from helicopters. Recruits go through a similar gruelling selection process as the SAS but acquire additional specialisms in underwater reconnaissance and demolition, canoeing and diving.
On its website, the Royal Navy describes SBS personnel as the "most elite and capable soldiers in the entire British military". SBS recruits go through a rigorous selection process including endurance marches in the Brecon Beacons. According to SOFREP, the military news website, there is a joint selection process for both the SAS and SBS. It includes a three-week endurance exercise in the Brecon Beacons and Black Hills of South Wales culminating in a 40-mile while carrying a 55-pound Bergen rucksack. For this, they are instructed to make their way to a series of locations in three days without being captured by a hunter force before reporting for a gruelling tactical questioning assessment. SOFREP says that out of an average of 125 candidates, approximately 10 recruits will make it through the process. When was the SBS formed? The SBS was formed at the height of the Second World War. It was believed to have been the first British unit to enter Athens in 1944 after its liberation from German troops. Special Boat Services operatives in Athens in 1944. According to the National Army Museum, its origins go back to several units that undertook raids, sabotage and reconnaissance from small boats, canoes and submarines during the war. The units included the Royal Marines Boom Patrol Detachment, the Army Commando's Special Boat Section and the Combined Operations Pilotage Parties. It was disbanded after the war but personnel were absorbed into the Royal Marine's Combined Operations Beach and Boats Section (COBBS) which was formed in 1947. It formed a new Special Boat Section the following year. The SBS has had several name changes over the years. In 1972, when the unit parachuted into the Atlantic to board the Queen Elizabeth II passenger liner following a bomb scare, it was given the maritime counter-terrorism role with responsibility for protecting ports, ferries, cruise ships and oil platforms. What missions involving the SBS do we know about? In a similar incident to the Nave Andromeda incident, SBS operatives were airlifted on to a cargo ship in the Thames Estuary in December 2018 when stowaways ran amok. According to the National Army Museum, the SBS has carried out missions in a number of British interventions. In the Korean War, it conducted sabotage missions along the Korean coast, launching raids from submarines and warships that damage the North Korean and Chinese lines of supply and communications. In the Falklands War, it carried out covert reconnaissance weeks ahead of the arrival of the main task force and helped clear enemy troops from San Carlos Bay the night before the main landings. The late Paddy Ashdown was a member of the SBS in the 1960s. In the Gulf War of 1990, it helped search and destroy mobile scud missiles, sabotage the Iraqi fibre optics communications network and secure the British Embassy in Kuwait. One of its most famous recruits, the former Liberal Democrat leader Paddy Ashdown served with the SBS in Borneo in the 1960s. Most operations conducted by the SBS are highly classified and the British government or the MOD rarely comment on them, as the operations involve national security. The SBS is split up into three groups - C, M and S Squadrons. C Squadron is responsible for swimmer and canoe operations. S Squadron specialises in small water borne craft and mini-sub operations.M Squadron is responsible for maritime anti-terrorism and ship boarding operations and within it is the Black Group - a counter-terrorist team that uses helicopter-borne assaults. Special Boat Service: How Britain's most secretive elite military force thwarted a 'hijacking' in its backyard The SBS was formed in the Second World War around the same time as the SAS, but its operations are cloaked in secrecy as its members face increasing demand Sandwiched between a caravan park and a housing estate in a quiet corner of Poole, the Hamworthy Camp is a suitably discrete location for the headquarters of Britain's most secretive elite military force – the Special Boat Service. At some point shortly after 10.04am on Sunday, when the captain of the Nave Andromeda oil tanker broadcast a mayday message on the open airwaves stating that stowaways had confronted his crew as the vessel sailed off the Isle of Wight, a call would have been made to the Poole barracks bringing one of the SBS squadrons on permanent alert inside to action stations. Within hours, a team of 16 commandos, aided by some 35 comrades including a team of divers sent to check whether mines had been placed on the Liberian-registered tanker, was ready to board the ship anchored off the mouth of the Solent with its 22 crew now locked in its "citadel" – a purpose-built strong room used to ward off pirate attacks. Shortly after 8pm in pitching seas, the SBS force descended on ropes to the deck of the Andromeda from four Royal Navy helicopters which had taken off minutes earlier from Hamworthy Camp, otherwise known as Royal Marines Base Poole. Between the first commando touching down and the seven stowaways deciding to surrender in the face of overwhelming force while the crew were released safe and sound a total of nine minutes had elapsed. Military special forces gained control of the situation (Photo: PA) It was a textbook operation of the exact nature for which the SBS trains, ironically in the same waters where the Andromeda ground to a halt on Sunday morning after radar picked up its erratic course as relations deteriorated between the crew and the stowaways, whose presence on board is understood to have been known by the crew several days before the tanker arrived off its destination port of Southampton after leaving Lagos in Nigeria on 6 October. Either way, seeking to disrupt the passage of a large ship in the backyard of the SBS would not appear to have been a move of tactical genius. The training is rigorous and constant, and they know those waters like the backs of their hands. "But you don't need to be a criminal mastermind to work out that trying to seize an oil tanker seven minutes flying time from the headquarters of probably the best elite force in the world when it comes to naval special ops won't end well." In keeping with its policy of never confirming or denying special forces operations, the Ministry of Defence stated only that "Armed Forces personnel" were involved in the storming of the tanker. Indeed, in the netherworld of Britain's elite military units, a particularly opaque veil of secrecy is thrown over the operations of the SBS. Formed around the same time as the better-known Special Air Service (SAS) during the Second World War, the unit is the elite force of the Royal Navy and consists almost entirely of personnel from the Royal Marines, including a number of frontline female recruits. Royal Marines leave HMS Bulwark during a security exercise off the coast of Weymouth (Photo: Matt Cardy/Getty) The force has evolved in recent decades, assuming responsibility for maritime counter-terrorism operations alongside its role in more conventional covert warfare role. But compared even to the SAS, the activities of the SBS are generally kept firmly out of the headlines. It is understood to be smaller than the SAS, consisting of about 150 to 200 personnel organised into four "squadrons" which rotate through duties from counter-terrorism to foreign deployments. Despite its naval heritage, SBS soldiers are regularly deployed on ground operations and have served alongside the SAS and American elite forces in Afghanistan and Iraq. Its commandos conduct regular exercises to deal with scenarios from a terrorist attack on a cross-Channel ferry to countering the hijacking of a vessel to conduct an attack on a major port or city. In December 2018, a SBS force boarded an Italian cargo vessel, the Grande Tema, after four stowaways ran amok and threatened crew members on the Thames Estuary. Like the men arrested on the Nave Andromeda, the culprits had boarded the ship in Nigeria in search of better life in Europe. Military commanders argue that in an increasingly instable world, there is a growing risk that events such as the ten-hour stand-off on board the Nave Andromeda could take on a far more sinister complexion. Former Royal Navy Rear Admiral Chris Parry said: "Next time it may not be just stowaways.