The British Special Boat Service remains one of Great Britain’s elite special forces units.
From the London Daily Mail
Deadly Ambush: SBS lie in wait on a Greek island
Like many an old soldier, Corporal Dick Holmes never really spoke about what he got up to in the war. When he did discuss his exploits in Greece, Italy and the Balkans he tended to play them down… just a bit. And he still does.
“We didn’t do anything to affect the war in any great way,” he says with staggering understatement.
“We blew up bridges, destroyed airfields, shot up a few Germans. Niggling things that inconvenienced the enemy.”
But modest Dick, now 92, actually played a vital part in defeating the Nazi war machine, even winning a Military Medal for his bravery.
He is the last surviving veteran of Britain’s most secretive and exclusive special forces unit. The Special Boat Squadron was a 200- strong band of “legitimised pirates” who terrorised the Nazis at sea and on land and helped turn the tide of the Second World War.
Yet the achievements of those crack commandos were airbrushed from history by an establishment who considered them “murderous renegade cut-throats”.
Now after 70 years in the shadows, the courage of the men of the SBS is finally being recognised thanks to remarkable new book.
Author Gavin Mortimer spent more than a decade interviewing veterans, scrutinising SBS archives and poring over recently declassified documents to write The SBS in World War II: An Illustrated History.
He explains: “A lot has been written about the SAS but hardly anything about the Special Boat Squadron. They deserve our recognition. It was a small unit, no more than 200 compared to 2,500 in the SAS, and quite a few were killed in the last year of the war.
“It was also so clandestine that few veterans ever told their families exactly what they did. They were exceptional guerrilla fighters with outstanding physical fitness and courage.
“In the months leading up to D-Day in June 1944 their job was to tie down the Germans in the Greek Islands, to divert troops from northern France when the Allies invaded.”
Ted Amsden PhotographyTed Amsden.*** Dick Holmes (Richard James Holmes), former member of the Special Boat Squadron (SBS). Pictured at his home in Canada.
Dick Holmes, former member of the SBS, at his home in Canada with the book.
Gavin adds: “We think of the Greek islands as holiday destinations but 70 years ago they were the scenes of a brutal war. Veterans told me when they intercepted German vessels or met troops they’d dispose of as many as possible and plunder their booze, food and gear. It was a throwback to the days of piracy.
“They were in these little fishing boats sailing from island to island. But they were still deadly. On one raid on the island of Simi in July 1944, they killed 21 Germans and captured 150, all for the loss of two men of their own.”
Their methods didn’t go down well with everyone. In Parliament in 1944 Tory MP Simon Wingfield-Digby snootily tackled Winston Churchill about the secret missions. He asked: “Is it true, Mr Prime Minister, that there is a body of men out in the Aegean islands, fighting under the Union flag, that are nothing short of being a band of murderous, renegade cut-throats?” Churchill simply replied: “If you do not take your seat and keep quiet I will send you out to join them!”
Dick Holmes smiles wryly when reminded of the quote. “Our job was to terrorise the Germans,” he says simply. “We were to be terrorists.”
Dick, who now lives in Ontario, Canada with his wife Eve, has hailed Gavin’s book as a truly authentic account of the wartime SBS.
An East End window fitter, Dick was just 21 and serving with 6th Battalion Grenadier Guards, when he, his best mate Doug Wright and four pals volunteered for the SAS in 1942.
A year later they were sent to the Middle East as founder members of the new SBS under the command of aristocrat Lord George Jellicoe.
They underwent punishing physical training and learned about seamanship, navigation, close combat and explosives. Sent for pistol training, they were welcomed with the words: “This is a school for murder… not the vague shooting of people in combat, but the personal, individual killing of a man in cold blood.”
They practised launching inflatables from submarines and paddling miles in the dark with just compass bearings. When they began their secret missions they were hardcore guerillas.
The SBS at The Parthenon, a temple on the Athenian Acropolis, Greece.
Doug says: “There was no bull***t, no saluting. You were among fellows who hated spit and polish. We were in action a hell of a lot and I told myself I was fighting men who hadn’t done the training I had. “They hadn’t jumped out of planes or marched for miles on end. In my mind I was better than them and that gave me and the rest of the boys a tremendous advantage. We were superior not only physically, but psychologically.”
They had to be. In the last year of the war they knew of Hitler’s order that all captured British commandos must be executed. “We operated under a death sentence,” says Doug. “But I think we slowed them down in the Aegean. We tied up a few thousand of their troops when they would have been better deployed in Russia or France, and we were doing that with only a few dozen men.”
In July 1943 Dick took part in a daring three-week mission on the island of Crete. He and three comrades had to blow up a large Nazi fuel dump and bomb store at Peza.
They spent days trekking over tough terrain with 70lbs of equipment each. Then under the noses of guards and their dogs Dick placed explosives under 170-ton barrels of aviation fuel.
“I was surprised how calm I was” he says. “Two hours later when I saw my handiwork explode I did a little dance.”
He and his pals hiked 100 miles through the mountains, capturing two Germans PoWs on the way, before reaching their boat and sailing 17 hours to safety in Egypt.
Dick won the Military Medal for his part in the raid with a citation praising his “keenness and determination”. It was sent with a personal note from King George VI, which he still treasures.
Ted Amsden PhotographyDick Holmes (Richard James Holmes), former member of the Special Boat Squadron (SBS). Pictured at his home in Canada. An apology from His Majesty George VI for not showing up to give Dick Holmes his medal.
Sorry: An apology from His Majesty George VI for not showing up to give Dick his medal.
Events took a tragic turn in April 1944 when four SBS members were captured on the island of Alimnia, brutally tortured and executed. “We were never told what to do if captured,” says Dick. “We had no interrogation training but we didn’t expect to be captured. It was more likely we would be shot.”
After hearing of their comrades’ fate Dick admits they were no longer “so keen on taking prisoners”. He and Doug were members of a party sent to Santorini to confront the enemy. He recalls: “We were to lay an ambush for three Germans. I told Doug I’d shout “hande hoch” (hands up) but then he was to open up with the Bren and shoot the b******s.
“But they came into the village with a young Greek boy walking next to them so we let them pass. When they returned without the boy we got them.”
The SBS also served in Italy and the Balkans then was disbanded at the war’s end. The name Special Boat Service was later adopted by the Royal Marines.
Dick returned to Britain in 1945 after nearly five years.
He became a PE teacher, married Eve and emigrated to Canada in the 1960s.
He says: “I found my niche in the SBS. I enjoyed it. I was good at it and it was the war I wanted to be fighting.”
the book referred to is: The SBS in World War II, An Illustrated History
by Gavin Morgan.
Available in the US in all formats.
The article above with more photos can be found here.