How The Wind In The Willows kept two SBS members going during a trek

How Mr Toad helped the Special Boat Service to flee Nazis: Author reveals how The Wind In The Willows kept two SBS members going during a 41-day dessert trek

  • Saul David gives account of how the SBS was born from wartime needs in a book
  • Roger ‘Jumbo’ Courtney founded the UK-based Special Boat Service in 1940
  • The most ambitious of all their operations was a raid on the Libyan headquarters 
  • Two survivors trekked an astonished 41-days across the desert to safety  



by Saul David (William Collins £25, 528 pp)

In December 1942 ten British men, some barely out of their teens, weredelivered with their canoes by submarine to the mouth of the River Gironde in Occupied France.

Their job was to paddle more than 70 nautical miles upriver to the harbour at Bordeaux where they would sink enemy shipping with limpet mines. In one sense, the mission was a success. Five ships were sunk.

But only two of the men returned to Britain. The rest either drowned or were executed by the Germans. ‘I felt ten feet tall,’ one of the survivors later wrote about his recruitment to the group. ‘What I didn’t know was that I was to be sent to almost certain death.’

Saul David gives an account of how the Special Boat Service was born from wartime needs in a new book. Pictured: British in desert

Operation Frankton, as it was officially known, is the subject of the classic 1950s war film The Cockleshell Heroes. It’s also one of the many tales of extraordinary courage in Saul David’s riveting history of the SBS (Special Boat Service) and associated maritime special operations units during World War II.

The SBS pre-dates its more famous counterpart, the SAS, by a year. It was founded in 1940 by a remarkable man, Roger ‘Jumbo’ Courtney (whose nickname came from his days as an elephant hunter in Africa) who shaped the unit in his own image.

He had little time for swaggering show-offs — instead he looked for resourcefulness and quick thinking. When the future travel writer Eric Newby was interviewed by him, there was a sign on Courtney’s desk which read: ‘Are you tough? If so, get out. I need b***ers with intelligence.’

The unit’s first mission was a daring reconnaissance of Rhodes, then held by the Italians, in the spring of 1941. Fuelled by Benzedrine pills to keep them alert, their faces darkened by boot polish, Courtney and a colleague landed by canoe on beaches to survey enemy defences.

Their value proven, further operations by the SBS followed. One Free French general, Henri Giraud, was rescued by SBS canoe and submarine from Vichy France. In his 60s, Giraud was unused to travelling in a kayak and, at one point, was told, ‘Sit down, you silly old fool’ by one of the SBS men.

SBS: SILENT WARRIORS by Saul David (William Collins £25, 528 pp)

The most ambitious of all their operations was a raid on the Libyan headquarters of Erwin Rommel, the ‘Desert Fox’. The plan was to capture or kill the legendary German general. ‘If he comes quietly, we’ll bring him along,’ Lieutenant Colonel Geoffrey Keyes, the leader of the attack, said. ‘If he doesn’t, we’ll knock him off.’

In the event, the raid went badly wrong: Rommel was not even there, Keyes was killed and most of his men captured. Two of the party, Colonel Laycock and Sergeant Terry, made an astonishing 41-day trek across the desert to safety.

As they hid in daylight, Laycock read aloud from a copy of The Wind In The Willows to pass the time. ‘Safe at last!’ Terry is reported to have said when they reached British lines. ‘And now, thank God, I shan’t have to hear any more of that bloody Mr Toad!’

The SBS’s greatest achievements came during preparations for D-Day, when — on New Year’s Eve 1943, nearly six months before the invasion — they were the first to set foot on the chosen beaches to survey the terrain. On D-Day itself, crammed into mini-submarines, they went ahead of the main forces to guide in t landing craft by flashing signals and radar.

If they were spotted, they were supposed to scuttle the sub and swim ashore. ‘We all had French identities,’ one man noted, ‘in case we were captured or just drowned. I had the complete disguise outfit of a French taxi driver.’

Today’s SBS prides itself on its traditions. ‘We are indebted to our bloodline . . . Unconventional and irregular, we are misfits who fit in, thinkers who fight and fighters who think.’

Saul David’s book is a brilliant account of how the SBS was born from wartime needs, and just how much the organisation and its affiliated units were able to achieve in those early years.

Source: Read Full Article