Pot Luck — How the First SBS Mission Shouldn’t Have Gone So Well

The date is 22 June 1941. The first SBS mission is due to take place, John Parker explains in SBS — The Inside Story of the Special Boat Service.

Tug Wilson, also known as Lieutenant-Colonel Robert Wilson DSO and bar was one of the pair. Wilson was a middle class canoe fanatic, slender, good-looking but not known for being a tough guy.

The tough guy of the pair is his partner. Marine W. G. Hughes. Marine Hughes is small but strong and also loves to canoe.

They’ve been out together before but a month previous they were out and saw their mission aborted due to bad weather, a macaroni laden schooner being their only victim.

Searching for Action

Captain Shrimp Simpson bosses The 10th Submarine Flotilla, based in Malta, and he meets the pair. Wilson and Hughes have blagged their way there in search of some action but Captain Simpson doesn’t see the need or the validity of using small covert pairs for attacks.

He signs them off with permission to go out to sea with HMS/M Urge, more to get them out-of-the-way if anything. Urge is due in to refuel in the third week of June.

On the Hunt

They pack away their folbot in the submarine along with their knives, tommy-guns and explosives since they won’t require it until they found some action.

A folbot kayak, very similar to what was used for the first SBS mission. (Photo credit: Grand Canyon NPS, Flickr)

They didn’t have a set target. Their aim was find something while out and about that they deemed worthy of destroying. This would’ve taken weeks. They might not have even found a viable target.

Sailing around the southern coast of Italy and seeing Mount Etna towering over them close by, they spotted something. It shouldn’t have been this easy to find something but luck was on their side this evening.

The periscope scanning had provided a nice view of a tunnel. Jackpot. Troops heavily populate Sicily and the tunnel looks like it’s serving the main railway line. They check the charts and it confirms what they see.

Preparing to Launch

The pair will launch in the dark of night so the they fit buoyancy aids to the small, flimsy canoes and have a canvas sheet to keep their explosives, kit and weapons dry.

Wilson and Hughes, prepare to head off when the sub comes to within a mile of the shore, sit thinking about the upcoming events. They have 50 kg of explosives on board, therefore this will be a tough journey despite their experience and love of canoeing.

They have what they need for this lightweight, rapid raid. The men have tommy guns slung over their shoulders, cam cream on their faces and have their paddles at the ready. The pair can communicate with Urge by using a torch covered with an old sock to dim the beam meaning there’s no radios to get help if they need it.

Wilson can use the torch and sock to signal for extraction.

HMS/M Urge, where Wilson and Hughes set off from to conduct the raid.

HMS/M Urge, where Wilson and Hughes set off from to conduct the raid.

Hughes and Wilson wonder if they will see Urge again as it disappears from view. Could their first SBS mission go horribly wrong?

Out On Their Own

Wilson and Hughes head towards the shore, dodging fishing boats they pinpoint as they approached the shore. Sound travels fast and easily in the dead of night and the fisherman have no reason to stay silent, their voices covering the entire bay. The pair make their way towards the shore and come right upon a cove. It’s perfect to hide their canoe. Luck strikes in their favour.

They remove the explosives from the canoe and make their way up the embankment to get a better view of the target. They were less than a quarter of a mile from the tunnel. Great placement. Two trips are required to get the explosives to the tunnel so they get moving.

Setting the Explosives

They need to be as quiet as possible. Wilson wants no tools to be used to place the explosives 30 meters inside the tunnel. They both move shale with their bare hands to keep noise to a minimum. They’re praying a train doesn’t come right now. They don’t want to be running away down a tunnel with a train screaming down their necks.

Parker explains in his book -

The fuses were to be laid to the underside of the rail line so that the raised studs on the casing would get pressed down by a train passing along the line, igniting the detonators attached to the gelignite the moment the train passed.

When the railway line signals change to green, indicating a train is coming, they make a rapid exit, Wilson removes the safety bar before setting off. They’ve spent 90 minutes making their way from the canoe and setting the explosives and they are glad to find their canoe still where they left it.

Everything is going perfectly so far. It isn’t like they have a train timetable to plan around but this was unreal.

Making Their Escape

Murphy’s law states there will be fishing boats on the extraction and sure enough there are so some silent paddling with single paddles gets them out in the open. The pair then wait for the explosion in the tunnel.

Will it even work? What if it didn’t work? The Germans could discover the explosives. Then they would bring extra troops to the area and they could be discovered.

Thankfully Urge is there to pick them up. There is still no explosion while they get their boat and their kit back on board. They think of reasons as to why it hasn’t gone off. Did they attached an incorrect connection to it or did they get their kit wet during the journey which caused it to fail? Maybe luck wasn’t on their side anymore tonight.

The Captain looks through his binoculars and notices some faint lights. It’s a train and it’s just entering the tunnel so Wilson counts in his head and watches as the sky turns red with an almighty explosion. Jackpot.


Confirmation of the damage comes in the morning when after lurking around in deeper waters overnight they check on the tunnel. There are plenty of people there removing debris from the attack so this is a successful first SBS mission. Perfect really.

From dodging the fishing boats to landing right upon a cove to timing their explosives placement to greatly coincide with the train coming. This raid had lady luck riding with them on their shoulder.

There is no doubt that this first SBS mission caused massive disruption to German forces using the railway line and Urge cracked on patrolling with Wilson and Hughes enjoying their success and most of all, starting to plan future raids.