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News > Old Berkhamstedians from the Past > Roger Courtney

Roger Courtney

Founder of the Special Boat Section during the Second World War

Courtney (centre) with No.2 Special Boat Section in 1943. (Photo by J P Foot from NAM collection)
Courtney (centre) with No.2 Special Boat Section in 1943. (Photo by J P Foot from NAM collection)
Before the outbreak of the Second World War, Roger Courtney was an adventurer in Africa. A skilled canoeist, Courney even paddled the entire length of the Nile with only a spear and a sack of potatoes. 

In 1940, Courtney volunteered to join the Commandos, a new amphibious force in the British army. Courtney developed the idea of using folboats, or collapsible canoes, to undergo reconnaissance missions and raids in enemy waters. His initial proposal was not popular with his commanding officers. Despite the stealth of canoes, their small size and vulnerability made many doubt the sense of Courtney's proposal. 

Determined to demonstrate his idea, Courtney launched an undercover attack on a harboured British ship and stole the cover frrom a deck gun to prove his mission had been a success. He then burst into a meeting of senior officers and gave them the gun cover. 

Following this, Courtney was made captain of the No.1 Special Boat Section. After rigorous training, the team was deployed on active duty. The first mission of the Special Boat Section was to carry out reconnaissance of beaches on the Italian-occupied island of Rhodes, and Courtney was awarded the Military Cross for his work. 

Although Courtney was forced to return to Britain in 1942 because of poor health, the Special Boat Section continued to develop, eventually forming the Special Boat Squandron in 1943. Whilst Courtney died in 1949 in Somaliland, the Special Boat Service remains an important part of the British army involved in raiding, reconnaissance and counterterrorism.

In 2017, Courtney's younger brother wrote about his brother and the creation of the original Special Boat Section in his novel SBS in World War Two. 

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