Just after midnight on April 12 1942, a single canoe, made of wood and canvas and known as a “folbot”, was lowered into the English Channel from a Royal Navy motor launch three miles from Boulogne. The two-man crew, Captain Gerald Montanaro and his paddler, Sergeant Freddie Preece, were equipped with their wits and eight limpet mines, each with a four-hour delay fuse. Their target: a 4,000-ton German tanker full of copper ore moored in Boulogne’s outer harbour.
Despite battling heavy winds, a rising swell and a hole in their canoe (a gash they tried to stem with one of their Commando woolly hats), they managed to breach the defences of a major enemy port, having reached their target, set the mines, escaped again and rendezvoused with the launch only minutes before their canoe sank.
The mines exploded and the freighter sank, the mission a complete success. For reasons of operational security, however, their heroics were kept out of the press and so, like almost all of the Special Boat Service’s wartime operations, it was largely forgotten about.
What a terrible, brutal conflict the Second World War was: some 60 million dead, cities laid waste, many more millions displaced, the horrors of the Holocaust and unspeakable misery. Saul David’s last book dealt with the ghastly Battle of Okinawa, probably the bloodiest most brutal battle of them all, so it is incredibly refreshing to read of these fabulously daring missions: of men of astonishing courage blowing up bridges, surveying invasion beaches, sinking ships in harbour and making clandestine rendezvous with secret agents – all by canoe and midget submarine. Each adventure is relayed with all the relish of a Commando comic.
This authorised history was originally to be written by Paddy Ashdown before his untimely death in 2018, but while David has had access to the former’s research and much more beside, it is very much his own book, begun again from scratch. The resulting story is one of evolving special forces and what became the Special Boat Service – the Navy’s closest equivalent to the SAS.