Photo courtesy of the Norwegian Armed Forces’ Special Forces official website.
The naked warriors. The frogmen. The men with green faces. The men with green eyes. All are nicknames the US Navy SEALs were called from World War II to the modern-day wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Their reputation is cemented as one of the most respected special operations forces in the world — and yet the US is not the only country in the world to have such a maritime-centric force. Even though some are not specifically referred to as SEALs, their capabilities are the same or very similar.
The Special Boat Service, or SBS, is the Royal Navy’s equivalent to the Naval Special Warfare Development Group; and the Special Air Service, or SAS, equates to the US Army’s special missions unit. In similar fashion to the US Navy SEALs, our friends across the pond trace the lineage of these units back to World War II.
Maj. Roger Courtney established the Folboat Troop of No. 8 Commando in 1940 with the concept of using naval commandos in kayaks, small boats, and submarines to conduct sabotage, reconnaissance, and raid missions. This unit was later renamed the Special Boat Section, undergoing several name changes throughout the years before settling as the Special Boat Service in 1987.
One of the most notorious SBS missions, aside from their involvement alongside US and coalition forces during the Global War on Terrorism, came in 1972. A mystery caller phoned Charlie Dickson, the finance director of the Cunard Shipping Line, informing him that six bombs had been planted aboard the Queen Elizabeth 2, the world’s most famous luxury cruise liner. The caller threatened to detonate the bombs if the $350,000 ransom wasn’t paid.
The captain of the QE2 was informed of the development, and he warned the 1,438 passengers and 900 crew of the danger. This warning created hysteria and caused the portside rails of the ship to be lined with people. On the afternoon of May 18, a four-man team consisting of one SAS commando, two SBS commandos, and a Welsh bomb disposal expert parachuted into the North Atlantic and searched the cruise liner. Although the situation seemed dire, their search for the explosives came up empty.
The incident was deemed a hoax, the ransom was never claimed, and the perpetrator — Joseph Landisi, a 48-year-old shoe salesman from New York — was sentenced to 10 years in prison. The commandos joined the captain of the vessel for sandwiches and beer and were later recognized with an award of a Queen’s Commendation for Brave Conduct.
The Marinejegerkommandoen (MJK) is Norway’s Naval Special Operations Commando unit. The MJK’s predecessor units were established in the United Kingdom during World War II. The Shetlandsgjengen, or the Shetland Bus, was a motley gang of Norwegian fishermen who used their fishing vessels to clandestinely infiltrate unnoticed into German-occupied Norway. They acted as a lifeline for Norwegians escaping Nazi oppression and as a highway for British Special Operations Executive (SOE) saboteurs who helped train, equip, and conduct irregular warfare operations with Norwegian commandos against the Nazis.
These Norwegian commandos were a part of Kompani Linge — named after Capt. Martin Linge, who was killed in a commando raid in Måløy, Norway, on Dec. 27, 1941. The unit was officially known as Norwegian Company No. 1, and early on in the war they participated in commando raids along the Norwegian coast. They later famously accomplished the mission dubbed Operation Gunnerside that resulted in the destruction of the Nazis’ heavy water plant, which was crucial in preventing the development of a German nuclear bomb.
Similarly to how some US sailors during World War II were sent to the UK to learn commando training, the Norwegians post-World War II went to the US to learn training secrets with the US Navy’s Underwater Demolition Teams (UDTs). Norwegian Navy lieutenant and diving pioneer Ove Lund participated in this exchange program before returning to create the first frogman selection course at Bolærne fortress in the Oslofjord in March 1953. The small but elite and capable force numbered 21 frogmen by the 1970s.
In 1992, the Marinejegerkommandoen adopted its current name, and its first operational combat missions were in the Balkans conflict. These modern-day Vikings deployed as early as 2001 to Afghanistan. Since 2014, the MJK has fallen under the umbrella of the Norwegian Special Operation Forces (Forsvarets Spesialstyrker).
The entire world was captivated by the news when 12 boys and their soccer coach were trapped inside a cave underneath a mountain in Thailand’s Chiang Rai province. The 18-day saga, which began on June 23, 2018, saw an urgent rescue effort led by a group of Thai Navy SEALs. The extraordinary mission came after heavy rains flooded the dark Tham Luang cave complex.
Assisting the Thai Navy SEALs was a team of 90 divers and support personnel, including a detachment of US Air Force Pararescuemen (PJs) from the 320th Special Tactics Squadron. Tech. Sgt. Kenny O’Brien, a PJ who was later chosen as one of the 12 Outstanding Airmen of the Year for 2019, told Stars and Stripes the PJs and Thai Navy SEALs hiked through the thick jungle to find alternative entrances to the cave. But the entrances were found to be dead ends. Their next plan was to use drilling equipment to penetrate the mountain and locate the survivors.
While that plan was developing, the rescuers determined that diving was the only option. The rescuers attempted to move 300 air tanks as far as possible into the cave and had pumps to keep floodwaters down to create air pockets. Their high-risk evacuation plan involved a clever rope system, which pulled the 12 sedated boys and their coach 2.5 miles out of the cave complex to safety.
During the rescue, one Thai Navy SEAL had a shallow-water blackout and had to be resuscitated. Another, named Saman Gunan, died after losing consciousness while placing air tanks, and Petty Officer Beirut Pakbara contracted a blood infection and died in 2019.
Matt Fratus is a history staff writer for Coffee or Die. He prides himself on uncovering the most fascinating tales of history by sharing them through any means of engaging storytelling. He writes for his micro-blog @LateNightHistory on Instagram, where he shares the story behind the image. He is also the host of the Late Night History podcast. When not writing about history, Matt enjoys volunteering for One More Wave and rooting for Boston sports teams.