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9 objects and stories from the National Army Museum’s Special Forces exhibition

The National Army Museum’s first major exhibition since reopening in March 2017 is Special Forces: In the Shadows which explores the history of elite regiments with examples from operations around the world over the past 70 years. Here’s nine objects from the exhibition

The limpet mines of the Cockleshell Heroes


a photo of a tin with small glass bottles inside it

Ampoules for the limpet mine © Combined Military Services Museum

The Special Boat Service was formed to launch secret attacks from small boats, canoes and submarines. One of their first missions, when they were still known as the Royal Marines Boom Patrol Detachment, was Operation Frankton, a raid on German shipping on the port of Bordeaux in France in 1942. Of the ten marines -later dubbed the Cockleshell Heroes – who set out in the MK2 Cockle Canoes from a submarine offshore, only two survived. Six were executed and two died of hypothermia for six enemy ships damaged using pieces limpet mines with pieces of kit like the one above.


The Compleat Folbotist

a typ wtitten page instructing Special Services Personnel how to conduct themselves on a submarine

An original roneo copy of ‘The Complete Folbotist’ by Capt R J Courtney, Folboat Section, 21 August 1941, compiled in HMS Medway in Alexandria © National Army Museum

Captain RJ Courtney was a veteran Commando commander during World War Two whose Special Boat Section later became the Special Boat Service. Here he imparts some valuable advice to commandos raiding and reconnoitering enemy ports and beaches via flimsy folboats (collapsible canoes) from submarines in the Mediterranean. Among the advice for sub-bound commandos was conduct during attack by depth charge: “pay no attention, read an improving book (it might be held upside down but it doesn’t matter, it is the impression that counts)”. Courtney’s commandos carried out dozens of reconnaissance and sabotage missions throughout the war.


An Indian LRDG Sun compass

a photo of a compass made from a brass wheel on a metal stand

Sun compass, 1940 © National Army Museum

In December 1941 an Indian Squadron of the Long Range Desert Group (LRDG) was raised from volunteers of the 2nd Royal Lancers (Gardner’s Horse), Prince Albert Victor’s Own Cavalry (11th Frontier Force) and 18th King Edward VII’s Own Cavalry. Four patrols were formed, consisting of Jats (J Patrol), Mussalmans (M Patrol), Rajputs (R Patrol) and Sikhs (S Patrol). Like all LRDG units, they specialised in reconnaissance behind enemy lines, intelligence gathering and desert navigation. In an era before satellite navigation a good compass was essential in the barren and featureless North African desert.


Paddy Maine’s compass

a photo of an old aircraft compass

Paddy Mayne Compass © Private Loan

What happens when you’re behind enemy lines in the western desert during World War Two and you don’t have a sun compass? If you’re the legendary Lt Col Blair Paddy Maine, you simply use the one you ripped out of the cockpit of an Italian warplane. Maine’s reputation for soldiering, drinking, rugby playing, brawling and most of all, bravery behind the lines during desert raids, make him the quintessential commando. Some of the stories surrounding him may be apocryphal but after being recruited (from his prison cell) by David Stirling for his new L Detachment, the precursor of the Special Air Service, Maine’s desert exploits made him the perfect leader of the clandestine unit after Stirling was captured and carted off to Colditz Castle.


The German Jewish commando’s tunic

a photo of an army officer's tunic

Black Watch tunic belonging to Ronald Hugh Grierson © National Army Museum

This officer’s Black Watch Tunic belonged to Lt Col Ronald Hugh Grierson (born Rolf Hans Greissman). The German born Jew and son of a London based industrialist was briefly interned as an enemy alien but saw action with SAS units in North Africa, Italy and North West Europe, was mentioned in despatches and briefly captured in 1945. As well as forging a post war career as a merchant banker and mover and shaker in the corridors of power, from 1948 to 1952 he commanded the newly-formed territorial 21 SAS in London. The tunic includes medal ribbons for 1939-45 Star, the Italy Star, the France and Germany Star, the Defence medal and the Mentioned in Dispatches Oak Leaf; also has his coloured silk embroidered SAS wings.


The exploits of DJ Dia Harvey

a composite photo of a camouflage jacket and a group of medals

DPM smock and medal group awarded to WO1 D J ‘Dia’ Harvey, Special Air Service, late Hampshire Regiment, 1964-1995 © National Army Museum

Woodland DPM camouflage hooded smock, used by DJ Harvey during his deployment in the Falklands, 1982 and his medal group.‘Dia’ Harvey wore this camouflage smock during his deployment in the Falklands, and the medal group includes the South Atlantic 1982 medal with rosette. Harvey’s G Squadron were inserted behind enemy lines to carry out covert surveillance on the Bluff Cove and West Stanley areas. They spent 28 days at a time undertaking this work. ‘Dia’ was known for his skill and courage at positioning his observation posts very close to the Argentine forces, in order to gather detailed information.


Andy McNab’s survival essentials

a photo of fishing lines and chewing gum

Pack of four fishing lines, and stick of gum from a personal survival kit which was used by Sergeant Andy McNab © National Army Museum

A pack of four fishing lines and a stick of Wrigley’s Spearmint Gum from a personal survival kit which was used by Sergeant Andy McNab with the SAS during Operation Desert Storm in the first Iraq War. The exploits of McNab and his colleagues brought the exploits of the SAS to a wider audience once again when they were featured in his best-selling memoir Bravo Two Zero. Other items in the kit, which McNab put together himself, included condoms for keeping weapons free of water and sand.


Goat skin coat made in Iraq in 1991

tow views of a long dark blue coat lined with fur

Goat skin coat made in Iraq. © National Army Museum

When the SAS Squadrons arrived in the Iraqi desert in 1991, they were under-prepared for the low temperatures they were facing at night, which could reach 2-5°C. Their ingenious solution was to kill local goats, eat the meat and take the skins into local markets to be made into thick, warm coats.


SFSG body vest from Afghanistan

a photo of an armoured body vest camouflaged with green and brown

SFSG overpainted body vest © Airborne Assault Museum

The soldier who wore this load-carrying vest in Afghanistan hand-painted it with vehicle paint to add to its camouflage. Special Forces soldiers often paint camouflage patterns on their issued equipment. This creates a distinct local pattern, which better matches the specific environment they are in.

Special Forces: In the Shadows opens at the National Army Museum on March 17 2018


National Army Museum

London, Greater London

The National Army Museum is a leading authority on the British Army and its impact on society past and present. We examine the army's role as protector, aggressor and peacekeeper from the British Civil Wars to the modern day. Through our collections we preserve and share stories of ordinary people…

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