In the film Casino Royale, the line “former SAS types” is uttered by Vesper Lynd when describing Bond – and she’s almost right. Based on a few indicators, it is clear that at least one iteration of James Bond was actually a member of the Special Boat Service, or SBS. While the SBS has a hand in glove history with the SAS, even being a part of it for a portion of World War Two, today I want to focus on the Special Boat Service in particular. I’m addressing this topic today after recently re-entering the world of military historical reading. All my life, I have been intrigued by those hard men who did the unthinkable and often impossible to keep the wheels of history turning. In recent years, I’ve failed in my continued education, ceasing my reading of history. However, thanks to the likes of great people like Jack Carr, Paul (@paul_the_history_dude), Keith Ford (@rkford), and Spycraft 101 (@spycraft101), I’ve been reinvigorated and have been diving headfirst back into this world.
Connecting my passion for history back to the world of 007, I’ve been enjoying the opportunity to explore what Bond’s actual military service history may have looked like. Thanks to a great write-up at Forces.net, picking apart Bond’s uniform from each of its appearances on screen and in the novels, I’ve found some interesting things that simply warrant further discussion!
A Very Brief History of the SBS
First, I’d like to present a brief history of the Special Boat Service, prior to the discussion of Bond’s relationship with this fabled unit. The following is from my friend Paul, in a post we put together recently celebrating James Bond and the SBS. You can find Paul on Instagram here for some of the best military history content out there.
The Special Boat Service is the United Kingdom’s premier maritime counterterrorism unit. Developed during the Second World War as a specialized folding kayak raiding party, committing daring small scale raids on German and Italian installations throughout North Africa and the Mediterranean. Later, after casualties whittled down the unit, they were absorbed into the fledgling SAS.
In 1946 the unit was disbanded. However in 1947 the unit got a new lease on life, seeing service in Palestine, Korea, the Falklands, and being assigned sabotage missions for the defense of Germany in the event of an invasion by Warsaw Pact forces. In 1987 the unit was officially renamed the Special Boat Service and became officially designated part of United Kingdom Special Forces Group along with 14 intelligence company and their sister special operations group the SAS.
Although officially a maritime unit, the SBS operates in a wide variety of environments including some where the only water involved is in their canteens. Similar in capability to the SAS, the SBS hunted SCUDs in the 1991 Gulf War, conducted peacekeeping in East Timor, participated in hostage rescue operations in Sierra Leone, and had an instrumental role in the opening days of the war in Afghanistan. Today, the SBS is the mysterious sister service to the SAS. Very little information is given to the public officially or unofficially.
James Bond’s Military History
During the Brosnan era, we catch a glimpse of his passport, which shows a birthdate of November 10, 1953. The year ’53 is of course a hallowed one in the Bond canon, as it was the year Ian Fleming published Casino Royale. It also actually happens to be the year that Brosnan was born! This places Brosnan’s Bond in his early 40’s during the events of GoldenEye, Tomorrow Never Dies, and the World is Not Enough. This birthdate, among other things we’ll get to shortly, places Bond’s service from the early 70’s forward.
- James Bond during the Brosnan era was styled as “Commander James Bond, OBE DSC RN.”
- OBE – Officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire
- DSC – The Distinguished Service Cross
- RN – The Royal Navy
In addition, when looking at his uniform in Tomorrow Never Dies, Bond is clearly wearing SBS jump wings, confirming his connection with the SBS. What’s also interesting is the variety of ribbons worn by Bond on his dress uniform. Again, my thanks to Forces.net for the great writ-up ID’ing these medals.
Most standout to me is the Rhodesia Medal, which signals that Bond took some part in “Operation AGILA” in 1979-1980, which was the peacekeeping operation during the twilight of Rhodesia, as it became what is known today as Zimbabwe. Any student of military history has at least a slight familiarity with the Rhodesian Bush War and the Selous Scouts. Regardless of your leanings, these individuals are a fascinating study, and certainly are worth the time to learn more about, as I intend to do myself. With questionable yet effective tactics, these units took the fight directly to the enemy in the most unconventional of manners.
Again, no matter your opinion, it is intriguing to discover that Bond had even a small role in this conflict, albeit at the end.
James Bond’s SBS
Based on the above timeline, we can safely make the assumption that James Bond was connected to the Special Boat Service during the 1970’s, during his early military career. With the Falklands War in the early 80’s, one can also stretch the imagination to include Bond’s career taking him there prior to his MI6 days.
A Bond birthed in the fires of the Cold War, learning the realities of the world as an SBS man during the severe rise in global terrorism becomes a character with so much more depth and detail. With this, we find a character that is not just a “relic of the Cold War” but a man who, in his 20’s and 30’s, watched the collapse of Soviet era Communist rule while also managing the growing crisis of terrorism. History is a savage and heartbreaking educator, and the events of the 1970’s are no different. In that decade, the SBS was given the Maritime Counter-Terrorism Role with the role of protecting cruise ships, oil platforms, ferries, and sea ports. The SBS was also active during The Troubles, taking part in covert surveillance and anti-gun running operations in 1975 for example.
You can read more about the history of the SBS here.
To me, someone interested in connecting with and using Bond’s kit in my daily life, on the trail, and on the range, this opens a unique window regarding what kit James Bond would’ve used as a SBS operator during this time. The core of Bond to me comes down to the pieces that make up his everyday carry, the tools of his trade. We all know about the Walther PPK, issued by MI6, and the last few decades of the Omega connection, but what about what came before that? In the SBS, James Bond would’ve been issued completely different equipment. I’ve already written on the Browning Hi-Power and its history with Bond – read that in my blog “Former SAS Types” – James Bond & the Browning Hi-Power.” But a timepiece is equally as interesting, and I’m thrilled to share the story of that below.
Enter – Forscher Watch Company & their MilSub 5513/5517 homage diver.
The History of the Rolex 5513/5517
The Rolex MilSub, named for the combined terms “Military & Submariner” is arguably the most famous military issued diving watch of all time, especially the 5513/5517 series. This particular series was manufactured expressly for the British Special Forces from 1971-1979, with a total 1,200 units being produced.
This limited production, along with the hardships faced by issued equipment – as Bond tells Q in Goldfinger, “Well, you’d be surprised the amount of wear and tear that goes on out there in the field,” has left us with only around 180 total Rolex 5513/5517’s today. It is also worth noting that this “double stamp” Rolex did not have a civilian counterpart, adding to its rarity.
There’s so many subtle details and changes made by MOD requests on this timepiece. One of my personal favorites is the circled letter “T” just above the six o’clock position. This symbol confirmed that the original and hazardous radium lume had been removed from the dial and replaced with Tritium by the MOD subcontractor Burford. For those unfamiliar with the tragedies caused by radium dials, I recommend seeing the play “Radium Girls” written by D.W. Gregory. Radium was outlawed in the late 1960’s due to the severe health impacts of the compound, and that show does a wonderful job of discussing the people who made luxury watches and paid dearly for it with mysterious ailments.
Tritium is still a well-regarded luminescent and is used in everything from watch faces to night sights on handguns, such as the Sig Sauer X-Ray Night Sights by Bond on his P226R. Tritium does decay overtime though, and with the decay came a color change to the marked regions, to a soft, sand or khaki color.
The Forscher 5513/5517 Homage
My friends over at Forscher Watch Company were emboldened by the history of this watch and set out in 2021 to create the most authentic homage to date. They also set out to produce only 180 total units, in honor of the select few Rolexes still in existence.
Using a Seiko NM38 automatic movement, their homage came to life.
I don’t think I can articulate fully how passionate these individuals are regarding the details of this build. The materials of the case, caseback, bidirectional bezel, and dial markings are all the same as the original watch. The band is even sourced to spec from the original MOD vendor, Phoenix of Wales, UK.
I was recently honored and humbled by Forscher with the gift of their MilSub Homage. Their correspondence with me and my recent collaboration with Paul the History Dude has only furthered my interest in the history of the Special Boat Service and James Bond, naturally. I look forward to wearing this watch daily, as a reminder of the real hard men and heroes who destroyed the vast majority of the original 1,200 units protecting the free world. It’s also unique from the pop-culture angle of this passion project, as it truly would be the pre-Omega Bond watch, at least of the Brosnan era.
You can learn more about the Forscher MilSub 5513/5517 homage at the attached link.
James Bond’s SBS Equipment – A Continuing Journey
With this on the wrist, I can now only be satisfied by continuing to build the SBS/SAS kit from that era into my own. I absolutely love the commando equipment found in 2021’s No Time to Die, but in reality, it is limiting for a number of factors, and I’ve been considering falling back to Bond’s special forces roots for some time now to put together functional equipment to test and showcase through this channel. I’m excited to continue these conversations and share with you not only the history of 007, but the history of real life heroes as well. If this at all interests you, I recommend my recent write-up on the Browning Hi-Power, as it was the service pistol issued to the SBS up until recent years, and would’ve been the service handgun of many of the Bond’s. This journey is just getting started, and I’m so glad to be sharing it with you here.