Down the research rabbit hole
by Christine Kling
Research is both a joy and a curse for a thriller writer. I have this insatiable curiosity, and I like to get my facts right so I spend hours finding and ordering books, then reading and searching on the Internet. Some people think that the Internet is all you would need today, but there is still so much more information that has not made it into the digital realm that I find books are a necessity. I can easily lose myself for hours — or days even reading fascinating bits of information or history, most of which I will never actually write about, but it informs the make-up and the decisions of my characters. Lately, I’ve been lost down this research rabbit hole about an aspect of the Second World War that I never knew existed.
Today, Britain has her SBS, Special Boat Service, their elite Special Forces unit that is similar to America’s U.S. Navy Seals. This unit can trace its history back to 1940 when Winston Churchill knew Britain was not in a situation to launch a land attack across the English Channel yet, but the British public would need stories of success to keep their morale up. He decided to create “specially trained troops of the hunter class, who can develop a reign of terror down the enemy coast.” At that time, these men were to be called commandos.
When I used to think of commandos, I thought of guys parachuting in behind enemy lines and blowing up bridges — stuff like we’ve seen in all those WWII movies. I never pictured a commando as paddling around in a kayak, but that was what the guys in the Folboat Troop did.
In July of 1940, a commando officer named Roger Courtney suggested to the Admiral of the Fleet that men in these small folding kayaks could be very effective. He basically got laughed at. So, he decided deeds would work better than words. Courtney paddled his folboat out to a troop ship, climbed aboard, wrote his name on the door to the captain’s cabin and stole a cover off of one of the deck guns. Then he walked into a meeting of several high-ranking Navy officers meeting at a local hotel and he presented them with the wet gun cover. They promoted him to captain and gave him his unit, renaming it the Special Boat Section.
These folboats were framed with light-weight wood and were covered with waterproof fabric. My area of research is Malta, but these were used everywhere from Europe to SE Asia. In Malta, the commandos shipped out on one of the submarines of the 10th fleet which was based out of Malta. The sub would head off to a secret predetermined location very close to a shore. Initially, the commandos only went after land-based targets. The sub would surface in the black of night, and the commando would put together his little folding kayak on deck, climb into it, and sit there waiting. Then the sub would simply submerge beneath him, thus launching the boat. The commando would paddle his way in through the surf, hide his boat, sneak around and blow up a bridge or a railroad line or whatever, and then paddle back out to his rendezvous with the sub. Suddenly, as the damage mounted the Navy brass became very impressed with what one man could do from these little boats.
Later, the commandos of the Special Boat Section started going after shipping by paddling their little boats right into enemy harbors and placing magnetic limpet mines on the hulls of enemy ships. But one of the coolest things I discovered was the guys back in the weapons lab designed and built some mini-torpedos for these kayaks. They were 21 inches long and meant to be fired at close range from the kayak. They were propelled by modified windshield-wiper motors that turned twin opposing propellors, and were powered by special batteries. These torpedos carried a charge of plastic high explosive, and they were activated by a single button in those wobbly boats in the open ocean! I can’t imagine paddling into enemy waters with one of those clutched between the knees!
So, of course, as you can imagine a nautical thriller writer like me can’t resist this little corner of history. The new book will have a commando character who carries his little folboat onto the submarine UPHOLDER, and his is a top secret mission. Of course, I will have get out of this research hole and finish the book for you to find out what that mission is.