The Gruelling Path of SBS Selection: A Personal Account by Murph West

The Gruelling Path of SBS Selection: A Personal Account by Murph West

In the shadows of memory, Murph West, a former SBS operator, revisits the landscape of his past, retracing the arduous steps of his selection into the Special Boat Service (SBS) back in 1990. For Murph and his comrades, the journey was not just about physical endurance but a test of mental fortitude that would shape their lives forever.

As Murph recounts, the SBS selection process was cloaked in secrecy, shrouded in the ethos of silence and resilience that defined the elite unit. Before the amalgamation with SAS selection, SBS selection was an enigmatic journey reserved for a select few: Marines with a minimum of three years' experience in a commando unit, those who had excelled in sniper training or mountain leader selection, and even Dutch Marines and Navy Divers who had proven their mettle in the gruelling crucible of the Marines all arms commando course.

The two week long selection process began with a stark introduction, devoid of pleasantries or assurances. Murph vividly recalls the austere instructions, the mere mention of dates and rendezvous points at RM Poole, leaving candidates to decipher the cryptic requirements and prepare themselves mentally and physically for the trials ahead.

Amidst the camaraderie of his Recce troop, Murph found some semblance of preparation, a faint glimmer of insight into the unknown challenges that awaited him. Yet, nothing could prepare him for the relentless onslaught that awaited during the two-week ordeal that would define his resolve and life from here on out.

Old’ SBS selection “pre selection” was a two week program which merged straight into the “SC3” (swimmer canoeist) course. (For those that got through the initial two weeks).

Joining instructions were simple, a date and time to turn up at RM Poole..that was it. There was no kit list, no training schedule. You had to find out for yourself what was required in terms of kit and training leading up to it. Luckily for me, some of the lads in my Recce troop had an idea of it, so I had a little bit of a heads up during my preparation.

After finding the accommodation, we were given a short briefing on the format of the next two weeks. There was no pleasantries, everything was short, and to the point. The general idea was It’s not worth spending much time talking to you, as most of you won’t be here for very long.

Next was stores to draw a lifejacket, wetsuit, a 24 hour ration pack and a prismatic compass (Stanley G150 compass). The First task given was to work out the individual compass error of the compass we’d been issued. Once stores were issued and briefing done, we were left alone to sort out our kit for the next day and get our heads down.

Candidates were thrown straight into the initial phase, aptly termed the "Land phase," a realm of unyielding physical exertion. From the crack of dawn each day, they were subjected to punishing PT tests, each trial pushing them to the brink of their capabilities. Solo marches over undulating terrain, carrying bergens loaded with supplies and exceeding human weight carrying limits, testing not just their strength but their resilience in the face of adversity.

Land phase started on day one with a beasting from the PTI’s at 5am. At 7am you went straight into the PT tests. This consisted of pull-ups (chin to bar) to failure. Rope climbs up a 5m rope, descending under control without touching the ground and repeating to failure. As many sit-ups as possible in two minutes, as many press-ups as possible in two minutes. Parallel jumps over a knee height bar, as many as possible in two minutes and 10m shuttle sprints, again as many as possible in two minutes. Pass scores were withheld, so the only option you had was to give it 100%. I later found out that there was a basic pass score and we were given a pass or fail largely based upon our efforts.

All marches were done solo, over what the DS called ‘undulating terrain’. We were simply given a grid reference to navigate to, we would check in with the DS and receive the next RV. Load weight for all marches was 70lb plus food and water. Week one also had a nine mile speed march. At the start of the speed March, I was given an eight number grid reference, which I had to remember and repeat back to the DS at the end of the speed March. If you didn’t remember your number, it was an instant (RTU-return to unit). Basically kicked off the course there and then. 

Following the PT tests was the load carry. This is a timed one mile run, carrying 100lb in the form of a jerry can filled with concrete. This was ratchet strapped to the frame of an old bergen. The cutoff time for this was ten minutes with the first half of the run being all uphill, and the second half all downhill. 

The remainder of week one was more beastings, map reading instruction and navigational tasks on Dartmoor. This culminated into a series of long solo “yomps” starting from Oakhamton camp on Dartmoor and basically going from checkpoint to checkpoint, not knowing how many checkpoints there were in total and what the cut off times were. When it ended at the final checkpoint I think it was about a full 24 hours of constant yomping and map reading. I was told to lay in a bush until they told me to get out of the bush, I think I lied there for about 6 hours.

I was then hooded and put into the back of a truck and after a long drive we ended up at a barn. I then went through about 60 hours of “R to I” (resistance to interrogation) basically stress position’s, loud music, interrogations, repeat, repeat, repeat, repeat.

Week two heralded the "Water phase," a baptism in the unforgiving embrace of the elements. Swim tests in the frigid waters of Poole's swimming pool, followed by gruelling canoe exercises amidst the rugged landscapes of Portland and HMS Osprey, pushed candidates to the limits of endurance. Dive training, under the cloak of night, submerged them into the depths of uncertainty, where every breath was a testament to their unwavering determination.

Week two included a 400m swim of any stroke in under 10mins. You would have to enter the water backwards from the top diving platform via the ‘cross your arms and lean backwards’ method (as seen in SAS: Who Dares Wins), this was an instant failure if you “bottled it” and you would be kicked off the course. After the backwards head first dive, you treaded water using the legs only method for 10mins, we then did a 25m breath hold swim underwater, and also a retrieval of a rubber brick from the bottom of the pool wearing a face mask covering your eyes.

From that, everything else “water based” was outdoors in and around Portland and HMS Osprey. We were given instructions in the assembly and use of the Klepper two man canoe, we then commenced several exercises both day and night of increasing canoeing distances. Every exercise started and ended with capsize drills. During the routes if the DS didn’t think we were putting enough effort in, they would capsize us. The tests also included a nine mile portage (carrying a canoe over land) with full kit, taking the individual load weights up to well over 100lb.

This week also included dive training, starting with open circuit air sets and then moving onto the closed circuit oxygen rebreathers. Sometimes we would be expected to carry out dives of up to three hours in duration, including night dives.

One night, we were woken up at around 3am, told to put on our dive kit and marched down to the Water Landing ramp. We then had to swim out in full diving kit to a landing craft which was about 300m out into the sea. When we got there and climbed into the boat we went straight back to shore, they marched us back to our accommodation and told us that all kit had to be cleaned and dried by 6am. So no more sleep for that night!!! Typical SBS selection bullshit.

Throughout the ordeal, time became a merciless adversary, robbing them of respite and down time. Days blurred into nights, marked by endless drills and demands, leaving little room for rest or reflection. The spectre of failure loomed ever-present, driving them to push beyond the boundaries of their endurance, fuelled by the unquestionable spirit that defined the ethos of the SBS.

I can honestly say it was truly horrible, the levels of being fucked around were off the scale. We received numerous beastings for the most minor of fuck up’s, even simply if the DS wanted someone to quit.

thirty-eight started the course, twelve were left after two weeks. On our pass out of the initial two weeks, we were marched down to the slipway of the LC section at RM Poole. We then sat chest deep in the water with our rifles above our heads for about 30 minutes, whilst the chief instructor read out all the definitions of the word ‘misery’. He proceeded to list a few more ways we’d all be miserable, all this time he was stood in full uniform in the water up to his waist reading at a lectern. 

Amidst the crucible of suffering, camaraderie flourished, building bonds that transcended the trials of selection. In the quiet resolve of his comrades, Murph found comfort and understanding, a testament to the unassuming courage that defined the spirit of the SBS.

As Murph reflects on his journey, he acknowledges the silent sacrifices of those who walked beside him, whose memories linger as a testament to their commitment. For some, the journey ended in tragedy, their silent struggles echoing the toll of their service long after they had left the corps.

In the hallowed halls of memory, Murph West's journey stands as a testament to the resilience of the human spirit, a testament to the courage that defines those who dare to walk the path less traveled. In his words, the legacy of the SBS lives on, a beacon of hope amidst the shadows of uncertainty, a testament to the indomitable spirit that defines the brotherhood of warriors.


Murph later went on to complete his SC3 selection course. After several tough years of service, Murph's path diverged into further service as an operational firefighting where he served for 28 years until his retirement in 2020. Alongside this, Murph's unstoppable spirit has led him to conquer 29 Ironman events and participate in 5 Kona Ironman World Championships. Today, alongside his triathlon training he cherishes the simple joys of life with his wife and faithful canine companion.

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