Operation Frankton - The Cockleshell Heroes. Attack on German shipping using only canoes.
Following the humiliating capitulation of France and the difficult withdrawal of the BEF at Dunkirk in 1940, Britain was now rebuilding her fighting forces behind the powerful shield of the Royal Navy and the highly effective RAF. Now standing alone in the world against the vicious Nazi hoard, in 1941/1942 Britain turned its attention to testing the German defences in mainland Europe.
As a nation we were not yet strong enough for a full scale offensive within Europe but among our strengths was one thing the Nazis feared more than most and that was our deadly commandos. Unsurpassed in the world, these highly trained and apparently fearless men could strike at will causing damage and destruction out of all proportion to their numbers.
Operation Frankton was conceived as a commando raid on blockade running shipping operating from the German occupied French port of Bordeaux in the Bay of Biscay to Japan & the Far East and returning with rubber, vegetable & animal oils and other essential military supplies.
The raid was to be carried out by a small unit of specially trained Royal Marines known as the Royal Marines Boom Patrol Detachment (RMBPD), who were a part of Combined Operations. The operation comprised of just 13 men (one spare in case of illness or injury.)These men were specially trained in the use of two man canoes Mark II nicknamed “cockles”.
The plan was for six canoes to be taken to the area of the Gironde estuary by submarine. They would then paddle a total of 60 miles by night, in a series of hops to Bordeaux, spending the daylight hours camouflaged in the reed beds, which had to be reached across some dangerously exposed mud flats. So that they didn’t exhaust themselves prematurely their instruction were to paddle then rest, for 5 minutes, in each hour. On arrival they would attack the docked cargo ships with limpet mines and then, hopefully, escape overland to Spain/Gibraltar, then onward to Britain.
The Mark II was a semi rigid two-man canoe, with the sides made of canvas, a flat bottom, and 16 feet in length. When collapsed it had to be capable of getting in and out of the 24 inches wide submarine hatch. During the raid each canoe's load would be two men, eight limpet mines, three sets of paddles, a compass, a depth sounding reel, repair bag, torch, camouflage net, waterproof watch, fishing line, two hand grenades, rations and water for six days, a spanner to activate the mines and a magnet to hold the canoe against the side of cargo ships. The men also carried a .455 ACP Webley & Scott Model 1912 Mk I Semi-Automatic Pistol and a Fairbairn-Sykes Fighting Knife (still preferred and in use by Special Forces today).
Twelve men from no.1 section were selected for the raid; including the commanding officer “Blondie” Hasler and the reserve man was Marine N Colley making the total of the team thirteen.
The men selected to go on the raid were divided into two divisions, each having their own specified targets.
Major Hasler and Marine Bill Sparks in canoe Catfish.
Corporal A. F. Laver and Marine W. H. Mills in canoe Crayfish.
Corporal G. J. Sheard and Marine D. Moffatt in canoe Conger.
Lieutenant J. W. Mackinnon and Marine J. Conway in canoe Cuttlefish.
Sergeant S. Wallace and Marine R. Ewart in canoe Coalfish.
Marine W. A. Ellery and Marine E. Fisher in canoe Cachalot.
A thirteenth man was taken on the submarine as a reserve, Marine N. Colley.
The training for the raid started on 20th October 1942, and included canoe handling, submarine rehearsals, limpet mine handling and escape & evasion exercises. The RMBPD practised for the raid with a simulated attack against Deptford Dockyard, starting from Margate negotiating the Thames mud flats and canoeing up the winding river Swale.
At 1917hrs on 7th December 1942, a two year old British T class submarine HMS Tuna (N94) captained by Lt Richard Prendergast Raikes (Dickie) surfaced just 10 miles from the coast of Occupied France near the mouth of the River Gironde. The Bay of Biscay was clear and calm that night, and the grey bulk of the 275ft submarine glistened in the moonlight. The crew stood by, alert for a flash of a searchlight or sound of gunfire when she would have to crash dive immediately. The wet deck was quickly alive with commandos and sailors scurrying to prepare to launch the six canoes stored below. “Cockles”, as they were nicknamed and were two-man collapsible canvas boats, hopefully more robust than they looked. However, Cachalot snagged as it was being brought up and Hasler inspected the craft and reluctantly pronounced her unseaworthy. Its crew, Marines William Ellery and Eric Fisher, would have to return to Britain on Tuna. Fisher was distraught with frustration, unaware that, in all probability, the accident had saved his life.
Captain Lt Raikes and Major Hasler shook hands and agreed book a table for them both at the Savoy for 1st April the following year. “Thanks for everything you have done on our behalf,” he offered. “The very best of luck to you all,” replied Raikes.
Silently the five remaining canoes slid away from the submarine and quickly disappeared into the night, heading, towards the dark silhouette of the French coast, while HMS Tuna slipped beneath the surface and back to Britain.
Stepping back in time for a moment the men all answered an advertisement for “Volunteers for Hazardous Service”. At the interview Major Hasler asked each of the applicants “Do you realise that your expectation of a long life is very remote?” No irony was intended, but of the 10 men who paddled away from the submarine that night only two would survive – Major Hasler and his fellow crewman Cpl Bill Sparks.
The fate of the eight that did not return was a combination of two succumbing to hypothermia after capsizing and six were executed by the Germans, yet there is no public memorial to the men who took part in the raid, and the submarine crew who risked all to deliver them. The French erected a memorial in Bordeaux but it was demolished in a vehicle accident, and another, a very modest affair, at the Royal Marine base in Poole, is actually closed to civilians.
Returning to the actual raid they all knew survival was a remote possibility. On 18th October 1942, Hitler was so frightened of British commandos that he issued a secret order “The Commando Order”, or “Kommandobefehl”, stating that “all Allied commandos encountered by German forces in Europe and Africa should be killed immediately without trial, even in proper uniforms or if they attempt to surrender”.. Their “treacherous behaviour” had, he decided, “deprived them of the right to be treated as legitimate prisoners of war”. Only 12 copies of this order were issued by Army Chief of Staff Alfred Jodl, with strict instructions that it must not fall into enemy hands.
Admiral Lord Louis Mountbatten, Chief of Combined Operations, considered Major Hasler much too valuable to be expended on what was likely to be a one-way mission. But Blondie, who was only 28, would not agree. “If they go without me and don’t return, I shall never be able to face the others again,” he fiercely told the board. However, there was a greater hazard to face the teams than discovery by the Germans. The Gironde River suffers from a fierce tidal race, a wall of water which sweeps periodically down the estuary.
The raid progressed and the canoes approached a major checkpoint in the river where there were three German frigates. Lying flat on the canoes and paddling silently they managed to get by without being discovered but became separated from Lieutenant J. W. Mackinnon and Marine J. Conway in canoe Cuttlefish. On the first night the three remaining canoes, Catfish, Crayfish and Coalfish, covered 20 miles in five hours and landed near St Vivien du Medoc.
The tidal race caused the first casualty when the canoe Coalfish, crewed by Sgt Samuel Wallace and Marine Robert Ewart was swamped forcing them to swim ashore eventually right into the hands of a German patrol unit. The frail little flotilla was only seven hours into the operation when it was hit by a second 5ft high tidal race which capsized the canoe Conger. Her crew, Cpl George Sheard and Marine David Moffatt, were left clinging on to the sterns of Catfish, crewed by Hasler and Sparks, and Cuttlefish.
Hasler spent precious time pulling the two men towards the shore, but he couldn’t spend more time without jeopardising the mission. Speaking softly he said to the men “I’m sorry, but this is as close to the beach as we dare go, you must swim for it.” Cpl Sheard, grey-faced and shaking from the cold, replied: “It’s all right sir, we understand. Thanks for bringing us so far.” The bodies of Sheard and Moffatt were later found washed ashore and buried in unmarked graves nearby.
Cuttlefish was the third to succumb to the elements she disappeared along with her crew of Lt John MacKinnon and Marine James Conway. She is thought to have been abandoned after striking an underwater obstacle. The two men made it as far as La Reole, in neutral Vichy France, where MacKinnon was treated in hospital for a leg injury. They were betrayed by a Vichy French informer and they were seized by the Germans.
Major Cavan commented “One can only imagine what Hasler felt as that first dawn approached, six boats were now two and a normal man might have yielded to despair, yet there was no question of abandoning the operation.”
The thought never crossed Hasler’s mind to call off their assault, with only Crayfish, crewed by Cpl Albert Laver and Marine William Mills, for company, they continued with their arduous and dangerous journey.
While they were hiding during the day and unknown to the others, Sergeant Wallace and Marine Ewart in Coalfish had been captured at daybreak beside the Pointe de Grave lighthouse where they had come ashore.
Originally the plan had called for the actual attack to be carried out on 10th December, but due to the problems incurred Hasler modified the attack plan. Because of the strength of the ebb tide there was still a short distance to cover, so Hasler decided they lay low for another day to recover their stamina and set off to reach Bordeaux on the night of 11/12th December. After a night's rest the four men spent the day preparing their equipment and limpet mines which were reset to detonate at 21:00 hours on the 11th. Hasler decided that Catfish should cover the western side of the docks and Crayfish the eastern side.
Hasler and Sparks in Catfish attacked shipping on their designated side of the dock and placed eight limpet mines on four vessels including a Sperrbrecher (minefield breaker or mine sweeper) acting as a fast patrol boat. A sentry on the deck of the Sperrbrecher, apparently spotting or heard something, shone his torch down toward the water, but the camouflaged canoe evaded detection in the darkness. They had planted all their mines and left the harbour with the ebb tide at 00:45 hours. At the same time Laver and Mills in Crayfish had reached the eastern side of the dock without finding any suitable targets, so returned to deal with the ships docked at Bassens. They placed eight limpet mines on two vessels, five on a large cargo ship and three on a small liner.
On their way downriver the two canoes met by chance on the Isle de Caseau. They continued down river together until 0600hrs when they beached their canoes near St Genes de Blaye and tried to hide them by slashing the canvas and sinking them. The two crews then set out separately, on foot, for the Spanish border. After two days Laver and Mills were apprehended at Montlieu-la-Garde by the Gendarmerie and treacherously handed over to the Germans. Hasler and Sparks, disguised as vagrants, arrived at the French town of Ruffec 100 miles from where they had beached their canoe, on 18th December 1942. They made contact with the escape network run by Mary Lindell, an Englishwoman (and by marriage the Comtesse de Milleville) via the French Resistance at the Hotel de la Toque Blanche (meaning Chefs white hat) and were then taken to a local farm. They spent the next 18 days there in hiding. They were then guided across the Pyrenees into Spain. It was not until 23rd February 1943 that Combined Operations Headquarters received a secret message sent via Mary Lindell to the War Office, to the effect that Hasler and Sparks were safe.
Mary Lindell was an MI9 agent known and hunted by the Gestapo; she twice narrowly escaped death before being imprisoned in Ravensbrück concentration camp, which she survived, living until 1986. Hasler and Sparks were the first British servicemen to be passed through a route ("Marie-Claire" line) she established through Vichy France, leading to Spain. There was a 1991 film “One against the Wind” starred Judy Davis about the exploits of Mary Lindell.
They were then moved on to Lyon and through the Pyrenees to Perpignan, Barcelona, and Madrid where Major Hasler was repatriated. Sparks continued on alone to Gibraltar and was finally shipped home. On 2nd April 1943 Hasler arrived back in Britain by air from Gibraltar having passed through the French Resistance escape organisation.
Hasler preferred his men to be unmarried and unattached, given their life expectancy, but inevitably relationships were formed. Robert “Bobby” Ewart celebrated his 21st birthday on HMS Tuna. A lad from Glasgow, he had fallen for a 16-year-old girl from Southsea called Heather Powell. On Tuna he wrote a last letter to her.
I trust it won’t be necessary to have this sent to you but since I don’t know the outcome of this little adventure, I thought I’d leave this note behind. I couldn’t help but love you Heather, although you were so young. I will always love you, as I know you do me. That alone should let me through this, but one never knows the turns of fate. One thing I ask of you, Heather, is not to take it too hard. You have yet your life to live. Think of me as a good friend and keep your chin up. Some lucky fellow will find you who has more sense than I had and who can get you what you deserve. “You are young yet for this sort of thing but I had to do it, so please don’t worry and upset yourself about me. With your picture in front of me I feel confident that I shall pull through and get back to you some day. I won’t have you read more, Heather, but I will thank you for all you have done. I pray that God will spare me and save you from this misery, so hoping for a speedy reunion. I’ll say cheerio and God be with you. Thanking you and your mother from the bottom of my heart. God bless and keep you all.
Yours for ever, Bob, chin up Sweetheart.”
Ewart was informed of his execution hours before it took place. According to a German report, Sgt Wallace comforted and encouraged the young Marine as they were driven to the firing squad. Heather was never told the exact circumstances of her lover’s death, but it was clear from those who returned from Frankton that he would not come back. She contracted tuberculosis and, her heart broken, died just before her 17th birthday.
Laver, Mills, MacKinnon and Conway lived for a few months before they too were executed. Under extreme interrogation the men did give up some details of their training but they betrayed neither the presence of other commandos nor the identities of helpful French civilians. Their bodies are thought to lie in a wood a few miles to the north-east of Bordeaux.
Blondie Hasler would live on until 1987 and Bill Sparks until 2002. Hasler returned to Britain in April 1943 and was only a few days late for that appointment with Dickie Raikes at the Savoy. (Raikes actually took him to Kettner’s in Soho because the food was better.)
Thus Blondie was able to complete his diary entry – deliberately brief to preserve security – started all those months before in the half-light aboard Tuna: “7th December – 2nd April 43. Away from UK on operation,
On 10th December the Germans announced that a sabotage squad had been caught on 8th December near the mouth of the Gironde and, as they put it, "finished off in combat". It was not until January 1943 and in the absence of any information to the contrary, all 10 men on the raid were posted missing, until, out of the blue, news arrived of two of them. It was confirmed, following the raid, that five ships had been damaged in Bordeaux by mysterious explosions. This sketchy information remained unchanged until new research in 2010 revealed that, in fact, a sixth ship had also been damaged even more extensively than any of the other five reported. This research also revealed that the other five ships holed were repaired and back in service quite shortly afterwards.
More detail of the men who never returned became known later. Sergeant Wallace and Marine Ewart were captured on 8th December at the Pointe de Grave (near Le Verdon) and revealed only minor information during their severe interrogation. They were finally executed under the notorious Commando Order, on the night 11th December in a sandpit in a wood north of Bordeaux and not at Chateau Magnol, Blanquefort. A plaque has been erected on the bullet marked wall at the Chateau, but the authenticity of the details on the plaque has been questioned. A small memorial can also be seen at the Pointe de Grave, where they were captured. In March 2011 a major memorial has been prepared and was to be unveiled at this same spot.
After the Royal Marines were effectively murdered by a naval firing squad, the Commander of the Kriegsmarine Admiral Erich Raeder wrote in the Seekriegsleitung (The Seekriegsleitung or SKL was the war diary of the high command of the Kaiserliche Marine and the Kriegsmarine of Germany during the World Wars.) that the executions of the captured Royal Marines were something "new in international law, since the soldiers were wearing uniforms". The American historian Charles Thomas wrote that “Raeder's remarks about the executions in the Seekriegsleitung war diary seemed to be some sort of ironic comment, which might have reflected a bad conscience on the part of Raeder”.
After having reached the shore, Lieutenant MacKinnon and Marine Conway managed to evade capture for four days, but they were finally betrayed and arrested by the Vichy Gendarmerie who handed them over to the Germans at La Reole hospital 30 miles south east of Bordeaux, while attempting to make their way to the Spanish border. Mackinnon had been admitted to the hospital for treatment for an infected knee. The exact date of their execution is not known. New evidence shows that Lieutenant Mackinnon, Corporal Laver, Marine Mills and Marine Conway were not executed in Paris in 1942 but in the same location as Wallace and Ewart under the Commando Order.
Corporal Sheard and Marine Moffatt were not drowned on the first night but died of exposure to the cold. The body of Marine Moffatt was found on the Île de Ré on 14th December but Corporal Sheard’s body is believed to have been washed further upstream and recovered & buried in an unknown place further up the coastline. Corporal Sheard is remembered on the Hero's Stone at his place of birth, North Corner, Devonport.
In 1955 a fictionalised version of the story was told in the film “The Cockleshell Heroes” made by Warwick Films, and starring Anthony Newley, Trevor Howard, David Lodge and directed and also starring Jose Ferrer. Hasler and Sparks both acted as advisors to the film, giving it a degree of authenticity.
In June 2002, the “Frankton Trail” was opened; it is a walking path which traces the 100 miles route taken by Hasler and Sparks through occupied France, on foot. The Frankton Souvenir is an Anglo-French organisation, set up to keep alive the story of the raid. It plans to develop the trail, and install explanatory plaques at key points.
Decorations and Monuments commemorating Operation Frankton
For their part in the raid Major Hasler was awarded the Distinguished Service Order and Marine Sparks the Distinguished Service Medal (DSM).
Corporal Laver and Marine Mills were also recommended for the DSM which at the time could not be awarded posthumously, so instead they were mentioned in dispatches.
On 1st November 2011, a BBC Timewatch television documentary called "The Most Courageous Raid of WWII" was narrated by politician Paddy Ashdown, who was a former SBS Officer. I repeat it verbatim. Ashdown describes it as "a Whitehall cock-up of major proportions" the fact that there was a duplicate and simultaneous mission to sink the ships in Bordeaux, led by Claude de Baissac of Special Operations Executive (SOE), which Hasler's team and Combined Operations knew nothing about because of SOE's policy of secrecy even from other parts of the British Forces. Claude de Baissac was preparing to take explosives onto the ships when he heard the explosions of Hasler's limpet mines. The loss of the opportunity for Hasler and de Baissac to work together to strike an even more severe blow against the Germans in, what would have been a combined operation led to the setting up of a Controlling Officer at Whitehall, responsible for avoiding inter-departmental rivalry, duplication or even conflict.
The only surviving MkII from Operation Frankton, is the canoe Cachalot (which was damaged while unloading from the submarine), together with other original equipment can be seen at The Combined Military Services Museum, Station Road, Maldon, Essex, CM9 4LQ
Events leading up to the Operation.
Lieutenant-Colonel H.G Hasler DSO, OBE, RM, (as he became) known as "Blondie” developed the idea of using kayaks to stealthily penetrate axis harbours with the objective of destroying both military and merchant shipping by means of powerful limpet mines. This idea was borne out of his pre-war experience with small boats and a period of service with the MNBDO on Hayling Island. However the Admiralty regarded the concept as impracticable and rejected an attempt by Hasler to interest Combined Operations HQ (COHQ) in the spring of 1941 due in part, to the existence of the Special Boat Service (SBS).
In December 1941 the Italians (from Decima Flottiglia MAS) successfully penetrated Alexandria harbour using "human torpedoes", (called maiali (pigs) by the Italians) placing limpet mines. They inflicted serious damage to the battleships HMS Elizabeth and Valiant, who were out of action for nine and six months respectively. Churchill demanded a similar capability and Hasler was posted to the Combined Operations Development Centre to develop his earlier ideas. Initially he and the few men allocated to his team, concentrated on the "explosive motor boat" concept as successfully also used by the Italians in an attack on Royal Navy ships in Suda Bay Crete in March of 1941. After a similar, but failed, attack on shipping in Malta several Italian boats were captured and carefully dismantled for examination. In order to disguise their potential use these and similar craft were designated "Boom Patrol Boats" or “chariots” as they were internally nicknamed manned by two frogmen with UBA rebreathers. Hasler was in favour of using these boats and canoes together in future raids - the former to find paths through surface obstacles and the latter to press home the attack. Mountbatten agreed to this approach and so the inappropriately named Royal Marine Boom Patrol Detachment (RMBPD) was formed!
The new British T class submarines HMS Truculent, unnamed P311, HMS Trooper, HMS Thunderbolt (ex. Thetis)(The tragic circumstances of HMS Thetis occurred in Liverpool bay on 1st June 1939 when she was hit and sank. Despite being only 6 meters below the surface all but four crew members lost their lives, poisoned by carbon-dioxide. The submarine was eventually recovered and renamed Thunderbolt), and HMS Trenchant all of which were fitted with two deck tubes to carry two Mk 2 Chariots. There were also two U class boats, HMS Unrivalled & HMS Ultor, converted in the same way.
Hasler set up his operation in Southsea. He recruited his officers from the Royal Marine Small Arms School at Gosforth and his men from the Royal Marine Auxiliary Battalion at Portsmouth. The lightweight Special Boat Section's (SBS) folbot (folding kayak) was replaced by a more robust specification created by Hasler. The resultant Cockle was capable of carrying heavier loads and it was collapsible as opposed to the kit form.
From the additional information that came to light we can fill in some of the original sketchy information about the raid.
On the second nights paddling (Dec 8th/9th) it was uneventful although it was bitterly cold and ice formed on the cockpit covers. However the crews landed easily and lay up in a field together with a herd of inquisitive cows. An emerging problem occupied the minds of Hasler and his men, as they progressed up the river; this was the timing and duration of the tides which was becoming more critical to their calculations and the need to avoid the tidal race. They had, for the first time, to consider the logistics of the attack as well making progress up river. The next night there would be three hours of flood tide, 6 hours of ebb tide followed by another three hours of flood tide. Clearly progress against the ebb tide would be impossible, leaving them a slim window.
In the event on the third night (Dec 9th/10th) they curtailed their paddling and lay low on a suitable island during the period of the ebb tide. It was obvious they were now so behind schedule they could not reach the harbour the following night with sufficient time to complete their tasks and withdraw safely. Hasler decided to establish an advance base camp on the fourth night (Dec 10th/11th) within easy striking distance of the harbour. A suitable site was found at 2300hrs.
With all of their charges successfully placed they withdrew and the two canoes later met by chance on the Isle de Caseau. They continued downstream together until 0600hrs when the crews scuttled their canoes about ¼ mile apart. This was the last time Hasler saw the crew of the Crayfish as they set off on foot, their separate ways, for the Spanish border.
On 23rd February a brief message was received, via the Special Operations Executive (SOE), from Hasler himself giving details of the three canoes lost on the first day. A week later Hasler and Sparks arrived back in Britain by air from Gibraltar having passed through the French Resistance escape organisation.
"Of the many brave and dashing raids carried out by the men of Combined Operations Command none was more courageous or imaginative than Operation Frankton."
The British Prime Minister Winston Churchill believed the mission, as simple as it was, shortened World War II by six months and Admiral Louis Mountbatten, the commander of Combined Operations, deemed the raid "the most courageous and imaginative of all the raids ever carried -out by the men of Combined Operations".
With this in mind, Malcolm Cavan, a former major in the Royal Marines, began raising money for a new memorial. On 31st March 2011 a memorial to the Cockleshell Heroes and three French individuals was dedicated. Made from Portland Stone it was transported free of charge to France by Brittany Ferries. The memorial cost about £80,000.and was set at La Pointe de Grave, at the mouth of the Gironde. “Why nothing was done before by way of an impressive and appropriate memorial is a mystery, but so many other operations also slipped through the net,” says Major Cavan. “Frankton stunned the German high command in showing how a small force could penetrate a port, and forced them to redouble their efforts to defend key points. This is the realisation of a debt of gratitude owed for 71 years. The point is that it’s never too late.” Much is known about Frankton but some details remain unclear. In his new book, Cockleshell Heroes – The Final Witness, Quentin Rees has unearthed fresh information about the fate of those captured and for those interested it is a fascinating read.
Copyright Peter Geekie 2014
Operation Chariot - St Nazaire
- The Greatest Raid of All - Operation Chariot St. Nazaire 27th March 1942
1941-1942 were dark days for Britain as she stood alone against the Nazi hordes. Ony her strong navy stood between her and starvation. This is the story of the bravest of the brave.
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© 2014 Peter Geekie
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