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  • Writer's pictureMatthew Camilleri

The Cockleshell Heroes

Updated: Apr 13, 2023

On the night of 7th December 1942, under cover of darkness, a British submarine surfaced a few kilometres away from the mouth of the Gironde estuary off the coast of France. Almost immediately, ten men emerged and set off in five kayaks, intending to travel a considerable distance upriver to the German-occupied French port of Bordeaux, where they planned to strike at enemy vessels before escaping overland to Gibraltar via Spain - all whilst remaining undetected. In truth, as they embarked on what would become one of the boldest and most extraordinary combat missions of World War Two, the men - all volunteers - knew that their chances of making it out alive were extremely remote.

By 1942, Bordeaux had become a very important hub for merchant ships carrying vital supplies and war materiel for Nazi Germany, as well as serving as a base for Axis U-boats threatening the vital Atlantic convoys. After the disastrous Commando raid on the northern French port of Dieppe in August 1942, the Allies were reluctant to repeat the same tactics, whilst bombing raids by the Royal Air Force had the potential of causing heavy casualties on the local civilian population. Instead, the task of attacking the harbour was given to a small, newly formed unit of highly trained Royal Marines, known as the Royal Marines Boom Patrol Detachment (RMBPD).

The RMBPD had been formed on 6th July 1942 with the aim of developing the idea of daring small boat attacks similar to those used to great effect by the Italians against the Royal Navy in the Mediterranean. Early in 1942, 28-year-old Major Herbert 'Blondie' Hasler RM, had submitted a paper to Combined Operations Headquarters, outlining his idea of using small teams of two-man kayaks to sneak up on moored enemy shipping under cover of darkness, and planting limpet mines on their hulls below the waterline before escaping. Although his ideas were initially rejected, he was eventually given permission to form and train his own unit. A call was sent out for 'volunteers for hazardous service', who were 'eager to engage the enemy', 'indifferent to personal safety', and 'free of strong family ties', and a total of 34 men were selected.

Major Herbert Hasler (front) submitted a paper to Combined Operations HQ, outlining his idea of using small teams of 2-man kayaks to sneak up on moored enemy shipping and planting limpet mines on their hulls

Based at Southsea, Portsmouth, Hasler’s unit trained in the area of the boom that protected the Solent - the channel between southern England and the Isle of Wight - and was named the RM Boom Patrol Detachment as a cover for their true activities. On 21st September 1942, Hasler submitted his plan for an attack on Bordeaux, which called for six kayaks to be transported to the Gironde estuary by submarine, then paddle by night and hide by day until they reached Bordeaux - 97 km from the sea - whilst avoiding enemy vessels patrolling the area. On arrival, they hoped to sink between six and twelve cargo ships before escaping overland to Spain.

On 13th October 1942, the plans were finally approved, and a week later the RMBPD began training for the attack, codenamed 'Operation Frankton'. This included kayak handling, night navigation, submarine rehearsals, practicing with limpet mines, and escape and evasion exercises. They also carried out a simulated attack against Deptford, by heading up the Thames from Margate using Mark II kayaks, nicknamed 'Cockles', which had been selected for the actual raid. These semi-rigid two-man kayaks with canvas sides and a flat bottom could be easily collapsed so as to be stored in the narrow confines of a submarine, before eventually being launched via the torpedo hatches. Each kayak would carry two men, eight limpet mines, three sets of paddles, a compass, a depth-sounding reel, repair bag, torch, camouflage net, waterproof watch, two hand grenades, and rations and water for six days. Each man also carried a .45 1911 Colt semi-automatic pistol and a Fairbairn-Sykes Fighting Knife.

The Mark II kayak, nicknamed 'Cockle', was selected for the raid. Each one could carry 2 men and their weapons and equipment - up to a maximum load of 220kg

A total of thirteen men were chosen for the raid, including Hasler himself, despite the initial objections of the head of Combined Operations, Lord Louis Mountbatten, who did not want to risk losing such an experienced officer. However, Hasler eventually got his wish to join his men on the raid. The force was split into 2 divisions, each with its own targets. In A Division Hasler was paired up with Marine Bill Sparks in kayak Catfish, Corporal Albert Laver and Marine William Mills were in Crayfish, and Corporal George Sheard and Marine David Moffatt in Conger. In B Division, Lieutenant John Mackinnon and Marine James Conway were in kayak Cuttlefish, Sergeant Samuel Wallace and Marine Robert Ewart in Coalfish, and Marine William Ellery and Marine Eric Fisher in Cachalot. The thirteenth man, Marine Norman Colley, was taken as a reserve.

On 30th November 1942, the men set off from Holy Loch in Scotland on board the submarine HMS Tuna. Only Hasler and Mackinnon knew their destination, with the rest of the marines being briefed once they were already underway, in order to ensure the utmost secrecy. Following a week-long journey down along the western coast of Europe and into the Bay of Biscay, the submarine reached the planned position on 7th December 1942 and surfaced some 16 km from the mouth of the Gironde estuary. However, the raid started badly, as Cachalot was damaged while going through the hatch and could not be used. In spite of their disappointment, Fisher and Ellery had no choice but to remain on the submarine, together with the reserve, Colley, who was also not needed.

On 7th December 1942, HMS Tuna surfaced and delivered the men and their kayaks approximately 16 km from the mouth of the Gironde estuary

The other five kayaks started their mission and soon reached the mouth of the River Gironde, at which point they hit a violent rip tide, and, fighting against strong cross tides and cross winds, Coalfish became separated from the rest of the group, never to be seen again. Unbeknown to the rest of the men, who continued with their operation, Wallace and Ewart were later forced to land ashore near the Pointe de Grave lighthouse, where they were captured by a German flak unit. Despite being interrogated for several days by the Gestapo, they refused to divulge any information on the target so as not to jeopardise the mission.

Further on, the surviving crews encountered 1.5m high waves which caused Conger to capsize. Once it became clear that it would not be possible to bail it out, Sheard and Moffatt had no option but to scuttle it, whilst being forced to hold on to two of the remaining kayaks. The two men were carried as close to the shore as possible to give them a chance to swim towards land but it later transpired that neither man made it. Both are believed to have died of hypothermia, and while Moffat’s body was later washed ashore, Sheard’s was never recovered.

Carrying on with the raid, the remaining three teams approached a major checkpoint in the river and came upon three German frigates. Lying flat on their kayaks and paddling silently they managed to sneak past without being discovered, but Mackinnon and Conway in Cuttlefish became separated from the other kayaks in the group. Now on their own, the two men attempted to proceed with the raid regardless, until their kayak was damaged by an underwater obstacle and they were forced to abandon their mission. Having waded ashore, they had no option but to try and make their way to Spain, and although they managed to evade capture for four days, they were eventually arrested by the French Gendarmerie, who handed them over to the Germans.

During that first night, the crews of Catfish and Crayfish - the only remaining kayaks - managed to cover a distance of 32 km in five hours, before landing to rest up near Saint-Vivien-de-Médoc. On the second night they paddled a further 35 km in six hours, and on the third, 24 km. However, on the fourth night - 10th/11thDecember - they could only manage 14 km because of the strong ebb tide. This led to the attack, originally meant to take place on that night, being postponed by 24 hours as Hasler decided that they should hide for another day and attack Bordeaux on the night of 11th December instead.

Despite a number of setbacks, Catfish and Crayfish - the only remaining kayaks - stuck to the original plan of continuing to advance upriver towards the target by night while resting up by day

The following night, the two teams paddled the short remaining distance to Bordeaux, ready to carry out the most important part of their mission. Hasler decided that Catfish would cover the western side of the docks and Crayfish the eastern side. The attack started at 9 pm and lasted for about two to three hours as both teams silently proceeded to place limpet mines on a number of vessels present in the harbour. At one point, a sentry appeared to have spotted one of the kayaks, shining his torch towards it. The two men froze instantly, remaining motionless as they had been trained to do, whilst expecting a shot to ring out, but incredibly it never came: the sentry must have mistaken the kayak for a piece of driftwood.

The limpet mines had been set with a nine-hour fuse so as the give the marines time to get away before the explosions went off, and once all of them had been placed, both teams retraced their steps a short distance up the Garonne, before destroying their kayaks and setting off separately on foot for the Spanish border. Whilst Laver and Mills were apprehended by the Gendarmerie and handed over to the Germans two days later, Hasler and Sparks managed to make contact with the French Resistance and were taken to a local farm, where they spent eighteen days in hiding. They were then guided on foot across the Pyrenees into Spain and then Gibraltar - a journey that took a total of fifteen weeks. In fact, it was not until 23rd February 1943 that Combined Operations Headquarters heard via a secret message that the two men were safe, having by then declared all ten of the raid participants as missing in the absence of any information.

Hasler arrived back in Britain on 2nd April 1943, having been flown in from Gibraltar, whilst Sparks was sent back by sea and arrived much later. They were the lucky ones. Apart from Sheard and Moffatt who died from hypothermia, the six men who had been captured were later claimed by the Germans to have been “found drowned in Bordeaux harbour.” The truth is that they were all executed by firing squad under Adolf Hitler’s infamous Commando Order of 18th October 1942 which stated that "from now on, all men operating against German troops in so-called Commando raids in Europe or in Africa are to be annihilated to the last man. This is to be carried out whether they be soldiers in uniform, or saboteurs, with or without arms; and whether fighting or seeking to escape; and it is equally immaterial whether they come into action from ships or aircraft, or whether they land by parachute. Even if these individuals on discovery make obvious their intention of giving themselves up as prisoners, no pardon is on any account to be given."

The Cockleshell Heroes (from top left to bottom right): Mne. James Conway, Lt. John Mackinnon, Maj. Herbert Hasler, Mne. William Ellery, Mne. Robert Ewart, Sgt. Samuel Wallace, Cpl. Albert Laver, Mne. William Mills, Mne. Bill Sparks, Mne. Eric Fisher, Mne. David Moffatt and Cpl. George Sheard

As for the outcome of the raid, the Cockleshell Heroes, as they became known, had succeeded in causing enough damage to five ships to keep them in dock for several months, and although the results of the raid had perhaps been rather disappointing, the operation proved to be a significant morale booster for the British people. For their part in the raid, Hasler was awarded a Distinguished Service Order and Sparks the Distinguished Service Medal. Laver and Mills were also recommended for the DSM, but since at the time this could not be awarded posthumously, they were instead Mentioned in Despatches.

Operation Frankton was perhaps best summed up by Mountbatten, who described it as "the most courageous and imaginative of all the raids ever carried out by the men of Combined Operations."

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