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Eighty years on, a salute to the Cockleshell Heroes


NEXT month sees the 80th anniversary of one of the most daring covert operations of the Second World War – the mission of the ‘Cockleshell Heroes’.  

They were ten Royal Marines who in December 1942 set out in canoes, known as Cockles, to launch an astonishingly courageous sabotage operation against the Germans. They paid a heavy price, with only two surviving.  

In 1955, a film based on their exploits, The Cockleshell Heroes, was released and their collective name became a byword for bravery, fortitude and tenacity. But while the movie was a box office success, it was highly fictionalised and clichéd. It never did justice to the real-life saga of the heroes, a tale more enthralling than any film script.   

Their story started in May 1942, when an order seeking ‘volunteers for hazardous service’ went out to the Royal Marines. Those who responded had no idea what they were signing up for, but were advised that they had to be ‘keen to engage the enemy’ and ‘indifferent to personal safety’.  

The ‘hazardous service’ turned out to be Operation Frankton, an audacious plan to send canoe-borne squads along the Gironde River in Nazi-occupied south-west France to the major port of Bordeaux, where they would blow up enemy ships before escaping overland to neutral Spain.  

The Frankton members were chosen in July by the officer in charge of the operation, 28-year-old Major Herbert ‘Blondie’ Hasler, who told one of their number: ‘Do you realise that your expectation of a long life is very remote if you join this unit?’  

The remark reflected the underlying realisation that Frankton verged on being a suicide mission. The Marines would be incommunicado deep in enemy territory, with no back-up or help from any source. There was no failsafe plan – they would have to improvise and adapt as necessary. The odds were overwhelmingly against them.  

Frankton came under the aegis of Combined Operations, whose commander, Admiral Lord Louis Mountbatten, is said to have expected that none of the Marines would survive.  

Hasler did not seek out military supermen. For the most part, the volunteers he chose from the Plymouth Division of the Marines were from ordinary civilian backgrounds – a milkman from Stockport, a cobbler from Shoreditch, a coal merchant’s clerk, a Scottish labourer’s son. Most were in their early 20s. Hasler called them ‘just a good cross-section of average young fellows’.  

With the cover name of the Royal Marine Boom Patrol Detachment, Hasler put his recruits through months of tough training, mainly around Portsmouth, to mould them into a cohesive unit.  

Operation Frankton got under way on the night of December 7, 1942, when the Marines, in five two-man folding canoes made of canvas and plywood, were disembarked from a submarine in the Bay of Biscay, off the Gironde estuary.  

The plan was to paddle some 70 miles along the heavily defended and patrolled waterway and down the tributary Garrone to Bordeaux. There, they would clamp magnetic limpet mines to the hulls of berthed ships, targeting blockade runners that were bringing in vital raw materials for the Nazi war machine from as far afield as Japan.  

Hasler had given the canoes the names of fish beginning with C. He was in Catfish with Marine Bill Sparks, aged 20. Then came Crayfish (Corporal Albert Laver, 23, and Marine Bill Mills, 21), Conger (Corporal George Sheard, 27, and Marine David Moffatt, 22), Cuttlefish (Lieutenant Jack MacKinnon, 21, and Marine James Conway, 19) and Coalfish (Sergeant Sam Wallace, 29, and Marine Bobby Ewart, 20).  

Things went wrong from the start. A sixth canoe scheduled for the mission was damaged while being hauled out of the submarine, and its crew had to be left behind. As the remaining ten Marines paddled northwards through the darkness towards the mouth of the Gironde, they were hit by a series of tidal overfalls – maelstroms of crashing waves and surging, churning waters. The small flotilla became scattered and Coalfish foundered. When Wallace and Ewart struggled ashore, they were captured by the Germans.  

Then Conger capsized, plunging Sheard and Moffatt into the sea. The others towed the two men as close inshore as they dared, before being forced to let them go. Neither survived the perishing conditions. Moffatt’s body was later washed ashore and is thought to have been by buried the Germans, while Sheard’s body was never found.   

Entering the Gironde, the remaining three canoes tried to slip one by one past a floodlit jetty, and Cuttlefish lost contact. Its crew, MacKinnon and Conway, pressed on alone towards Bordeaux, but their canoe was sunk, probably after hitting an underwater obstacle. They swam ashore and set about evading capture.  

In the ten hours since leaving the submarine, Hasler had lost two-thirds of his force. Yet, dire as the situation was, there was never any question of abandoning the mission.  

The Marines made their way upriver, paddling by night and hiding by day, all the while fearing detection. Meanwhile, under interrogation, the captured Ewart and Wallace insisted they had been acting alone. But the Germans heightened security, with air patrols sweeping over the creeks, reed beds and marshes where the canoe teams holed up during daylight.  

At 11.30pm on December 10, Ewart and Wallace were taken to a wood outside Bordeaux, tied to posts in a sandpit, and shot by a naval firing squad under Hitler’s infamous ‘commando order’, despite being entitled to prisoner of war status under the Geneva Convention. The killings were referred to as executions, but the correct word was murder.  

The luck of the remaining four Marines held and finally, on the night of December 12, Catfish and Crayfish arrived unscathed along the quaysides of Bordeaux. Both teams managed to lay their mines against a total of six ships. At one point, a sentry on the deck of a vessel shone his torch directly down at Hasler and Sparks as they fixed their explosives, but their camouflage saved them.  

The mines had delayed-action fuses, and exploded over a period of eight hours from around 3am, crippling their target vessels. By then, both teams had paddled several miles back downriver. They abandoned their canoes and set off in separate pairs for the town of Ruffec, 100 miles to the north-west, where they had been told they would find help from the Resistance.  

Laver and Mills made their way some 20 miles inland, but on December 15 near the village of Montlieu-la-Garde were betrayed to the police by a Frenchman and turned over to the Germans. MacKinnon and Conway, helped by locals, managed to cover 60 miles across country to the village of Baigneux. But on December 29 they were arrested there by the Germans.  

All four captured Marines were shot, but the circumstances of their deaths remain uncertain. Evidence indicates they were taken to Paris and killed there on March 23, 1943. However in his 2010 book Cockleshell Heroes: The Final Witness Quentin Rees says they were possibly shot in January, in the same location near Bordeaux where Ewart and Wallace were murdered the previous December.  

Despite being hunted by German soldiers and French police, Hasler and Sparks reached Ruffec with the impromptu aid of French civilians and made contact with the Resistance. They were smuggled over the Pyrenees into Spain and – five months after they had set out – arrived back in England, the sole survivors of Operation Frankton.  

With bitter irony, it later emerged that the ordeal and sacrifice of the Cockleshell Heroes might have been avoided. Unknown to Combined Operations, a British sabotage mission against the Bordeaux shipping was being organised at the same time as Frankton by the Special Operations Executive, using its network of land-based agents. Because of inter-departmental secrecy, Mountbatten’s organisation knew nothing about the SOE enterprise, and the Marines’ mission was duly launched.  

In his 2013 book about the raid, A Brilliant Little OperationPaddy Ashdown describes this aspect of Frankton as ‘a Whitehall cock-up of major proportions’.  

Although the sabotage was an unnerving blow to the Germans, showing that even their most closely-guarded strongholds were vulnerable, the damage to most of the ships was not major and some were repaired. Despite this, the raid would have been a propaganda triumph for the British, but it was not publicised in case a similar operation was undertaken later. However, it was a boost to military morale at a time when the war was going badly and is said to have emboldened the Resistance in the Bordeaux region.  

Mountbatten called Frankton ‘the most courageous and imaginative of all the raids ever carried out by the men of Combined Operations’. Prime Minister Winston Churchill said the Bordeaux sabotage shortened the war by six months, but on what basis he made the assertion is unclear. Perhaps he was, understandably, trying to say that the terrible loss of so many brave young men had not been in vain.

Sparks served for the rest of the war in Burma, North Africa and Italy, and was a police lieutenant during the Malayan Emergency, which started in 1948. In civilian life, he worked as a bus driver and bus inspector. In 1988, due to a change in his pension arrangements, he sold his wartime decorations, including the Distinguished Service Medal he was awarded for Frankton. He died in 2002.  

Hasler was awarded the Distinguished Service Order for leading the Cockleshell raid. After the war, he became a noted yachtsman, and is known as the father of single-handed sailing. He died in 1987. 

To mark the 80th anniversary of the raid, a group of serving and former military personnel are re-tracing Operation Frankton on sea and land from Friday to December 18, raising funds for service charities. You can read about the memorial expedition here. 

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Henry Getley
Henry Getley
Henry Getley is a freelance journalist.

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