Cockleshell Heroes – The Story of Extreme Bravery, Sacrifice and Endurance – But Was It All Worth It

The raid was brilliant and daring. It rattled the Germans in their boots, inspired a surge in the French resistance, and started the age of British small, covert ops missions from World War II to the present.

Without this spark and the precedent it set, events like D-Day would have had far less coordinated preparation and success. But Operation Frankton was also a monumental failure of planning and communication that lead to the loss of eight brave British soldiers’ lives in possibly the most cunning and audaciously courageous raid of WWII.

The view of this mission in hindsight is very mixed, indeed, but the valor of those that undertook it and its value to the Allied war effort are undeniable.

In the latter half of 1942, Germany was the master of Western Europe. In the Atlantic, British and American ships could hardly manage to get invaluable supplies to Britain as U-Boats were winning the war in the ocean. The Royal Air Force was stretched to its limits defending their Isle in the air.

Britain, with their main allies in the West either occupied or not yet committed to battle, had its back against the wall. Only small missions, costing little is men and supplies, could be afforded to punch back against Hitler and so Combined Operations and the Special Operations Executive (SOE), two forces formed just in 1940, became the small candles that lit the way to victory.

While the SOE focused on raids and harassing the Germans inland, Combined Ops focused on their coastal defenses, employing the skills of the army, air force, and navy in small, tactical units. The most famous of these units was formed by the imaginative and somewhat eccentric Major Herbert “Blondie” Hasler.

Hasler’s specialty was small boats and the mission plan he submitted in September 1942, would use the stealth of two-man canoes to slip behind enemy lines.

Map of South West France locating the Pointe de Grave Licensing. By Larrousiney CC BY-SA 3.0

The target Hasler chose was the port of Bordeaux, 75 miles down the estuary from the Bay of Biscay. The Bay had fierce and deathly tides, the estuary was guarded by 10,000 German troops, and once they blew up a few ships, the team had to escape 100 miles South into neutral Spain. Lord Mountbatten, head of Combined Ops, assigned 12 men to the mission.

He originally deemed Hasler too valuable to Combined Ops to go, but upon the Major’s insistence and reason, allowed it. The twelfth man in Hasler’s team was placed as a reserve so Hasler and 11 men could use six canoes for the mission.

Hasler’s team dubbed The Royal Marines Boom Patrol Detachment began training on October 20th, 1942. All the men were volunteers and knew the mission to be extremely hazardous—they knew they would likely die. The canoes they prepared to use were the Mark II model, nicknamed the “cockleshell.” It was semi-rigid with a flat bottom and canvas sides.

Cockles MK II

It was painted in dark camouflage, and the top was almost entirely covered, apart from two holes where the men would climb in and paddle. Each canoe would be laden with “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.”

After 41 days of training, Hasler’s team departed on the submarine HMS Tuna on November 30th for the Bay of Biscay. When they reached their destination for launching from the submarine, 10 miles from the mouth of the Bay, on the night of December 7th, it was discovered that the canvass side of one canoe was ripped.

Its crew, Marine W. A. Ellery, and Marine E. Fisher were left on the submarine with the reserve man Marine Norman Colley, and the remaining five canoes were launched.

In the sweeping cross tides of the Bay, Sergeant Samual Wallace, and Marine Robert Ewart were separated from the rest of the team and later caught, questioned, and executed by the Germans. Corporal George Sheard and Marine David Moffatt’s canoe capsized and they each clung to another canoe, dragging behind in the water.

But some miles still out from shore, still battling a fierce ocean, they had to make a swim for it, allowing the other canoes to reach the estuary and continue the mission. Sheard and Moffatt both died of hypothermia. At this point, with only three canoes remaining, Hasler and his team had to paddle by night the remaining 75 miles to Bordeaux and complete the mission.

The team covered 20 miles in all the first night but would soon lose two more men, Lieutenant John Mackinnon, and Marine James Conway, captured by the Germans and later executed.

As the last two of Hasler’s canoes traveled down to Bordeaux, the Germans had discovered the purpose of the mission those they captured had been on. However, it is believed that the Germans also assumed they had captured all the perpetrators and had nothing more to worry about, especially given their heavy and thorough defenses.

Gironde Estuary (Wikipedia)
Aerial view of the Gironde estuary in Nouvelle-Aquitaine, France. By Chell Hill CC BY-SA 3.0

When the four men finally reached Bordeaux, late December 11th/early December 12th, they stealthily planted a total of 16 limpet mines on six ships. They made for land and began the hike to Spain. Corporal Albert Laver and Marine William Mills were captured after two days and executed.

Only Hasler and the man who shared his canoe, Marine Bill Sparks, would escape to Spain and return to Britain.

Clearly, this was an outstanding and dare-devil mission. The Germans were flabbergasted and though the repairs to the damage that was caused took relatively little time, they moved quickly to shore-up their coastal defenses, terrified by the holes a small British commando team found.

However, the day those mines exploded in the port of Bordeaux, Claude de Baissac of SOE had already been stationed in the same city and assigned the same objective for the same day. De Baissac had been building his covert network for months and was entirely ready to deliver his explosive sabotage to the German ships when Hasler’s mines went off.

This was a huge eye-opener for the commanders of SOE, who operated with a very high degree of secrecy even from other British forces, and it was decided that a controller would be put in place to help coordinate information and missions to avoid such a tragedy occurring ever again.

Monument to Operation Francton
Monument to Operation Francton. By Cobber17 – CC BY 3.0

In 1955, the British film The Cockleshell Heroes was released, which portrays a highly fictionalized version of the raid, fashioned to uplift the spirits of a gloomy post-war Britain.

In 2011, the BCC created a very thorough and interesting documentary, The Most Courageous Raid of WWII. This was narrated by Lord Ashdown, a former Special Forces Commando and rigorous student of Hasler and Operation Frankton.

Ashdown also wrote a book about the raid titled A Brilliant Little Operation. There are several markers around the Bordeaux region commemorating Hasler and his men and even a society dedicated to developing a trail along the path Hasler and Sparks took from Bordeaux to Spain.

By Colin Fraser for War History Online

Colin Fraser

Colin Fraser is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE