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.
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.
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.” (Wikipedia)
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.
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