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Operation Frankton - The Cockleshell Heroes

Jack Russell's Cockleshell Heroes
Cockleshell Heroes by Jack Russell

This picture, is a lasting tribute, dedicated to the memory of ten gallant men who paddled their Cockle MKI1 canoes in enemy waters, far up the Gironde river to their targets, in Bordeaux harbour. From this highly successful raid there were just two survivors, Major Hasler DSO and William Sparks DSM. Together, they escaped from enemy occupied France, through Spain and into Gibraltar.

An immense amount of trouble was taken over the training of the small handful of picked Royal Marines who took part under the immediate leadership of Major "Blondie" Hasler. They maintained their object in spite of the frightening losses of the first night and the subsequent ever increasing difficulties encountered. Although the force had been reduced to four men, the object was finally achieved.

In December 1942 a party of ten Royal Marines from the newly created Royal Marines Boom Patrol Detachment, formed for operations of a particularly 'hazardous' nature, carried out a raid on enemy shipping in the harbour at Bordeaux. The exploits of those who took part are legendary.

The Chosen Ones

Major H. G. "Blondie" Hasler
Lieutenant Mackinnon, born 15.7.21 North Argyllshire
Sergeant Samuel Wallace, born 24.9.13 Dublin, Eire
Corporal G J Sheard, born ? Devonshire
Corporal Albert Friedrich Laver, born 29.9.20 Birkenhead
Marine James Conway, born 28.8.22 Stockport
Marine Robert Ewart, born 4.12.21 Glasgow
Marine David Moffat, born ? Yorkshire
Marine Eric Fisher, born ? Birmingham
Marine Bill Ellery, born ? London
Marine Bill Mills, born ? Kettering
Marine William Sparks, born 5.9.22 London


Operation Frankton

The canoes were Cockle Mk2, and named, Catfish,Crayfish,Conger,Cuttlefish,Cachalot and Coalfish, they were loaded on to the submarine HMS Tuna and set of for the south west coast of France,the rivers Gironde and Garonne and the city of Bourdeaux. On December 7th 1942,at 7.30pm Tuna surfaced and the canoes were ordered up top to be launched into the Bay of Biscay. The canoes were launched with the aid of the submarines gun which was being used as a improvised crane, things went well until Cachalot knocked against the hatch clamp tearing an 18 inch gap in its canvas side. Major Hasler gave Ellery and Fisher the order that they were to abort the mission, and despite their pleadings they had to be left behind.
The other five canoes formed up and began paddling towards the mouth of the River Gironde. After a hours paddling the heard a roaring sound ahead as the canoes rafted up the Major explained it was a tide race, a place where several currents of water come together. One by one the canoes paddled into the foaming waters, at the otherside they waited for each other to meet up. Wallace and Ewart never showed up, Hasler and Sparks went back to look for them but they were not to be found.They returned to the others and headed on with their mission, already two canoes down.
Soon they came to another tidal race, once again they paddled furiously to get through it,this time Conger with Sheard and Moffat never appeared. Again Hasler and Sparks went back to search, and found the Conger capsized with its crew hanging on to the upturned canoe. Conger was so full of water it was impossible to refloat her so Hasler ordered her scuttled and with Sheard and Moffat hanging on to the stern of two of the other canoes they paddled towards the French coast. Getting as close to the coast as was safe the two men were released and left to swim to the shore.
Now down to three canoes and still a long way short of the target they set off up the river estuary, which was intense with activity.

Sergeant Wallace and Jock Ewart had lost their way in the tidal race, at about 4 am the sea had got so rough that it rolled their canoe and threw them into the sea. Exhausted they managed to swim to the shore where they were spotted by a German gun crew and immediately captured.
The previous evening the submarine had been spotted by German radar, the capture of the two Marines prompted an all out alert to search for more Commandos. On their uniforms the shoulder flashes showed that they were Royal Marines, and due the treatment of POW in line with the Geneva Convention, but Hitler had decreed that all commandos would be shot. Intelligence officers wanted to interrogate them first though.

With dawn approaching the remaining commandos had to find shelter for the day, they found what they though was a small dark island, it turned out to be a small penisular. They hauled their boats out of the water and camoflaged them, had something to eat and managed to get some much needed rest. At dusk they floated their canoes again and headed for the centre of the river and turned upstream for Bordeaux. With occasional rest they kept the pace up for six hours, covering 25 miles, and with dawn about to break again they headed for the shore to rest up for the day, it was December 9th. The next dawn found them approaching the Ile de Cazeau, where once again they would rest up for the day, but it was covered with German AA guns so they looked for someplace else. Finding notwhere else they landed on the tip of the island and decided to take their chance.

Up the French coast a body was washed ashore, it was that of David Moffat, there was no sign of Sheard. At 4 am on Friday 10th December, Sergeant Wallace and Marine Ewart were handed over to the Security Police the Vichy equivilant of the Gestapo for interrogation. Neither said anything that endangered the mission.

As dark came to the Ile de Cazeau the surviveing canoeists slipped their canoes into the river and set of on the last stage of their mission. Leaving the Gironde behind, they entered the Garonne and paddled to Bordeaux. During the dark of the morning of December 11th they found some tall reeds in which they could lay up for the day, before attacking the ships that lay in Bordeaux harbour.
As the light began to fade they prepared the limpet mines that had sat between their legs since leaving the Tuna. The timers were set for eight hours, giving them time to make their getaway. Laver and Mills went to the north side of the river and Hasler and Sparks took the south. Although there were several hairy moments they managed to attach their limpets and get out of the harbour without being discovered. After placing their mines they managed to get to the centre of the river and with the tide in its ebb paddling was made easier and they made their escape. The same morning as the two canoes started their attack Wallace and Ewart were taken from their cells to a sandpit where they were tied to posts and shot by a naval party of sixteen ratings.

At 7 am the first of the mines exploded on the Alabama, the last went off at 1 pm. The damage inflicted on the ships was quite severe, The Dresden sank with holes in her outer plating and propeller shaft. The Portland was badly holed and damaged by fire. The Tannenfels was also badly damaged causing her to list badly. The Alabama, Portland and Tannenfels were patched by divers and made it to dry dock for repairs, there were two other ships attacked but the damage to them was never discovered.
The two remaining crews now headed down river to scuttle their canoes and make their escape overland to Spain and back to Britain.

The account of the flight to Spain is another adventure in its own right .


Lest we forget let us salute our fallen comrades

RM Cap Badge

 

Lieutenant Mackinnon, born 15.7.21 North Argyllshire
Corporal Albert Friedrich Laver, born 29.9.20 Birkenhead
Sergeant Samuel Wallace, born 24.9.13 Dublin, Eire
Corporal G J Sheard, born ? Devonshire (body missing never found)
Marine James Conway, born 28.8.22 Stockport
Marine Robert Ewart, born 4.12.21 Glasgow
Marine David Moffat, born ? Yorkshire
Marine Bill Mills, born ? Kettering
Marine Bill Ellery, born ? London
Marine Eric Fisher, born ? Birmingham

 

They gave the greatest sacrifice for our freedom

 


It is with thanks to Brian Easton that I have been informed of the correct ranks for Mackinnon and Laver.

This account of the operation brings out the spirit of adventure always present in peace and war among Royal Marines. It emphasises the tremendous importance of morale - pride in oneself and one's unit. A fine operation carried out by a party of particularly brave men.

 

Available from Pan Books


The War Memoirs of William Sparks DSM

Photos of No: 1 section were taken from "Cockleshell Heroes" by C.E. Lucas-Phillips
Published by Pan MacMillan Publishing