Friday, 20 May 2011

coclkeshell heroes

The Cockleshell Heroes raided Nazi-occupied Bordeaux in 1942. The Cockleshell Heroes target was the harbour in Bordeaux. They succeeded in sinking one ship and severely damaging four others and doing enough damage to greatly disrupt the use of the harbour for months to come. Such was the significance of the raid, that Winston Churchill said that it helped to shorten to World War Two by six months.
For a number of months during the war, merchant ships had used Bordeaux to supply the German military that was stationed in that part of France. German U-boats used the area as a base. Any supply ships that came through the English Channel could be dealt with but plenty of merchant ships were willing to sail to Bordeaux harbour via the Mediterranean and there was little the British Navy could do about it. A raid by bombers would have led to many civilian casualties – so this was excluded.
The task of the Cockleshell Heroes was simple – destroy as many ships in the harbour as was possible so that the harbour itself would be blocked with wreckage, thus rendering it incapable of fully operating as a harbour. This was to be called Operation Frankton.
The Cockleshell Heroes were Royal Marine Commandos. These men got their nickname as the canoes they were to use were nicknamed ‘cockles’. After months of training, they were ready to set-off for their target – except that none of them knew what their target was. This was only made known to them once the submarine HMS Tuna had surfaced off of the French coast.
The twelve men that formed the Cockleshell Heroes were taken by submarine and dropped off the coast of Bordeaux. The plan was for the six teams of two men to paddle five miles to the mouth of the River Gironde, paddle seventy miles up it, plant limpet mines of the ships in the harbour and then make their way to Spain.
The raid started badly once the men were due to be dropped off by HMS Tuna. One of the canoes was holed as it was being made ready on the Tuna. The two Royal Marines who were meant to have used this canoe – called ‘Cachalot’ – could not take part in the raid. It is said that Marines Fisher and Ellery were left in tears at their disappointment.
The leader of the raid was Major ‘Blondie’ Hasler. His partner was Marine Bill Sparks. Their canoe was code-named ‘Catfish’. As the canoes approached the mouth of the Gironde they hit a violent rip tide. The waves were five feet high and the canoe ‘Conger’ was lost. The two crew of Conger – Corporal George Sheard and Marine David Moffat – were towed by the other canoes. Once near the shoreline, both men had to swim to the shore as they were slowing down the remaining canoes. Neither men made it to the shore and they were assumed to have drowned.
The crew of the canoe ‘Coalfish’ – Sergeant Samuel Wallace and Marine Jock Ewart - were caught by the Germans and shot.
The crew of the ‘Cuttlefish’ – Lieutenant John Mackinnon and Marine James Conway – had to abandon their canoe after it was damaged. They were also caught by the Germans, handed over to the Gestapo and shot.
With four canoes down, the raiders were only left with two canoes. Along with ‘Catfish’, ‘Crayfish’ was left crewed by Marine William Mills and Corporal Albert Laver.
By now, the Germans knew that something was up and they had done a great deal to increase patrols along the river. The two crew paddled at night and hid during the day.
The two canoes got to the harbour. Here they were spotted by a sentry who failed to raise the alarm – possibly he mistook what he saw for driftwood as both crews remained motionless in their canoes as they had been trained to do.
The crew of both remaining cockleshells placed limpet mines on the merchant ships they found in the harbour. They had an eight minute fuse on them, giving the Marines time to get away. Both ‘Crayfish’ and ‘Catfish’ escaped on the tide. The damage to Bordeaux harbour was severe. Now the crews had to leave their canoes, move on foot and link up with the French Resistance at the town of Ruffec. The Germans automatically assumed that the men would travel south to Spain. In fact, they travelled 100 miles north of Bordeaux – a journey that took them two months.
Laver and Mills, who were moving separately from Sparks and Hasler, were caught by the Germans and shot. With the help of the French Resistance, Hasler and Sparks reached Spain and then Gibraltar. Even here, Sparks met problems. Hasler used his rank to get transported back to Britain. However, Sparks did not have such luck and was arrested. In fact the Chief of Combined Operations, Lord Louis Mountbatten, had assumed all the men were dead, so anyone claiming to be them would have been treated with suspicion.

Sparks was put under guard by the military police. However, he slipped these guards at Euston Station in London and, after visiting his father, made his way to the Combined Operations Headquarters.Bordeaux city council have established a stunning 100-mile walk tracing the route of the operation and subsequent escape of the only two survivors, which they have named the Frankton Trail. There are nine other memorials scattered around the Gironde region celebrating aspects of the story, the main one being on the dockside itself in Quai des Chartrons, with a museum exhibition nearby. Although the temptation in Bordeaux is always to linger, Rugby World Cup visitors should stir themselves one morning, stretch their legs and sniff a bit of history along a stretch of the trail.
Herbert Hasler was an extraordinary man and details of Operation Frankton still make your hair stand on end. Put down your coffee for a minute and just try to imagine this...
Six two-man crews disembarked into heaving seas from the British submarine HMS Tuna on a moonless night late on Dec 7, 1942. The Cockleshell Heroes were: Major H E 'Blondie' Hasler, Marine W E Sparks, Lieutenant J MacKinnon, Marine J Conway, Corporal A F Laver, Marine W N Mills, Marine Ellery, Marine E Fisher, Sergeant S Wallace, Marine R Ewart, Corporal G Sheard and Marine D Moffatt.
One of the six Cockle MkII kayaks was immediately damaged beyond repair, and a second soon capsized in the huge, ice-cold Biscay surf with the crew drowning. Deathly chaos.
Another canoe also capsized but remarkably the crew made it ashore, only to be captured and summarily executed. Another crew then became separated after hitting an underwater obstruction and sinking near Bordeaux. They were captured by the Gestapo at La Reole and taken to Paris.
The four remaining men pressed on and, thanks to their brilliant boat-handling skills, reached their targets after four arduous days, laying low during daylight and paddling by night against strong tidal currents and having to take long detours to avoid mines and coastal defences. Not all the limpet mines attached to targets detonated but four cargo ships were flooded and a Sperrbrecher (mine-sweeper) was damaged.
The raiders then made their way over land 90 miles north-east to Ruffec, where they stopped at the Hotel Restaurant la Toque Blanche to contact the French Resistance to organise their escape to Gibraltar and Britain. Only Hasler and partner Bill Sparks made it; the other two were betrayed by locals and captured at Montlieu. They also ended up in Paris with the men captured at La Reole, and all four are believed to have been executed in March 1943.
In civilian life Major Hasler DSO dedicated himself to competitive sailing and invented the first self-steering gear for yachts, which revolutionised single-handed sailing by freeing the skipper from constant steering and giving time for other essential activities.

Blondie was also partly responsible for the Ostar race - the first single-handed yacht race across the Atlantic. He and Francis Chichester came up with the idea in 1956 but, unable to find sponsorship, said they would race for a half-crown bet if necessary. The race eventually took place in 1960. From the 50 participants who sent letters of intent, five made the start line, all of whom used Hasler self-steering equipment.

No comments:

Post a Comment