By one of the entrances to what is now the Hangar 14 conference centre on the Garonne riverfront, a 2002 plaque commemorates one ...

Operation Frankton: the Cockleshell Heroes and their 1942 suicide raid


By one of the entrances to what is now the Hangar 14 conference centre on the Garonne riverfront, a 2002 plaque commemorates one of the most heroic chapters in Bordeaux’s Second World War history: the British Royal Marines' "Operation Frankton".

This December 1942 commando raid aimed to find an innovative means of thwarting German war efforts. It focused on the so-called “blockade runner” supply ships which would dock in Bordeaux with their freight of vegetable and animal oils, and raw materials including crude rubber from the Far East.

Instead of a large-scale military operation which would have incurred countless civilian casualties, a plan was hatched for six collapsible semi-rigid 4.6-metre two-man canoes (made of canvas with a flat bottom), carrying men from a small unit known as the Royal Marines Boom Patrol Detachment (part of Combined Operations), to paddle from the Atlantic down the Gironde estuary through heavily-armed and protected enemy territory, plant “limpet” mines on the cargo ships in Bordeaux and then escape overland to Spain.


And so it was that on November 30th 1942, the Royal Navy submarine HMS Tuna sailed from Scotland with, on board, the six "Cockleshell" canoes (Catfish, Crayfish, Conger, Cuttlefish, Coalfish and Cachalot) and raiders awaiting instructions. On December 7th, the submarine surfaced 16 kilometres from the mouth of the Gironde estuary. The hull of Cachalot was damaged while being passed out of the submarine hatch, so its crew remained on board the submarine with the reserve member of the team.

A picture taken in 1943 of Blondie Hasler
(right) with one Captain Stewart in
a Cockle Mark 2 canoe, the same
type as used in the raid on Bordeaux.
(Source: ww2today.com)
The five remaining canoes were disembarked but, fighting against strong tides and winds, Conger soon disappeared, its crew later dying from hypothermia. Further on, the surviving crews encountered high waves and Cuttlefish capsized and was lost. The crew held on to two of the remaining canoes before being left ashore, where they evaded capture before being arrested by the Gendarmerie, handed over to the Germans and later executed. That first night the three remaining canoes covered 32 kilometres in five hours and landed at Port de Goulée near Saint-Vivien-de-Médoc. At daybreak, the Coalfish crew were captured, interrogated and subsequently executed near the Château de Dehez in Blanquefort.

Two canoes now remained. Catfish, manned by Commanding Officer Major H.G. “Blondie” Hasler and Marine Bill Sparks, and Crayfish, with Corporal A.F. Laver and Marine W.H. Mills, continued to progress down the estuary, reaching Bordeaux on the night of the 11th December. At 9PM the Catfish crew attacked the left bank (western side) of the dock in central Bordeaux, placing limpet mines on three vessels. They had planted all their mines and left the harbour soon after midnight. Meanwhile, Crayfish placed mines on two vessels (a large cargo ship and a small liner) further north in Bassens, before departing.

A solemn commemoration is held once a year in Bordeaux;
one had taken place shortly before my visit.

Downstream, the two crews met by chance. They beached their canoes near Blaye and sank them. Further south, the mines exploded over an eight-hour period from 3.50AM onwards, seriously damaging the five ships. (The actual tally varies according to sources; recent research has even uncovered that a sixth ship may also have been targeted in the attacks and damaged more extensively, while the five other ships were reportedly back in service soon afterwards.)

The two crews then set out separately on foot. After two days, Laver and Mills (Crayfish) were arrested, transferred to Paris and executed in March 1943. Hasler and Sparks (Catfish) made it to Ruffec, to the north of Angoulême, where they spent time in hiding with help from the French Résistance.  They were later guided across the Pyrenees and down to Gibraltar, eventually arriving back in Britain in April 1943, the sole survivors of the ten men who had set out from HMS Tuna five months previously.

Map detailing full operation. (Source: www.c-royan.com)

Although the material impact of the raid was slight, it proved to be a morale-boosting operation that punctured a hole in Germany's perceived invincibility. British prime minister Winston Churchill believed the mission shortened the War by six months, while Combined Operations commander Admiral Louis Mountbatten regarded it as “the most courageous and imaginative of all the raids ever carried out by the men of Combined Operations”.

Operation Frankton has certainly gone down in folklore. The raid was re-enacted in the 1956 film “Cockleshell Heroes” (poster pictured right) and has been the subject of books authored by Quentin Rees, Robert Lynam and politician Lord Paddy Ashdown, himself a former officer of the Special Boat Service, created as a result of Operation Frankton.

Ashdown also fronted a fascinating 2011 BBC documentary about the operation ("The Most Courageous Raid of WWII", see below), in which he highlighted an interesting subplot: a simultaneous mission to sink the ships in Bordeaux led by Claude de Baissac of Special Operations Executive, which Combined Operations knew nothing about. De Baissac was preparing to take explosives onto the ships when he heard the explosions of the limpet mines! This loss of the opportunity for an even harder blow against the Germans in a combined operation led to the setting up of a governmental Controlling Officer, responsible for avoiding inter-departmental rivalry.

In addition to the plaque on the square that has been named after the operation in Bordeaux, memorials have been installed at the mouth of the Gironde estuary in Le Verdon-sur-Mer and in Saint-Georges-de-Didonne on the right bank of the estuary. Finally, Frankton Souvenir is an association that has been set up to keep the Frankton flag flying, most notably by mapping out the route followed through occupied France by Hasler and Sparks.

  • Find it: Place Frankton, Bordeaux.
  • For the full story, the BBC documentary presented by Lord Ashdown is available in its entirety here:


  • If you only have five minutes to spare, you may prefer to view this BBC One Show report:


Thanks to Simon Lee for suggesting this subject!

8 comments:

  1. Thank you for writing about that. I now know when is the commemoration date and also discover through your post, that there is a film regarding the subject.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Excellent, glad it proved to be a useful read! Thanks for the feedback.

      Delete
  2. Great article Tim... I orignally came across this story by searching about war history in Bordeaux as there didn't seem to have activity. I was frustrated as there didn't seem to be a huge amount of reading material. reckon this article is one of the best accounts around! Well done...

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Your comments seem to be popping up all over the website! Thanks, there was a lot of information to try and squeeze into an article, so it's nice to have your seal of approval!

      Delete
  3. A new memorial to the Cockleshell Heroes has been created in the Allied Special Forces Memorial Grove, which is part of the National Memorial Arboretum, Alrewas, Staffordshire DE13 7AR.

    This memorial will be dedicated at noon on the 25th April 2015 in the Grove. It will be an open event and all are welcome.

    Regards,
    Mike Colton
    Project Manager
    07929-118598

    ReplyDelete
  4. The timing of this dedication is now 1300 hours. More will appear on our website in due course.
    Regards, Mike Colton.

    ReplyDelete
  5. I would very much like to obtain an image of the plaque commemorating operation Frankton that was erected in the Anglian church in Bordeaux in the mid-60's, in the presence of Blondie Hasler, Bill Sparks and a guard of honour from a Royal Navy frigate. I have been told that in 1988 the church was sold and the plaque removed to the British Consulate-General. It was then decided that the plaque should be displayed at the Centre National Jean Moulin in Bordeaux. Why I should like to see an image of the plaque is that my wife's uncle was the vicar at the English church in Saint Jean -de-Luz in the mid sixties and realising there was nothing to mark the Cockleshell heroes raid he contacted Lord Louis Mountbatten and it was he that instigated the making of the plaque. In Paddy Ashdown's book the chapter on memorials makes no mention on this 1960's one. I would appreciate any further info on the matter...many thanks John Broomer.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hello John and thanks for getting in touch. Interesting story and, funnily enough, I took a picture of the plaque a while back at Centre Jean Moulin without really knowing what the background story was (there's a blog item about the museum that you might like to hunt out via the search engine in the right-hand menu). Anyhow, I've dug out the picture which you should be able to view by pasting this address into your browser: http://tinyurl.com/pshaqtq

      Delete