A few weeks ago, Invisible Bordeaux interviewed Rich Heard about the Frankton 75 project to re-enact the legendary 1942 Operation Frank...

Catching up with the Frankton 75 crew!

A few weeks ago, Invisible Bordeaux interviewed Rich Heard about the Frankton 75 project to re-enact the legendary 1942 Operation Frankton, the heroic raid which proved deadly for all but two members of the squad: Herbert "Blondie" Hasler (1914-1987) and Rich’s grandfather, Bill Sparks (1922-2002). 

The Frankton 75 team, which also included Rich’s brother Mike and their uncle Terry (Bill Sparks’s son), recently completed their reenactment, paddling for four days up the Gironde estuary and walking from Blaye to Ruffec over the following four days. I caught up with Rich to get the full story.

Having completed the reenactment, what do you now know that you didn't previously know about what your grandfather went through 75 years ago?

I have learned a lot about the Gironde and the surrounding area, the layup points where my grandad hid during the day, and the ordeal that faced the marines during their first couple of nights on the water, and then the travelling through France for Sparks and Hasler. 

I didn't know that they were kept on a farm outside of Ruffec for 41 days, literally kept in a room so that they weren't seen! I had the pleasure of meeting René, the son of the farmer that housed my grandad. I also heard of a funny story that happened afterwards: having been confined to the room Hasler and Sparks lost a considerable amount of their fitness, so when it came to the trek through the mountains they got a bit of abuse from an RAF officer! 

How was the challenge on both a physical and mental level? 

Physically it was incredibly tough and completing eight long physical days in a row took its toll. The paddle was tough on the backside, shoulders and back, the kayaks not being built for comfort necessarily, but we muddled through it and completed it faster than anticipated. 

At times it felt like landmarks were being moved along the river to trick us; on day one, from Le Verdon to Pauillac, there seemed to be a lighthouse which took three hours to pass!! Just the sheer enormity of the Gironde!

The three kayaks arriving in Macau at the end of their second day of paddling.

Hitting dry(-ish) land in Macau.
The walk was something else entirely! The sheer mileage we had to cover meant we were walking pretty much from sun up to sun down, and after four days of having wet feet the first day’s walking was incredibly painful. I had massive blood blisters surrounding both heels!

Four days of this was mentally challenging too. Our bodies ached; we only got a few hours’ sleep a night as we got in late and were up early to travel to each drop off point. But we bantered each other the whole way through and really dug in as a team to get the job done. 

Outside the Toque Blanche in Ruffec!
What were the high points of your adventure, and low points if there were any?

We met an incredible amount of French people who were only too happy to help and support us, as well as giving of their time to show us the sights and memorials dedicated to the marines.

Highlights were definitely getting into the boat on day one and overshooting our planned route to hit Macau! Plus coming into Blaye and looking back at the river having completed our paddle.

My other highlight was getting into Ruffec, especially visiting the Toque Blanche. Being in the very same room that Grandad met the Résistance in was so, so humbling and we were all overcome with emotions and shed tears. So much happened in that room, without which I wouldn't be alive! 

My lowest points came on day two of the walk, starting the day in a bad way led to my feet being in an even worse position after walking 20 miles. The pain was almost bearable, but the impact I was having on the pace we walked at put our timescale in jeopardy, so I had to make the tough call to sit out on day three... but strapped my feet back together long enough to complete the final walk!    

We had a reception put on for us on Courcôme, which was amazing! Fifty people turned up to meet us and spend the evening with us! It felt like we were celebrities, we received a welcome of claps and cheers!

The reception held in Courcôme, organised by Mary Messer, Jean-Claude Déranlot and the Frankton Souvenir association.
Are there any standout locations or scenery that you took in during your trek through south-western France? 

There were so many beautiful little towns, and more stunning hills filled with vineyards than I can remember! We started our walk alongside the Gironde at the site where Hasler and Sparks sank their canoe. This was an incredible place to visit and served as a good start point to focus on our trek.
Walking into Ruffec will always stand out, walking along the streets in the town up to the Toque Blanche, then seeing a building that was so familiar from photographs, and being lucky enough to go in. Breathtaking!

 [Video interlude: looking back on the adventure]

What happens next?

Well, we are continuing to raise funds for Weldmar Hospice Care. We have just tipped over the £10,000 mark so we have hit the target we had set, which is amazing!

As for me, I'm looking forward to settling back into family life, enjoying my young family and getting used to my new job! 

Who knows what the next adventure will be, I'm always up for a challenge!

> You can still support the Frankton 75 fundraising effort by checking out this Justgiving page: www.justgiving.com/Frankton75inthefootstepsofourgrandfather
> Cet article est également disponible en français !

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