Operation Frankton was a commando raid on shipping in the German occupied French port of Bordeaux during the Second World War. The raid was carried out by a small unit of Royal Marines known as the Royal Marines Boom Patrol Detachment (RMBPD).
The plan was for six canoes to be taken to the area of the Gironde estuary by submarine. They would then paddle by night to Bordeaux. On arrival they would attack the docked cargo ships with limpet mines and then escape overland to Spain. Twelve men were from no.1 section were selected for the raid; including the C.O. Blondie Hasler and the reserve Colley the total of the team numbered thirteen. One ‘cockle’ failed to launch which meant three men returned home to the UK on the submarine. Two men survived the raid: Hasler, and his no.2 in the canoe, Sparks.Of the other eight, six were executed by the Germans while two died from hypothermia.The British Prime Minister Winston Churchill believed the mission shortened the Second World War by six months and Admiral Louis Mountbatten, the commander of Combined Operations, deemed the raid “the most courageous and imaginative of all the raids ever carried out by the men of Combined Operations.”
The Royal Marines Boom Patrol Detachment (RMBPD) was formed on 6 July 1942, and based at Southsea, Portsmouth. The RMBPD was under the command of Royal Marines Major Herbert ‘Blondie’ Hasler with Captain J.D. Stewart as second in command. The detachment consisted of 34 men and was based at Lumps fort, and often exercised in the Portsmouth harbour and patrolled the boom at nights.
The port of Bordeaux was a major destination for goods to support the German war effort. In the 12 months from June 1941–1942 vegetable and animal oils, other raw materials, and 25,000 tons of crude rubber had arrived at the port.Hasler submitted a plan of attack on 21 September 1942. The INITIAL plan called for a force of THREE canoes to be transported to the Gironde Estuary by submarine then paddle by night and hide by day until they reached Bordeaux 60 miles (97 km) from the sea., thus hoping to avoid the 32 mixed German navy ships, that patrolled or used the port. On arrival they hoped to sink between six and 12 cargo ships then escape overland to Spain. Permission for the raid was granted on 13 October 1942, but Admiral Louis Mountbatten Chief of Combined operations increased the number of canoes to be taken to six. Mountbatten had originally ordered that Hasler could not take part in the raid, because of his experience as the chief canoeing specialist, but changed his mind after Hasler formally submitted his reasons for inclusion. The RMBPD started training for the raid on 20 October 1942, which included canoe handling, submarine rehearsals, limpet mine handling and escape and evasion exercises. The RMBPD practised for the raid with a simulated attack against Deptford, starting from Margate and canoeing up the Swale.
Mark II canoes, which were given the codename of Cockle, were selected for the raid . The Mark II was a semi rigid two man canoe, with the sides made of canvas, a flat bottom, and 15 feet (4.6 m) in length. When collapsed it had to be capable of getting in and out of the 24 inches (610 mm) wide submarine hatch. During the raid each canoe’s load would be 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. The men also carried a .45 Colt pistol and a Fairbairn-Sykes Fighting Knife.
The men selected to go on the raid were divided into two divisions each having their own targets.
- Major Hasler and Marine Bill Sparks in canoe Catfish.
- Corporal AF Laver and Marine WH Mills in canoe Crayfish.
- Corporal CJ Sheard and Marine D Moffatt in canoe Conger.
- Lieutenant J W Mackinnon and Marine J Conway in canoe Cuttlefish.
- Sergeant S Wallace and Marine R Ewart in canoe Coalfish.
- Marine W A Ellery and Marine E Fisher in canoe Cachalot.
A thirteenth man was taken as a reserve, Marine N Colley.
On 30 November 1942 the Royal Navy submarine HMS Tuna (N94) sailed from Holy Loch in Scotland with the six canoes and raiders on board. The submarine was supposed to reach the Gironde estuary and the mission was scheduled to start on 6 December 1942. This was delayed because of bad weather on route and the need to negotiate a minefield. By 7 December 1942 the submarine had reached the Gironde estuary and surfaced some 10 miles (16 km) from the mouth of the estuary. One canoe Cachalot’s hull was damaged while being passed out of the submarine hatch, leaving just five canoes to start the raid. The reserve member of the team Marine Colley, was not needed so he remained aboard the submarine with the Cachalot crew Marine Ellery and Marine Fisher.
The five remaining canoes were disembarked at 1730 hours 7 December. The plan was for the crews to paddle and rest for five minutes in every hour. The first night 7/8 December fighting against strong cross tides and cross winds, one canoe Conger had disappeared. Further on the surviving crews encountered 5 feet (1.5 m) high waves and another canoe Cuttlefish capsized and was lost. The crew consisting of Lieutenant Mackinnon and Marine Conway held on to two of the remaining canoes, which were carried to safety and left ashore. Carrying on with the raid the canoes approached a major checkpoint in the river and come upon three German frigates. Lying flat on the canoes and paddling silently they managed to get by without being discovered. On the first night the three remaining canoes Catfish, Crayfish and Coalfish covered 20 miles (32 km) in five hours and landed near St Vivien du Medoc. While they were hiding during the day and unknown to the others, Sergeant Wallace and Marine Ewart in Coalfish had been captured at daybreak beside the Pointe de Grave lighthouse where they had come ashore. By the end of the second night 8/9 December, the two remaining canoes Catfish and Cuttlefish had paddled a further 22 miles (35 km) in six hours. The third night 9/10 December they paddled 15 miles (24 km) and on the fourth night 10/11 December because of the strong ebb tide they only managed to cover 9 miles (14 km).The original plan had called for the raid to be carried out on 10 December, but Hasler now changed the plan. Because of the strength of the ebb tide they still had a short distance to paddle, so Hasler ordered they hide for another day and set off to and reach Bordeaux on the night of 11/12 December. After a night’s rest the men spent the day preparing their equipment and limpet mines which were set to detonate at 21:00 hours. Hasler decided that Catfish would cover the western side of the docks and Crayfish the eastern side.
The two remaining canoes reached Bordeaux on the fifth night 11/12 December the river was flat calm and there was a clear sky. The attack started at 21;00 hours 11 December, Hasler and Sparks in Catfish attacking shipping on the western side of the dock, placed eight limpet mines on four vessels including the fast patrol boat Sperrbrecher. A sentry on the deck of the Sperrbrecher had spotted something and shone his torch down but the darkness and the camouflaged canoe evaded being seen. They had planted all their mines and left the harbour with the ebb tide at 00:45 hours. At the same time Laver and Mills in Crayfish had reached the eastern side of the dock without finding any targets, so returned to deal with the ships lying near the South Basin. They placed eight limpet mines on two vessels, five on a large cargo ship and three on a small liner.
On their way downriver the two canoes met by chance on the Isle de Caseau. They continued down river together until 06:00 hours when they beached their canoes near St Genes de Blaye and tried to hide them by sinking them. The two crews then set out separately on foot, for the Spanish border. Laver and Mills after two days were picked up at Montlieu-la-Garde by the Gendarmerie and handed over to the Germans. Hasler and Sparks arrived at the French town of Ruffec 100 miles (160 km) from where they had beached their canoe, on 18 December 1942, and tried to make contact with someone from the French resistance at the Hotel de la Toque Blance and were then taken to a local farm and spent the next 18 days in hiding. They were then guided across the Pyrenees into Spain. It was not until 23 February 1943, that Combined Operations Headquarters, heard via a secret message sent via Mary Lindell to the War Office, that Hasler and Sparks were safe. On 2 April 1943 Hasler arrived back in Britain by air from Gibraltar having passed through the French Resistance escape organisation. Sparks was sent back by sea and arrived much later.
On 10 December the Germans announced that a sabotage squad had been caught on 8th dec near the mouth of the Gironde and ‘finished off in combat’. It was not until Jan 1943 in the absence of other information all 10 men on the raid were posted missing, until news arrived of two of them. Later it was confirmed that five ships had been damaged in Bordeaux by mysterious explosions. This information remained until new research of 2010 revealed that a six ship had been damaged even more extensively than any of the other five reported. This research also revealed that the other five ships holed were back in service very shortly afterwards.
For their part in the raid Major Hasler was awarded the Distinguished Service Order and Marine Sparks the Distinguished Service Medal (DSM). Corporal Laver and Marine Mills were also recommended for the DSM which at the time could not be awarded posthumously, so instead they were mentioned in dispatches.
Of men who never returned Sergeant Wallace and Marine Ewart were captured on the 8 December at the Pointe de Grave (near Le Verdon) and revealed only certain information during their interrogation, and were executed under the Commando Order, on the night 11 December in a sandpit in a wood north of Bordeaux and not at Chateau Magnol, Blanquefort. Unfortunately (seemingly to encourage tourist traffic) a plaque has been erected on the bullet marked wall at the Chateau as to evidence this, but this can be unquestionably proved this is not the case. This account shows the Blanquefort reference is false and this should be noted lest the reader be misled, despite a French Website quoting this as fact. A small memorial can also be seen at the Pointe de Grave, where they were captured. In March 2011 a major c.100,000 euro memorial is to be unveiled at this same spot.
After having been set ashore, Lieutenant MacKinnon and Marine Conway managed to evade capture for four days, but they were betrayed and arrested by the Gendarmerie and handed over to the Germans at La Reole hospital 30 miles (48 km) south east of Bordeaux, attempting to make their way to the Spanish border. Mackinnon had been admitted to the hospital for treatment for an infected knee. The exact date of their execution is not known. New evidence shows that Lieutenant Mackinnon, Corporal Laver, Marine Mills and Marine Conway were not executed in Paris in 1942 but in the same location as Wallace and Ewart under the Commando Order.
Corporal Sheard and Marine Moffatt were not drowned on the first night but died of the cold. The body of Marine Moffatt was found on the Ile de Ré on 14 December but Corporal Sheard’s body is believed to have been recovered and buried elsewhere further up the coastline Corporal Sheard is remembered on the Hero’s Stone at his place of birth, North Corner, Devonport.
In 1955 a fictionalised version of the story was told in the film The Cockleshell Heroes made by Warwick Films, and starring Anthony Newley, Trevor Howard, David Lodge and Jose Ferrer who was also the Director.
In June 2002, the Frankton Trail was opened, a walking path which traces the 100 miles (160 km) route taken through occupied France, on foot, by Hasler and Sparks. The Frankton Souvenir is an Anglo-French organisation, set up to keep alive the story of the raid. It plans to develop the trail, and install explanatory plaques at key points.
On March 31, 2011 a memorial to the Cockleshell Heroes and three French individuals is dedicated. Made from Portland Stone it was transported across care of Brittany Ferries. The memorial cost c.80,000£. Full Story of this in ref given.