The Cockleshell Heroes raided Nazi-occupied Bordeaux in December 1942 in ‘Operation Frankton’. The Cockleshell Heroes target was the harbour complex in the city. The port was very important to the Germans as many merchant ships used it to supply the German Army stationed not only in France but also elsewhere throughout occupied Europe. They succeeded in sinking one ship and severely damaging four others and doing enough damage in the port 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 World War Two by six months.
Another important reason for ‘Operation Frankton’ to succeed was that German U-boats used the port as a base and any disruption to their Atlantic patrols would have been highly important.
Any German merchant ships that came through the English Channel could be dealt with by either the Royal Navy or by Coastal Command. But plenty of merchant ships were willing to risk sailing to Bordeaux harbour via the Mediterranean Sea and there was little the Royal 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.
The Cockleshell Heroes were from the Royal Marine Boom Patrol Detachment. These men got their nickname from the canoes they were to use which were themselves nicknamed ‘cockles’. After months of training, they set-off for their target on board the submarine ‘HMS Tuna’. Out of the twelve Marines, only Major Hasler, the group commander, and Lieutenant Mackinnon knew where they were going as they had helped formulate the plan. The other ten Marines were only told their target once ‘Tuna’ surfaced off the French coast.
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 on 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 commander, Major ‘Blondie’ Hasler partnered Marine Bill Sparks in ‘Catfish’.
As the canoes approached the mouth of the River 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 man made it to the shore. It was assumed that they had both drowned.
The crew of the canoe ‘Coalfish’ – Sergeant Samuel Wallace and Marine Jock Ewart - were caught by the Germans, interrogated and shot after being held captive for two days. Despite being in uniform, their captors carried out Hitler’s infamous ‘Commando Order’ – that anyone captured on commando raids was to be 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 who handed the pair over to the Gestapo. It is though that both men were held and interrogated for about three months before being 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 greatly increased the number of patrols along the Gironde. The two crews paddled at night and hid during the day.
The two canoes got to the harbour in Bordeaux. 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 canoes placed limpet mines on the merchant ships they found in the harbour. This whole process took about two to three hours. Each mine had a nine-hour fuse on it that was activated before the mine was placed giving the four 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 six days. They then backtracked and travelled to Gibraltar via Spain.
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 – a journey that took a total of fifteen weeks.
Even here, Sparks met problems. Hasler was transported back to Britain with due speed on the orders of Lord Louis Mountbatten. However, Sparks did not have such luck and was arrested because he could not prove his identity. Sparks was transported back to London where he was put under guard by the military police. However, Sparks slipped these guards at Euston Station. He visited his father to assure him that he was not dead and then made his way to the Combined Operations Headquarters.
The Cockleshell Heroes were:
Marines Fisher and Ellery on ‘Cachalot’. Both had to abandon because of damage to their canoe.
Corporal Sheer and Marine Moffat on ‘Conger’. Both men were drowned.
Sergeant Wallace and Marine Ewart on ‘Coalfish’. Both were men captured and shot.
Lieutenant Mackinnon and Marine Conway on ‘Cuttlefish’. Both men were captured and shot.
Corporal Laver and Marine Mills on ‘Crayfish’. Both men were captured and shot.
Major Hasler and Marine Sparks on ‘Catfish’. Both men made it back to the UK.
November 30th 1942: The twelve Commandos embarked on ‘HMS Tuna’
December 7th 1942: At 19.30 the canoes were made ready for their journey. ‘Cachalot’ was torn during the disembarking and could not be used. The other five ‘cockles’ started their mission about ten miles from the Pointe de Grave at the head of the Gironde estuary.
December 7th/8th 1942: ‘Coalfish’ and ‘Conger’ were lost. The daytime of the 8th was spent in hiding at the Pointe aux Oiseaux.
December 8th/9th 1942: Twenty five miles was covered during the night and during the day of the 9th, the remaining canoes hid at St. Estephe.
December 9th/10th 1942: The crews of ‘Cuttlefish’ and ‘Catfish’ landed on the Ile de Cazeau. This was at the head of the River Garonne – the river that would take them to the port at Bordeaux.
December 10th/11th 1942: ‘Cuttlefish’ was wrecked and could not continue. Mackinnon and Conway made their way inland but were captured. ‘Catfish’ and ‘Crayfish’ paddled to striking distance of the docks and hid for the day.
December 11th/12th 1942: Both ‘Catfish’ and ‘Crayfish’ paddled into the docks and placed their mines. The first mine went off at 07.00 on December 12th. Both canoes had retraced their way up the Garonne and paddled to Blaye. Here both teams destroyed their canoes before they separated and went their separate ways.
Revised October 2011