The legendary raid on the port at Bordeaux by the Cockleshell Heroes in December 1942 could not have gone ahead without the Royal Marines using highly reliable canoes. At this stage of World War Two, canoes were only used by what we would now call Special Forces – men who operated outside of the ‘normal’ ways of combat. For the Cockleshell Raid, the canoes had to be light enough for just a two-man crew to power themselves 70 miles up the River Gironde. The canoes also had to be strong enough to carry all the equipment the men needed for the raid – food, explosives, weapons, camouflage nets, cookers etc. They also had to be collapsible so that they could fit into the Royal Navy submarine ‘HMS Tuna’. So the brief to the canoe manufacturer was for a lightweight, collapsible but strong canoe. It was a tall order but one which Fred Goatley managed to fulfil.


Fred Goatley was a boat designer employed by Saunders-Roe, East Cowes on the Isle of Wight. He started designing small, fast but strong boats as early as 1937 and when World War Two started he was keen to build on the success he had with these boats – the War Office had ordered 1000 of them.


Goatley met with Major Herbert ‘Blondie’ Hasler, the man who was to lead the Cockleshell Raid. Hasler told Goatley what he required for ‘Operation Frankton’ – a strong, light and collapsible canoe that had to carry a fair amount of equipment in waterproof storage compartments. The end result was the 15 feet collapsible ‘Cockle’ Mark II canoe built at the Folly Works in Whippingham near East Cowes.   


The Cockle Mark II had to accommodate two men. It also had five compartments to it.


The first compartment placed at the rear left of each ‘Cockle’ held a magnetic holdfast, a bailer and sponge, one grenade, a paddle handgrip, a mine-placing rod, four limpet mines, one spanner and half of the spare clothes of the rear canoeist.


The second compartment was at the rear right of each ‘Cockle’. This held matches, a small cooker, mine-placing rods, four limpet mines and the second half of the clothes for the rear canoeist.


Compartment number three was between the two canoeists in the middle of the canoe. Smaller than the two rear compartments, it contained rations and water-cans.


Compartment number four was in front of the forward canoeist. It contained a camouflage net, a 50 feet cod-line, a repair bag, navigating gear, paddle handgrip, sounding reel, torch, Benzedrine and one grenade.


The fifth compartment was at the front of the canoe. It contained the spare clothes of the forward canoeist, two fuse boxes, two cups, soap and four escape boxes.


Each canoe had to be waterproof and had to be strong enough to cope with being launched at sea, as the planners could not risk sending ‘HMS Tuna’ anywhere near the mouth of the River Gironde. The canoes also had to be strong enough to operate in the River Gironde, which was known to have a strong tidal current with dangerous tide races.


Hasler’s team of six canoes was immediately reduced to five when one of the canoes was ripped onboard ‘HMS Tuna’. The damage done to ‘Catchalot’ was deemed beyond repair and the two Marines were told that they had to stay behind. The other five canoe teams had to endure a fearsome tide race that Hasler ordered the five teams to paddle headlong into. By the time they reached their first daytime hide at Pointe aux Oiseaux some five miles down the Gironde, ‘Coalfish’ and ‘Conger’ had also been lost and ‘Cuttlefish’ was lost on December 10th. However, probably against all the odds, two of the canoe teams got into Bordeaux port – ‘Catfish’ and ‘Crayfish’ – and planted their limpet mines. It was a testimony to the design of the canoes that two of the teams made it and caused so much damage. In fact, their own crews destroyed ‘Catfish’ and ‘Crayfish’. The canoes were no longer needed after the attack and after paddling to the village of Blaye, some 15 miles back upstream, the remaining men had to go on foot across land to Spain.


In total the men in the Cockle Mark II had paddled 91 miles in the most hostile of terrains.


October 2011