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Cockleshell Heroes set out to attack German ships – only two came home

Cockleshell Heroes: two of the 12 marines in their canoe or cockle, above. Below, Lord Paddy Ashdown lays a wreath after unveiling a new memorial to the heroes of 1942 in 2012

Cockleshell Heroes: two of the 12 marines in their canoe or cockle, above. Below, Lord Paddy Ashdown lays a wreath after unveiling a new memorial to the heroes of 1942 in 2012

IT is exactly 60 years ago since the start of one of the most heroic episodes of the second world war – the story of the Cockleshell Heroes.

On December 7 1942 a party of 10 marines paddled their two-man canoes – or cockles – to Bordeaux harbour in occupied France to blow up German ships.

One of them was a Halifax man, David Moffat (pictured below), and, like seven other men in this tiny group of raiders, he did not return home. His canoe capsized and he died in the bitter cold. Only two of the 10 made it to Blighty.

Twelve Royal Marine commandos, plus a reserve, had been chosen for Operation Frankton, the mission to Bordeaux to attach limpet mines to ships moored in the harbour. The task was to destroy as many ships as possible so that the harbour would be blocked with wreckage, rendering it incapable of operating properly.

After months of training in canoe handling, submarines, limpet mine handling and escape and evasion exercises the commandos, with their canoes, limpet mines and other equipment, set out on November 30 from Holy Loch in Scotland on board the submarine HMS Tuna.

Out of the 12 marines only Major Herbert “Blondie” Hasler, the group commander, and Lieutenant John Mackinnon knew where they were going as they had helped formulate the plan. The other 10 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, then work their way 60 miles upstream to the harbour, plant the deadly limpet mines on the ships and then make their way to Spain.

At the mercy of the tides and the bitter cold, the men were launched on the evening of December 7, 1942. But the raid started badly when one of the 15ft canoes, named Cachalot, was holed as it was being made ready on the submarine. It meant that two Royal Mar-ines, W A Ellery and E Fisher, who were to have used this canoe, could not take part in the raid.

The other 10, led by Major Hasler, who was partnered with Marine Bill Sparks in Catfish, set out for the mouth of the River Gironde. But as the canoes reached the Gironde they hit a violent rip tide, with waves 5 ft high. It was there that the canoe Conger, being paddled by David Moffat and his fellow marine, Corporal George Sheard, was lost. The two men were towed by the other canoes but they were slowing down the other boats and as they approached the shoreline the two men had to swim to the shore. But neither man made it. It was assumed that they had both drowned but it is now believed that they died of hypothermia.

David’s body was washed ashore 10 days later and it is believed he was buried by German soldiers in the sand dunes. He was only 22. Moff-at’s bravery and that of his colleagues has never been forgotten, immortalised on plaques and at war cemeteries in both England and France.

The crew of the canoe Coalfish, Sergeant Samuel Wallace and Marine Jock Ewart, were caught by the Germans, interrogated and 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 thought that both men were held and interrogated for about three months before being shot.

With four canoes down, the raiders were left with only two boats, Catfish, crewed by the mission leader, Major Hasler and Marine Sparks, and Crayfish, with Marine William Mills and Cpl Albert Laver.

By now the Germans knew that something was up and they increased the number of patrols along the Gironde. The two crews paddled at night and hid during the day.

They reached the harbour in Bordeaux on the night of December 11. Here they were spotted by a sentry who failed to raise the alarm; perhaps he mistook what he saw for driftwood as both crews remained motionless in their canoes as they had been trained to do.

The two crews placed limpet mines on the merchant ships they found in the harbour, a process which took two to three hours. Each mine had a nine-hour fuse, giving the four marines time to get away. Both Crayfish and Catfish escaped on the tide.

The marines sank one ship and damaged another four. Damage to Bordeaux harbour was severe. Now the crews had to leave their canoes and link up with the French Resistance to make their way home 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 15 weeks.

British Prime Minister Winston Churchill believed that the mission shortened the war by six months and Admiral Louis Mountbatten, 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”.

But the operation was not without its controversies. In November 2011, Lord Paddy Ashdown, a former officer in the Special Boat Service, which was founded in the wake of Operation Frankton, described it as “a Whitehall cock-up of major proportions”.

Amazingly, at the same time as Operation Frankton a separate mission to sink the ships in Bordeaux was being carried out by the Special Operations Executive, which Frankton knew nothing about because of SOE’s policy of secrecy even from other parts of the British forces.

In November this year Lord Ashdown unveiled a memorial to the Cockleshell Heroes at the Royal Marines Museum in Southsea.

The former Liberal Democrats’ leader, who has also written a book about the mission, A Brilliant Little Operation, said: “This memorial was to mark one of the most audacious and courageous raids of the second world war, which pitted 10 marines against 10,000 German troops.

“It has been erected to remember the extraordinary courage and endurance of 10 young men who were prepared to risk their lives in a desperately hazardous enterprise at a time when our nat-ion’s survival was at stake.” George Sheard, was lost. The boat capsized and the two men were towed by the other canoes but they were slowing down the other boats and as they approached the shoreline the two men had to swim to the shore. But neither man made it to the shore. It was assumed that they had both drowned but it is nopw believed that they died of hypothermia.

David’s body was washed ashore on the beach at Gros Joncs 10 days later and it is believed he was buried by German soldiers in the sand dunes. He was only 22. Moffat’s bravery and that of his colleagues has never been forgotten, immortalised on plaques and at war cemeteries in both England and France.

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.

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 thought 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 boats, Catfish, crewed by the mission leader, Major Hasler and Marine Bill Sparks, and Crayfish, with 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 reached the harbour in Bordeaux on the night of December 111 and 12. 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 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 to make their way home 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 15 weeks.

British Prime Minister Winston Churchill believed the mission shortened the 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”.

But the operation was not without its controversies. In November 2011, Lord Paddy Ashdown presented a BBC Timewatch TV documentary called “The Most Courageous Raid of WWII” in which he described it as “a Whitehall cock-up of major proportions” because, amazingly, at the same time as Operation Frankton a separate mission to sink the ships in Bordeaux was being carried out by the Special Operations Executive, which Combined Operations knew nothing about because of SOE’s policy of secrecy even from other parts of the British Forces; de Baissac was preparing to take explosives onto the ships when he heard the explosions of Hasler’s limpet mines.

The loss of the opportunity for Hasler and de Baissac to work together to strike an even harder blow against the Germans in a combined operation led to the setting up of a Controlling Officer at Whitehall, responsible for avoiding inter-departmental rivalry, duplication or even conflict.[34]

On March 31, 2011 a memorial to the Cockleshell Heroes and three French individuals was dedicated. Made from Portland Stone it was transported across care of Brittany Ferries. The memorial cost about £80

In November Lord Ashdown today unveiled a memorial to the Cockleshell Heroes at the Royal Marines Museum in Southsea. He said the event held special importance for him as a former officer in the Special Boat Service, which was founded in the wake of Operation Frankton.

The former Liberal Democrats’ leader has also written a book about the mission, A Brilliant Little Operation. He said: “This memorial was to mark one of the most audacious and courageous raids of the Second World War, which pitted 10 Marines against 10,000 German troops.

“It has been erected to remember the extraordinary courage and endurance of ten young men who were prepared to risk their lives in a desperately hazardous enterprise at a time when our nation’s survival was at stake.

“The Cockleshell Heroes raid was the founding mission of my own unit in the Special Boat Service but also the first ever raid by the special forces for strategic purposes.”

 

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