OPERATION FRANKTON ~
7/12 DECEMBER 1942
Operation Frankton, popularly known as "The Cockleshell Heroes," tells
handful of Royal Marines were transported to the mouth of the Gironde
River in France on the submarine HMS Tuna. They then paddled 70
miles up the river to Bordeaux to lay charges on enemy shipping.
This raid involved the submarine HMS Tuna and 10 men from the Royal Marines and 5 canoes (Cockles). The targets were
merchant ships lying in Bordeaux harbour - ships that were successfully breaking the Allied blockade particularly between Japan and Germany. Conventional
methods such as bombing had been discounted. Operation Frankton was an unorthodox, imaginative and daring solution. At the end of the first night only 2 canoes and 4 men were still operational. Four nights later they inflicted damage to 5 ships lying in
the harbour. Only two men survived and returned to the UK.
Plans & Preparations
Captain H.G.Hasler RM, known as "Blondie," promoted the idea of using canoes to penetrate enemy harbours with the objective of
destroying shipping by means of powerful charges. His idea was borne out of his pre-war experience of small boats and a period of service with
the MNBDO on Hayling Island. However the Admiralty regarded the idea as impracticable and an attempt by Hasler to interest Combined Operations HQ
(COHQ) in the spring of 1941 failed, due in part, to the existence of the Special Boat Section (SBS).
In December 1941 the Italians successfully penetrated Alexandria harbour using "human torpedoes." They inflicted serious damage on
the battleships Elizabeth and Valiant. Churchill agitated for a similar capability and Hasler was posted to the Combined Operations Development
Centre to develop his earlier ideas. Initially he and the few men allocated to his team, concentrated on the "explosive motor boat"
concept as successfully used by the Italians in an attack on Royal Navy ships in Suda Bay in March of 1941. After a similar, but failed, attack
on shipping in Malta several Italian boats were captured. For security purposes (deception) these and similar craft were designated "Boom
Patrol Boats." Hasler promoted the idea of using these boats and canoes together in future raids - the former to find paths through surface
obstacles and the latter to press home the attack. Mountbatten agreed to this approach and so the inappropriately named Royal Marine Boom Patrol
Detachment (RMBPD) was formed! The plausibility of this designation was enhanced by a duty to patrol the defensive boom outside Portsmouth
Hasler set up his operation in Southsea. He recruited his officers from the Royal Marine Small Arms School at Gosforth and his men from the
Royal Marine Auxiliary Battalion at Portsmouth. The lightweight Special Boat Section's (SBS) folbot gave way to a more robust specification
created by Hasler. The resultant Cockle was capable of carrying heavier loads and it was collapsible as opposed to the kit form of the folbot.
The Germans were successfully breaking the blockade on their merchant shipping and this became of increasing concern during 1942. The French
port of Bordeaux, about 75 miles up the River Gironde, was one of the main ports involved. All conventional forms of attack were considered and
dismissed and by September 1942 COHQ decided to call on the services of the RMBPD and Hasler joined the planning team. The plan that emerged was
deceptively simple in outline - six cockles each with a two-man crew, supplies and limpet mines were to be dropped by submarine off the mouth of
the River Gironde. The crews would paddle by night and lay up during the day. In Bordeaux harbour they would attach limpet mines to the merchant
ships, withdraw, scuttle their canoes and make their way overland to Spain.
In the event the raid suffered many setbacks. The force was split into 2 Divisions. In A were Catfish (Hasler & Marine
(Corporal Laver & Marine Mills) and Conger (Corporal Sheard & Marine Moffatt) while B had Cuttlefish (Lieutenant MacKinnon & Marine
Conway), Coalfish (Sergeant Wallace & Marine Ewart) and Cachalot (Marines Ellery & Fisher). (Photo
They disembarked from submarine HMS Tuna at
2000 hours on December 7th 1942. Cachalot damaged her hull when being passed through the submarine's hatch and played no part in the raid.
Coalfish succumbed to a tidal race as the canoes entered the Gironde estuary and a second and more severe tidal race caused Conger to capsize.
Hasler towed the canoe for some time and then advised the crew to make for shore.
After circumventing four anchored Chasseur type boats the
formation was more widely dispersed than planned and Cuttlefish was found to be missing. The remaining two canoes pressed on until 0630 hours
and, after some difficulty in finding a suitable landing site, camouflaged their canoes and took cover in low scrub. They had covered 23 nautical
miles and the force was reduced to 2 canoes and four men. Some fishermen and women from a nearby village discovered them but the marines convinced them
that it was in their best interests not to discuss their presence with anyone. As the men prepared for the next night's paddling it was clear
that the ploy had worked.
The second night's paddling (Dec 8th/9th) was uneventful although bitterly cold as ice formed on the cockpit covers. However the crews landed
easily and laid up in a field. This time their only visitors were some cows! An emerging problem occupied the minds of Hasler and his men. As
they progressed up the river the timing and duration of the tides was becoming more critical to their calculations. They had for the first time
to consider the logistics of the attack as well making progress up river. The next night there would be three hours of flood tide, 6 hours of ebb
tide followed by another three hours of flood tide. Clearly progress against the ebb tide would be impossible.
In the event on the 3rd night (Dec 9th/10th) they curtailed their paddling and lay low on an island during the period of the ebb tide. They
were now behind schedule and could not reach the harbour the following night with sufficient time to complete their tasks and withdraw safely.
Hasler decided to establish an advance base camp on the fourth night (Dec 10th/11th) within easy striking distance of the harbour. A suitable
site was found at 2300 hours. After a night's rest the men spent the day preparing their limpets and equipment for the attack. Hasler decided
that Catfish would cover the west side of the docks and Crayfish the east. The fuses on the limpets were set for 2100 hours.
On the fifth night (Dec11th/12th) both canoes entered the basin without difficulty. Catfish placed 8 limpets on four
vessels including the fast patrol boat Sperrbrecher. Crayfish also placed 8 limpets on two vessels - 5 on a large cargo ship and 3 on a small
liner. A sentry on the deck of the Sperrbrecher spotted Catfish as it turned to return down stream. He shone his torch down but the efficiency of
the camouflage left him in sufficient doubt for him to take no action. The two canoes later met by chance on the Isle de Caseau. They continued
downstream together until the end of the withdrawal which came at 0600 hours when the crews scuttled their canoes about 400 meters apart. This
was the last time Hasler saw the crew of the Crayfish as they set off on foot for the Spanish border.
A German High Command communiqué on the 10th Dec announced that a sabotage squad had been caught near the mouth of the Gironde and
eliminated. Word of the damage caused to shipping in Bordeaux filtered through - mysterious explosions had damaged five ships! In the absence of
other information all 10 men were posted missing presumed dead.
On February 23 a brief message via the Special Operations Executive (SOE) was received from Hasler himself giving details of the three canoes
lost on the first day. A week later Hasler and Sparks arrived back in Britain by air from Gibraltar having passed through the French Resistance
It later transpired that Wallace & Ewart, (Coalfish), Laver & Mills (Crayfish) and MacKinnan & Conway (Cuttlefish) were executed
Hitler's order on Commandos. Sheard & Moffatt (Conger) were presumed drowned. Hasler was awarded the DSO and Sparks the DSM (Catfish).
Laver and Mills received posthumous mentions in dispatches.
"Of the many brave and dashing raids carried out by the men of Combined Operations Command none was more courageous or imaginative than
Frankton memorial, Le Verdon, France taken after the dedication ceremony on
31/03/11. [Photos courtesy of Eric Lincontang.]
A Memorial to Operation Frankton was unveiled on the 25th April 2015 in the
Allied Special Forces Association (ASFA) Grove at the National Memorial
Arboretum in Staffordshire. Observers will note that the plaque is a replica of
the one used in the memorial at Verdon, France. The ASFA grove is adjacent to
the site of the Combined Operations Command memorial. Photos taken by Neil Stott
and displayed here courtesy of the Historical Maritime Society.
The Cockleshell Heroes (Operation Frankton).
On the shore of the Holy Loch in the village of Ardnadam. Shortest route from
the south is via the ferry from Gourock to Dunoon.
The Royal Marine Boom Patrol was the misleading name given to a small group
of highly trained Royal Marines who used small collapsible canvas craft for
clandestine operations against the enemy.
[Photos courtesy of Tony Rodaway.]
There are around 300 books
listed on our 'Combined Operations Books' page which can be purchased on-line
from the Advanced Book Exchange (ABE) whose search banner checks the shelves of
thousands of book shops world-wide. Type in or copy and paste the title of your
choice or use the 'keyword' box for book suggestions. There's no obligation to
buy, no registration and no passwords. Click
'Books' for more information.
Cockleshell Heroes - The Final Witness by Quentin Rees. Main foreword
is by the 1st Sea Lord, Admiral Sir Mark Stanhope. Includes personal
testimony from some who took part. Published Nov 2010. ISBN 9781848688612
The Cockleshell Canoes - British Military
Canoes of World War 2 by Quentin Rees.
Canoes' is the complete narrative of the British Military canoe designed
and manufactured during WW2. The work is some 90,000 words in length with
many vintage and rare previously unpublished B&W photographs. Published by
Amberley Publishing PLC. Book launch c. Nov/Dec 2008.
320 Pages with 134 Photographs.
Cockleshell Heroes by C.E. Lucas Phillips published by Heinemann in 1956.
The Last of the Cockleshell Heroes by William Sparks & Michael Munn published by Leo Cooper in 1992.
ISBN 0 85052 297 8. Republished in 1995 as a paperback ISBN 0 85052 465 2.
"Blondie" by Ewan Southby-Tailyour published by Leo Cooper in 1998.
...and other raids:
Commandos 1940 - 1946
by Charles Messenger. Pub by William Kimber, London 1985. ISBN 0 7183 0553 1
The Watery Maze by Bernard Fergusson published 1961 by Collins.
This brief account of
Operation Frankton, popularly known as the Cockleshell Heroes,
was compiled from accounts contained in a selection of the books listed above.