The French authorities don’t like people kayaking offshore in the Bay of Biscay – it is dangerous. On 7th December 1942, two Royal Marines perished when they capsized and drowned in these open water rapids, the now famous overfalls at the mouth of the Gironde estuary. In fact, during the month of July of the same year, 60 people drowned off the Atlantic coast. And so, to retrace the complete journey of the Frankton Operation on its 70th anniversary would take some mischief.
On 10th August we paid a local Frenchman who owned a RIB, to take us 16 miles along the coast where submarine HMS Tuna had surfaced and set Major ‘Blondie’ Hasler and nine other Royal Marines on their way. The Cockleshell Heroes, as they would later become known after the semi-fictional 1955 film by this title, was undoubtedly one of the most tenacious and daring missions of World War 2. Paddy Ashdown was patron of our expedition and has recently published ‘A Brilliant Little Operation’ – a new look at the great losses and marginal success of this mission. Our aim was to piece together the various historian’s accounts of the Frankton Operation and complete the same expedition, albeit without blowing up any merchant ships in Bordeaux harbour. Although David Fox-Pitt, one of our motley crew, seemed worryingly insistent to compete the mission in every detail!
For the first three and a half hours, it was blissful paddling, a few miles offshore, in calm seas under clear blue evening skies. My klepper, a 40 year old wooden frame and canvas double kayak, sat beautifully, despite all our kit. I could feel the small waves slapping at the canvas where my feet were wedged. Neil Laughton, sat behind controlling the steering with his feet. But we had left late, and a few hours from the mouth of the estuary could feel the tide turning. As dusk gathered, our magic carpet soon disappeared as we pushed on through slack water. By the time the coastline disappeared into the night, we were still a good way short of the estuary.
Straining to keep powering on against the flow, our only way-markers, lights on the shore, passed at a painfully slow pace. I had forgotten about the overfalls. All focus was on battling the current and getting ashore safely. At the mouth of the estuary we hit them. The confused waters rushed around us like river rapids. Standing waves appeared suddenly out of the dark and eddies skewed the kayak alarmingly from side to side as Neil and I desperately tried to keep our bearings and that of the other other two kayaks. Our shouts vanished in the din.
It was alarming and pretty scary. Despite being close to shore, it brought back sharp memories of my Atlantic accident. Over half an hour later, and completely split from the others, we made it to flat waters and finally ashore. The rest followed, sharing a mixture of immense relief and excitement from what had just happened. No wonder, in the middle of December and completely unwarned, the Royal Marines in 1942 capsized two of their kayaks. Two men managed to swim ashore, later to be picked up by the Germans, brutally interrogated and then shot. The other pair were swept away, and only one of their bodies was later recovered, 60 miles to the north.
There have been numerous books written about the Frankton Operation, all piecing together the accounts of the only two survivors – Hasler and Sparks. As credible as these histories are, our journey up the Gironde soon highlighted the fact that these accounts were written by academics, mainly knowledgable about the war. Understanding of the physical hardships and true expedition that the men faced is something else. Without the painful experience of sitting on the wooden seat of a klepper for six hours or the mess of pulling ashore at high tide, resting, then having to pull the kleppers through thick mud back to the low tide mark, it is hard to grasp the true adventure and great challenges they faced.
For the next ten days our team of six continued upstream to Bordeaux and then overland by foot, following the escape route of Hasler and Sparks. Not for a moment can you compare the summer holiday expedition that my friends and I had to the incredible hardship and loss that the Royal Marines faced in 1942 – but it was the first complete re-creation of their remarkable journey.
I will write another blog in the coming weeks about some of the other adventures we had.
If you are interested in hearing more about the Cockleshell Heroes and our accounts of the expedition, then we are organising an event in London on December 6th in aid of the Stroke Association and The Royal Marines Charitable Trust Fund. Tickets are just £10 – click this link and send me an email to book yours.
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