Summer 1942 and Bordeaux harbour was a key stronghold of the German front line. The Gironde, France’s biggest estuary on the Atlantic Coast gave refuge to armed merchant ships that kept the Axis powers supplied. An air raid on Bordeaux had already been ruled out, due to the French civilian casualties this would cause and a different offensive plan was proposed.
Major Blonde Hasler, a regular officer in the Royal Marines and experienced kayaker, proposed to take a specially selected team of fellow Marines up the estuary, under the noses of some 15,000 German troops, and to set mines on the docked ships at anchor.
The men of Operation Frankton (now known as the Cockleshell Heroes after the 1950’s film) is undoubtedly one of the most remarkable raids of WW2 and was credited by Admiral Lord Mountbatten as ‘the most courageous and imaginative of all the raids ever carried out by the men of Combined Operations.’
In truth, the operation could be said to have failed because the damaged German ships were easily repaired and the team suffered great losses with only two of the original ten Marines surviving. However what it did do was fundamentally unsettle the Germans, forcing them to commit even greater forces to the coastal defences of western France, at great cost to the Axis war effort. Hitler was furious and questioned his generals how the British had managed to get these ‘toy boats’ up the Gironde.
2012 is the 70th anniversary of Operation Frankton and from August 8th I will be joining a British team determined to recreate this historic military journey. Mrs Hasler, Blondie’s widow has said ‘this is bound to be a very tough test, which will call for fortitude and endurance in the face of challenging conditions.’ Paddy Ashdown, the military historian and politician has given his full backing to the recreation, agreeing to be expedition patron.
I am writing this blog following ‘Operation Waterbabies,’ our Portsmouth training trip named after Hasler’s men’s original test mission. It was my first time paddling a ‘Klepper’ canvas and wood 2 man kayak and my first time back in the open sea since my Atlantic accident. Both went well, but I am under no illusion as to the scale of our mission. We have now departed for France to paddle 100 mile at night along the Gironde before completing Hasler’s 120 mile escape route overland to Ruffec, where Haler and his single surviving companion, Bill Sparks were met by the French resistance and spirited over the Pyrenees and back to Britain via Gibraltar. We can’t pretend to be facing anything of the hardships that the original Cockleshell Heroes did, but it’s certainly an incredible story worth retracing and remembering. These men were true adventurers in the most hostile of missions.
Read more of the Cockshell Heroes and our mission to retrace their journey in my upcoming blogs.
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