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 ~  OPERATION FRANKTON  ~

7/12 DECEMBER 1942

Operation Frankton, popularly known as "The Cockleshell Heroes," tells how a 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.

Background

Plans & Preparations

Action

Outcome

Further Reading

Acknowledgments

Background

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 harbour.

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.

Action

In the event the raid suffered many setbacks. The force was split into 2 Divisions. In A were Catfish (Hasler & Marine Sparks), Crayfish (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 Bill Sparks).

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.

Outcome

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 escape organisation.

It later transpired that Wallace & Ewart, (Coalfish), Laver & Mills (Crayfish) and MacKinnan & Conway (Cuttlefish) were executed under 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 Operation Frankton."

 Mountbatten.

 

The 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.

Subject. The Cockleshell Heroes (Operation Frankton).

Location. 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.

Other Information. 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. http://www.combinedops.com/Cockleshell%20Heroes.htm    [Photos courtesy of Tony Rodaway.]

Further Reading

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. 'Cockleshell 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. Size 248x172mm.  ISBN 9781848680654.

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.

Acknowledgments

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.
 

News & Information

 

Memorial Maintenance

We have a small band of volunteers who take turns to visit the memorial each month, particularly during the growing season, to undertake routine maintenance such as weeding keeping the stones and slabs clear of bird dropping, lichen etc. and reporting on any issues. If you live near the National Memorial Arboretum and would like to find out more, please contact us.

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Read the Combined Operations prayer.

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See the 'slide shows' of the dedication ceremony and the construction of the memorial plus the 'On this day in 194?' feature where major Combined Ops events are highlighted on their anniversary dates with links to additional information.

You are welcome to add information, photos and comment or reply to messages posted by others.

Find Books of Interest 

Search for Books direct from our Books page. Don't have the name of a book in mind? Just type in a keyword to get a list of possibilities... and if you want to purchase you can do so on line through the Advanced Book Exchange (ABE). 5% commission goes into the memorial fund.

WW2 Combined Operations Handbook

This handbook was prepared for Combined Operations in the Far East. It illustrates the depth and complexity of the planning process necessary to ensure that the 3 services worked together as a unified force.

Restoration of Geoffrey Appleyard's  Memorial 

Click on the image if you'd like to contribute to the improvement of the memorial to Geoffrey Appleyard, DSO, MC and Bar, through the purchase of a limited edition print of a book about him. Geoffrey achieved so much in service with No 7 Commando, No 62 Commando, the Small Scale Raiding Force and the Second SAS Regiment. He was posted Missing in Action in July 1943, aged 26.

www.bramleywarmemorial.com/major-geoffrey-appleyard-book-now-available-for-purchase/

The Gazelle Helicopter Squadron Display Team

The Gazelle Squadron is a unique team of ex-British Military Gazelle helicopters in their original military colours and with their original military registrations. The core team includes four Gazelles, one from each service; The Royal Navy, The Royal Marines, The Army Air Corps and The Royal Air Force. A fifth Gazelle in Royal Marines colours will provide intimate support for the team. Their crest includes the Combined Operations badge. The last, and possibly, only time the badge was seen on an aircraft was in the early mid 40s. A photo of the Hurricane concerned is included in the 516 Squadron webpage.

Legasee Film Archive

As part of an exciting social history project, the film company Legasee is looking for veterans from any conflict who would like to have their stories filmed for posterity. Films are now available on line. www.legasee.org.uk

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