View Full Version : The Cockleshell Heros 1942

The Sailor
26-01-2008, 05:29
Operation Frankton

The Cockleshell Heroes raided Nazi Bordeaux Harbour in 1942 where they succeeded in sinking one ship and severely damaging four others and doing enough damage to greatly disrupt the use of the harbour for months to come. Such was the significance of the raid, that Winston Churchill said that it helped to shorten to World War Two by six months.

The task of the Cockleshell Heroes was simple – destroy as many ships in the harbour as was possible so that the harbour itself would be blocked with wreckage, thus rendering it incapable of fully operating as a harbour.

The Cockleshell Heroes were Royal Marine Commandos. These men got their nickname as the canoes they were to use were called ‘cockleshells’. After months of training, they were ready to set-off for their target – except that none of them knew what their target was. This was only made known to them once their submarine HMS Tuna had surfaced off of the French coast.

The twelve men that formed the Cockleshell Heroes were taken by submarine and dropped off the coast of Bordeaux. The plan was for the six teams of two men to paddle five miles to the mouth of the River Gironde, paddle seventy miles up it, plant limpet mines of the ships in the harbour and then make their way to Spain.

The raid started badly once the men were due to be dropped off by HMS Tuna. One of the canoes was holed as it was being made ready on the Tuna. The two Royal Marines who were meant to have used this canoe – called ‘Cachalot’ – could not take part in the raid. It is said that Marines Fisher and Ellery were left in tears at their disappointment.

The leader of the raid was Major ‘Blondie’ Hasler. His partner was Marine Bill Sparks. Their canoe was code-named ‘Catfish’. As the canoes approached the mouth of the Gironde they hit a violent rip tide. The waves were five feet high and the canoe ‘Conger’ was lost. The two crew of Conger – Corporal George Sheard and Marine David Moffat – were towed by the other canoes. Once near the shoreline, both men had to swim to the shore as they were slowing down the remaining canoes. Neither men made it to the shore and they were assumed to have drowned.

The crew of the canoe ‘Coalfish’ – Sergeant Samuel Wallace and Marine Jock Ewart - were caught by the Germans 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, handed over to the Gestapo and shot.

With four canoes down, the raiders were only left with two canoes. Along with ‘Catfish’, ‘Crayfish’ was left crewed by Marine William Mills and Corporal Albert Laver.

By now, the Germans knew that something was up and they had done a great deal to increase patrols along the river. The two crew paddled at night and hid during the day.

The crew of both remaining cockleshells placed limpet mines on the merchant ships they found in the harbour. They had an eight minute fuse on them, giving the 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 at the town of Ruffec. The Germans automatically assumed that the men would travel south to Spain. In fact, they travelled 100 miles north of Bordeaux – a journey that took them two months.

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.

26-01-2008, 05:47
It was a very good film I remember it to this day.

The treatment of the men at the hands of the Germans was of course disgraceful.

An extraordinary venture that hopefully will be remembered for a long time.

The Sailor
26-01-2008, 06:04
Bill sparks DSM, the last of the survivors of this group of very brave men, died in 2002 aged 80

Bill, a Royal Marines Commando, was one of only two men who returned from the raid.

Bill Sparks had joined the Royal Marines in 1939 at the age of 17, first serving in the battlecruiser Renown, and retired in 1946, having served in the Mediterranean after Op Frankton.

Among his other careers, he served briefly with the Malaysian police, and was a bus driver and inspector with London Transport.

In June of this year Sparks returned to France with a Royal Marines party to launch the Frankton Trail, an official long-distance footpath or Grande Randonnee which followed the route of Sparks and Hasler from Blaye, on the Gironde to Ruffec.

During the ceremonies in France, Bill Sparks met up with Robert Pasqueraud, who remembered his family sheltering the Royals 60 years ago.

I haven't seen that movie since I was a boy Herk. I must get it from somewhere.

26-01-2008, 06:38
You know what they say: some people have greatness thrust upon them.

You can't measure the success of that raid in men killed.

Do you know if they were awarded medals?

The Sailor
26-01-2008, 07:10
Sparks got the DSM, as I mentioned and Hasler got the DSO.
They should all have got the VC in my opinion.

26-01-2008, 08:17
Is that all? I would have expected more. Considering what Churchill alone said.

29-01-2008, 09:57
In no way reflecting upon the heroism shown in this operation, just how many things did Churchill say help shortened the war? I know for a fact he said that the Queen Mary helped shorten it by a year, so put that with the Cockleshell heroes that's 18 months already knocked off the war!


29-01-2008, 10:35
Point taken Harley! Wartime propaganda I guess. And of course, Churchill did say a lot!

It's an interesting question to ask now that I think of it: what really did shorten the war? I would say radar, Bletchley Park to name two.

Now I'm thinking further. What caused WW1 to end as soon as it did. The Americans? Because I think not. Both navies were in stalemate. Everyone seemed resigned that the war would drag into 1919.

Manpower? Did he Germans run out of men?

29-01-2008, 11:16
I'd hardly call the naval situation a stalemate herakles. The back of the U-Boat offensive had been broken in 1918, and the German Fleet simply refused to come out to play (and when they tried the men mutinied). The Grand Fleet sweeped at will in what were essentially gigantic exercises out of Rosyth and Cromarty.

Manpower in a sense had a part to play. The Germans did shoot their bolt with the big operations in the West (Georgette and Michael among others if I recall), because they thought they had the manpower to do the job with the Eastern Front supposedly closed off. What is less generally known is that after the Treaty of Brest-Litvosk was signed with the Soviets the Germans actually went on the offensive in Russia, and had a million troops out there at the Armistice.

Then the German Home Front collapsed. The people were fed up with rationing, the marginalised politicians began to make noise and then Imperial Army collapsed. We then get the charming "Stabbed in the back theory" which Hitler made so much use of in his ascent to power.

So my thoughts on the end of the war? Germany all the way.


29-01-2008, 11:27
But Harley, I call that stalemate. Both navies eyeing each other off effectively tied up both of them. I certainly wouldn't want to play down the work done against the German subs.

I'm sure the points you make - manpower and the collapse at the home front - were vital factors. Civilian Germans suffered very badly.

Mind you, so did ours!

I wonder though how our changed tactics wasn't a very important factor also. We were on the move at the end of 1917. I think the Germans realised they wouldn't be able to hold us out much longer.

29-01-2008, 11:38
The definition as I see it is that both sides are in no danger but can't make any move. The Kaiserliche Marine knew it couldn't make any move, because it knew the RN had control of the seas. Stalemate to me suggests sizeable amounts of risk in both sides making a move, while the situation in the North Sea suggests that the majority of risk lay with the Germans.

I'd have thought that the willingness shown by the Americans to incur heavy casualties in 1918 would have been an important factor. And the fact that after the appalling casualties of the Spring Offensives the Allies didn't crack.

EDIT:P.S. Should we maybe transfer our musings to the "Everything Else" sections so as not to detract from the Heroes?

29-01-2008, 12:03
I think we may be talking semantic differences here.

The Germans couldn't get out. the RN couldn't go in.

To me it's a classic chess situation.

I wouldn't for a moment want to play down the role of the Americans. Undoubtedly the fear of the Americans was a major factor.

Have we exhausted this or do we move? I'll leave that up to you. Start a new thread by all means.

29-01-2008, 19:42
Back to the Cockleshell Heroes.....I was stationed in the Rhine Squadron in 53/55. We had the Marine S.B.S.with us there. A number of them had taken part in the Film, doing the work in the Folboats at sea of the coast of Spain I believe. A few tales of inebriated actors were bandied around. From what I remember, they told me it was hard work but a good time anyway/

07-06-2011, 17:15
Just read in my June Classic Boat that the people of Medoc on the Garonne, France,have just unveiled a memorial to the Cockleshell Heroes.
As an aside, Blondie Haslar was on the board of governers for my school on the Isle of Wight, as our Headmaster had known him in the RM during the war.He would often come over in his boat Jester, and would take us boys out for a sail.
I believe he sailed Jester in the first Single Handed Trans Atlantic Race in the early 60's.


David Verghese
07-06-2011, 22:35
Just today read the book 'The Last of the Cockleshell Heroes" by William Sparks, with Michael Nunn. Bill Sparks was awarded the DSM for his role in Operation Frankton.

Pictures of the Memorials in France to the gallant men of The Royal Marines Boom Patrol Detachment who took part in this operation are shown below.

bob shayler
08-06-2011, 18:03
A good friend and colleague of mine, David Gray, was a member of a team who last year, re-traced the route taken by these brave men and managed to raise almost £30,000 for Help for Heroes. Their story is told below,


03-09-2015, 17:52
This is my first post on WNSF so I hope I get it right.

My father played a minor role in Operation Frankton. He was an ERA on HMS White Bear which escorted HMS Tuna from the Clyde to Wolf Rock off Land’s End. He remembers the trip. He recalled that when they parted from the sub they went to Falmouth for one or maybe two nights and then they returned to Scotland. White Bear was normally moored about ¼ mile off Sandbank, Holy Loch, while HMS Forth – the submarine depot ship – was usually moored about ½ mile further up the loch. A week or so after they returned, one of the boilers on HMS White Bear exploded early in the morning of 13 December. The explosion killed five of the crew – an ERA, Seaman, two Stokers and a Cook. One of the stokers who died had woken my father only a few minutes before the explosion to ask him to come and help with a ‘problem’. My father was getting dressed when he heard a ‘bang’ and all the lights went out.

It was fortunate that the boiler did not explode only 10 days previously - when they were busy escorting HMS Tuna and its team of Royal Marines on a rather important operation.

Mitch Hinde
03-09-2015, 22:49
Hi All

What must be remembered is that some of the commandos were arrested by the French police and handed over to the Germans who then executed them even though it was quite obvious that they were combatants in uniform following Hitlers orders that all commandos be killed.
Jeremy Clarkson wrote and presented a great documentary about Operation Frankton a couple of years ago.

Mitch Hinde

Dave Hutson
04-09-2015, 08:18
There is also a memorial to the Cockleshell Heroes at the National Memorial Arboretum. It can be found at the Allied Special Forces Memorial Grove. www.memorialgrove.org.uk

Dave H

04-09-2015, 12:55
This plaque is at the Rose gardens in Southsea near the RM museum.

Mitch Hinde
04-09-2015, 17:02
Hi All

There is also a memorial plaque in Birkenhead in memory of Cpl Albert Laver a local lad. Members of his family still live in the area.

Mitch Hinde