By one of the entrances to what is now the Hangar 14 conference centre on the Garonne riverfront, a 2002 plaque commemorates one of the most heroic chapters in Bordeaux’s Second World War history: the British Royal Marines' "Operation Frankton".
This December 1942 commando raid aimed to find an innovative means of thwarting German war efforts. It focused on the so-called “blockade runner” supply ships which would dock in Bordeaux with their freight of vegetable and animal oils, and raw materials including crude rubber from the Far East.
Instead of a large-scale military operation which would have incurred countless civilian casualties, a plan was hatched for six collapsible semi-rigid 4.6-metre two-man canoes (made of canvas with a flat bottom), carrying men from a small unit known as the Royal Marines Boom Patrol Detachment (part of Combined Operations), to paddle from the Atlantic down the Gironde estuary through heavily-armed and protected enemy territory, plant “limpet” mines on the cargo ships in Bordeaux and then escape overland to Spain.
And so it was that on November 30th 1942, the Royal Navy submarine HMS Tuna sailed from Scotland with, on board, the six "Cockleshell" canoes (Catfish, Crayfish, Conger, Cuttlefish, Coalfish and Cachalot) and raiders awaiting instructions. On December 7th, the submarine surfaced 16 kilometres from the mouth of the Gironde estuary. The hull of Cachalot was damaged while being passed out of the submarine hatch, so its crew remained on board the submarine with the reserve member of the team.
|A picture taken in 1943 of Blondie Hasler |
(right) with one Captain Stewart in
a Cockle Mark 2 canoe, the same
type as used in the raid on Bordeaux.
|A solemn commemoration is held once a year in Bordeaux; |
one had taken place shortly before my visit.
The two crews then set out separately on foot. After two days, Laver and Mills (Crayfish) were arrested, transferred to Paris and executed in March 1943. Hasler and Sparks (Catfish) made it to Ruffec, to the north of Angoulême, where they spent time in hiding with help from the French Résistance. They were later guided across the Pyrenees and down to Gibraltar, eventually arriving back in Britain in April 1943, the sole survivors of the ten men who had set out from HMS Tuna five months previously.
|Map detailing full operation. (Source: www.c-royan.com)|
Although the material impact of the raid was slight, it proved to be a morale-boosting operation that punctured a hole in Germany's perceived invincibility. British prime minister Winston Churchill believed the mission shortened the War by six months, while Combined Operations commander Admiral Louis Mountbatten regarded it as “the most courageous and imaginative of all the raids ever carried out by the men of Combined Operations”.
Cockleshell Heroes” (poster pictured right) and has been the subject of books authored by Quentin Rees, Robert Lynam and politician Lord Paddy Ashdown, himself a former officer of the Special Boat Service, created as a result of Operation Frankton.
Ashdown also fronted a fascinating 2011 BBC documentary about the operation ("The Most Courageous Raid of WWII", see below), in which he highlighted an interesting subplot: a simultaneous mission to sink the ships in Bordeaux led by Claude de Baissac of Special Operations Executive, which Combined Operations knew nothing about. De Baissac was preparing to take explosives onto the ships when he heard the explosions of the limpet mines! This loss of the opportunity for an even harder blow against the Germans in a combined operation led to the setting up of a governmental Controlling Officer, responsible for avoiding inter-departmental rivalry.
Le Verdon-sur-Mer and in Saint-Georges-de-Didonne on the right bank of the estuary. Finally, Frankton Souvenir is an association that has been set up to keep the Frankton flag flying, most notably by mapping out the route followed through occupied France by Hasler and Sparks.
- Find it: Place Frankton, Bordeaux.
- For the full story, the BBC documentary presented by Lord Ashdown is available in its entirety here:
- If you only have five minutes to spare, you may prefer to view this BBC One Show report:
Thanks to Simon Lee for suggesting this subject!