Invisible Bordeaux recently heard about a plan to reenact Operation Frankton, the heroic 1942 suicide raid which ranks as one of the most...

Frankton 75: the Cockleshell Hero’s grandsons reenacting Operation Frankton

Invisible Bordeaux recently heard about a plan to reenact Operation Frankton, the heroic 1942 suicide raid which ranks as one of the most incredible tales of Bordeaux’s dark wartime years (and which has already been featured on the blog): ten Royal Marines set out from the Atlantic, canoeing down the Gironde Estuary in order to plant mines on German cargo ships docked in central Bordeaux. Only two of the so-called Cockleshell Heroes, Herbert "Blondie" Hasler (1914-1987) and Bill Sparks (1922-2002), survived the mission; after escaping inland to Ruffec, near Angoulême, members of the French Résistance guided them across the Pyrenees and onto to Gibraltar, from where they departed for the UK.

What makes this project (codename Frankton 75 and scheduled for September 2017) stand out from other similar ventures is that it involves not just paddling down the Gironde Estuary, but also an overland trek to Ruffec, and that the crew includes Mike and Rich Heard, the grandsons of Bill Sparks. The extended team also includes their uncle Terry Sparks, Bills Sparks’s son. I caught up with Rich to get the full story.
Rich Heard.

What is the basic thinking behind this adventure?

We are following in the footsteps of our Grandad, Bill Sparks. It's been something of a dream for my brother Mike and me since we were kids, to reenact the mission and experience some of the sights and trials that the Marines faced. My brother turned 40 this year, so it seemed like as good an excuse as any to make it happen! My uncle Terry is joining us too, he was in the Marines for 25 years, following in his father's footsteps.

Who else is involved?

The six-strong team who are completing the paddle include me, Mike, Mike Hale (one of my best friends and our paddling “guru”), Juan Greyling (close friend of ours who is always up for a wacky endurance challenge!), Alun Davies (retired Police officer who has been working with me for the last 18 months) and Matt Lardner (soon to be retired Police officer, and ex-Marine - he's known of the raid since his days in the corps and he was thrilled to be invited along!).

Next stop: the Gironde Estuary (photo source: dorsetecho.co.uk)
When is the modern-day reenactment taking place? How long will it last?

The expedition will set out at 06.30 on Saturday 30th September 2017 from our launch location, Le Verdon-Sur-Mer. Our plans are to complete the paddle over three days, with the walk then taking a further four. This factors in a day as a buffer should we need it for either the paddle or the trek. Our aim is to have a little celebration at the cafe in Ruffec where Sparks and Hasler met the Resistance. We have contacted the charity that looks after the Frankton Trail and hope to have someone from Mary Lindell's family present; the Dubois family hid Hasler and Sparks, and then Mary Lindell helped them escape France. Any involvement from their lineage would be very welcomed!

Hasler and Sparks meeting up with Mary Lindell in more peaceful times.
Sparks (first left) and Hasler (first right) reunited with the Dubois family who took enormous risks to protect the two men.
How have you gone about preparing the adventure? Have you planned where you'll be stopping over?

We have been lucky in that Everyone Active (a national leisure centre company) have given us free access to their gyms so that we can prepare physically for the challenge. We have been busily trying to source two-man kayaks to train in and to use, and finally think we have three boats sorted! So we will book in some group training days as well as just getting out on the water as much as possible. Unfortunately we don't all live in one location which makes logistics a little fiddly!

In terms of the stops, my Uncle Terry is our navigator and planner, we are looking to confirm our exact stops over the next week or two. From my understanding there are actually very few places along the Gironde which you can safely get in and out of the water.

You also have a full-on support team following you.

The support team is getting pretty extensive, with people putting in a lot of time back at home to help with the fundraising efforts. My sister (Natalie Pitney) and mum (Gill Clark - daughter of Bill) have been sending letters to local businesses looking for support, as well as organising a raffle, etc.

For the actual trip, Terry will be our main man, he will be supporting us from the shore side along with my brother-in-law - Jim Pitney. Depending on our plans they will be setting up camp ready for us, or potentially ferrying us from pillar to post so we can paddle. Potentially we have a guy called Andy who is providing safety boat cover, but this is a way off of being confirmed. And when we get to the trek part of the trip we will potentially be joined by more friends and family.

Are you familiar with the region? What are you expecting to encounter along the way?

None of us have paddled the Gironde before, but we have been in contact with several people who have recently. We are aware of the tidal race especially at the mouth of the Gironde where the water meets the Atlantic, so we are thinking that the first leg of the paddle is going to be particularly difficult, with the current/tide pulling us in all directions. Also the Gironde is known for its bore wave… who doesn't love a 6-8ft wave appearing out of nowhere?!!

A team meeting in progress (source: frankton75th.co.uk).
Once we are into the paddle proper, the pace of the river is going to be our biggest concern, if we were to capsize, or to lose a bit of kit, it'll be away from us pretty quickly. Equally if we were to miss our stop point, it will be a longer paddle back against the current to try and get there.

From my understanding the tides change on a pretty sharp turnaround too, so we can go from having it behind us and helping us, to it being head on and slowing our paddle rate down. And then there's the wind, the uncontrollable unpredictable element which could change things massively!!

So we are preparing as best we can, once we have kayaks we will be hitting some slightly faster flows of water in order to get used to things. Plus we will all be drilled to a certain proficiency (hopefully).

Which part of the reenactment do you expect to be more challenging? The canoeing or the walking?

The paddling will definitely be the harder of the two, the raw power of the Gironde will mean we will need to keep our wits about us at every step. Plus the distances we will need to cover on a daily basis will make the physicality of it tough on all six of us.

The trek side of things is comparatively civilised, so fitness will be the main thing there. But the walk is going to be a challenge; covering 30+ miles over four consecutive days will certainly be hard wearing on our feet, however we plan to have a support van carrying the majority of our kit, who we will meet up with for breaks. My uncle has completed the walk on a couple of occasions, so this is certainly the more 'known' of the two areas.

Bill Sparks (second from left to rear of car) touring the US
to promote the Cockleshell Heroes movie.
Once Operation Frankton was in the past, what did your grandfather Bill Sparks do next?

After the raid he served in Burma, Africa and Italy. In 1946 he joined London Transport as a driver, taking a year's break in 1952 to work as a lieutenant in the Malayan police during the insurgency.

Three years later he was an adviser for the film Cockleshell Heroes with Mel Ferrer and Trevor Howard, and toured America to promote it. He also published The Last Of The Cockleshell Heroes (1992) and Cockleshell Commander (2002).

He finished his working life as a London Transport garage inspector. At 65, tax regulations cut his invalidity pension, forcing him to auction his many medals in order to keep his retirement home at Alfriston, East Sussex. The anonymous buyer allowed him to borrow them for veterans' parades.

He was passionate about preserving the memories of his fallen comrades, and spent a large portion of his life ensuring that they were well remembered as the heroes that they were.

Did he return to Bordeaux or develop any particular ties with the city?

As far as I am aware he returned to Bordeaux on several occasions, in 1966 to unveil a memorial at the English Church in Bordeaux, and then in 1983 to complete his own reenactment of the raid. I am sure there were countless other occasions too.

1966: Sparks (third right), Hasler (middle) and Mary Lindell unveiling a plaque at what was then St Nicholas Anglican church in Bordeaux (Cours Xavier-Arnozan). The plaque can now be seen at Centre Jean-Moulin.
Hasler and Sparks in Bordeaux in 1966.
Sparks during his own 1983 reenactment of the raid.
And you'll be raising money for charity along the way. Tell us more!

Eight years ago my father passed away after a very short battle with lung cancer (it was literally one month from diagnosis to his passing). For his final eight or so days he was cared for in a hospice locally. The Weldmar Hospicecare Trust operate in Dorset across a couple of sites, and provide the most amazing respite and end of life care imaginable, to families who are suffering.

I've been quoted as saying that the staff are like “angels on this earth” but that still doesn't seem to do them justice. The chef researched a “junket” pudding that my dad could remember from his infant days at school, then he went out and bought the ingredients and made it for him. Nothing was ever too much for the staff! Our aim is to raise £10,000 to support their ongoing needs as a trust... we just need a lot of support with this.

Finally, how can we monitor your progress?

I will be doing a couple of radio interviews with BBC Solent over the coming weeks, I'll post links to these on our social media. We will be blogging regularly via the website and updating social media as we go. We are contactable via all of these means and would encourage people to get in touch. We would especially like to hear from any descendants or locals who had some interaction with the marines either during the war or in the subsequent years after.

> Website: www.frankton75th.co.uk
> Facebook: www.facebook.com/frankton75footsteps 
> Instagram: @Frankton75revisited
> Twitter: @frankton75th
> Justgiving page: www.justgiving.com/Frankton75inthefootstepsofourgrandfather

Archive photos from Frankton 75 social media feeds. Lead photo: detail from commemorative plaque in Le Verdon-sur-Mer.

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