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Submariners and Marines gather to remember the Cockleshell Heroes

Cockleshell Heroes
15 December 2016
Royal Navy Submariners, Royal Marines and veterans travelled to France recently to commemorate the anniversary of one of the most daring raids of the Second World War.

The group were in Bordeaux to remember Operation Frankton which saw Commandos deploy from a submarine to conduct a perilous night-raid on a captured French port.

On December 11, the UK military personnel were joined by French dignitaries, the Naval Attaché, local school children and former members of the French Resistance, to pay their respects at the Frankton memorial in Le Verdon.

“Seeing first-hand the sea and terrain that the Commandos had to negotiate 74 years ago has really brought home the determination of those involved in the operation,” said Commander Parvin, who led the Royal Navy contingent at the memorial.

“The submarine captain showed incredible guile to get so close undetected and the Royal Marines incredible daring to get into the port and carry out the attack.”

He continued:  “It was also great to be able to speak with some of the close relatives of the marines involved.  To think that we were just one degree of separation from someone who conducted the raid was a genuine privilege.”

On November 30, 1942, Royal Navy submarine HMS Tuna left the Holy Loch and headed for France. On board the cramped boat were 13 Royal Marine Commandos and six collapsible canoes known as “Cockles”.  

The submarine arrived at her destination on December 7, deploying the marines and their canoes some 16 kilometres from the mouth of Gironde estuary. The plan was for the fearless Commandoes, led by Major Herbert George “Blondie” Hasler, to use the vessels to stealthily paddle into the port and destroy enemy shipping. 

The submarine captain showed incredible guile to get so close undetected and the Royal Marines incredible daring to get into the port and carry out the attack

Commander Parvin, Royal Navy

Of the six canoes deployed, one was found to be damaged and so five of the Cockles, manned by ten Royal Marines, made the mission.  Each of the remaining vessels carried a small supply of limpet mines and each of the marines a pistol and fighting knife.

Only two of the Cockles made it into Bordeaux port. The other three vessels either capsized in strong tides and high winds or were captured and executed by the Germans.  

On the night of December 11, the remaining Royal Marines placed their limpet mines and then made their escape.  The subsequent explosions damaged five of the enemy ships, spreading alarm and panic among the enemy.  

The two crews reached land and separated – their aim to reach neutral Spain and eventually return home to the UK.  However, after two days, two of the Commandos – Corporal Laver and Marine Wills – were arrested.  They were later transferred to Paris and eventually executed.  

The remaining marines – Major Hasler and Marine Sparks – were hidden for a time by the French Resistance and later spirited over the Pyrenees into Spain.  They eventually reached Gibraltar, making it back to the UK in April of 1943.

The brave marines had paid a deadly price for the successful raid. Sir Winston Churchill estimated that their sacrifice had shortened the War by as much as six months and provided a vital morale boost to a besieged Great Britain.  

Writing about the mission, Lord Mountbatten said, “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.”

There was even a film made of the Commandos’ exploits – the 1955 “Cockleshell Heroes” starring Trevor Howard and David Lodge.

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