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‘Cockleshell heroes’ honoured in memorial services to legendary wartime kayak raid

12 December 2022
Royal Marines past and present paid their respects to the legendary ‘Cockleshell Heroes’ on both sides of the Channel - 80 years after the legendary raid.

Commemorations were held in Portsmouth and Bordeaux to remember the ten Royal Marines who set out to strike a blow against the Nazis in the darkest days of WW2 by paddling 60 miles up the Gironde in kayaks (codenamed ‘cockles’) to destroy enemy shipping.

Officially known as Operation Frankton, the raid has become the epitome of commando resolve, spirit and ethos - stealthily striking at the enemy from the sea.

And the bravery of the volunteers of the Royal Marines Boom Patrol Detachment - based at Lumps Fort in Southsea - has also been acknowledged in France, with the escape route taken after the raid becoming a memorial/tourist trail.

In Bordeaux, a combined Anglo-French ceremony was held at the Frankton Memorial on the waterfront, with Colonel Stephen Tamlyn representing the Corps, and veteran green berets completing a recreation of the paddle up the Gironde – ‘Cockleshell 22’, raising money for the Royal Marines Charity among others.

In Portsmouth, services were held first at the Royal Marines Memorial Garden at the former barracks in Eastney, then at Lumps Fort along the seafront, where wreaths were laid on the ‘cockle statue’ and a new interpretation/display board installed by Portsmouth City Council, which explains the role of the fort in the raid, was unveiled by Colonel Sean Brady.

It was off Lumps Fort that the men of the Boom Patrol Detachment trained for their mission in the autumn of 1942, before they joined submarine HMS Tuna in Holy Loch to sail on the mission at the end of November.

Tuna reached the mouth of the Gironde on December 7 and launched five cockles, each crewed by two men.

Of the ten Royal Marines who embarked on the raid, two died of hypothermia during the first night of the raid, two more were captured the next morning, and two became separated from the rest of the party so decided to abandon the mission and attempt to reach neutral Spain… only to be subsequently betrayed and handed over to the Germans.

As a result only two cockles reached the harbour. They succeeded in damaging six merchant ships using limpet mines.

All six men captured by the Germans were executed under Hitler’s notorious Commando Order - despite each one wearing military uniform.

Only two of the canoeists survived: mission leader Major Blondie Hasler and Marine Bill Sparks, who reached Spain with the help of the French resistance after two and a half months, eventually reaching the UK via Gibraltar.

Unlike other famous raids of WW2 such as the Dambusters or the attack on the docks at St Nazaire, Frankton wasn’t widely known or celebrated until a decade later with the book (and film rather loosely based on it), Cockleshell Heroes - a name Hasler personally hated.

Following yesterday’s services in Portsmouth, attendees and the public were invited into the historic dockyard to see many of Hasler’s possessions held by the National Museum of the Royal Navy - but not on general display.

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