Great Adventures: the Cockleshell Heroes |

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Great Adventures: the Cockleshell Heroes

The canoeing commandos of WWII’s Operation Frankton had an audacious mission: to sneak past the Nazis and blow up Bordeaux harbour. Pat Kinsella follows the action…

Only when they were on a submarine, powering away from Scotland into the frigid waters of the North Atlantic, were the 12 men in Major Herbert ‘Blondie’ Hasler’s recently formed special unit told what they’d really signed up for.

COME HELL OR HIGH WATER Armed with little more than oars and some explosives, this silent unit faces almost certain death as it silently slips into Nazi-occupied France

The group had been undergoing rigorous canoe training for some eight months, and the rumour was that they were going to see action in Norway. Instead, they were bound for Bordeaux – to make Special Forces’ history.

Even during the recruitment process for the Royal Marines Boom Patrol Detachment (RMBPD) – part of Churchill’s newly created Combined Operations Headquarters – Hasler had spelled out the unlikely prospect of reaching retirement age for those joining his unit. Most of the young men suspected this was a one-way ticket, and this was quickly confirmed during Hasler’s briefing.

Their mission was to paddle six two-man canoes, under the winter-thick cloak of darkness, up a 70-mile-long estuary over three consecutive nights, penetrating into possibly the world’s most heavily guarded port, where they would attach limpet mines to strategically selected ships and then retreat. But not back to the submarine – that would be long gone.

“How do we get back home, sir?” One of the men asked.

“You walk.” Hasler told them. Across occupied France, over the Pyrenees into neutral Spain, and then to Gibraltar. Hasler was serious. The prospect of a long life never looked so remote. They couldn’t even speak French.


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June 2015 issue of History Revealed