By Roger Stanton

This was one of the most daring raids of WW2.  On the night of 7 December 1942, ten RM Commandos, commanded by Major ‘Blondie’ Hasler, were launched, in total darkness, from the submarine HMS Tuna, off the French coast south of the Gironde estuary.

The five canoes, known as cockles, started in reasonably calm waters and headed into the flood tide of the estuary. The canoes were known as CATFISH, COALFISH, CONGER, CUTTLEFISH, and CRAYFISH. [There had been a sixth craft, CACHALOT, but this was damaged on launch and unable to participate.] Led by CATFISH, crewed by Major Haslar and Marine Sparks, the canoes took on the tidal race. With spray decks fastened down, and waves crashing over them, the canoes weathered the tidal race only to find that COALFISH was missing. The team returned to search for the missing canoe, but found no trace.

Back on course they ran into a second tidal race, much more powerful than the first.  Once clear they found that CONGER had capsized, throwing the crew into the water. Attempts were made to bale-out the canoe but it proved impossible. The canoe was scuttled, and the crewmen towed as far inshore as was possible without detection.  Both men then swam to the shore.

Now, nearer to the shore than originally planned, the three remaining canoes passed through shipping anchored in the estuary. The teams changed to single paddles and headed further along the Gironde River. But again disaster struck. Although travelling in single file, CUTTLEFISH became lost in the darkness. With the dawn starting to break a daylight ‘hide’ location was urgently needed. A sandy scrub-covered beach was spotted. The canoes were hastily dragged ashore and hidden with camouflage nets amongst the scrub, then the men attempted to get some rest after a very exhausting night. Their rest was disturbed by voices, and the commandos became aware of fishermen and women heading in their direction. Although risking compromising their operation, the marines approached the civilians, informing them that they were British, and requesting that their presence was not mentioned to anyone. Later indications appeared to confirm that the local group were loyal French, and did not betray the men.

The next night, because of the flood tide, the two remaining canoes and equipment had to be carried for nearly a mile, before they could be relaunched at 2300 hours.  That night they covered 22 nautical miles up-river before laying up for the night, again on a muddy beach amongst scrub.

The next night brought more problems. Three hours of flood tide, six hours of ebb tide, and a further three hours of flood tide before day-break. Behind schedule, they launched their canoes earlier than normal the next night and were spotted by a French civilian. Again they had to explain who they were, and reluctantly had to refuse the Frenchman’s offer of help in the form of food and drink at his home. By now the cockles were travelling in narrower waters, and the commandos were very conscious of the noise their paddles made as stealth was vital to their success.

The attack had been planned for the fourth night, but because they were not far enough up the river, Major Haslar delayed until the fifth night, but decided to move in closer to the target area. They continued along the river with great caution, and found a lay-up position in reeds, only a short distance from two large cargo ships. In their hide position, the men worked out details of the plan of attack.  With only CATFISH and CRAYFISH now available, it was decided that Catfish would take the shipping on the east bank, and Crayfish, the shipping on the west bank.

Against all odds the plan worked despite only two of the five cockles launched making it to the target area. The two cockles identified their targets and fixed their limpets with nine hour fuses.  Their final task was to leave the target area undetected, and make their way overland through France in the hope of reaching England. They left the target area, and after a few miles wished each other luck and separated by about a quarter of a mile, then sank their cockles and headed inland.  It is thought that it was the only time that evaders had prior knowledge of a contact in France.

The men headed for Ruffec and the Hotel du France, were it was thought a contact for the Marie-Clare Line may be found.  Haslar and Sparks made contact and Marie-Clare (Mary Lindell) had the men moved to Lyon while she travelled to Switzerland to inform the British Legation that two commandos had been collected in and were on their way home. Later, a route was arranged for them to travel to the south of France, cross the Pyrenees, and return to England via Gibraltar. Nothing was heard of CRAYFISH, until later, when it was found that both Corporal Laver and Marine Mills had been captured by the Germans and executed in Paris on the 23 March 1943.

CATFISH        Major Hasler /Marine Sparks 
Reached target area destroyed shipping. Returned home via Marie-Clare Escape Line and Gibraltar.

CRAYFISH        Corporal Laver/Marine Mills
Reached target area destroyed shipping. Last seen landing. Captured by Germans. Executed in Paris 23 March 1943.

CONGER        Corporal Sheard / Marine Moffat
Capsized in second tidal race. Last seen swimming to shore off Point de Grave. Moffat’s body found later. Sheard’s body never found, presumed drowned.

CUTTLEFISH        Lieutenant Mackinnon / Marine Conway
Last seen off the Mole at Le Verdon. Later captured by Germans. Executed in Paris 23 March 1943.

COALFISH        Sergeant Wallace / Marine Ewart
Missing near Banc des Olives after first tidal race. Later captured by Germans.  Executed near Bordeaux 12 December 1942.

CACHALOT        Marine Ellery / Marine Fisher
Canoe damaged on torpedo hatch exiting HMS Tuna. They were unable to take part in the raid.

Nineteen limpet mines were placed on the shipping in Bordeaux harbour.  At least five large ships in the harbour were very badly damaged. Adolf Hitler was reportedly furious; one cockle had been found and Hitler demanded to know how ‘this child’s boat’ could have possibly breached all German defences, travelled over seventy miles at night, in very rough seas and, against the tide in most cases, then attacked and sank his shipping without anyone being discovered!

The answer, that Hitler did not wish to hear, was that these ‘children’s boats’ had been crewed by well trained, determined, and courageous, Commando raiders. The raid was carried out by Royal Marine Commandos of the ROYAL MARINE BOOM PATROL DETACHMENT, a forerunner of THE SPECIAL BOAT SQUADRON, ROYAL MARINES. Major Hasler received a DSO for the raid, and Marine Sparks a DSM.

THE FRANKTON SOUVENIR TRAIL is dedicated to the men who took part in the raid. It is organised by the RM Commandos and the French Bagheera Association of Parachutists.

Thanks to Maj Bentinck, Historical Records Officer, Royal Marine Commandos, Portsmouth, for supplying much of the information on Operation Frankton.