Saturday 24 March 2018

Honoured at last -- the Irish 'Cockleshell Heroes'

A daring raid in France shortened the war by six months -- but a heavy price was paid, writes Dave Robbins

This coming spring, at La Pointe de Grave on the French coast near Bordeaux, a small gathering will unveil a memorial to a daring wartime raid. Operation Frankton, as it was codenamed, was aimed at blowing up tankers and cargo ships in Bordeaux harbour in December 1942.

Operationally, it was a success. Several ships were sunk, and Winston Churchill reckoned the raid shortened the War by six months. But the commandos who carried it out paid a heavy price. Of the 10 who set out in their Cockle canoes, only two survived.

Now, with the publication of a new book, the full story of the raid -- and the part played in it by three heroic Irishmen -- has finally been told.

The story of Operation Frankton has been attempted before, most notably in the 1955 film Cockleshell Heroes. But Cockleshell Heroes -- the Final Witness by military historian Quentin Rees (Amberley, UK£20) is being hailed as the definitive account.

The raid has been portrayed as typical of a certain kind of mad English bravery, but the key figures behind it were all Irish.

Major Herbert George 'Blondie' Hasler was born in Dublin in 1914. He founded the Royal Marine Boom Patrol Detachment and advertised for "volunteers for hazardous service".

He came up with the idea that light canoes could be used to penetrate deep into enemy harbours under the cover of darkness, and that great damage could done by using limpet mines to blow up ships.

It seems today a recipe for premature death. Indeed, Hasler warned his recruits: "You do realise that your expectation of a long life is very remote." The more he explained of their mission, the more his men must have understood what he meant.

He planned to have the canoes disembarked from a submarine at the mouth of the Gironde River. The men were then to paddle for 100 miles up the estuary to the harbour.

There was no planned "extraction" of the men. They were to make their own way over the border into Spain and then back to the UK.

To make matters worse, Hasler was the only one who spoke any French, and he spoke it with a pronounced German accent.

No wonder the reserve marine Norman Colley -- who was to step up if one of the others had to withdraw -- later described it as a "suicide mission".

One of Hasler's best recruits was Sergeant Samuel 'Stripey' Wallace, a Dubliner who joined the Royal Marines in 1931. Six feet tall, dark and handsome, Wallace was good-humoured and professional.

On the passage from Scotland to the Bay of Biscay, there was much talk of the 'Commando Order' issued by Hitler authorising the execution of commandos and other special forces.

Wallace had a simple plan to avoid such a fate. "I'll tell them I'm Irish," he said, "and we're neutral!"

David Moffat was the other Irishman in Major Hasler's crew. His mother made sure he was born and baptised in Ireland.

Although he was from a Yorkshire family, his Irish mother travelled home to Belfast for the birth of each of her children.

British navy submarine Tuna surfaced at the mouth of the Gironde on a "beastly clear" night.

"Looks alright for your launching," said the submarine commander Dickie Raikes. "Do you want to start?"

Hasler agreed, and suggested that Raikes book a table for the two of them at the Savoy for April 1.

One of the canoes was badly damaged as it was being brought up from below decks. Hasler decided that it was beyond repair, and its two crewmen would have to stay behind.

The pair -- Ellery and Fisher -- were devastated. They did not realise that the accident saved their lives.

The other canoes began their journey up the Gironde estuary, but were soon in trouble. One did not make it past the first tidal current to wash over the boats, and Wallace and Ewart were forced to swim for the shore.

Once on dry land, they made toward a low building in the distance which they took for a farmhouse. It turned out to be a Luftwaffe station, and the pair were immediately arrested. The pair were shot.

Soon, rapids had capsized another canoe, and crewmen Sheard and Moffat were towed for a while by the others. "I'm sorry, but this is as close to the beach as we dare go," said Hasler, "you must swim for it."

"It's alright, sir, we understand," replied Sheard. Soaked and shivering, neither made it ashore.

In another canoe, Albert Laver and William Mills delivered their deadly cargo of limpet mines, retreated a little down the estuary, scuttled their canoe and struck out inland.

They were soon arrested. They were later executed, as were John McKinnon and James Conway, whose canoe had struck something in the water and become unseaworthy, forcing them to swim for the shore.

Only the canoe containing Hasler and Bill Sparks carried out the mission.

Hasler was only slightly delayed in meeting with Dickie Raikes for that dinner at the Savoy.

Initially, reports and German dispatches gave the impression that all of the Frankton squad were arrested and executed. It was only after the "mysterious" sinking of several ships in Bordeaux harbour that it became clear that at least some of Hasler's men made it.

The raid was a morale boost to the Allied forces. It was strategically important, because many of the ships sunk were engaged in the exchange of arms between Germany and Japan.

It came to exemplify a particularly British, rather old-fashioned valour in the face of overwhelming odds.

Indeed, the phrase Cockleshell Heroes became a kind of shorthand for any band of amateurish soldiers who succeeded by wit and courage against the more technocratic Germans.

It is fitting that Quentin Rees's new book shows that the Cockleshell Heroes of 1942 possessed a particularly Irish brand of courage too.

Major Hasler served out the war in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) and was invalided out of the service aged 34.

He retired to Scotland, where he took up organic farming long before it became widespread. He spent much of his leisure time hunting for the Loch Ness monster. He died in 1987.

Hasler always hated the term Cockleshell Heroes.

He was retained as a technical adviser on the 1955 movie, but resigned and distanced himself from it ever afterwards.

Cockleshell Heroes -- The Final Witness ISBN 9781848688612 Amberley publishing

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