Cockleshell Raid

Posted on Thursday 29th November 2012


This article has been extracted from Cockleshell Raid by Paul Oldfield, reproduced here by permission of Pen and Sword Books Ltd.
Operation Frankton is a story of how a handful of determined and resourceful men achieved what thousands could not by conventional means. They were not supermen. In the main they had enlisted for ‘Hostilities Only’ and, except for their leader, none had been in a canoe before. However, with a few months training they carried out what one German officer described as, ‘the outstanding commando raid of the war’.
They became known as the ‘Cockleshell Heroes’, having been immortalised in a film and a book of that name in the 1950s. It was a soubriquet their leader, Major ‘Blondie’ Haslar, hated, but it has stuck, as heroes they certainly were. They did not fight a battle in the traditional sense, indeed they did everything possible to avoid contact with the enemy. Despite this they demonstrated the very highest standards of courage, endurance and skill.
‘Blondie’ Haslar was an extraordinary man, who combined modesty and a caring attitude with strong personality and single-minded professionalism. He always had the interests of his men at heart and never let them down. In return they trusted him totally and would have followed him to the ends of the earth.
The outcome of the raid was never going to affect the course of the war, but it was another nail in the coffin of the Axis blockade-runners to the Far East. It demonstrated what a small group of resolute canoeists could achieve. It also added to the other pinprick raids, each of limited significance, but collectively causing the Germans to retain masses of troops in occupied Europe that could have been used on the fighting fronts. When viewed through that prism, Haslar’s team achieved a huge amount. In the harsh profit and loss account of war, for the cost of a few men they added considerably to the British cause and sent shivers through the entire Axis high command.

the attack
At 2100 Haslar ordered them to start the fuses. The thumb-screw on each one was turned until a faint click was heard indicating the ampoule had broken to release the acetone, which began to eat away at the soluble plug. They shook hands, wished each other good luck and left the lying up place at 2115.
The attack plan was for the canoes to separate. Catfish was to proceed three miles along the west bank to the docks in Bordeaux, while Crayfish went along the east bank. If no suitable targets were found in Bordeaux, Laver was to return to attack the two ships at Bassens South.
It was absolutely clear with no wind, cloud or rain and the water surface was calm; conditions they could have done without. Haslar was surprised that unlike blacked-out Britain, the docks in Bordeaux were well lit. When they saw the target ships ahead all their fatigue evaporated. This is what they had come for, but how to close with such well-lit targets? The lights were switched on and off several times around 2230 before being extinguished. They came on again at 2300, but half an hour later were switched off using the same procedure.
Haslar kept Catfish 200m from the bank, outside the pools of light, particularly around the lock gate entrance to the basins and around a factory 700m south of the pontoon pier. In mid-stream he was well placed to observe the ships and work out which were worth attacking. Once alongside it would not be possible to work out what they were. He saw seven ships at Quai Carnot, five moored and two tied alongside two of them. There were many more ships further upstream, but the tide would turn before they could reach them, so Haslar concentrated upon this first group of seven.

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The section of Quai Carnot in Bordeaux where Haslar’s and Spark’s targets were moored.

They came back into the quay having passed the basins entrance. With hoods up and in single paddle they kept well into the wall or on the dark side of the ships to hug the shadows. The first ship was a tanker, which they ignored. The second was a cargo liner, which was worth a Limpet or two if they had any left on the return. The third was a large cargo ship, but it had a tanker moored alongside making it difficult to get at. The fourth on its own was a large cargo ship, Tannenfels; a perfect target, but already the tide was beginning to ebb. Haslar stowed his paddle and signaled Sparks to hang on with the holdfast.
The first Limpet was lowered down on the placing rod and gradually moved towards the ship’s side. There was a satisfying clunk. Moving amidships Haslar realized the increasing force of the ebb tide would swing the bow of the canoe out into the stream. He therefore took the holdfast and let Sparks place the next Limpet and another at the stern.

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MS Tannenfels a Fels class Deutsche Dampfschiffahrtsgesellschaft Hansa ship from Bremen. At the outbreak of war she was at Kismayu in Italian Somalia, where she was used by the Kriegsmarine as a supply ship. She departed Kismayu on 31 January 1941, just 10 days before the Royal Navy cordoned off the port ahead of the invasion by 12th Division from Kenya. Tannenfels arrived at Bordeaux in mid-April and was used as a submarine supply ship until departing on 2 February 1942 with military equipment and machine tools for Yokohama. She commenced the return journey on 8 August carrying rubber, tungsten, titanium, copper, opium, quinine, edible oils and fats. On 27 September in the South Atlantic the German armed raider Stier became embroiled in a fight with the Liberty Ship SS Stephen Hopkins, which was sunk with heavy losses; only 15 of her crew reached Brazil, but Stier was so badly damaged she had to be scuttled. The survivors were taken aboard Tannenfels, reaching Bordeaux on 2 November. Tannenfels was scuttled as a block ship at Bordeaux Bassens on 25 August 1944 and the wreck recovered for scrap in 1956.

They occasionally had to move away from the ships to avoid flushing sewage or condenser outfalls. Moving on they reached a large cargo ship, but with a Sperrbrecher, the Schwanheim, moored alongside. Sperrbrecher (pathfinder) were minesweepers, often converted merchantmen of about 5,000 tons. They were equipped with magnetic field generators to explode magnetic mines at a safe distance while escorting other ships, including submarines into and out of port.
Haslar and Sparks had five Limpets left. With one ideal target behind them in a difficult location, Haslar decided to leave two Limpets on the Sperrbrecher a few metres apart on the engine room. It was time to swing round and head back on the ebb tide. This meant turning in a wide arc away from the side of the ship.
Halfway through the manoeuvre they heard a clang above and a torch shone down on them. A sentry could be seen clearly against the night sky looking over the rail 5m above. With a cautious thrust of the paddles they slid into the side of the ship and froze. As they drifted along the sentry followed them, his boots audible on the deck, but he seemed unable to decide what they were, possibly due to the camouflage paint.
Eventually they slipped under the bows where the sentry could no longer see them. Haslar signaled Sparks to hang on with the holdfast. Sparks rolled it onto the hull almost soundlessly. The sentry stopped above them and they could hear his feet shifting occasionally. They waited five minutes; it was quiet, but the sentry was still there. Despite the risk they had to get on and Haslar instructed Sparks to let go. After two nerve-racking minutes drifting away from the Sperrbrecher they were out of sight and breathed again. They carried on, ignoring the first ship they had attacked.

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Sperrbrecher 5 (ex-Schwanheim), was built in 1936 by Bremer Vulkan and owned by Unterweser Reederei AG, until taken over by the Kriegsmarine. She is seen here in the process of being sunk by RAF Beaufighters of 236 and 404 (RCAF) Squadrons off Royan on 13 August 1944.

Haslar wanted to attack the large merchant ship next, Dresden, distributing the remaining three Limpets along its whole length, but the tanker alongside blocked access to most of the hull. They could attack bow and stern, but not amidships. He set Catfish to drift in between the two bows until they were almost wedged. Sparks was about to stow his paddle and get out the holdfast when suddenly Haslar spread-eagled his arms between the two hulls. The two ships were slightly yawing in the tide and closing together, about to crush the Cockle. Sparks followed Haslar and they strained to push the canoe backwards out of the closing jaws. They backpaddled furiously, rounded the bow of the tanker and drifted towards the stern. Haslar said he felt like Atlas holding up the World.
At the stern they placed two Limpets as well spaced as they could and slapped the last one on the stern of the tanker, Python. Haslar swung round and shook Sparks’ hand; they had done what they came for. With big grins on their faces and the canoe now surprisingly light, they set off downriver. Haslar positioned them midstream where the tidal flow was strongest and they paddled hard with single paddles, visible to both shores, but no-one saw them and they didn’t seem to care anyway.
Crayfish meanwhile had proceeded some way upriver along the east bank, but did not find any worthwhile targets. As the tide began to turn against them, Laver decided to go with the flow and attack the two ships seen during the day. They placed five Limpets on the large cargo ship and three on a smaller cargo liner. They saw no sentries.
Haslar and Sparks were well ahead of Laver and Mills and once clear of Bassens switched to double paddles and really began to move. As they stopped for a rest midstream near the southern end of Ile de Cazeau, they heard what sounded like a Mississippi stern-wheeler coming towards them. They knew instantly what it was. Turning round they saw Crayfish approaching fast under double paddles. Suddenly the canoe froze as its crew spotted Catfish. Haslar was impressed by their reactions. When he heard a cautious gull call he laughed aloud. Crayfish unfroze and paddled up to them. They had met by pure chance and chatted for a while. Laver told Haslar what he had done. Haslar told them they had all done very well and he was proud of them.
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Catfish and Crayfish passed between these islands towards the camera position to approach the shore north of Blaye.
Haslar wanted to separate, but Laver persuaded him to stay together until just before they beached to start the overland escape. They wanted to put as much distance between Bordeaux and where they landed, but could only travel while the tide was favourable. They made best speed with double paddles, intending to reach the Blaye area by low water. Mills was disappointed he wouldn’t be able to hear the explosions to celebrate his birthday.
Having passed the north end of Ile de Verte they crossed the shipping channel and passed between Ile de Petit Pagnard and Ile du Pate. They passed the French liner, De Grasse, anchored opposite Blaye, where she passed the war. Just north of Blaye they stopped and looked back to see a searchlight sweeping the area where the Dordogne and Garonne met. They continued a mile beyond Blaye and found open country before the tide turned.

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De Grasse – a Trans-Atlantic liner laid down as Suffren in 1924, but renamed during building at Cammell, Laird and Co, Birkenhead. She operated on the Compagnie Générale Transatlantique (CGT), Le Havre – New York service until 1940 when seized by the Germans having been scuttled at Bordeaux. The Germans used her as an accommodation ship until 1941 when she became a depot ship for Italian submarines. In June 1942, De Grasse was returned to the Vichy Government for use as a seaman’s training ship. She was sunk by gunfire at Bordeaux in August 1944, raised and re-entered service with CGT in 1947; the first French merchant ship to recommence the North Atlantic service. She was transferred to the Caribbean service in 1952 and sold to Canadian Pacific as the Empress of Australia in 1953. Bought by Grimaldi-SIOSA in 1956 and renamed Venezuela on the Italy-West Indies-Venezuela service, she was lost in 1962 off Cannes.

At 0600 they rafted up for the last time. Haslar told Laver where he was and to land there, while he went on another 400m before he beached. Laver looked at him, ‘Very good sir. Best of luck to you’. The two crews shook hands and promised to see each other in ‘Pompey’ (Navy slang for Portsmouth) in a few weeks time. Sparks had the last word, ‘See you in the Granada. We’ll keep a couple of pints for you!’ They paddled off, Haslar looking back at Crayfish once with a heavy heart. Laver faced landing in a strange land knowing little of the language and having to guide his companion over hundreds of miles to safety; a daunting task for a well educated officer, never mind a young Corporal of only 22 years.

'At the stern they placed two Limpets as well spaced as they could and slapped the last one on the stern of the tanker, Python. Haslar swung round and shook Sparks' hand; they had done what they came for. With big grins on their faces and the canoe now surprisingly light, they set off downriver... As they stopped for a rest mid-stream near the southern end of Ile de Cazeau, they heard what sounded like a Mississippi stern-wheeler coming towards them. Turning around they saw Crayfish approaching fast under double paddles... They had met by pure chance and chatted for a while. Laver told Haslar what he had done. Haslar told them they had all done very well and he was proud of them.'

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Major Herbert George 'Blondie' Haslar.

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The routes taken by Catfish and Crayfish from the final hide to their targets.

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The attack by Catfish.

'"Blondie" Haslar was an extraordinary man, who combined modesty and a caring attitude with strong personality and single-minded professionalism. He always had the interests of his men at heart and never let them down. In return they trusted him totally and would have followed him to the ends of the earth.'

In 1942, Britain was struggling to fight back against Nazi Germany. Lacking the resources for a second front, Churchill encouraged innovative and daring new methods of combat. Enter stage left, Blondie Hasler. With a unit of twelve Royal Marine commandos, Major Blondie Hasler believed his 'cockleshell' canoe could be effectively used in clandestine attacks on the enemy. Their brief was to navigate the most heavily defended estuary in Europe, to dodge searchlights, machine-gun posts and armed river-patrol craft 70 miles downriver, and then to blow up enemy shipping in Bordeaux harbour. Lord Ashdown recreates parts of the raid and explains how this experience was used in preparing for one of the greatest land invasions in history, D-day.

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Laver’s and Mills’ attack route.

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On 8 December 1940, RAF bombers attacked Italian submarines at Bacalan, Bordeaux. During the raid Cap Hadid caught fire and the French liner De Grasse was damaged, but the submarines received minimal damage. Cap Hadid was renamed Python, the original ship of that name having been scuttled in December 1941 when attacked by HMS Devonshire. The Python attacked by Haslar and Sparks is often described as a tanker, indeed Haslar mistook her for one, but at the time of the raid she was a supply ship, equipped to transfer fuel and other stores at sea to U-boats. Python was converted to Sperrbrecher 122 in February 1943. She was scuttled on 25 August 1944 at St Nazaire, repaired in 1946 and renamed Cape Hahid. She was renamed again in 1953, Cap Bon. She is seen here as Cap Hadid.

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A Limpet Mine fuse box with time delay chart – the Orange ampoule would give an estimated 9 1/2 hours delay at 10 degrees centigrade.

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Further Reading


Cockleshell Raid
(Paperback - 232 pages)
ISBN: 9781781592557

by Paul Oldfield
Only £14.99

Operation 'Frankton' is a story of how a handful of determined and resourceful men, using flimsy canoes, achieved what thousands could not by conventional means. The volunteers had enlisted for 'Hostilities Only' and, except for their leader, none had been in a canoe before. However, with a few months training they carried out what one German officer described as, “the outstanding commando raid of the war”. They became known as the 'Cockleshell Heroes', having been immortalised in a film and a book of that name in the 1950s. This book…
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