Lieutenant Colonel Herbert "Blondie" Hasler and the Cockleshell Heroes

December 12, 2019


Remembering the Fallen: Today we commemorate a Royal Marine who sadly made the ultimate sacrifice in a recent conflict. We also commemorate several Royal Marines who were involved in a more distant one. Operation Frankton, as it came to be known was a plan to launch a commando raid on German merchant shipping that was lying in the French port of Bordeaux, at that time in the German occupied part of the country. It took place between 7 and 12 December 1942. It was the brainchild of Lt Col Herbert 'Blondie' Hasler. He both planned and led the raid. It was carried out by a unit known as the Royal Marines Boom Patrol Detachment (RMBPD), consisting of a dozen marines (including Blondie himself) and six Mark II kayaks, nicknamed cockles because of their shape. A 13th man, Marine Norman Colley went as a reserve.

Blondie would spend several months training and preparing his men for this raid. On 7 December 1942, they were dropped off in the Bay of Biscay by the submarine HMS Tuna. However, things didn't quite go to plan from the word go. One of the kayaks was damaged as it was being unloaded from the submarine. This in turn meant two of the marines could no longer take part in the operation. Blondie was now down to five kayaks and ten men. They had to paddle almost 30 miles just to reach the Gironde estuary and would encounter strong currents and rip tides. From there they had to paddle day and night the 60 miles to reach Bordeaux. It was very risky as the area was heavily patrolled by the Germans.

This operation was also taking place after Adolf Hitler had issued his now infamous and illegal commando order. Simply this meant any enemy combatant who was captured carrying out any special or covert operation was to be summarily executed without mercy and without so much as a trial. This was regardless of whether they were in uniform or not.

Two marines died of hypothermia. Six others were captured and executed by the Germans but not before the four remaining marines and two surviving kayaks had succeeded in attaching limpet mines to their intended target. Six German merchant ships were subsequently damaged as a result of this raid. By 12 December the operation was over.

Only two marines, Blondie himself and Marine Bill Sparks survived the operation. They managed to get to the town of Ruffec and were then guided across the border into Spain before making their way back to the UK.

Although some would question the success of the operation, the bravery of the men involved was never in doubt.

They would become more famously known as the Cockleshell Heroes after the kayaks that were used in the raid. They would be immortalised in the 1955 British motion picture of the same name and starring José Ferrer, Trevor Howard, Anthony Newley, Victor Maddern, Percy Herbert, David Lodge and Christopher Lee to name but a few.

A Timewatch documentary made in 2011 told the story of the raid and was presented by former Liberal Democrat politician, the late Paddy Ashdown, himself a former Royal Marine.

Today, we remember:

Lt Col Herbert 'Blondie' Hasler

Marine Bill Sparks

Corporal Arnold Laver

Marine William Mills

Corporal George Sheard

Marine David Moffat

Lt John MacKinnon

Marine James Conway

Sergeant Samuel Wallace

Marine Robert Ewart

Marine W A Ellery

Marine E Fisher

Marine Norman Colley

Blondie died in 1987 at the age of 73. The last survivor of the raid, Bill Sparks passed away in 2002 at the age of 80. May they all rest in peace. Per Mare Per Terram. The RMBPD is now known as the Special Boat Service, the elite special forces unit that's the naval equivalent of the SAS. The memorial in the pictures commemorating the raid is in the French seaside resort of Saint-Georges-de-Didonne which stands on the Gironde estuary.




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December 11, 2018

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