December 1942 - Under the cover of night the most daring of commando raids was staged to thwart the German war effort. The target was a blockade of supply ships docked in Bordeaux carrying food, oils, and raw materials including rubber.
Instead of mounting a large-scale military operation which risked incurring significant casualties, a plan was hatched for six collapsible semi-rigid 4.6-metre two-man canvas canoes, carrying men from the Royal Marines Boom Patrol Detachment to paddle from the Gironde estuary through heavily-armed enemy territory, plant mines on the cargo ships in Bordeaux and then escape overland to Spain.
And so on December 7th 1942, Major Herbert ‘Blondie’ Hasler assembled his men and gave the order to “up canoes” to leave HMS Tuna and begin the mission. But one of the canoes was damaged as it was being passed through the hatch rendering it unusable leaving Hasler’s unit down to ten personnel in five craft: Catfish, Crayfish, Conger, Cuttlefish and Coalfish.
The canoes began their journey towards Bordeaux but, fighting against strong tides and winds, Conger soon disappeared, its crew later dying from hypothermia. Further on, the surviving crews encountered high waves and Cuttlefish capsized and was lost. The crew held on to the remaining canoes before landing ashore, where they evaded capture before being arrested by Gendarmes, handed over to the Germans and executed. That first night the three remaining canoes covered 20 miles in five hours and landed at Port de Goulée near Saint-Vivien-de-Médoc. At daybreak, the Coalfish crew were captured, interrogated and subsequently executed near the Château de Dehez in Blanquefort.
Only two canoes remained, Catfish, manned by Hasler and Marine Bill Sparks, and Crayfish, with Corporal Laver and Marine Mills who continued down the estuary finally reaching Bordeaux on the night of the 11th December.
At 9pm Hasler and Sparks attacked the left bank of the dock, placing limpet mines on three vessels. They had planted all their mines and left the harbour soon after midnight. Meanwhile, Laver and Mills placed mines on two vessels further north in Bassens, before fleeing.
Downstream, the two crews met by chance. They beached their canoes near Blaye and sank them. Further south, as dawn approached, one by one the mines exploded seriously damaging the five ships.
The two crews then set out separately on foot. After two days, Laver and Mills were arrested, transferred to Paris and executed in March 1943. Hasler and Sparks made it to Ruffec, to the north of Angoulême, where they spent more than a month in hiding with help from the Résistance. When it was safe they made their way across the Pyrenees and down to Gibraltar, eventually arriving back in Britain in April 1943 - the sole survivors of the ten men who had set out from HMS Tuna five months previously.
Although the material impact of the raid was slight, it proved to be a morale-boosting operation that punctured a hole in Germany’s perceived invincibility. Winston Churchill commented that the mission shortened the War by six months.
Written by Dr Tom Keene / Military Historian
Major Herbert ‘Blondie’ Hasler was the leader of the Cockleshell Heroes and commander of the Royal Marines Boom Patrol Detachment (RMBPD) whose remit was to undertake operations that “demonstrated the effectiveness of stealth and audacity in the marine environment.” It is out of these operations that the Special Boat Service was born.
Lord Mountbatten, Commanding Officer of Combined Operations initially forbade Hasler to take part in Operation Frankton but he was having none of it protesting -
If they go without me and don’t return I shall never be able to face the others again.
Together with Bill Sparks he was one of only two men to make their way to safety in Spain.
Hasler was awarded the DSO for his part in Operation Frankton and even kept a promise he made with HMS Tuna’s Commander Raikes to make a dinner reservation in Piccadilly following completion of the mission. He continued his leadership of the RMBPD throughout the rest of the war dispatching a total of 173 raids against the enemy.
He settled in Scotland after the war and enjoyed building and racing yachts. There are even stories of him hunting the Loch Ness Monster.
He died in 1987.
William Sparks was born in Clerkenwell, London, and trained as a cobbler. Following the outbreak of war in 1939 Sparks enlisted in the Royal Marines and served with them up until 1946 rising to the rank of Corporal.
In 1942 the death of his brother Benny on HMS Naiad compelled him to volunteer for “hazardous duty” and consequently a berth in Hasler’s RMBPD who were training for Operation Frankton.
In the remaining years of the war Sparks fought in Burma, Africa and Italy before joining London Transport in 1946 for whom he worked until retirement.
Sparks died in 2002 but is survived by his wife, daughter and three sons, including Terry Sparks who became a captain in the Royal Marines and Paul Sparks who served in the RAF.