Royal Marines 'Cockleshell Heroes' recreate daring wartime raid

A group of serving and former Royal Marines and Royal Navy sailors completed the recreation of the route taken by Marines who carried out the daring WW2 raid in France 75 years ago - Operation Frankton.

The 30 personnel are the first military expedition to include those recovering from long-term physical and psychological issues to complete the 100-mile canoe and 85-mile escape trek undertaken during the so-called ‘Cockleshell Heroes’ operation which destroyed German shipping in Bordeaux.

The expedition leader Captain Paul Fleet RM works for the Naval Recovery Centre in HMS Drake in Devonport Naval Base.

He said: “We undertook this exercise for a number of reasons - firstly to honour the memory of our namesake Major Blondie Hasler and his men of the Cockleshell Heroes on the 75th anniversary of the raid, but also as a major recovery event for my wounded, injured and sick personnel to set themselves a challenge in order to discover what they can still do, not what they can no longer do due to their conditions and injuries.’’

We undertook this exercise for a number of reasons - firstly to honour the memory of our namesake Major Blondie Hasler and his men of the Cockleshell Heroes on the 75th anniversary of the raid, but also as a major recovery event for my wounded, injured and sick personnel

Captain Paul Fleet RM, Hasler Naval Recovery Centre - HMS Drake

The three-day paddle took place in freezing December conditions in replica canvas Cockleshell canoes. The five-day evasion walk was along the Gironde Estuary to where Blondie and Sparks were taken to safety by French agents.

Recovering personnel Marine Ollie Wilson-Tancock and Corporal Jordan Pring completed the full canoe leg – only extreme pain prevented them completing every mile of the trek as they took breaks along the way - and Corporal Ian McCormack completed the full trek and paddle. 

Military historian Dr Tom Keene and Keith Breslaur CEO of Patron Capital and huge supporter of the RM Charity who financially supported the event also completed the paddle. 

Capt Fleet added: “The weather was pretty awful at times and my guys had to really dig deep, but the sense of achievement felt by all was incredible and I am immensely proud of them.

“We were welcomed with open arms by the locals many of whom are personally connected to the story, whereby we held short memorial services in remembrance of the local French people who gave their lives to help our men in 1942. We also left a permanent memorial in honour of Op Frankton at the spot where Hasler and Sparks began their escape at Blaye, which will be looked after by the local land owners Mr & Mrs Villet.’’

In December 1942, ten Royal Marine commandos were launched in their folding canoes (codenamed Cockleshells) from the submarine HMS Tuna off the French coast. They then paddled up the Gironde estuary to attack ships moored at the German-occupied French port of Bordeaux before making the 100-mile journey on foot to rendezvous with the French Resistance in Ruffec.

The aim of the raid was to destroy blockade-running merchant ships with limpet mines, and six ships were seriously damaged.  Eight of the original ten man team died – two succumbing to hypothermia in the freezing waters and six executed by the Germans.

Taking part in the raid’s recreation and memorial service were injured Royal Marines from the Hasler Naval Service Recovery Centre, which is named after Blondie Hasler.

The challenge aimed to help them build up their strength, stamina and rebuilding confidence through military teamwork, while also honouring those injured in active service and raising awareness and funds for The Royal Marines Charity, which provides invaluable support for wounded, injured or sick serving and former Royal Marines.