On Monday December 7, 1942 one of the most daring operations of the Second World War began off the coast of France.
The lead-up to Operation Frankton had begun several months earlier when Royal Marines based at Eastney Barracks in Portsmouth began training.
Their job was to row specially-adapted two-man collapsible canoes called cockles up the River Gironge in France and destroy enemy shipping in Bordeaux harbour. The Royal Marines then had to make their way home as best they could.
There were a dozen men in all, made up of six pairs for each cockle. All were loaded into the submarine HMS Tuna and made their way across the Channel to where they were to be unloaded.
Of the dozen men, two never made it into their canoe as it became snagged and split while offloading it from the submarine. Marines William Ellery and Eric Fisher had to return home with the submarine, absolutely distraught after all their training.
Of the 10 remaining men who shook hands with Lieutenant Richard Raikes, the submarine commander that night, only two returned home to England. Two were lost believed drowned and the other six were all captured and shot on the orders of Adolf Hitler.
A secret order, stating that any commandos captured were to be executed for treacherous behaviour, made sure that the marines were denied the right to be treated as legitimate prisoners-of-war.
The two who were believed drowned were Marines Sheard and Moffatt and the other six who were shot were Marines Wallace, Ewart, MacKinnon, Conway, Laver and Mills.
The two who survived to blow up several ships as planned and managed to return overland to Gibraltar and England were Major Hasler and Marine Sparks. That is the basic story and more can be read in so many books on the Cockleshell Heroes.
However, I wanted to know what happened when a film company came down to Portsmouth with several well-known film stars to make an adventure story of the tale.
Appearing were Jose Ferrer, Trevor Howard, Victor Maddern, Anthony Newley and David Lodge. The singer Yana sang in a pub scene.
As some of the scenes were too dangerous for the actors to do, real Royal Marines were brought in as extras.
Acting the part of Major Stringer, Jose Ferrer’s double in the film was played by Marine Norman Phillips, now aged 82 and in retirement in Portchester.
Formerly a member of the Special Boat Squadron (SBS), Norman was naturally a very fit man. He was in his last year of service when the call came for him to act as a stand-in while the film was being made in and around Eastney Barracks.
It was to be based on Operation Frankton and called The Cockleshell Heroes. Norman told me all the extras had to do was to be on call and follow the actors around, then fill their places when needed.
It was very lucky they did as in one scene Trevor Howard and Victor Maddern turned turtle in their canoe and were rescued by two marine corporals, Ernest Rithings and Clive Close. The newspapers of the time say it was David Lodge who was saved, but Norman can confirm it was Victor Maddern.
If you watch the film when the canoes (or cockles) are being rowed along Southsea seafront, Norman is in charge of the leading cockle. The scenes where ropes are fired on to the tops of cliffs by rockets and also scenes with marines abseiling down the cliff face feature Norman as well.
Later on in the film, when the cockles are rowing up the River Gironde (actually the River Tagus in Portugal), Norman features again -and in a scene when they are rowing between shipping in the harbour.
For the five months of filming, Norman received an extra £10 a week on top of his marine’s pay.
Not long after filming finished, Norman married his sweetheart, Joy, in the Royal Marines church in Henderson Road, Eastney. As they came out of the church the actual cockle ‘Catfish’ that Norman had used in the film was used to tow the happy couple to the reception.