In the dead of night and the depths of the Second World War, a dozen stealthy warriors hauled their canoes over Portsmouth’s defensive sea walls.
In an era charged with suspicion and fear, the group of marines would have been an alarming sight for any passer-by.
But this cunning band of brothers were skilfully avoiding detection in preparation for one of the most daring raids ever undertaken.
Seventy years ago the marines that became known as the Cockleshell Heroes were busy training in Portsmouth and Hampshire.
They were just weeks away from the mission that would strike a major morale blow against enemy forces and from which most of them would never return.
‘The training was groundbreaking, they would have been doing all sorts of things, humping around canoes while trying to stay concealed and learning unarmed combat and survival techniques,’ says Portsmouth Blue Badge Guide David Parker, who is running a walk focusing on the heroes.
‘Of course it was top secret so we don’t know everything. They would have been trying to avoid detection but people did wonder what they were doing. You have to remember this was 1942 and suspicion was at its height. There were a few arrests.’
The Cockleshell Heroes have become legendary for the audacity and courage of their mission
In December 1942 the Southsea-trained volunteers paddled 80 miles in two-man collapsible canoes named Cockles up the Gironde estuary in France to attack German ships at Bordeaux.
Moving by night in December temperatures, they tried to avoid detection by hiding in reed beds and along remote stretches of riverbank during the day.
Only two of the men – the group’s leader Major Herbert ‘Blondie’ Hasler and his crewmate Corporal Bill Sparks – would make it home after escaping through France, across the Pyrenees and Spain and reaching Gibraltar.
The marines’ mission proper began on December 7 1942 when their canoes were unloaded from the torpedo hatch of submarine HMS Tuna and they embarked on their perilous journey.
In the run-up to the anniversary, David will be showing people the group’s headquarters, billets and training grounds on the Portsmouth council-sponsored walk.
That follows the unveiling of blue plaques and a memorial to the courageous few. More than 100 former and serving Royal Marines, guests and members of the public gathered at the unveiling of a new memorial at the Royal Marines Museum at Eastney this week.
And blue plaques now mark houses in Spencer Road and Worthing Road, Southsea where the men lived while they trained.
The group of ordinary marines have gone down in history for their unimaginable bravery, and 1955 film The Cockleshell Heroes dramatised their terrifying adventure.
‘It’s the sheer pluck that gets you really,’ says David. ‘They all volunteered and they knew it was going to be extremely dangerous, although one of them did ask ‘‘how are we going to get back’’, so perhaps they didn’t realise that was going to be completely down to them.
‘I think it’s so fascinating because it was so nasty and so heroic. But you have to be careful not to put 2012 values on something that happened in 1942. If you take a detached view, it looks crazy. But at that time we were having a very difficult time, we really were on the back foot in the war. There were all these strategic materials getting into Germany and we knew blockade runners were bringing them in. Somebody had to do something.’
The men’s mission to plant limpet mines on ships would damage vessels, strike a huge morale blow against the enemy and make the Germans divert resources.
But first the men had to get through six months of canoe, demolitions and survival training under the direction of the experienced Hasler – a man known to push himself and others to the limit.
The volunteers would be taken to Guildford, dumped there and then be forced to find their way home with few resources, says David. They learned to live in the wild, making meals from stolen chickens, hedgehogs and worms.
The hardy bunch would run barefoot on Southsea’s pebbles, undertook practice attacks on Hayling Island and Thorney Island and of course became experts in canoeing. They were known as the Royal Marine Boom Patrol Detachment and guarded the boom (anti-submarine and shipping line of defence) which ran between the coast and the Solent sea forts. But this was mainly a cover for the real operation.
It’s unlikely, though, that anything could prepare them for the real horrors of the raid, codenamed Operation Frankton.
The survivors lived for four winter days in their 16 foot long, 12 inches deep and 30 inches wide Mark II Cockle canoes, with only plywood and canvas to protect them from the biting cold and punishing waters.
A contemporary of the canoes is kept in stores at the Royal Marines Museum and shows just how cramped conditions must have been. The men’s limited equipment and supplies included rations, camouflage tent, spare clothes, navigating gear, mines and magnetic holdfasts (to hold them to their targets) and other essential equipment.
‘They had to drag canoes over thick mud while avoiding detection. They said the water froze on the spray covers of the canoes. At one point they had to sleep in an open field under a camouflage net and hope they wouldn’t be seen. These were tough people,’ says Royal Marines historian Major Mark Bentinck.
But that only covers the trials encountered by the survivors. Most of the heroes faced interrogation and death. The group consisted of 12 marines and a reserve but two didn’t set off because their canoe was damaged and the reserve wasn’t needed.
The canoe crewed by Sgt Samuel Wallace and Marine Bobby Ewart capsized and they had to swim ashore. They were later executed.
Another canoe capsized and the men died of hypothermia. Other heroes ended up in the hands of the Germans and were executed. Only four men made it to their target, using rods to plant mines on the ships – an extremely delicate operation, particularly in the dark – and only two escaped back to Britain.
Years later David met escapee Bill Sparks who visited for the launch of Cockleshell walks in the ’90s.
‘Like a lot of these people, he was very unassuming. He was a bus inspector in London when he came out of the marines.’
Among the Cockleshell exhibits at the museum are mittens and boots worn by Hasler on his great escape. Hasler and Sparks were aided by French resistance fighters on their journey by truck, train, bicycle and on foot.
It’s a well-told story but because the mission was covert, researchers are always uncovering new details.
Former Special Boat Service officer and Liberal Democrat leader Lord Ashdown has published a book called A Brilliant Little Operation. In it he reveals that not far way, British officers were attempting to carry out a similar mission with no knowledge of the Cockleshell Heroes’ existence, such was its secrecy.
Royal Marines Museum curator Ian Maine says it’s essential we continue to remember and mark the Cockleshell Heroes’ actions.
‘It left a very strong military legacy, setting the scene for small units using small craft to undertake operations at critical points of the enemy’s infrastructure.
‘But it also teaches us something about physical endurance and bravery. It embodies the spirit of human endeavour.’
A sad farewell
Royal Marine Robert ‘Bobby’ Ewart’s last letter to his girlfriend Heather Powell reveals a touching tale of love and loss.
One of the Cockleshell Heroes, he met and fell in love with the teenager while billeted at her mother’s guest house.
He wrote to her shortly before embarking on the dangerous mission that he knew could cost him his life.
In the letter, now a treasure of the Royal Marines Museum archive, Bobby says:
‘During my stay in Southsea, as you well know made me realise what the good things in life are and I’m glad I have this opportunity to help bring back the pleasant times which I’m sure you always had and what you were made for. I couldn’t help but love you Heather although you were so young, I will always love you … I won’t have you read more …. but I will thank you for all you have done, I pray that God will spare me and save you from this misery. So hoping for a speedy reunion I’ll say cheerio and God be with you.’
Ewart and Sgt Samuel Wallace were captured by the Germans after their canoe capsized and they swam to shore. Following interrogation they were executed.
And the story has another tragic twist. Bobby was Heather’s first love and would be her last. She contracted tuberculosis and died in 1944.
But the letter now stands testament to the bravery of the men on the mission and the people they left behind.
Find out about the Cockleshell Heroes
The Cockleshell Heroes Guided Walk starts at 2.30pm at the Royal Beach Hotel, South Parade, Southsea. next Sunday (Nov 18).
Tickets are £3 for adults and £1 with a Leisure Card. Accompanied children go free. They must be bought in advance and are available from the Visitor Information Centre at Clarence Esplanade or City Museum.