Love letter throws new light on daring raids

Quentin Rees
Quentin Rees

Questions over QA’s ability to staff theatres

Have your say

They are the last tender words of a war hero to the young love he would never see again.

Royal Marine Robert ‘Bobby’ Ewart wrote to teenager Heather Powell in Southsea just days before embarking on the top secret mission which would cost him his life.

'Bobby' Ewart

'Bobby' Ewart

Bobby was one of Britain’s legendary Cockleshell Heroes – the Southsea-trained volunteers who paddled up a French river on flimsy canoes to plant mines on German ships.

Only two of the men survived the hazardous assignment, which led to the sinking of six vessels.

Now, 68 years later, Bobby’s love letter has been revealed in a book about him and his comrades.

He wrote: ‘Dear Heather, I trust it won’t be necessary to have this sent to you but since I don’t know the outcome of this little adventure, I thought I’d leave this note behind.

'Bobby' Ewart's letter to Heather Powell

'Bobby' Ewart's letter to Heather Powell

‘I couldn’t help but love you Heather, although you were so young. I will always love you, as I know you do me.

‘That alone should get me through this, but one never knows the turns of fate. One thing I ask of you, Heather, is not to take it too hard. You have yet your life to live.

‘Think of me as a good friend and keep your chin up. Some lucky fellow will find you who has more sense than I had and who can get you what you deserve.

‘Yours for ever, Bob, chin up Sweetheart.’

Bobby, a Boys’ Brigade member and a champion runner, worked in a textile factory in Scotland when he left school.

But when the Second World War started he refused to take a job making munitions because he wanted serve his country as a soldier.

By the time he was 20, he was a Royal Marine billeted at a guest house called White Heather in Worthing Road, Southsea, where he fell in love with the daughter of his landlady, a Mrs Powell.

Heather was just 15 and an only child but she had a maturity beyond her tender years.

The love the young pair shared was chaste but she was besotted with the six-foot Scot with the piercing blue eyes.

But they were separated forever after Bobby answered an appeal for ‘volunteers for hazardous service’.

The men setting sail for occupied Europe were asked the eerily prophetic question: ‘Do you realise that your expectation of a long life is very remote?’

On a clear December evening in 1942, days after Bobby’s 21st birthday, the submarine HMS Tuna surfaced off the west coast of France.

Its cargo was tiny, flimsy-looking collapsible canvas canoes, known in military slang as Cockleshells.

Five of the two-man canoes cast off for the coast on a mission that would earn them the nickname the Cockleshell Heroes – the forerunners of today’s Special Boat Service. The operation, codenamed Frankton, was a daring attack on merchant ships used to deliver German supplies. They were moored at Bordeaux, 100 miles up the Gironde estuary.

The 10 commandos would have to paddle for nights on end, laying up under cover on isolated stretches of river bank during the day.

Their weapons were limpet mines, to be attached to the ships’ hulls.

Only two men, the group’s leader Major Herbert ‘Blondie’ Hasler and Corporal Bill Sparks, would make it home. Two others succumbed to hypothermia after capsizing.

The remaining six – including Ewart – were captured and executed by the Germans.

Bobby and his crewman Samuel Wallace were executed first. On December 11, following a brief, inept interrogation, they were taken to a sandpit on the outskirts of Bordeaux and shot.

The four others were allowed to live for a few months before they too were executed. Their bodies are thought to lie in a wood a few miles to the north-east of Bordeaux. Two crews did reach their target and placed limpets on three blockade runner boats and three U-boat support vessels.

The explosions sank all six ships in shallow water.

One of the successful crews was captured but Major Hasler and Corporal Sparks, disguised as vagrants, escaped to Spain.

After months in hiding, they crossed into Gibraltar and back to Britain. Hasler lived until 1987 and Sparks died in 2002.

The men were immortalised in the 1955 film the Cockleshell Heroes.

But author Quentin Rees’s book, Cockleshell Heroes - The Final Witness, reveals new information about the fates of those captured.

He made a recent visit to the Heroes’ training ground on the beach at Eastney opposite the Royal Marines’ Museum and says: ‘Anyone captured knew they had little hope of surviving, as Hitler had ordered the execution of captured commandos. He deemed that their “treacherous behaviour” deprived them of the right to be treated as prisoners of war.

‘Bobby was informed of his execution just hours before it took place.

‘According to a German report, Sergeant Samuel Wallace comforted and encouraged the young marine as they were driven to the firing squad.’

Heather was never told the exact circumstances of her beloved’s death but it became clear from those who returned that he would not come back.

Bobby was Heather’s first love – and would be her last. She contracted tuberculosis and, heartbroken, died in 1944 before she reached her 17th birthday.

In death, Bobby and Heather were apart. In words, they are finally together.

On Thursday a memorial to the Cockleshell Heroes will be unveiled at La Pointe de Grave at the mouth of the Gironde. Its £90,000 cost has been raised by public subscription.

n Cockleshell Heroes – The Final Witness, by Quentin Rees, is available from Amberley Publishing

priced £20.