THE bravery of the Cockleshell Heroes has been recognised with the unveiling of a new memorial at the Royal Marines Museum.
Yesterday more than 100 former and serving Royal Marines, guests and members of the public gathered to remember one of the Second World War’s most daring missions.
Unveiled by former Special Boat Service officer and Liberal Democrat leader Lord Ashdown, the memorial pays tribute to the 10 Royal Marines who in 1942 used canoes to launch an audacious raid on German ships in Bordeaux.
Codenamed Operation Frankton, the mission is believed to have emboldened the French resistance and proved the German fleet was not invulnerable.
Although a planned parade had to be called off because of wet and windy conditions, a service took place in the museum grounds.
Lord Ashdown, who has recently had a book published about the mission, said it was right to erect the memorial in Portsmouth because it was part of the city’s history.
He said: ‘There have been many great raids and acts of courage that started in Portsmouth.
‘It is part of the great tapestry of the city’s history.
‘These marines trained on Southsea beach and they knew this city’s pubs and marketplaces and the coldness of its sea as well as any Pompey person.’
To watch Lord Ashdown’s BBC documentary on the Cockleshell Heroes, click here
Also attending the service was 79-year-old Lieutenant Francois Boisnier who founded the French Frankton Remembrance Association 12 years ago.
He said: ‘Remembering this raid is important because it builds a bridge and brings the British and the French together.
‘That is one of its great achievements.
‘There is something about it which makes you feel absolutely free.’
The leader of Portsmouth City Council, Cllr Gerald Vernon-Jackson, said there would also be a programme of education in schools to let children know about the Cockleshell Heroes and their connection with Portsmouth.
He said: ‘It is really important we did this. The problem in the UK is we haven’t recognised these Royal Marines and their bravery as much as the French, but it is great we are now beginning to catch up.
‘It is also very impressive to have so many people here from both Britain and France.’
Sarah Holmes, 44, of Heritage Gardens, Portchester, laid a wreath to remember her great uncle George Sheard who was one of the Royal Marines who didn’t return from the mission.
‘It was a fantastic service,’ she said. ‘It’s really great to see and has been a long time coming.
‘It is wonderful there is a permanent memorial to them now. My family is very proud of its naval connection.’
Working with the Royal Marines Association, the council has erected blue commemorative plaques on two houses in Southsea where the Cockleshell Heroes were billeted during training for their mission.
The plaque at 9 Spencer Road was unveiled by the Cllr Vernon-Jackson on October 23. The council and the association are now producing educational material for children about the Heroes.
The new director of the museum, Robert Bruce, said he had been delighted with the turnout at the memorial unveiling.
‘It is really great to see so many people of different generations,’ he said.
‘From the young cadets to the veterans and we hope that it will continue through our work with the city council and the Royal Marines Association in schools.’
Lord Ashdown tries to tell Marines’ real story
LORD Ashdown said he first encountered the Cockleshell Heroes when he was 12 years old and saw the 1955 feature film.
Now he describes it as a ‘shockingly bad’ depiction of what happened, but it started a fascination that continued throughout his life.
It became a well-known story when he joined the Royal Marines and he even took part in canoe missions of his own as part of the Special Boat Service.
But it was only while researching his new book on the episode, A Brilliant Little Operation, that he really learned what happened.
‘Looking back you realise how little we really knew,’ said. ‘You understand that remarkably these were just ordinary marines, normal fellows, who did this extraordinary thing.
‘Researching the book I followed their route step by step – I even paddled the same way.
‘And for the first time I found the location where they were interrogated, as well as the place where they were shot, which is not quite where the commemorations are currently held.’
Asked why he wrote the book he said: ‘If you go back to the 1950s these were bleak days with the country emerging from a recession.
‘There were a whole series of books that tried to remind us of our finest hours.
‘And here we are now in the same sort of situation.
‘I think people like to be reminded of one of our finest hours. Young people want to know the history, what it was like and what it was that people did on their behalf.
‘It’s like Gandhi said: “Those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it”.’
An act of courage that will always be honoured
THE Cockleshell Heroes were 10 Royal Marines dispatched on a secret mission to disrupt German shipping in France during the Second World War.
In 1942 they launched Operation Frankton, which had the objective of infiltrating the occupied French port of Bordeaux in the Bay of Biscay.
Five two-man canoes, under the command of Major Herbert ‘Blondie’ Hasler, were transported near the mouth of the Gironde river by the British submarine HMS Tuna.
Two canoes made it to Bordeaux, where they planted mines on four ships and succeeded in damaging five.
But only two men survived the raid: Major Hasler and his canoe partner Marine Bill Sparks, who managed to make their way across the Pyrenees into Spain.
Of the other eight, six were executed by the Germans while two died from hypothermia.
For their part in the raid Major Hasler was awarded the Distinguished Service Order and Marine Sparks the Distinguished Service Medal.
In his book Lord Ashdown also uncovers that not far away in occupied France, six British officers were carrying out a completely unrelated mission with no knowledge of the Cockleshell Heroes’ existence.