The Most Courageous Raid of World War II

The Most Courageous Raid of World War II

The Most Courageous Raid of World War II – In the heart of World War II, as Britain found itself grappling with the might of Nazi Germany, the nation’s resources were stretched thin, and the prospect of opening a second front seemed a distant reality. It was during these times of adversity that Sir Winston Churchill, the British Prime Minister, advocated for unconventional and audacious forms of warfare to turn the tides against their adversaries. This call for innovation set the stage for one of the most extraordinary episodes of the war, led by a man of remarkable courage and ingenuity: Major Blondie Hasler.



Hasler, a distinguished former special forces commando, spearheaded a mission that would later etch its name in the annals of military legend as the saga of the Cockleshell Heroes. With a select contingent of twelve Royal Marine commandos at his command, Hasler put forth a bold proposition: the deployment of a stealthy ‘cockleshell’ canoe in a covert operation to infiltrate enemy lines.

The Most Courageous Raid of World War II

Their mission was as perilous as it was pivotal. The team was tasked with the herculean challenge of navigating through Europe’s most fortified estuary, braving the gauntlet of ever-vigilant searchlights, relentless machine-gun nests, and the ever-present threat posed by armed river-patrol vessels. Their odyssey stretched across a treacherous 70-mile journey downstream, culminating in an audacious attack within the very heart of enemy territory — the strategic Bordeaux harbour.

The Most Courageous Raid of World War II

In a compelling recreation of this historic raid, Lord Ashdown provides a meticulous retelling of how Hasler and his band of commandos prepared and executed their daring venture. He elucidates on the intricate planning and the sheer tenacity required to carry out such an operation, revealing the invaluable lessons learned from this endeavor.

These lessons, Ashdown notes, were instrumental in shaping the strategies employed in orchestrating one of the monumental military operations in human history: the D-Day landings. The Cockleshell Heroes’ exploit not only symbolized the indomitable spirit of the Allied forces but also served as a testament to the impact of ingenuity and valour in the face of overwhelming odds. Through Lord Ashdown’s narrative, the echoes of this audacious raid reverberate, underscoring its significance as a defining moment of World War II.

The Most Courageous Raid of World War II

In 1942, Britain was struggling to fight back against Nazi Germany. Lacking the resources for a second front, Winston Churchill encouraged innovative and daring new methods of combat. Enter stage left, Blondie Hasler.

With a unit of 12 Royal Marine commandos, Major Blondie Hasler believed his ‘cockleshell’ canoe could be effectively used in clandestine attacks on the enemy. Their brief was to navigate the most heavily defended estuary in Europe, to dodge searchlights, machine-gun posts and armed river-patrol craft 70 miles downriver, and then to blow up enemy shipping in Bordeaux harbour.

Lord Ashdown recreates parts of the raid and explains how this experience was used in preparing for one of the greatest land invasions in history, D-Day.

The Dark Days of 1942

In the early years of World War II, Britain’s fortunes had taken a decided turn for the worse. The country had endured the Blitz, the humiliating retreat from Dunkirk, and was now facing the threat of starvation in the Battle of the Atlantic. Britain was losing the war, and Churchill knew it.

Churchill’s rhetoric of the early war years now seemed wildly out of date. The army was in disarray, the RAF had only just enough planes to defend the country, and the navy was at full stretch, protecting vital Atlantic convoys. Churchill was on the back foot.

Churchill’s options at this time of the war were savagely limited. As Prime Minister and Minister of Defence, he, too, was under siege. After a string of defeats, there was real pressure, here in Whitehall and in the country at large, for him to stand down – if not as Prime Minister, then at least as Minister of Defence. But this was Winston Churchill, and surrendering office was not an option.

Instead, he decided to set Europe ablaze by creating two new secret armies – the Special Operations Executive (SOE) and Combined Operations. Churchill was always at his most resourceful when under fire. Churchill had to find ways of hitting back at the enemy fast, and SOE and Combined Operations were two of the tools that he devised for doing it.

SOE’s role was primarily one of sabotage and subversion inland, while Combined Operations brought together the skills of the RAF, Army and Navy to wreak havoc along the enemy coastline. Churchill knew that, in the absence of the resources for a second front against the Germans, pinprick assaults on the enemy were all that Britain could manage at this time.

An unlikely model for these raids came from the Italians, who had done great damage by using human torpedoes – called Chariots – and exploding motorboats. This was the sort of ingenuity and inventiveness that Churchill was after.

The Bordeaux Problem

In May 1942, Churchill received a memo from his newly appointed Minister for Economic Warfare, Lord Selborne. The memo highlighted how convoys of German cargo ships were increasingly outrunning British warships whose job it was to intercept them at sea.

These so-called blockade runners travelled between the Far East and Europe, carrying supplies, including rubber, molybdenum, tin and tungsten – all vital for the German war machine. A successful blockade increasingly depended not just on attacking them at sea, but also hitting them in their ports, especially the port of Bordeaux.

Seventy miles from the Atlantic coast, Bordeaux sits at the end of Europe’s largest estuary, the Gironde. In 1942, it harbored not only the blockade runners but also German and Italian U-boats, crucial for German victory in the Battle of the Atlantic. Not surprisingly, the estuary was formidably defended by around 10,000 German troops. In effect, Bordeaux was one huge military camp and provided an ideal base for the blockade runners.

So the question was, how could Bordeaux harbour be attacked? The Admiralty was asked but said the port was too far up a heavily defended estuary for any chance of success. The RAF agreed – bombing would simply not be accurate enough and cause unacceptable civilian casualties. And a military operation would need both ships and 50,000 men – far more than Britain could find at this time in the war.

How to hit the blockade runners became known as the Bordeaux problem. With conventional solutions ruled out, Churchill and his Chiefs of Staff began to think the unthinkable – with so much at stake, could thinking small be the answer?

Blondie Hasler and the Cockleshell Heroes

Far from the corridors of Whitehall, one man was already working on new ideas to fight the enemy. His name was Blondie Hasler.

Hasler was an extraordinary, contradictory, even eccentric spirit. A loner who lived his life on his own terms, yet who believed in the discipline and convention of service life.

In the early 1940s, Hasler had a radical new idea. It involved the use of canoes to take the fight directly to the enemy. He proposed this to the Admiralty. But they turned him down.

Now, with Churchill’s demand for new initiatives, Hasler’s plans were suddenly of interest, especially to the newly appointed head of Combined Operations – Commander Louis Mountbatten.

Mountbatten ordered Hasler to come and see him as soon as possible. The humble canoe was about to be turned into a weapon of war.

When Blondie Hasler entered HQ of Combined Operations in Whitehall, he was introduced to Louis Mountbatten. Mountbatten said “We’ve brought you here because you seem to know a lot about small boats and have some very interesting ideas about how to use them.”

For Blondie Hasler, the story started right here in London. In March 1942, Hasler was put in charge of a new elite unit called the Royal Marines Boom Patrol Detachment. What Hasler asked for were men who were intelligent, nimble, of good physique, able to swim, free of strong family ties, eager to engage the enemy. But most important of all, they had to be indifferent to their personal safety.

Hasler interviewed the men for his new unit and asked them all a chilling question – “Why did you volunteer for hazardous service?” To this, Bill Sparks replied that his brother had just been killed on active service in Crete. Hasler then made a chilling prediction: “You do realize that if you join my unit, your chances of a long life are very remote.” Sparks simply accepted this grim prognosis.

Training the Unorthodox Troops

In September 1942, Blondie Hasler’s men travelled to Scotland to begin their intense training under his watchful eye. With the exception of Hasler, none of them knew that this was no exercise. They were about to be sent on a real mission against the enemy.

Hasler’s team of elite troops began their training in earnest. On their first day at sea, Hasler’s men capsized again and again as they tried to master their flimsy canoes in the unforgiving waters of the Scottish coast. But under Hasler’s firm leadership, they slowly gained the skills they would need for their secret mission.

Hasler inspired his men by example, never asking any of them to do something he hadn’t first done himself. The men came to have tremendous faith in their commander, willing to follow him anywhere. Hasler built a loyal team, ready to take on the dangerous task ahead.

Little did Hasler and his men know that their unit would soon be providing a solution to a major strategic challenge preoccupying the Chiefs of Staff in Whitehall – the Bordeaux problem.

Operation Frankton Commences

On 21st September 1942, Blondie Hasler was ordered back to the Combined Operations London HQ. Here he was given the file on the Bordeaux problem, now re-christened Operation Frankton.

Overnight, he drew up a daring plan to use his canoes to blow up the blockade runners lying alongside the quays of Bordeaux. Within weeks, Hasler’s bold proposal was approved by Louis Mountbatten, but with one big exception – Mountbatten said Hasler couldn’t go. He was just too valuable.

But Hasler persuaded Mountbatten to let him lead the raid. Now he finalized his force – 12 men, six canoes. Each canoe was named after a fish – Catfish, Cuttlefish, Crayfish and so on.

On 30th November, Hasler’s men travelled to Scotland to board the Royal Navy submarine HMS Tuna. With the exception of Hasler, none knew this was no exercise. Once underway, Hasler revealed they were now on operations against the enemy. Their target was not the Tirpitz in Norway, as imagined, but the blockade runners in Bordeaux harbour.

There were smiles all round. Getting home from France would be much easier than from Norway. The sea would be warmer too. So far, so good.

This was the crucial moment. Hasler had to convince his men this job must be done, that his plan would work, that they could do it. He outlined the 75-mile route they would paddle, the defences, and then, on the fourth night, they would plant limpet mines on the blockade runners. They would have to escape overland through France.

There were gasps, but no complaints. Everybody trusted Blondie. Nevertheless, it must have been dawning on them that this would be a one-way trip.

That night, those who couldn’t sleep wrote farewell letters. Twenty-one-year old Bobby Ewart wrote to his 16-year old girlfriend expressing his love, telling her not to worry, and to move on with her life if he didn’t return.

The next evening, the men hauled themselves and the canoes up onto the submarine. But one canoe was damaged, forcing two men to withdraw from the mission. Now Hasler was down to ten men. Not an ideal start to this daring raid.

Frankton Gets Underway

At dusk on 7th December 1942, Hasler’s team finally launched into the water off the French coast. Once underway, disaster struck. They hit a fierce tidal race that capsized some canoes. Two men were lost, never to be seen again.

Pressing on, the team entered the Gironde estuary but more mishaps occurred. Two more canoes disappeared, their crews captured and later executed. Once twelve, now only four men remained. The odds against them were overwhelming.

Nevertheless, Hasler pressed on into the heart of enemy territory. After an agonizing journey lasting four nights, Hasler’s remaining boats slipped into Bordeaux harbour itself. Surviving disaster after disaster, they had made it against all odds.

Under the very noses of the Germans, they stealthily planted limpet mines on merchant ships. The job was done – they had struck a blow right into the heart of occupied Europe. Chadwick provides vivid details of this courageous and daring mission that overcame adversity at every turn.

Now the most dangerous part lay ahead – escaping through 70 miles of enemy territory in the dead of winter. Of the four remaining, only Hasler and his number two Bill Sparks would survive this ordeal and make it home to Britain.

Despite losing most of his men, Hasler had succeeded in his mission. The limpet bombs exploded, damaging the crucial blockade runners. This audacious raid was a huge Psychological boost for Britain and a setback for overconfident Germany.

Though the direct damage was limited, the strategic impact was immense. Hasler and his cockleshell heroes had delivered a stinging blow to Nazi Germany. Through extraordinary courage and perseverance, they overcame overwhelming odds to strike right intoHitler’s Fortress Europe.

Their innovation paved the way for future special forces operations. Frankton showed that thinking small could deliver a big impact on the enemy. The era of daring raiding forces had begun.

The Legacy of Operation Frankton

The Cockleshell Heroes raid was a seminal moment in the development of special forces operations. Though many lives were lost, the strategic impact was immense. Frankton proved that a small, elite force could strike a blow right into the heart of Nazi Europe.

Despite the extreme risks and heavy casualties, the raid was a huge psychological victory for Britain. The successful landing in Bordeaux harbour burst Hitler’s illusion of impregnability, showing his Fortress Europe could be breached. Frankton set the stage for even bolder raids to come.

The experience gained was later applied in the planning for D-Day, the Allied invasion of Normandy in 1944. Lessons were learned about the need for different branches of the military and intelligence services to coordinate closely when undertaking complex joint operations.

After the war, only Hasler and Sparks received formal recognition for their extraordinary courage against daunting odds. But the now-legendary exploits of the Cockleshell Heroes live on today as a testament to the daring and self-sacrifice required to overcome a formidable enemy.

Seventy years later, Frankton still stands out as one of the most courageous raids in British military history. The cockleshell canoe has become a symbol of British fighting spirit and ingenuity. Major Hasler and his indomitable marines embodied Winston Churchill’s refusal to accept defeat, even in Britain’s darkest hour.


Q: Why was Operation Frankton considered the most courageous raid of WW2?

A: Frankton involved a small force of 12 marines paddling fragile canoes 70 miles into enemy territory to attack ships deep in a heavily defended harbor. It displayed immense bravery as they overcame disaster after disaster to complete their mission against overwhelming odds.

Q: How did Frankton lead to better planning for D-Day?

A: Frankton revealed flaws in coordination between different military branches undertaking complex joint operations. Lessons were learned about integrating plans to prevent overlapping efforts, which was later applied in the highly coordinated D-Day landings.

Q: What happened to Major Hasler after the war?

A: Hasler had a long career in the Marines post-war and wrote an account of the raid called The Cockleshell Canoes. He died in 1987 at the age of 89. His cockleshell canoe is preserved at the Special Boat Service museum.

Q: How critical was the attack on Bordeaux harbour?

A: Although direct damage was limited, Frankton delivered a huge psychological and strategic blow by penetrating Hitler’s vaunted Fortress Europe. It demonstrated that the Nazi defences could be breached by a small elite force.

Q: What is Hasler’s legacy today?

A: Hasler pioneered the use of canoes by special forces. The Cockleshell Heroes’ ingenuity and courage against daunting odds remain an inspiration for Britain’s Royal Marines and special boat units to this day.

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