Operation Frankton survivors reach their target

The Royal Marines ‘Special Boom Detachment’ during training off Portsmouth. Ostensibly their job was to patrol the six mile harbour boom, in fact they were training for a secret operation. Only two of the ten men who set out came back.

Of the six two man canoes that had been brought to the French coast by HMS Tuna on the 7th December, only five had been launched because one canoe was damaged getting off the submarine. Two canoes were lost during the first phase when making their way to the river mouth – they encountered unexpectedly heavy seas and a strong tidal race. The three remaining canoes made their way up the Gironde estuary to the harbour basin of Bordeaux. As they lay up in hiding during the first day one pair of crew were discovered and captured by the Germans.

The remaining two crews continued in their journey upstream for the following four nights, making slower progress than expected because of a strong ebb tide. Each day they hid up in the undergrowth beside the river as the Germans mounted a search for them. The attack was postponed until the night of 11th/12th December. On that night Major Hasler and Marine Bill Sparks in canoe ‘Catfish’ and Corporal A. F. Laver and Marine W. H. Mills in canoe ‘Crayfish’ made the attack they had been planning for the past few months. Bill Sparks later described the events:

We approached the basin of Bordeaux. Lights shone from the jetties; so much illumination alarmed us. We paddled up the middle of the stream, inspecting the targets as we passed silently by. There were several ships moored in a row, which was very thoughtful of the Germans, making our targets so readily accessible.

The first was a tanker. Next we found a cargo-liner. Then another cargo ship but with a tanker moored alongside. Then another cargo ship, just beyond that we saw another ship which was impossible to identify because, lying alongside and obscuring our view, was a sperrbrecher, a smaller craft, no bigger than a frigate.

We were lucky. We could have arrived to discover that the harbour was empty; there had been no way to knowing how many ships we would find until this moment, and we were satisfied. We chose four targets.

We turned back towards the cargo ship and pulled up alongside. Her hull shrouded us in darkness. We could hear the crew singing. I wondered what they’d be singing in a few hours’ time. It proved an easy target. I attached my magnet-holder to the hull to prevent the tide from carrying us away.

The Major placed the first mine on the six-foot rod and lowered it into the water, placing the mine on her stern. He detached the rod, having felt the limpet mine clamp itself to the hull. I released my magnetic holder and the tide slowly swept us along, so we could place another mine amidships and a third on her bows.

Then we came to the ship with the sperrbrecher moored to it. I clamped the holder to the hull and Blondie planted a mine.

Suddenly we were bathed in light. I looked up and saw the silhouette of a German sentry leaning over the side, shining his torch on us. We froze, hardly daring to breathe. A succession of split-second thoughts raced through my mind; what do we do if he challenges us? Do we answer? Just ignore him? If we ignore him, will he sound the alarm?

I quickly realized the best course of action was to hang onto the side of the ship. We were still well camouflaged, but the cockpit cover was open so I could hand Blondie the limpets.

I cautiously leant forward, bending right across the cockpit so that my camouflaged back would conceal it. It may have been only seconds – it seemed like minutes – that we waited, but I began to think that we could sit there no longer. I gently eased the magnetic holder off, allowing the tide to carry us along the side of the ship.

See William Sparks: The Last of the Cockleshell Heroes: A World War Two Memoir.

The Germans appeared to be taken in by their camouflage and they went on to attach their limpet mines. Six ships were badly damaged as consequence of their attack. The four men then made their some way down river before sinking their canoes. They then set off on foot across occupied France in separate pairs. Laver and Mills were caught by the Germans two days later.

Hasler and Sparks eventually met up with the French Resistance whose members helped them to escape to Spain, where they arrived after walking over the Pyrrenees in February 1943. They arrived back in Britain in April.

All the surviving members of the crews who had been captured by the Germans were executed by them under the Commando Order.

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