At 7.17 pm on December 7, 1942, His Majesty’s Submarine Tuna surfaced off the coast of Occupied France near the mouth of the River Gironde. The forerunners of the Special Boat Service were on their first mission. The plan was to launch two-man canoes that would travel up river and plant limpet mines on shipping in Bordeaux harbour.
The group of men who would become known as the ‘Cockleshell Heroes’ had prepared for their mission in great secrecy with some very demanding training. Operation Frankton did not begin well. Of the six canoes planned to launch one was damaged getting off the submarine and could not take part. Of the five double man crews that set off one was lost very soon in the unexpectedly rough seas. Then another canoe went missing.
Royal Marine William Sparks was in a canoe with Major Herbert ‘Blondie’ Hasler, the commander of the operation, they went back to look for the missing canoe. They found the boat, which had capsized, with its crew Sheard and Moffat clinging to it. Sparks describes subsequent events:
The men in the water grabbed at our canoes, blue lips trembling.
I tried to turn the canoe over, as Blondie told me, but it was full of water and impossible to refloat. ‘Very well,’ he said grimly, ‘you’ll have to scuttle her.’
We managed to retrieve some of the mines and shared them out between the two other crews. Then I took my clasp-knife and began to slash open the sides of canoe. Within seconds Conger had sunk.
It was around two in the morning and we were falling behind schedule. The orders had been plain; no man’s jeopardy should put the mission in peril. The Major was having to make swift decisions, and I could see that he was tormented. He could not just leave the two men there to fend for themselves in the freezing water. They would die for sure.
The beach, we knew, would be infested with the enemy and to try to reach it in order to save Sheard and Moffat would result in almost certain capture or death.
He decided to tow the two men in as close to the beach as possible. ‘Hang on,’ he told them.
The weight of the men in tow made the going slow, but at last we were approaching the mouth of the estuary. The revolving beams from the lighthouse swept over us, illuminating us with each revolution. At any moment we might be sighted and fired upon. But no shots came. Now the tide gave us a helping hand, carrying us round the Pointe de Grave and into the Gironde. Only twenty minutes had passed since we had found Sheard and Moffat – it seemed like hours – and both men were weak with exhaustion and shivering with cold.
Time was against us. The tide would soon be turning and we would be swept back into the bay. The Major had to make a terrible decision. He ordered us to raft up.
‘I’m sorry, but this is as close to the beach as we dare go,’ he told Sheard and Moffat. ‘From here you will have to swim the rest of the way.’
He knew that they would be lucky just to make it to the beach in that cold sea; they were already frozen through. But he tried to sound optimistic. ‘I wish we could take you further, but if we’re all caught the operation will be at an end, and none of us want that. Get yourselves ashore, make your escape overland as best you can.’
‘It’s all right, sir,’ said Sheard. ‘We understand.’
The two lads reached up to shake hands with us and wish us luck.
Corporal C. J. Sheard and Marine D. Moffatt from the capsized canoe Conger are believed to have reached the beach, they did not drown but died of hypothermia. The other men would press on with their ill fated mission.