History Wars World War II

The daring operation of the legendary Cockleshell heroes

The heroics of the Cockleshell heroes, while often forgotten, were truly legendary.
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cockleshell heroes

This jaw-dropping true story is about Operation Frankton and the extraordinary men called the Cockleshell Heroes.

Picture this: it’s December 7, 1941, and WWII is raging. Just as the United States reels from the shock of Pearl Harbor, a band of fearless British commandos gears up for an audacious, game-changing mission.

But before we get into the specifics, check out these insane but true facts about the operation.

These brave service members paddled over 60 miles for several days to reach their targets. In canoes.

To survive the freezing waters of the Gironde estuary, the Marines wore specialized dry suits to keep warm and avoid hypothermia.

The original plan involved 34 Marines in 10 canoes, which would have made everything a lot easier. But because of illness and injury, only two teams went on the mission.

Forget factory-crafted munitions. The limpet mines the Cockleshell Heroes used were created from a recipe found in a library book once they reached France. So they padded in canoes for days on end and had to build the bombs once they arrived, too.

Of the 10 Marines who participated, only two survived – Maj. Hasler and Marine Bill Sparks.

So, what was the plan for the Cockleshell Heroes?

A team of unstoppable commandos were driven by a seemingly impossible plan. These elite warriors, members of the newly-formed Special Boat Service (SBS), were on a mission to infiltrate the crucial German-controlled port of St. Nazaire, France. Their goal? To unleash chaos on the docked ships and strike a crushing blow to the enemy. And their secret weapon? Canoes! It sounds like something straight out of a movie. Still, this daring mission was all too real, and these men were unstoppable in their determination.

Handpicked for their exceptional physical prowess, unwavering courage, and relentless tenacity, these commandos were the best of the best. Led by the legendary and fearless Major Herbert “Blondie” Hasler, these Cockleshell Heroes were about to embark on a harrowing and unforgettable journey. The stakes were high, but the potential payoff was monumental.

On November 30, 1942,  Royal Navy submarine HMS Tuna (N94) sailed from Scotland with six kayaks and raiders on board.

The night of December 7, 1942, saw the beginning of their epic mission. Under the cloak of darkness, the brave men set off in their cramped canoes, braving the freezing temperatures and treacherous, rough seas. You can almost see them, huddled together, their breath visible in the icy air, as they paddled relentlessly through the pitch-black night.

As they forged ahead, an unexpected and nerve-wracking encounter with a German patrol boat almost spelled disaster for the Cockleshell Heroes. Heart pounding, they held their breath and kept their cool, narrowly escaping notice before pressing on. Their nerves of steel carried them forward, focused on their goal: the heavily fortified St. Nazaire.

Original cockleshell canoe.

Arriving at St. Nazaire

After an arduous journey, the Heroes arrived at the port, their canoes stealthily gliding through the water. They deftly maneuvered through a labyrinth of obstacles and, against all odds, slipped past the formidable chain barrier guarding the entrance. The stage was set for their explosive and daring attack.

As they infiltrated the heart of the enemy stronghold, the Heroes moved like shadows, swift and silent. They expertly planted their explosives, striking at the very core of the German naval power. With the clock ticking and the enemy unaware, the Heroes made their daring escape, vanishing into the darkness just as the explosives began to detonate.

The earth-shattering blasts echoed through the night, transforming the once-bustling port into a fiery inferno. The destruction was extensive; the mission – a resounding success. In a cinematic display of courage and skill, the Cockleshell Heroes had achieved the impossible, forever etching their names in the annals of history.

This incredible story, filled with heart-stopping moments and unparalleled determination, showcases the boundless limits of human courage and ingenuity. These extraordinary men risked everything for the greater good, serving as an inspiring example of the power of the human spirit in the face of impossible odds. The Cockleshell Heroes’ journey and triumph over adversity will forever remain a testament to their unwavering resolve and an inspiration for future generations.

The result? A smashing success!

St. Nazaire was left in ruins, and several German ships were destroyed or severely damaged. But the Cockleshell Heroes paid a heavy price. Only two of the ten men who set out made it back to Britain. The rest perished in battle or were captured and executed by the Germans.

Their incredible legacy, however, lives on. Awarded the Victoria Cross, the highest military honor in Britain, these heroes continue to inspire generations of soldiers. The Special Boat Service carries on their work, taking the fight to the enemy by sea.

Operation Frankton and the Cockleshell Heroes are a small part of the larger WWII narrative. Still, their bravery and sacrifice had a profound impact. Their story reminds us of the unwavering courage and determination required of service members during moments of adversity.

cockleshell heroes monument
Monument commemorating Operation Frankton in Saint-Georges-de-Didonne, near Royan.

Who was Maj. Blondie Hasler?

Major Herbert “Blondie” Hasler was the fearless leader of the legendary Cockleshell Heroes. Born in 1914 in Jersey, Hasler grew up in a family of sailors. He learned to sail at a young age. His love for the sea led him to join the Royal Navy at 18 and he quickly rose through the ranks. In 1940, he deployed to the Middle East. There, he earned the Distinguished Service Cross for his bravery and leadership.

Hasler’s genius lay in thinking outside the box and improvising solutions to unexpected challenges. Though he suffered a gunshot wound during the raid and was captured by the Germans, he managed to escape from a POW camp and return to Britain, where he was hailed as a hero.

After the war, Hasler continued to serve in the Royal Navy, retiring in 1962 as Captain. He went on to work for several humanitarian organizations, including the Royal National Lifeboat Institution. He was a vocal advocate for marine conservation. Hasler passed away in 1987, but his legacy is a testament to the power of leadership, determination, and unwavering courage in the face of adversity.

Legacy and impact of the Cockleshell Heroes

The story of Operation Frankton and the Cockleshell Heroes transcends time and place, serving as a testament to the power of human courage, determination, and sacrifice. While these commandos were just a small part of the vast tapestry of WWII, their audacious mission had a ripple effect on the course of the war.

By disrupting German operations at St. Nazaire, they not only dealt a significant blow to the enemy’s war efforts but also lifted the Allies’ morale. This daring raid demonstrated that even the most heavily fortified targets were vulnerable to well-planned, unconventional tactics. Their success inspired future military leaders to think outside the box, paving the way for innovative strategies that continue to be employed today.

Moreover, the story serves as a reminder that, even in the darkest times, individuals can make a difference in the fight for freedom and democracy.