Former Special Forces to recreate daring wartime raid in first ever fully public fundraiser

The SBS Association will honour the 'Cockleshell Heroes' by retracing the route they took during the 'most outstanding commando raid of WWII'

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The Independent Online

For more than half a century, the Special Boat Service has operated in the shadows, silently carrying out the toughest special forces missions in some of the world’s most deadly conflicts.

Unlike its slightly showier, much better known sister regiment the SAS, it has remained happy for other units to take credit for its achievements, all the better to exploit the anonymity that allows it to operate according to its motto “By strength and guile”.

In the same way, its Association, which cares for former and serving SBS members and their families, has kept under the radar for the 20 years that it has existed, relying on discreet fundraising dinners and the generosity of donors who want to help “but don’t want it shouted about”.

Now, however, that has changed.  The SBS Association (SBSA) has launched its first ever fully public fundraising drive.

It hopes to raise £250,000 for SBS veterans by recreating the journey taken by the units “founding fathers”, the ‘Cockleshell heroes’, who in December 1942 slipped out of a Royal Navy submarine, paddled 105 miles upriver in collapsible canoes, and blew up Nazi shipping in the docks of Bordeaux.

Churchill is said to have credited the raid – known officially as Operation Frankton – with shortening the Second World War by six months.  The Cockleshell Heroes – Major Herbert “Blondie” Hasler and his men – did far more than just cripple six enemy ships.

They dented the Germans’ sense of invincibility at a time where they had seemed to be winning in every arena.

That Britain, a nation that had seemed on its knees, could strike so far into occupied territory left the Nazis fearful about using their ports and ships, interrupting the trade in materials between Japan and Germany that had been so helpful to both countries’ war efforts.

The impact was such, that after the war one German officer who had been in Bordeaux when the British limpet mines started blowing up ships, freely confessed it had been “the outstanding commando raid of the war.”

Now, on the 75th anniversary of the raid, the plan is to honour the Cockleshell heroes by sending a mixed party of SBSA members and volunteers from the public to paddle from the Gironde Estuary to Bordeaux in 10 slightly modernised versions of the ‘cockle’ canoes used by the original raiders.

Ahead of that mission, which will take place in September, the SBSA has already broken cover. 

On Thursday, in full view of anyone watching from the banks of the Thames, association members joined politician and former SBS member Paddy Ashdown, model Jodie Kidd and Olympic rower Helen Glover to paddle five canoes under London and Tower Bridge in order to publicise the Cockleshell Hero commemoration.

Such unprecedented openness had not been embarked upon lightly, admitted Mick Betteridge, 49, CEO of the SBS Association.

“It’s a very nervous step for us,” he admitted.  “We don’t really want the limelight shone on us and what the guys get up to, but at the same time we think it’s only right we celebrate the Cockleshell heroes.  These were our founding fathers.  It’s our roots, our bloodlines.”

The Disclosure Cell of the Special Forces Directorate, he added, had only agreed to the publicity because the techniques used by the Cockleshell Heroes were now “historical.”

“We were allowed to go public because this is going back to World War Two.  We are not putting forward the skills and techniques we use today.  It’s pretty old hat.” 

The money raised, said Mr Betteridge, was needed more than ever because medical advances meant men who served in recent conflicts like Afghanistan were now surviving injuries and loss of limbs that would have killed those who fought in earlier wars.

“Especially in the last five years in Afghanistan, we have more people survive injuries that would have killed them before.  We think they deserve gold-plated assistance in terms of things like prosthetic limbs, hydrotherapy and neurorehab.”

The money was also needed, Mr Betteridge said, because like the country as a whole, the SBSA had an ageing population.

“When we started,” he explained, “The oldest guys were in their sixties.  Now the oldest member is a World War Two veteran in his nineties.  We can help these older guts with filling out forms, getting mobility vehicles and hearing aids.”

Whatever the ages of the veterans being helped, insisted Mr Betteridge, they had continued the traditions set by the Cockleshell Heroes:

“We owe them a debt of gratitude for their service whether it was 75 years ago or 75 days ago.  What these guys do, they do not for recognition, but because they believe in the cause.

“We should celebrate them and give them the recognition they deserve but never seek.”

“Courage, cheerfulness in adversity,” added Mr Betteridge, “All those lovely words that would fill out a commando training manual: they still ring true today.

“The equipment has been modernised, but the bloke remains the same.”

Operation Frankton was immortalised in the 1955 film The Cockleshell Heroes, but the irony is that in selecting men to go on the raid Blondie Hasler deliberately steered clear of brash film-type “tough guys”, who, he thought, had a tendency to turn soft when truly tested.

Instead he went for men whose pre-war lives had already included brushes with adversity, who were often modest and from humble backgrounds.

So in one canoe, you found Marine James Conway, just 20, who before the war had been a Co-op milkman living with his mum in Stockport.  He gained the enduring affection of his fellows when he admitted, that while doing his rounds by cart and horse, he would often talk to his horse.

He was paired in canoe Cuttlefish with Lieutenant Jacky Mackinnon, an officer, but one who had risen through the ranks after growing up in a Glasgow tenement: “A terribly nice boy,” Hasler called him, “A real gem.”

All who went on the raid had answered an advert calling for “Volunteers for hazardous service.”

All had been told at interview by Blondie Hasler, “Do you realise that your expectation of a long life is very remote?”

And all had pressed on.

It was on 7 December 1942 that Hasler assembled his men and gave the order to “up canoes” to leave HMS Tuna and begin the mission.

One of the canoes was damaged as it was being passed through the hatch rendering it unusable leaving Hasler’s unit down to ten personnel in five craft: Catfish, Crayfish, Conger, Cuttlefish and Coalfish.

The canoes began their journey towards Bordeaux but, fighting against strong tides and winds, Conger soon disappeared, its crew later dying from hypothermia.

Further on, the surviving crews encountered high waves and Cuttlefish capsized and was lost.

The crew held on to the remaining canoes before landing ashore, where they evaded capture before being arrested by Gendarmes, handed over to the Germans and executed.

That first night the three remaining canoes covered 20 miles in five hours and landed at Port de Goulée near Saint-Vivien-de-Médoc. At daybreak, the Coalfish crew were captured, interrogated and subsequently executed near the Château de Dehez in Blanquefort.

Only two canoes remained, Catfish, manned by Hasler and Marine Bill Sparks, and Crayfish, with Corporal Laver and Marine Mills who continued down the estuary finally reaching Bordeaux on the night of the 11th December.

At 9pm Hasler and Sparks attacked the left bank of the dock, placing limpet mines on three vessels. They had planted all their mines and left the harbour soon after midnight. Meanwhile, Laver and Mills placed mines on two vessels further north in Bassens, before fleeing.

Downstream, the two crews met by chance. They beached their canoes near Blaye and sank them. Further south, as dawn approached, one by one the mines exploded seriously damaging the five ships.

The two crews then set out separately on foot. After two days, Laver and Mills were arrested, transferred to Paris and executed in March 1943. Hasler and Sparks made it to Ruffec, to the north of Angoulême, where they spent more than a month in hiding with help from the Résistance.

When it was safe they made their way across the Pyrenees and down to Gibraltar, eventually arriving back in Britain in April 1943 - the sole survivors of the ten men who had set out from HMS Tuna five months previously.

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