The Cockleshell Raid: Kayak History

by • December 8, 2017 • Fishing StoriesComments (1)2956

Our good friend, Sid Dobrin, of Inventive Fishing shares with us a great story about kayak history during WWII with the Cockleshell Raid. We all know kayaks have been around forever, but this story shows how integral kayaks were to the war efforts.

For most of us, December 7 will always be that day of infamy on which we recall the horrific attacks on Pearl Harbor in 1941 that drew the United States into World War II. But, for us ardent kayakers, anglers or not, December 7 should also stand as memorial to another notable moment in WWII history: Operation Frankton.


One year to the day following the Pearl Harbor bombing, on December 7, 1942, twelve members of the British Royal Marines Boom Patrol Detachment embarked on a commando raid on the German occupied port at Bordeaux, France to target and disrupt German shipping. The mission was carried out using kayaks as the soldiers’ only means of transport. The raid was one of the few moments in the war when kayaks were used (though not the only), and as the commander of the British Combined Operations and Admiral of the Fleet Lord Louis Francis Albert Victor Nicholas Mountbatten explained it in the book Blondie: A Life of Lieutenant, “Of the many brave and dashing raids carried out by the men of Combined Operations Command none was more courageous or imaginative than Operation Frankton” (p. 123). Winston Churchill had supported the mission, too, believing the raid would shorten the war by six months.

The operation was designed with the intent to ferry twelve commandos along with six tandem kayaks by submarine to a location near the Gironde Estuary in southwest France near Bordeaux. The Royal Navy Submarine HMS Tuna (N94) was scheduled to deploy the commandos on December 6 about 10 miles from the mouth of the estuary. Foul weather and a mined area of water delayed the submarine’s arrival, postponing the raid by a day. The six kayaks (called canoes by our British allies)—named Catfish, Crayfish, Conger, Cuttlefish, Coalfish and Cachalot—were a model of kayak known as the Cockle Mark 2 canoe, a type of folding kayak designed with a plywood deck, plywood hull bottom, and wooden frame covered in a rubberized canvas skin. Each boat was about 15-feet in length. While unloading the boats from the submarine Tuna in preparation to depart on the mission, the hull of the Cachalot was damaged. According to an interview with Operation Frankton survivor Bill Sparks recorded on the 50th Anniversary of the Mission, the hull of the Cachalot was snagged on a bolt or cleat of the Tuna as it was being deployed, tearing the skin material, leaving a gash of about 18-inches in the hull and rendering it not sea worthy.

Thus, the mission was executed with only five boats and ten commandos. Once dropped by the Tuna, the plan was for the commandos to paddle approximately 70 miles up the estuary (often misidentified as a river) to the port at Bordeaux undetected. Once in the port, they were to attach limpet mines—a kind of explosive that is attached to the hulls of ships using strong magnets—to the hulls of many of the ships in port.

The remaining five kayaks put out, but to weather conditions much worse than anticipated. The Conger was lost to strong currents early in the mission. Only later would it be learned that the two commandos, Corporal George Sheard and Marine David Moffatt, died of hyperthermia in the frigid waters of the Bay of Biscay in the North Atlantic.

Soon after, the Cuttlefish capsized in rough water. The two commandoes, Lieutenant John Mackinnon and Marine James Conway, were able to hold on to two of the other boats and were towed ashore. After the mission, it was learned that the two managed to avoid detection briefly, but were eventually captured by the Gendarmerie and turned over to the Germans. Both men were executed.

That same night, under cover of darkness, the remaining six commandos paddled the three remaining kayaks about twenty miles in a five hour period to Port de Goulée near Saint-Vivien-de-Médoc. When the sun rose on December 8, the crew of the Coalfish, Sergeant Samual Wallace and Marine Robert Ewart, were captured, interrogated, and executed. Only one day into the mission, only four commandos and two boats remained.

The Catfish, manned by Commanding Officer Major H.G. “Blondie” Hasler and Marine Bill Sparks, and the Crayfish, manned by Corporal Albert Laver and Marine William Mills spent the next three days slowly paddling up the estuary toward the mission target. By 9:00 pm on December 11, the four remaining commandoes began deploying the limpet mines to the hulls of ships. In the 50th Anniversary interview, Bill Sparks recalls this part of the mission, as they slid sidelong against the hulls of the big metal ships, hoping not to be spotted by guards. The crew of the Catfish were able to place bombs on the hulls of three ships on the west side of the harbor while the Crayfish commandoes placed bombs on two vessels farther north in the waterway.

Luckily, the two crews were able to meet back up later that night, beaching their kayaks and then sinking them. At 3:50 on the morning of December 12, the limpet mines began exploding. They went off at intervals over the next eight hours seriously damaging five ships, and possibly a sixth.

To make their escape, the two crews separated, moving across France on foot. The Crayfish crew—Laver and Mills—were captured after two days on the run and executed in Paris in March, 1943.  The Catfish crew—Hasler and Sparks—were able to make contact with the French Resistance who snuck them across the Pyrenees to Gibraltar. Both men returned to England in April, 1943.

Though the mission did not succeed to the degree many had anticipated, its success and story were important to British military morale. Operation Frankton has been immortalized in numerous books like Quentin Rees’ Cockleshell Heroes: The Definitive History 75th Anniversary, Robert Lyman’s Operation Suicide: The Remarkable Story of the Cockleshell Raid, Paddy Ashdown’s A Brilliant Little Operation: The Cockleshell Heroes and the Most Courageous Raid of World War 2, Paul Oldfield’s, Cockleshell Raid (Battleground Europe), and Ken Ford’s The Cockleshell Raid: Bordeaux 1942—all published since 2010.

Likewise, in 1992, the BBC presented a short documentary about the raid, framed by a celebratory kayak race that retraced the steps of the cockleshell’s commandos’ paddle. A British company called Military History Tours ( ) will also take you on a paddle tour of the terrain where the Cockleshell raid took place, if you’d like to tour the space of that operation.

In 1955, Columbia Pictures released The Cockleshell Heroes as a major motion picture. The film starred and was directed by José Ferrer, the first Hispanic-American actor to win an Academy Award. It had been rumored that the script was originally drafted for Gregory Peck to play the starring role. Albert R. Broccoli was one of two executive producers on the film—yes, the same Albert Broccoli of James Bond fame. The film was quite successful, listed as one of the ten most popular films in Britain in 1956.


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One Response to The Cockleshell Raid: Kayak History

  1. Michael Soileau says:

    Thanks for sharing a great story, one I’d never heard of. Guess I’ll have to see if I can locate the books and movie.

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