France in 1942 was divided between the large Nazi occupied portions on the coast of the English Channel and the “Free” Vichy government. For all intents and purposes both were under Nazi control leaving England a lone island.
Bordeaux in the Bay of Biscay was a busy port bustling with men and materials for the Nazi war effort. Ships were taking radar equipment to Nazi allies in Japan, and returning with raw materials to fuel the Blitzkrieg. The British cast their eyes south and decided something needed to be done.
On December 7, a small unit of Royal Marines was launched from the submarine HMS Tuna 15 kilometers off the coast of western France. It was a team of twelve men led by Major Herbie “Blondie” Hasler. Two men teams were to take small canoes, nicknamed cockleshells, and canoe up the Gironde estuary to the port of Bordeaux. Once in the bay, the men would sabotage the Nazi ships anchored there with the limpet mines they had. The sunken ships would keep the harbor from being usable. Perfect plan, right?
Well, not so much. The Gironde estuary was difficult to canoe in summer and nearly impossible to navigate in winter due to the tides. This would be especially difficult in the small two man canoes. They would also be paddling 100 kilometers to their target from the submarine. The submarine could not wait for them to finish their mission, and frankly didn’t think they would make it back. To escape, the men would need to flee overland to Spain. It was pretty much a suicide mission.
Things started to go wrong from the first moment. One canoe was damaged upon launch and could not take part in the mission. Two more capsized, drowning two men. A further two were captured by the Nazis as they got to shore. The team was down by half and they weren’t even half way there. Not good odds, but they struggled on.
The three remaining teams became separated as they paddled by night with little to no light. One of the teams sunk their boat after hitting an obstacle in the dark and decided to bug out and head for Spain. They were captured by the Nazis before they could arrive in Spain.
The two remaining teams soldiered on undetected by the Nazis. Their compatriots who were captured did not crack under interrogation and the mission was safe…so far. On December 11, they made it and attached the mines to five ships and got out of Dodge. The timers went off around dawn and the mines took out the ships. Now to hide the canoes and get to safety.
When the bombs went off, the Nazis realized something was up and began executing their prisoners. Two captured Marines were summarily shot. Two of the Marines still at large were captured on their way to freedom leaving only Herbie Hasler and Bill Sparks at liberty.
Hasler and Sparks rendezvoused with the Resistance at Ruffec. From there, ordinary French citizens risked their lives to get the two Marines to an English ex-patriate and French countess named Mary Lindel. Lindel and her son smuggled the men to safety.
Out of the twelve men that started only two survived. The rest were executed or died of the elements. So let’s raise a glass, dear reader, to the bravery of these men and the ordinary citizens who helped them.
Sources available on request