Attack on Bordeaux - Operation Frankton

Autor: Luboš Pavel / mindphaser 🕔︎︎ 👁︎ 37.141

Operation Frankton was one of the most daring and unorthodox actions taken during World War II . It was attended by the submarine HMS Tuna and 10 men of the Royal Navy in 5 canoes. The target of the attack were merchant ships moored in the French port of Bordeaux - ships that successfully broke the Allied blockade.

But let's get back to the beginning. The man who pushed through the idea of using canoes to infiltrate an enemy-occupied port in order to destroy ships moored there with heavy charges was Major HGHasler, nicknamed the " Blond ". The idea was born in his head before the war during tests with small boats and during his service with the Mobile Naval Base Defense Organization on Hayling Island. But the Admiralty found his idea impractical, and Hasler's attempts to capture the Combined Operations Staff ( COHQ ) in the spring of 1941 were unsuccessful, in part because of the existence of the Special Boat Section ( SBS ).


In December 1941, the Italians successfully penetrated the Mediterranean port of Alexandria with the help of " human torpedoes ", where they seriously damaged the battleships Elizabeth and Valiant . In response to this attack,Churchill began to demand a similar action, and Hasler was transferred to the planning center of the combined operations staff to elaborate on his earlier ideas. Hasler and his team of several men first focused on using " explosive motorboats " of a similar type that the Italians successfully used in March 1941 to attack Royal Navy ships moored in Suda Bay. During the unsuccessful attack on ships moored near Malta, the British managed to obtain several Italian boats. To conceal tests with these types of vessels, these ships were referred to as Boom Patrol Boats. Hasler advocated the idea of using these boats and canoes together in future operations - the first of which was to find a way through enemy obstacles, and the canoes were to be used to carry out their own attack. Lord Mountbatten agreed to this form of cooperation and immediately decided to create the Royal Marine Boom Patrol Detachment ( RMBPD ). The officers were recruited from members of the Royal Marine Small Arms School in Gosforth and ordinary men from the Royal Marine Auxiliary Battalion in Portsmouth. The result of the cooperation between the Special Boat Section and Hasler were easy-to-assemble folding canoes of the Cockle Mark II type, capable of transporting two men with heavy loads.

During 1942, German fast merchant ships increasingly succeeded in infiltrating the Allied blockade and bringing vital raw materials to the war industry from Japan. The French port of Bordeaux, located about 120 km downstream of the Gironde, was one of the places where German ships often headed. All conventional methods of attacking ships moored in Bordeaux were considered, but were rejected, so in December 1942, the COHQ decided to involve Hasler and the RMBPD in its plans.

Hasler's men in training

The aim of the planned operation was to attack six canoes against merchant ships moored in Bordeaux. The canoes were to be transported by the submarine HMS Tuna to the mouth of the Gironde, about 10 miles from Pointe de la Négade, and scheduled to be launched from the submarine on December 5, 1942. The crews were to paddle only at night and spend the day in hiding on shore.After infiltrating the port of Bordeaux, they were to place magnetic time mines on moored merchant ships, retreat, sink their boats and flee across the border into Spain.

Hasler's men moved with complete equipment and supplies to the Clydeu in the second half of November, where they met the submarine HMS Tuna , and boarded her on November 30. The Cockle Mark II canoes were designed so that they could be loaded into a submarine and stored in torpedo tubes. To launch them from the submarine, her captain and Hasler devised a launch loop, which could be used to launch the submarine's cannon into the sea with folded canoes and their crew and complete equipment. Thanks to this, the experienced crew was able to launch all six canoes in half an hour. With all the men, canoes, and supplies on board, HMS Tuna raised the anchors and headed for the Irish Sea.

For easier identification, Hasler assigned each canoe a code name and divided the ships into two groups.

Group A Group B
HG Hasler and Sailor W. Sparks
Lieutenant MacKinnon and sailor J. Conway
Corporal AF Laver and Sailor Bl Mills
S. Wallace and sailor R. Ewart
Corporal GJ Sheard and Sailor D. Moffatt
sailors B. Ellery and E. Fisher

Once everyone was on their way, Hasler was finally able to acquaint his men with the details of an upcoming operation, code-named Frankton, aimed at fast merchant ships in Bordeaux. Hasler also told them that they should spend about 5 days on board the submarine before being launched at the tip of Cordouan Island, and then set out along the right bank of the Gironde to Bordeaux. Hasler's men had a journey of over 60 miles, during which they would be able to paddle only at night, and only at high tide, while they would be forced to spend the day in hiding on the shore. He warned them that they must be wary of the enemy on water, on land, and in the air.

The aim of the operation was to sink up to 12 merchant ships in the Bassens - Bordeaux area. During the days Hasler spent with his men in the submarine, they kept going through the plan of the operation to engrave even the smallest details. In addition, they unpacked all their equipment, carefully inspected it, and then repacked it, studied the aerial photographs, and tried to learn the basics of French. At one point, Hasler asked, “ Any questions? ” “ Yes sir, how do we get home? ” One of his men asked. “ You will walk! ” Hasler replied. Each two-member crew was to move independently of the others to the city of Ruffec, located about 160 km north of Bordeaux. The escape plan called for members of the local resistance movement to await the attackers in the suburbs of Ruffec, give them supplies for the trip, help them cross the border into Spain and from there back to Britain. The city of Ruffec was chosen because of information about the good organization of the resistance in the area and partly because it lay in the opposite direction than the Germans would expect the attackers to flee.

Hasler's men in training

The submarine HMS Tuna continued in a particularly bad weather on its way south to the canoe launch area. During the voyage, he came into contact with the enemy submarine only once. As a minefield was laid by RAF aircraft in this area, the submarine had to sail very carefully in the final phase of the journey.When it surfaced, the fog was so thick that it was impossible to pinpoint the position, so the start of the operation had to be postponed by a full 24 hours.

Eventually, however, the weather calmed down and the submarine captain was able to determine at periscope depth the position of the vessel necessary for the Hasler unit's action, which was to be deployed at a well-defined location between Courduan Island and the mainland. Eventually they reached the starting point, and on December 7, at 7.17 pm, the submarine emerged into the clear night. Major Hasler ordered to bring a canoe. One of the canoes, the Cachalot, caught on the manhole door as it was unloaded, a long crack on the side of its hull, so its disappointed crew could not continue the action. The remaining five canoes were safely launched with the crew at sea using the already mentioned sling on the submarine's cannon. The whole event was completed in exactly 30 minutes, at 20.30 the submarine sank and Hasler's men set out for their destination.

Men's equipment for Operation Frankton

At first, their journey went well. The ships slid rapidly across the slightly rippled surface until they reached the first of several tidal waves. Hasler gathered his men, told them how to cross the rapids successfully, and then set off. When the canoes gathered on the other side of the rapids, the Coalfish canoes with Wallace and Ewart were missing. Each member of the group was equipped with a whistle sounding sound like a seagull's scream. Spark blew his whistle, but no response. They waited for a while, and then Hasler and Sparks set out to find Coalfish. To no avail. After Wallace and Ewart, the ground seemed to fall.

However, the action had to be completed, so the remaining canoes continued to sail. Over time, however, they encountered more rapids in the Pointe de Grave area, which were larger than the previous ones. The waves reached a height of up to 5 feet and hit the hulls of the canoes at an acute angle. Conger capsized, and Sheard and Moffat ended up in the water holding an overturned canoe. Hasler stopped his men, who then tried to turn the canoe and drain the water. Unsuccessfully, so Hasler ordered Sparks to sink the ship.

Then, with Sheard and Moffatt holding on to the edge of two canoes, Hasler headed for the French coast. As the rapids voyage with two men in the water holding on to canoes was very exhausting and could no longer be towed further, Hasler was forced to land them near the port pier of Le Verdon. Three enemy frigates were moored not far from the pier, so Hasler and his men had to cross a narrow gap between the ships and the pier. Despite the undeniable advantage of the low canoe silhouette, the crews had to paddle very carefully. The men were almost lying in their canoes, and to make the noise even smaller, only one member of each crew paddled at a time. In the end, they managed to sail through two canoes. Cuttlefish disappeared with MacKinnon and Conway. The others waited for them for a while, but no one responded to the whistle's signals.

The remaining two canoes, Catfish and Cryfish, continued their journey until almost dawn on December 8, when they finally landed at the Poitne des Oiseaux after almost 9 hours of challenging cruises on the stormy sea. The crews disguised their canoes and set out to rest. During the day, the men were discovered by a group of French fishermen and their wives, and Hasler, with his broken French, tried to explain to them that it was in their own interest not to tell anyone about them.


The second night, from December 8 to 9, was without special events. Hasler's men were very frozen and formed ice inside the ships, but fortunately they could easily find a suitable place to land north of the Porte des Callognes and lie down in the field. Their only " visitors " during the day were only a few cows. There was one problem in Hasler's mind, as in the minds of his men. As they proceeded upstream, the timing and duration of the event began to differ significantly from the original.They had to schedule the logistical arrangements for their advance along the river as well as the entire attack. The next night, a tidal wave lasting 3 hours was to arrive in their area, followed by a 6-hour low tide, followed by a 3-hour tide again. At low tide, it was almost impossible to proceed.

During the third night ( December 9-10 ), after a short movement, the men hid on the small island of Ile des Cazeau, where they survived the low tide. Now they were quite late behind the original plan. At this point, they were too far away to reach the port of operation the next night, and they still had plenty of time to complete the task and make a safe retreat. Hasler therefore decided to build a camp during the night of December 10-11, from which they would be able to reach the port in a very short time. They found a suitable place to land at 11:00 pm and spent the rest of the night hiding in the reeds on the shores of Bassens Island, from where they could already see the first two of their targets - two large merchant ships. Hasler's men spent the day preparing their magnetic mines and other attack equipment for the coming night. Hasler decided that Catfish would operate in the west and Crayfish in the east of the harbor, and if they did not run into any suitable target, they would return and place the charges on two ships at Bassens Island.

Together they had 16 magnetic mines at their disposal. They set the timing device at 9:00 a.m., and at 9:30 p.m. on December 11, 1942, they headed for their targets. Hasler and Sparks sailed into the designated area after half an hour of demanding paddling and found a total of seven boats. They could see more ships downstream, but the tide was getting stronger, so they had very little time to place the charges. First, they passed two large tankers which, with their watertight bulkheads, would not do much damage to the charges, so they placed the first three charges on the third vessel in line, a large merchant ship. After two mines, they placed on a German Sperrbrecher and a smaller merchant ship, and the last mine on a tanker anchored at Quai Carnot. Then they turned and, using the low tide, quickly headed for the calmer waters near the island of Ille des Cazeau. Here they rested briefly and then set out again along the river. Suddenly, in the dark, they heard the sound of paddles. It was Crayfish, whose crew in the eastern part of the port did not find suitable targets, so they placed their 8 charges on two large merchant ships off the coast of Bassens.

The next morning, the charges began to explode. At 7 a.m., the first bombs exploded in Alabama. The charges exploded throughout the morning until 1 p.m. Dresden sank, Portland with a large hole in the side was on fire, and Tannenfels was severely damaged. Damage to the remaining two ships, Usaramo and Cap Hadid, was not reported.

Catfish and Crayfish continued down the river to Blaye, where the crews stepped about 400 meters apart. That was the last time Hasler last saw the Crayfish crew. Then the crews split up and walked on their way to Ruffec on their own.

And what was the next fate of Hasler and his men? A communiqué from Germany's top staff on December 10 contained information that a group of saboteurs had been captured and destroyed near the mouth of the Gironde. In the absence of further information, the British considered all 10 men dead. However, on February 23, the Special Operations Executive ( SOE ) received Hasler's letter describing the details of the loss of three canoes on the first day of the event. One week later, Hasler and Sparks returned to Britain by plane from Gibraltar, where he arrived with the generous help of the French resistance movement. The remaining participants in Operation Frankton were dead.

David Moffatt's body was washed up on the beach at Bois en Réy on December 14, and Sheard's body was never found. Wallace and Ewart, who had sailed through the first rapids, were discovered and captured near the Pointe de Grave lighthouse in Royal Navy uniforms.Admiral Bachmann ordered them to be shot in accordance with Hitler's order for commandos. Early in the morning of December 12, 1942, they were taken out of their cells and shot by an execution squad commanded by Colonel Theodor Prahm. MacKinnon and Conway, who had separated from the others at Le Verdon, continued on their own along the Gironde River until the night of December 10, when their canoe was damaged by an impact on an obstacle in the water. Then they set out on foot and were received in Cessac by Messrs. Cheyrau and Jaubert. Eventually, however, they were betrayed, captured by the Germans and shot on March 23, 1943. Laver and Mills, who had completed the operation with Hasleren, set out for Ruffec after landing. They too were betrayed, still dressed in their uniforms, captured by the French police in La Garde on the outskirts of Montelieu and handed over to the Germans. Their fate came true on the same day as the crew of the Cuttlefish canoe.

Hasler received the Distinguished Service Order and the Sparks Distinguished Service Medal for this event.

" From a series of raids by members of the combined operations command
Operation Frankton was the bravest and most unimaginable.
Lord Louis Mounbatten


Cocleshell Heroes -
Operation Frankton - Heroes.htm
Operation Frankton -
Cockle Mark II. -
More information
Hitler's order regarding commandos

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