On the night of 6 December, the party of 12 Royal Marines under Major Herbert G. "Blondie" Hasler arrived in the Bay of Biscay off the Gironde on board the British submarine Tuna. Their mission was to paddle the canoes, known as Cockle Mark IIs, nearly 100 miles from their launch point up the Gironde to Bordeaux and there destroy the German merchant ships with mines. The commandos were then to make their way home via Spain on foot.
Bad weather delayed the commando launch until the night of 7 December, and an even more serious setback occurred when one canoe was damaged in launching and had to be scrubbed. The remaining five successfully launched and then set out for the mouth of the Gironde. Then one of the boats capsized, and its two men were drowned: just four canoes and eight men remained. The Gironde's tidal races caused another canoe to become separated. It was spotted by Germans ashore, and its crewmen were captured. Although the two men were in uniform, they were brutally interrogated (they revealed nothing) and were executed at Bordeaux early on 13 December by a firing squad acting under Hitler's infamous Commando Order.
Another canoe sank after hitting an underwater obstacle as it neared Bordeaux. While making their way to Spain, the two men from this boat were betrayed to the Gestapo at La Reole. Taken to Paris, they were executed there on or about 23 March 1943.
The men in last two canoes—the first containing Hasler and Marine William Sparks and the second with Corporal A. F. Laver and Marine W. H. Mills—paddled the 91 miles to Bordeaux at night (going ashore and sleeping in the day) in cold and wet conditions. Finally reaching their target, they set time-delay limpet mines on four cargo ships and a small tanker during the night of 11–12 December. When the mines exploded the next morning, the ships flooded and sank; a minesweeping vessel was also badly damaged. None of the ships again saw service in the war.
After setting the mines, Hasler, Sparks, Laver, and Mills paddled to the riverbank, scuttled their canoes, and split up to attempt the trip to Spain and safety. Laver and Mills made for Ruffec but were betrayed to the Germans by French police at Montieu. They were shot in Paris on or about 23 March 1943.
Hasler and Sparks walked 100 miles northeast to make contact with the French Resistance at Ruffec. From there, Resistance members led them across France to the Spanish border, then they made their way to Gibraltar. They were the only Royal Marines to survive the operation, arriving in Britain in April 1943. Hasler was awarded the Distinguished Service Order (DSO) and Sparks the Distinguished Service Medal (DSM). The story was commemorated in a 1955 film entitled The Cockleshell Heroes.
A. J. L. Waskey
Phillips, C. E. Lucas. Cockleshell Heroes. London: Heinemann, 1956.; Southby-Tailyour, Ewen. Blondie: A Life of Herbert George Hasler—Cockleshell Hero, Navigator and Inventor Extraordinary. London: Leo Cooper, 1998.; Sparks, William, and Michael Munn. The Last of the Cockleshell Heroes: A World War Two Memoir. 3rd ed. London: Leo Cooper, 1995.