There was no Find it Friday! – Week 16 as I was off for the week but I am going to make that up to you with an amazing object this week and the story of how it played its part in an extraordinary story of heroism.
The Royal Marines Boom Patrol Detachment (RMBPD) was formed on 6 July 1942, and based at Portsmouth. The detachment consisted of 34 men under Major Herbert ‘Blondie’ Hasler, but in November 1942 13 of these men would leave Portsmouth and embark on the greatest mission of their lives. A mission that Sir Winston Churchill himself would later go on to state helped end World War II six months early.
They left from Holy Loch in Scotland on the submarine HMS Tuna and headed for the estuary of the River Gironde where their mission, Operation Frankton, would officially begin.
The plan was to paddle up the river by night (and hiding during the day) in specially designed canoes for an estimated 70 miles and to attack the Port of Bordeaux. They were to secretly, and as undetected as possible, attach limpet mines (a type of naval mine attached to a target by magnets) to the German ships with timers set to blow them up whilst the men were escaping through France. This is often refered to as one of the most daring missions of World War II and at the time the men knew this, they knew there is little chance they would return alive and yet they risked their lives for their country.
This is a Cockle Mark 2 canoe. It was designed by Fred Goatley, a boat builder and designer from the Isle of Wight. It was perfect for Operation Frankton as it is lightweight yet seaworthy and after their training the men were able to erect it in less than 60 seconds. However, the key advantage of the Cockle Mark 2 is its low silhouette which meant it would be hard to detect in water, which, of course, the success of the mission counted on.
This canoe is one of only six known original Cockle Mark 2 canoes.
On the 7th of December 1942 at 7.30pm, after 7 days on board, and after only 6 months training, the men left HMS Tuna, two men each in 6 canoes (the 13th man was a reserve). The canoes were named Catfish, Cuttlefish, Coalfish, Conger, Crayfish and Cachalot.
On the first night unexpected tidal fluctuations caused major issues and disrupted the mission and by the end of it only two canoes were still accounted for. By this point Catchalot had been damaged and was unable to even start the mission, Coalfish had been lost in the water, Cuttlefish had lost contact in the dark and the crew of Conger died of hypothermia after they were capsized.
On the 11th of December the final four men on board Catfish and Crayfish entered the Port of Bordeaux, positioned their limpet mines and set the fuses. Nine hours later they went off, destroying 5 of the 6 targeted German ships. The idea behind destroying as many ships in the port as possible was so that the port itself would be blocked with the wreckage of the ships rendering it incapable of fully operating. At Port Bordeaux a rail link to Germany was supplying vital cargo from the Far East to the Germans. Vital goods for the German war effort were finding their way into German hands and, it was thought, prototypes of weaponry were possibly being sent to Japan via the port. Bombing raids on Bordeaux were not an option due to the high number of French civilian casualties it would cause and so Operation Frankton was the ideal option; hindering the use of the port would cause great damage to the Germans.
The crew of the Cuttlefish who had been seperated from the others in the darkness on the first night had made it up the river but about 10 miles away from Bordeaux, on the 9th of December, their canoe sank and they had to swim to safety.
The Cuttlefish crew were, John ‘Jack’ Withers MacKinnon, a 21 years old coal merchant clerk from Oban, North Argyllshire and James Conway.
James Conway was born in 1922 in Edgeley, here in Stockport. He had been a milkman before joining the Marines and was 20 years old when he played his part in Operation Frankton after signing up a mere 10 months earlier. He had said that being part of the Royal Marines Boom Patrol Division made him the ‘proudest lad in the land’.
Mackinnon and Conway managed to make their way to the town of La Reole in southwestern France thanks to the kindness of various strangers feeding them, offering them shelter and taking them over boarders between occupied and unoccupied France. Unfortunately, on the 18th of December they were spotted and arrested by the French police and questioned. However, they were kept from the Germans and their issued lawyer, Marcel Galibert, even secretly wrote to Mackinnon and Conway’s families to let them know the men were safe.
But not for long; On the 29th of December, after the police had turned away 2 German officers, 50 German troops arrived and took the men to a jail to be interrogated. Conway told them of Operation Frankton but in a partial and incoherent way that would confuse his captors. Both men never once mentioned the good folk they had encountered along their journey.
At some point between January and March 1943, Conway and MacKinnon were executed, probably near Bordeaux. Their final resting place is still unknown.
The crews of Coalfish and Crayfish were also eventually found and executed by the Germans. There are no records of any their final resting places, however, official German records stated that the men of Crayfish were buried in a prisoner of war cemetery in Bordeaux, but research has since shown that no such cemetery existed.
After they had planted their limpet mines the crew of Catfish set on their escape. They, like Mackinnon and Conway, also met with kind strangers, French sympathisers and members of the resistance who assisted them in reaching British held Gibraltar and eventually all the way home, safe and well.
They were; Herbert ‘Blondie’ Hasler DSO OBE , the Commanding Officer of Operation Frankton. Hasler was born in Dublin in 1914 and was 28 years of age in 1942. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Order for planning and leading the mission.
He left military service at the age of 34 and died, aged 73, in 1987.
And William Edward Sparks DSM. Sparks was born in London in 1922 and was 20 years of age in 1942. He was a cobbler before signing up for the Royal Marines at the tender age of just 18. Sparks was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal for his involvement in Operation Frankton. He died, aged 80, in 2002.
There is obviously a lot more to this story, to the mission and the individual experiences of the men which you can currently find out about at an exhibition at Stockport Story Museum. The Exhibition aims to tell the story of these young men who would later come to be known as ‘The Cockleshell Heroes’ and it is hoped that it will commemorate the bravery of Stockport’s James Conway and the other men who so proudly served their country.
‘The Cockleshell Heroes’ is open until November 2013.