Operation Frankton

"None was more courageous or imaginative"

6 minutes read.

Maritime demolition

In the beginning of WWII, the Royal Navy did not have a unit capable of silently infiltrating into enemy harbors and sinking ships there by attaching time bombs to them. The Italian Navy was the first in the world to operate a special force with that capability, the 10th Assault Vehicle Flotilla. It operated (a) divers swimming with magnetically-attached Limpet mines, (b) divers riding underwater on "Human torpedoes" with large detachable warheads, (c) swimmers riding on fast motorboats with explosive warheads, equipped with ejection seats. And they used all these against the Royal Navy.

The Royal Navy painfully learned how much damage can be done by just a few such maritime commandos. After the raid on Alexandria harbor in December 1941, in which a force of just six divers totally disabled two huge battleships inside a protected harbor, Prime Minister Winston Churchill ordered to create a similar British unit that would be "better" than the Italian original. The unit, with the misleading name Royal Marines Boom Patrol Detachment (RMBPD), was created seven months later, and a year later, in December 1942, was still far from being ready for operations, when it was given its first operational mission, simply because no one else could do it.

The Bordeaux blockade runners

The wartime blockade of Germany was intended to deny it from importing war materials. But Germany successfully operated a fleet of blockade runner ships from Bordeaux, in occupied France, which imported critical war materials, especially 25,000 tons of crude rubber, imported via Bordeaux between June 1941 and June 1942. The British very much wanted to destroy these blockade runners, but Bordeaux is located on a large river, 60 miles inland from the ocean, and its harbor is literally in the middle of the city. Aerial bombardment was ruled out because the poor precision of British strategic bombing at that time meant death for many of the local French population. A naval attack was ruled out because the attacking naval force would have been detected and massively attacked long before it could reach Bordeaux, which was heavily protected by patrol vessels, warships, both German and Italian submarines, gun batteries along the river, an underwater minefield, land forces, and of course the Luftwaffe would have been called to air strike the attackers. Mining the Gironde estuary didn't help either, because the Germans used a flotilla of minesweeper vessels to clear the path for their precious blockade runners. So this problem remained unsolved, from British point of view, until Combined Operations Headquarters decided, on October 13 1942, to task the fledgling Royal Marines Boom Patrol Detachment with it. To use stealth where nothing else could work.

The unit still lacked in equipment, operational intelligence, tactical techniques, or experience, except in kayaking. A simulated attack exercise, in which they attempted to advnace undetected up the Thames estuary, from Margate to Deptford, about the same distance as the planned attack route from the ocean to Bordeaux, had failed. Still, it was wartime, and the unit went on with the operation. After the failure of the Thames exercise, the commander of Combined Operations told the commander of RMBPD, 28 years old Royal Marines Major Herbert "Blondie" Hasler, that now he has plenty of errors to learn from.

By stealth, with kayaks - the attack plan

RMBPD was not equipped with underwater vehicles, as the Italian unit was. Instead, they used two man folding kayaks. (the British called them 'canoes'. a Kayak is very low on the water and has a top cover to keep water out, unlike a Canoe, which is a narrow but otherwise ordinary boat)

The plan was to load six folding kayaks and their operators and equipment on a submarine. Each two man kayak would be heavily loaded with: the men, food and water for six days of physical effort, eight explosive Limpet mines, a camouflage net to hide in daytime, personal weapons (a pistol, a dagger, a hand grenade, for each man) and additional equipment. The submarine would take them to a point in the ocean near the Gironde estuary, and from there they will paddle up river during the nights, avoiding enemy patrols, hiding and resting during the days, until they will reach Bordeaux harbor, over 60 miles up river, and will attach the explosive Limpet mines to the blockade runner ships. After that, they would paddle back, out of the city area, go ashore, sneak on foot, or by any mean possible, to a contact point with the French resistance at Ruffec, 90 miles away, and from there they would be assisted in crossing occupied France and crossing the border to neutral Spain, from which they could be transferred back to Britain.

The mission seemed if not impossible then at least nearly so. But given the importance of the target, and the incredibly small number of men being risked, compared with any other military operation, it was approved.

Operation Frankton

After a relatively uneventful voyage in the submarine HMS Tuna from Holy Loch, Scotland, the operation itself started bad, and then got worse. One of the six kayaks was damaged in the submarine hatch while being disembarked, so only five kayaks started the mission, at the night of December 7-8, 1942. The teams struggled with strong cross current, cross winds, and with five feet high waves. One of the kayaks disappeared, but later reconnected with the group. But another kayak capsized, and had to be scuttled. Its two operators were towed near the shore and swam ashore, while the others continued, but the two later died of hypothermia. Later, another kayak disappeared. Its two operators came ashore, and after four days they were betrayed by the French to the Germans, who murdered them instead of treating them as POWs, following Adolf Hitler's "Commando Order", issued two months earlier, which stated that all captured allied commandos are to be killed, even if they are properly uniformed as soldiers and even if they surrendered.

During the first night, the three remaining teams paddled 20 miles of ocean and river before coming ashore to rest. At daybreak, one of the teams was captured ashore. Its two operators were also murdered by the Germans.

The two remaining pairs continued to paddle up the river four more nights, avoiding discovery by the enemy across over 60 miles of enemy territory and patrols searching for them, until they reached the Bordeaux river harbor at the night of 11-12 December 1942. The commander, Major Hasler, divided the targets between them. His kayak will attack the ships on the West bank of the wide river and the other kayak will attack the ships on the East bank of the river. The water were flat and the sky were clear, not helpful with so many enemies all around.

The two kayaks were 3 1/2 hours at the harbor, and successfully avoided being identified for what they really were, an attacking enemy. Hasler's team attached its eight mines to four ships near the 'knee' of the river, literally at the center of the city. The other team attached its eight mines to two ships.

After their silent attack was completed, the two teams turned back down river, and at dawn they sank their kayaks and came ashore, to start their long evasion on foot. After two days, one of the pairs was captured and handed to the Germans, and were also murdered by them. After six days of evasion, the only remaining pair, Major Hasler and his kayak mate, 20 years old Bill Sparks, reached Ruffec and met their assigned French resistance contact. After being hidden for 18 days, they were assisted in crossing France and crossing into Spain, and on April 2nd 1943, four months after embarking onboard HMS Tuna, Major Hasler reported back to duty.

Hasler was recommended for the Victoria Cross, the highest British award for valour, but since he successfully evaded the enemy during the entire operation, and was therefore never shot at by the enemy, a requirement for the Victoria Cross, he instead received the Distinguished Service Order, for military leadership on active service.

The 16 Limpet mines exploded, sinking the six mined German ships to the bottom. However, the depth at Bordeaux's river harbor was very shallow, so the Germans managed to refloat and repair the sunk ships.

Lord Louis Mountbatten, the chief of Combined Operations, said that "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".

The RMBPD, together with other small special boat units, continued to other operations, mostly in the Mediterranean, and would later form what is now the Special Boat Service, the special forces unit of the Royal Navy. Their badge aptly represents what was done in operation Frankton. It shows a sword over a background of waves in a black night, with the motto "By Strength and Guile".

Related essays:
Frogmen, Human torpedoes, Midget submarines (6 minutes read)

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