6 minutes read.
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 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.
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.
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".
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