One sunny Sunday afternoon this March, I went for a stroll around the Canoe Lake area of the Southsea seafront and came across a plaque denoting the words, The Cockleshell Heroes.
Being a bit of a fan of vintage film, I seemed to recall a film of the same name with Jose Ferrer and Trevor Howard, so began a search to find out what the link with Southsea and the film was all about.
Well, the film The Cockleshell Heroes debuting in 1955 was based on a real life extraordinary wartime adventure by a small unit of the Royal Marines. The name of the mission was in fact Operation Frankton and it was planned as a commando raid on shipping in the German-occupied French port of Bordeaux in the Bay of Biscay during the Second World War under the Combined Operations Command.
The plan was for six collapsable canoes (called cockles) to be taken to the area of the Gironde estuary by submarine. They would then paddle by night the 100 miles to Bordeaux. On arrival they would attack the docked cargo ships with limpet mines and then escape overland to Spain. Twelve men from no.1 section were selected for the raid; including the commanding officer, Herbert ‘Blondie’ Hasler, and the reserve Marine Colley – the total of the team numbered thirteen. Only two men survived the successful raid: Hasler, and his no.2 in the canoe, Bill Sparks. Of the other eight, six were executed by the Germans (whilst wearing their uniforms) while two died from hypothermia.
The British Prime Minister Winston Churchill believed the mission shortened the war by six months. The words of Lord Mountbatten, the commander of Combined Operations, are carved into a Purbeck stone at Royal Marines Poole (current headquarters of the SBS): 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.
And the link to what is now the Southsea Rose Gardens and that plaque? Well the Royal Marines Boom Patrol Detachment (to give these brave young men their proper title) was based at Lumps Fort, Southsea – the remains of which have now been turned, rather cleverly, into an oval rose garden.
The gates to the gardens would have been the exit to the beach where the unit would have gone to practice their canoeing at night. In the middle of the pathway, there lies a statue of a cockle shell with a plaque remembering this famous exploit, erected by the Shipwrights Organisation.
Without the plaque, the statue and a certain amount of historic knowledge, I would never have realised that this tranquil garden was where these men were stationed, had trained and had left England, most for the last time. Probably the majority of these passersby on the beach wouldn’t have either – but there are a few – who stop, read and remember.
It doesn’t even look like a fort any more – it’s original usage has been well camouflaged yet remaining a rather fitting memorial to the bravery of the thirteen. It must be fragrantly glorious in the summer, when the roses are in bloom. I’ll return for another sunny wander then.
We will remember them.
Photographer & contributor: Sue Lowry
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