10 August 2015

The Frankton Memorial, Le Verdon-sur-Mer

There has been a revival of interest in the December 1942 Operation Frankton in the last few years. Better-known in the past as the Cockleshell Heroes operation, it was a clandestine attack on German shipping in Bordeaux harbour mounted by twelve Royal Marines commandos under Major HG "Blondie" Hasler. Infiltrated by submarine to the mouth of the Gironde estuary, the plan was to navigate their way by two-man canoes (“cockleshells”) up the heavily defended estuary for 70 miles to the harbour.

From www.c-royan.com
Five canoes set off with ten men: two died of hypothermia, six were captured and executed by the Germans, two survived including Hasler. Six ships were damaged, one extensively. Far from being futile, Frankton demonstrated the need for inter-agency cooperation while planning for the invasion of France in 1944.

In 2012 Paddy Ashdown’s A Brilliant Little Operation: The Cockleshell Heroes and the Most Courageous Raid of World War 2 was published, a BBC2 Timewatch documentary, The Most Courageous Raid of WWII, narrated by Ashdown, being shown the previous year. Ashdown’s account offers perspectives from someone who is both a senior politician and a former Royal Marines officer who had met Hasler. The documentary and book reveal that unknown to the Combined Operations Command who controlled the Marines, the Special Operations Executive were running similar operations at the same time. Inter-agency issues are explored further in Tom Keene’s Cloak of Enemies: Churchill's SOE, Enemies at Home and the Cockleshell Heroes, also published in 2012. Prior to these two books, the best-known account of the operation had been C. E. Lucas Phillips’ Cockleshell Heroes published in 1956.

In 2011 a memorial commemorating Frankton was installed on the southern edge of the mouth of the estuary at the Pointe de Grave in the commune of Le Verdon-sur-Mer (33). As it is fairly remote, two hours’ drive from Bordeaux, the photographs below may be of interest to anyone unable to visit the site. The memorial was designed by Baca Architects and constructed by Albion Stone Restoration for the Royal Marines Association. Both companies’ websites are worth consulting, Baca explaining that:
The Memorial remembers the 10 courageous Royal Marines, the bravery of the captain and crew of the submarine HMS Tuna and the courageous French citizens who assisted the Royal Marines. The four substantial Portland stone blocks step up towards the front of the memorial, where one may envisage a symbolic representation of the Royal Marines emerging from the sea, standing proud. As one moves around the memorial, different compositions are revealed. The separate stones create individual settings for insignia, as well as stones at the flanks to show the story of mission.
Albion explain that:
The staggered blocks create a dynamic ensemble, growing bolder to the front. The blocks are adorned with polished plaques that commemorative the heroism and retell the story. Symbolically the four stones represent four figures emerging from the sea.

and offer descriptions:

Stone 1: Crests of the participants in Operation Frankton: The Royal Navy, Combined Operations Command, The Royal Marines, The French Resistance

Stone 2: This carries the text tributes in English and French to the gallant 10 Royal Marines, and each named beneath a carved floral motif of the Rose, the Thistle and the Shamrock, representing the birth places of the men England, Scotland and Ireland. There follows tributes to the Capt and crew of HMS Tuna and to the courage of local French people who helped the marines, three, named on this plaque who were deported to concentration camp in Germany, and did not return arrested for being associated with Op Frankton, coincidentally, except for one Lucien Gody who raced late at night to warn Hasler and Sparks to flee their hiding place as Germans were close by. At the base are the words of Lord Mountbatten about the 10 men. 

Stone 3: There is a depiction of the Submarine HMS Tuna, together with the five canoes just after the launch, where they were to be together for the very last time. Two crews were lost in two vicious Tide-races on the first night, two men died of hypothermia and two were captured when they arrived exhausted on the beach and were executed four days later. [The quotation is from the C. E. Lucas Phillips’ book, mentioned above.]

Stone 4: This carries the narrative account of Operation Frankton, again all repeated in French.

The memorial is constructed in Grove Whitbed stone which has a surface markedly different from the limestone widely used for buildings in the Gironde.

The Pointe de Grave is exposed to salt water spray from the Bay of Biscay and the effects of corrosion are already beginning to show on the Frankton memorial. Nearby is another memorial which commemorates the American Expeditionary Forces under General Pershing which arrived in France in 1917. Hopefully it will receive some restoration before the centenary in 2017.

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