A friend of mine, who wishes to stay anonymous, has recently completed his thesis on the Frankton Operation. This operation was immortalised in the film The Cockleshell Hero's and is about a commando raid by kayak that Winston Churchill believed shortened the war by six months:
Frankton Operation 7–12 December 1942:
The Military and Hydrographic reasons for the Partial Success of the Operation
by a fellow paddler who wishes to remain anonymous.
The Frankton Operation was carried out during the Second World War, by British Royal Marines, and aimed to interfere with the import of raw materials from south-east Asia to the German military industry, an import which continued regardless to the blockade imposed by the allies on conquered Europe. Ten British Royal Marines, in five double-kayaks, emerged from a submarine in the vicinity if the Gironde estuary on the Atlantic coast of France. The Marines paddled five nights to the port of Bordeaux and planted limpet mines to six German merchant ships. Of the ten Marines who started the paddle only four reached Bordeaux and only two returned to Britain. The aim of this work was to understand why a commando raid was chosen as the best way to deal with the blockade-runners, and what where the hydrographic conditions that enabled only two kayaks to reach Bordeaux.
This work studied two aspects, a historic aspect and a hydrographic one. The historic aspect focused on the reasons that led the British chiefs of staff to choose a commando raid as the best option to damage the blockade-runners, and the hydrographic aspect focused on the extreme currents regime typical to Gironde estuary and its effect on the success of the operation. The research included extensive literature review, archives study, analysis of marine charts and pilot-books as well as correspondence and interviews with relevant people. In addition to the theoretical study, this work had an empiric aspect which included paddling the Gironde in re-enacting the route paddled by the Marines during the operation.
The primary assumption in the historic chapter was that the mission was given to the commandoes mainly because neither the Royal Air Force (RAF) nor the Royal Navy (RN) were interested in executing it as they did not see it as an important mission and did not want to be distracted from their main missions. In the hydrographic chapter it was already obvious, from the primary literature review, that the Marines were not aware of the extreme currents unique of the estuary, and therefore did not plan accordingly or trained properly.
The research confirmed most of the primary assumptions and added some new insights. In the historic chapter the study established that both the RAF and the RN preferred to avoid dealing with this mission in order not to be distracted from their main missions but more than that, due to Churchill's order to avoid hitting French citizens during the strike of the blockade-runners, it was decided not to use the RAF as bombing tended to be very inaccurate at the time. The study found that the mission was almost dismissed if it were not for a junior staff officer who remembered that a new commando unit was established recently, the RMBPD, and its commanding officer is looking for a mission.
In the hydrographic chapter the study found no relevant hydrographic data in the intelligence docket composed for the operation. The analysis of the currents in the estuary shows the speed of the tidal currents might reach speeds which exceed the possibility to control a kayak, and so the risk level was unreasonable to begin with.
To conclude, the mission of hitting blockade-runner ships in the port of Bordeaux generated an operation that was executed mainly due to the wish of a commanding officer of a new unit. The preparations for the operations were inadequate both in hydrographic data collections, planning and training. The mere fact that four Marines were able to reach Bordeaux, and two even returned to Britain, is a testimony of extreme valor and the ability to improvise. No wonder Churchill "wished to record his appreciation of what seems to have been an extremely gallant and enterprising operation" (Ashdown, 2012: 258).
Below is a list of people who contributed from their experience and their personal knowledge to the success of this work, and I take this opportunity to thank them. First, Quentin Rees, a British historian and author of one of the books about the operation 'Cockleshell Heroes'. Corresponding and meeting him greatly contributed to the understanding of the historical background and the main characters involved in the operation. John Atkin, a British citizen who lives for thirty years in Bordeaux. Beyond being a history buff (writing a doctorate on a Roman port near Bordeaux) he is an experienced yachtsman who knows well the Gironde River and estuary. Beyond his vast local knowledge he helped me reach other key figures in the region. Phil Clegg, a British kayak instructor who operates in Wales. Meeting him was crucial to understanding data relating the tides and tidal-races and to paddling them. Roland Woollven, a Scottish kayak instructor, until recently teaching kayaks to the SBS (Royal Navy) who gave some useful tips to my own paddling in the Gironde. Pier Cuenoud, skipper of the lifeboat stationed in Royan on the edge of the estuary with, naturally, a vast personal knowledge of the currents and tidal races in the Gironde estuary. Phillip Brett (Brett), a kayak instructor and director of the Kayak Club Bordeaux. Phillip knows the river like the back of his hand, knows kayaking since he was a child and knows well the Operation Frankton as for five years he is in charge of re-enacting the paddle of Frankton and as he himself appeared as one of the paddlers in a French documentary film that was produced about the operation. Phillip also allowed me to join his club in a Frankton paddle that took place in December 2013. Through Phillip I would like to thank all his club members who helped with a word, an experience or a photograph and especially Vanessa Baubiet, Nicola Lemaire and Allen Lamaison. Jonathan Preminger, a British-born Israeli. Kayak guide and professional skipper, extremely knowledgeable and helpful in understanding the behavior of different currents and streams.
I would also like to thank Joanne Dunn from the Museum of Stockport, who opened the museum especially for me on a Sunday just so I could photograph the kayak exhibited there without interruption. Amy Hurst from the Marines Archive in Portsmouth who collected for me the relevant files and saved me a lot of time.