The opening ceremony for the Cockleshell Heroes exhibition brings Operation Frankton to the heart of Dunoon’s Castle House Museum.
Considered the most daring of all the operations carried out by the then new Combined Operations – whose development was largely created in Argyll – this was an absolute David and Goliath raid.
Ten men, paired in five flat-bottomed two-man canoes, launched from a submarine 1(Cachalot) is said to have been damaged as it came through the hatch of the submarine and so its crew did not participate in the operation.
The crews and their cockleshells worked up in Portsmouth Harbour for a raid on the German-occupied and important shipping port of Bordeaux.
Then they came to Argyll , completing their training in the Holy Loch. On 30th November 1942 the six canoes, each named after a fish or mammal – Crayfish, Cachalot, Catfish, Conger, Cuttlefish and Coalfish – they embarked from the Holy Loch, not inappropriately – in the belly of HMS Tuna.
It took the two canoes which survived an appalling attrition rate on passage, five nights to reach Bordeaux, which they did on the night of 11th/12th December. Paddling by night, hiding the canoes in the reeds of the marsh land of the Gironde and sleeping by day, three of the five canoes were captured and their crews executed.
The two remaining canoes made it to Bordeaux and did what damage they could with the limpet mines they carried. Both crews actually got away after the raid and met up by chance on an island downriver – the Isle de Caseau. They made their way to Blaye de Bordeaux, burned the canoes to destroy evidence of their presence – and split,.
One crew was caught two days later, The other pair eventually made it home. One of them was the expedition leader – who also invented self-steering gear for yachts – the charismatic Major Blondie Hasler and Marine Bill Sparks.
Blondie Hasler lived in Argyll and his younger widow, Bridget, still does. Mrs Hasler is on holiday on 4th August when the opening ceremony takes place and would otherwise have been there. She has been delighted that the museum is hosting this expedition from World War II presentations and has asked to be told all about it when she gets back.
The opening ceremony
This really is a celebration. It runs from 10.30 to 13.30 on Saturday 4th August, featuring a rich variety of music and dance. The actual opening will be around 12.00 noon, with the usual admission arrangements to the museum applying.
- Gordon Blair with Cowal Fiddle Workshop’s junior fiddlers
- Craig Campbell and the Dunoon Grammar School Pipe Band – the pied pipers leading the way up the hill to the museum
- Christina Cairns School of Highland dancing – with an act which has only recently been choreographed for these highland dancers – a weather dance. (Margaret McVicar from the museum told Christina that they did not want a rain dance.)
There will be short speeches, including from Adrian Hunt and David Neil of World War II Presentations who have created the exhibition.
Then there will be a welcome to descendants of the members of this epic raid, with teas, coffees and home baking in the High Kirk, beside the museum. Interestingly, two descendents – of Marine Bill Sparks, one of the two sole survivors if the expedition – are at Dunoon Grammar School. The organisers of the event at Castle House hope they will be there on 4th August.
Morag Smith, Depute Lieutenant for Argyll, will be attending.
There is already an imaginative display by Muriel Rand, with a ‘Dunoon at War’ theme related to the exhibition, in the window of Cowal Highland Gathering’s premises in Hillfoot Street – and it’s been attracting a lot of attention.
The display boards at the Museum will be set up to show photographs of the mother-ship ‘Forth’ and other original pictures taken in the Holy Loch for Ann Galliard’s book about Sandbank at War. It is interesting to see where the convoys were held, around the lochs and at the ‘Tail o’ the Bank’ anchorage – before ‘disappearing’ overnight.
This exhibition in a way brings Operation Frankton back home to where it started and allows Dunoon the opportunity to celebrate another part of our national history that bears its fingerprints – and to honour the memory of the eight incredibly courageous men who left the Holy Loch that December evening in 1942 aboard HMS Tuna and never came back.
Note: For Argyll’s earlier detailed and illustrated article about Operation Frankton and covering the day Adrian Hunt and David Neil, with Castle House Museum’s curator, John Stirling, set up the exhibition, can be found here.