Paddy Ashdown: The Most Courageous Raid of the Second World War, EIBF 2012, Review

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Edinburgh International Book Festival
Paddy Ashdown and Trevor Royle (Chair)
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Paddy Ashdown took to the stage at the Edinburgh International Book Festival for the second time in twenty four hours to present his new book, A Brilliant Little Operation. The session was chaired by Trevor Royle, standing in for Allan Little who was unwell.

Ashdown started by complimenting the audience on their stamina as many had heard him the previous night; however, our efforts were well worthwhile as he gave us a fascinating, and clearly well researched, view of the Cockleshell Heroes' attack on enemy shipping in the port of Bordeaux in December 1942 - known as Operation Frankton.  

He made the point that this was, for him, a labour of love as he had served in the Royal Marines Special Boat Service himself. He said how fascinated he had been to examine not only the British archives, but those of France and Germany also to find out important details of how these two nations had viewed the raid.

Ashdown's initial extract described how, when returning to Poole by train after taking part in the Devizes to Westminster canoe marathon of 125 miles, he unknowingly sat opposite his hero Major "Blondie" Hasler. He said how much he regretted not appreciating who his travelling companion was, for this was the man who had led a small team of ten Royal Marines on one of the most daring and impossible missions of the war.

Ashdown painted the scene for us, describing 1942 as being perhaps the "lowest moment of the war" for Britain with the loss of Singapore, Pearl Harbour and German success in Russia. So something was needed to lift British morale.

The Royal Navy was the only service that could contain and confront German might, but the blockade of French ports was not working for Bordeaux; the RAF could not be used, for bombing would have killed too many civilians, so the covert canoe attack was conceived as a possibility.

Initially only eleven men were selected who were "just very ordinary fellows" - one was a milkman whose 'best friend' according to Ashdown, was his horse!

Ashdown then gave a second reading from his book, but explained how Hasler had told his men to write a 'final letter' to their loved ones which would be sent if they did not return, obviously hoping that none would have to be sent.

Hearing the words from two of the letters was an emotional experience and extremely poignant as the writers thanked their mothers for all the love and affection that they had received - and the letter to the girlfriend saying she should find someone new to take his place and "not to think badly of me".

Paddy Ashdown then described the hazardous operation. The party of five collapsible canoes was dropped by night in December 1942 from the submarine, HMS Tuna, at the mouth of the Gironde estuary in south-west France; however, they had failed to appreciate the exceptionally treacherous tidal waters which proved a disaster and only two canoes survived to start the seventy-mile paddle upstream to the port of Bordeaux.  

This was where they were to plant limpet mines on German blockade-running ships in the harbour - one of the best defended ports in Europe.

Somehow the two canoes managed to negotiate the searchlights, guards and armed river patrol boats to reach their lying up area on the 10/11 December. At the appointed time of 21.10 hrs the men shook hands and launched the attack.

The temperature was freezing and the canoes had to pass the mouth of the submarine base which they managed to do and the groups managed to attach their limpet mines to vessels in the harbour.

But only Hasler and Sparks survived and managed to escape - the other two Marines were captured by the Germans after having been betrayed by a Frenchman. They were tortured and then shot by a firing squad.  

Having evaded the German guards, Hasler and Sparks set out on the demanding journey of escaping through occupied France on foot and then to cross the Pyrenees to reach Gibraltar. They made it and the story will be a fascinating one for the reader!

It is ironic that the Special Operations Executive (SOE) were also planning to attack the shipping in the harbour. On the night of the attack Hasler, in his canoe, passed one hundred metres away from the café in which the SOE were planning their own attack. At that stage of the war, co-operation between competing agencies was non-existent as all were fighting for survival with limited resources available.

Was the raid a success? The Germans quickly managed to repair the damage, but they were so shocked by what Hasler had achieved that they deployed many thousands of men to guard ports and rivers - this was in itself a most positive achievement. But more importantly it lifted morale in Britain and particularly in the services at a time when there was little good news; it also was a major boost to the French Resistance.

This will be a thrilling book to read and the sheer determination of the group who were described as "a very ordinary group of men" is inspiring.  Paddy Ashdown is to be congratulated on what is undoubtedly a splendid account of what was indeed "A Brilliant Little Operation".

Event: 15 August 2012, 10:00am