We hear much of courage these days. That’s hardly surprising with Afghanistan rumbling on bloodily in the hinterland of our public discourse and a summer of Olympics and Paralympics. Yet there are many kinds of courage, many kinds of hero.
My new book—A Brilliant Little Operation, which I shall be presenting at the Cheltenham literature festival next week—provides a study in both. The so-called “cockleshell hero” raid led by Major Herbert “Blondie” Hasler on a German blockade runner in Bordeaux in December 1942 was referred to as “the outstanding commando raid of the war” by a German officer on the Bordeaux quays at the time.
It’s easy to see why. Of the ten Royal Marines who left their submarine that dark, cold night 70 years ago, two drowned on the way in, six were captured and shot and only two made it home. Few other raids in the second world war could match the audacity of an assault on the massive German naval port of Bordeaux with just ten men in five fragile canoes. And none required such deep and prolonged penetration of enemy territory. Hasler and his canoe companion Bill Sparks’ epic post-raid escape and evasion across enemy-occupied France, over the Pyrenees, through Spain and back to Britain is a classic that has never been surpassed.
To succeed, these “ordinary fellows” as Hasler called them (one was a milkman from Stockport, another a coal merchant’s clerk from Glasgow) had to show extraordinary determination and courage. Not the brief “bubble” courage bolstered by the speed and violence of a quick commando raid. This was the slow, sustained, cold-blooded nerve that endured hour after hour over long days and nights, as they cautiously worked their way closer to their targets.
But theirs was not the only kind of courage in this story. For lying beneath the “cockleshell hero” story that I thought I knew so well, I found another which no one knew about.
The marines were not the only people attacking German ships on the Bordeaux quays 70 years ago. 100 yards from the ships the cockleshell heroes were attacking, six British secret agents who had linked with the French resistance were in a café, planning to do exactly the same thing the following night. And thanks to a cock-up of mighty proportions in London, neither knew the other was there.
Those secret agents on the Bordeaux quays in 1942—and the French who worked with them— were extraordinary too. Theirs was the courage not of explosive action, but of the patience and sustained alertness required to live a double life in a hostile country for long, nerve-jangling days, weeks, months and years. Their story is different, too. It is not a tale of stealth, shadows and arduous physical endurance but a much more human story: of personal tensions, betrayals, silent assassinations and lover’s promises made before the firing squad.
The catalogue of courage contained in this tale does not stop there. Perhaps all of us can imagine how an unattached young man of 18 might volunteer for such an operation when his country was under mortal attack and thousands were dying daily in the London blitz. We can understand how, with proper training and preparation, such an extraordinary feat might be achieved.
But imagine that you have had no preparation. That you are not single, but married with two young children upstairs in bed and a wife who depends on you to see the family through the tough, difficult years of wartime, occupied France. And suddenly, at midnight, there is knock on your door. You open it to find a British soldier standing there in uniform begging you for help. And you have seconds to make up your mind. And you know that if you say yes, you risk not just your life but that of your whole family too. These French people—one, whom I found writing my book, was a girl of 16 at the time—are the unsung heroes of this tale. These ordinary French men and women who put their lives and those of their loved ones in jeopardy by answering those desperate appeals from strangers in the middle of the night—theirs were acts not just of courage but also of transcendental humanity.
So you see, courage come in many types. But whether we speak of the heroes of the Paralympics, or our modern service heroes in Afghanistan, or the cockleshell heroes of seventy years ago, they have one thing in common. They have all won our respect and admiration by showing the courage to surmount obstacles that most of us would have found impossible. That’s why they are heroes.
A Brilliant Little Operation: The Cockleshell Heroes and the Most Courageous Raid of WW2 by Paddy Ashdown (Aurum Press, £25). Paddy Ashdown will be speaking at The Times Cheltenham literature festival on Tuesday 9th October www.cheltenhamfestivals.com