The cockleshell hero raid in WW2 illustrates the different kinds of heroismby Paddy Ashdown / October 5, 2012 / Leave a comment
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.