The WWII Special Forces - The Cockleshell Heroes - are well known for the 1942 raid on Nazi-occupied Bordeaux. Formally known as the Royal Marine Boom Patrol Detachment, they received their nickname, in part, due to the canoes they used, which were often called “cockles”. This detachment trained for months prior to boarding submarines that carried them to their destination, which to most of them, was unknown.
The Mission Begins
This World War II mission was not without its challenges. Two men were left on the submarine as a whole was inadvertently put in their canoe as it was being prepped on board the submarine. Two drowned after their canoe capsized. They were towed behind two of the canoes until close to shore, but they eventually began swimming to shore as the towing was slowing down the mission. Neither one of them made it. Once on shore, two more were captured by the Germans, and after two days of interrogation, were shot. Another pair had to abandon their canoe due the damage it sustained. They were also captured by the Germans, but were handed over to the Gestapo. Their interrogation is believed to have lasted three months before they were shot.
Bordeaux Harbor Is Reached
At this point, only two canoes remained and the Germans were on alert. They increased their patrols forcing the two remaining canoes to paddle at night and take cover during the day. However, they successfully reached the harbor in Bordeaux, and though spotted by a sentry, he did not sound the alarm. It is believed he may have mistaken the canoes for driftwood as the men in each remained motionless. These four men and their two canoes were able to successfully place limpet mines on merchant ships docked in the harbor. The mines were activated, but were not set to go off for nine hours, which allowed the men time to reach a safe distance.
The mines detonated, inflicting severe damage in the harbor. At this point, the four remaining men abandoned their canoes and began their return travel on foot. The two teams split and took two different routes. One team was captured and shot and the remaining two, after a 15 week journey and a few additional setbacks, finally reached safety.
Though not technically a Special Forces group, the WWII Cockleshell Heroes embarked upon a mission and executed it successfully in a style that would be similar to today’s Special Forces.