On a freezing night in December 1942 twelve Royal Marines began to extricate themselves from the Royal Navy submarine HMS Tuna, a few miles off the coast of France. The men’s mission was to travel by night up the river into the heart of Bordeaux, using home-made canvas canoes designed by the mission leader, Major ‘Blondie’ Hasler. Once in the port, they would place limpet mines on the ships they found, many of which were running the Allied blockade to travel as far afield as Japan, carrying military supplies between the Axis partners.
Once the carefully planned attack was over, plans for Phase Two were somewhat thinner. The men were expected to use their own wit and a big dose of luck to escape overland to Spain. In this extraordinary story, only two men survived the raid: Hasler, and his canoe partner, Marine Bill Sparks. Of the others two ripped their canoe when exiting their submarine and returned to the UK in HMS Tuna, two died from hypothermia when their canoe capsized in a vicious tide race at the entrance to the Gironde and six were caught and executed by the Germans under the outrageous terms of Hitler’s Kommandobefehl.
Winston Churchill suggested the mission shortened the Second World War by six months and the commander of Combined Operations, deemed the raid ‘the most courageous and imaginative of all the raids ever carried out by the men of Combined Operations.’ We can agree that although Churchill was exaggerating for effect, the audacity of the raid, and the bravery of those who undertook it, was extraordinary, a lasting tribute to the men of Combined Operations. Long before the Western Allies were able to deploy the weight of their armies on French shores, these men took the war to the enemy, as unflinchingly as David against Goliath.