Mark 7 military canoes. Photos supplied by Quentin Rees
and published with permission
Quentin Rees’s recent book Cockleshell Canoes is a thoroughly researched and well illustrated celebration of a group of people who have become part of canoe history.
Some, such as Blondie Hasler and the team of commandos who took part in the daring Operation Frankton are already well known. Commemorated in a major film titled Cockleshell Heroes, it was an attack by ten commandos in canoes on Bordeaux Harbour in occupied France during December 1942. British Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill believed the mission shortened World War II by six months, and Admiral the Earl Mountbatten deemed it as the ‘most courageous and imaginative of all the raids ever carried out by the men of Combined Operations Commands‘.
Sadly, most of the brave individuals involved were eventually captured and shot by the Germans, who at that time regarded commandos as equivalent to spies.
However, the roles of many others have previously remained unsung. In this book Rees has weaved together real-life testimonies from the stories of the courageous soldiers who used the canoes, their military commanders, and the canoes’ inventors and designers, and tells of an epic journey of progress that took canoe development took from Cornwall, all along the Southern English Coast and beyond – even to the tropical island of Ceylon.
The canoes proved to be valuable in many of the theatres of WWII, and thousands of the various models were sent worldwide, often being used by the various Special Forces, including by the the espionage specialists of Special Operations Executive (SOE).
Click here to buy a copy from Amazon – The Cockleshell Canoes: British Military Canoes of World War Two.
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A new National Maritime Museum Cornwall display explores the evolution of fighting canoes used by the British in World War II.
The oldest canoe in the collection, the Mark II, was made famous by Operation Frankton in December 1942, which was the basis for the film The Cockleshell Heroes.
The real Cockleshell Heroes were Royal Marine Commandos, who got their nickname from the canoes that they used, which were known as cockles. They were difficult to spot at night and easy to hide, launch attacks and seek out suitable landing places, and could even be used to and could be used to land and collect secret agents. Collapsible types could be carried and launched from submarines.
A brief description of the raid and a collection of relevant links appears at the Wikipedia.
I should explain that much of the information now available and some of the artifacts on show is available thanks to the painstaking research work of Quentin Rees, who has recently published a book on the topic: The Cockleshell Canoes: British Military Canoes of World War Two.
The exhibition, which runs until the 26th April 2009, includes two other canoes in the exhibition are built of aluminium for use in the tropics, and the display is said to bring together three of the rarest military canoes of the time.
Pill box at Rye Harbour, where seamen risked their lives
and the British feared invasion
Boating enthusiasts in the South East of England are constantly reminded about the battles that have taken place or have been expected in this corner of the country. The wartime relics are so many that almost the only time we can’t see them is when they’re obscured by foul weather.
But last night, the evening before Remembrance Sunday, I was pleased to see a repeat of the BBC Coast series programme covering the Channel Islands and Dover.
It was well worth watching as usual, but this particular transmission included an interesting segment about the brave Navy and merchant seaman of the convoys carrying essential supplies such as coal through the Dover Straits during World War II.
As every British schoolchild knows, the sea separating Britain from Continental Europe is just 21 miles wide, and so the convoys could be hit by land-based guns based in occupied France, and were very vulnerable to attack by both fast German E-boats and aircraft while passing along the coasts of Kent and Sussex.
See the programme here on the BBCi player – though I gather readers in the USA aren’t able to see this material.
There’s also an interesting summary of the big guns used by both sides at the Wikipedia.