Operation Suicide: The Remarkable Story of the Cockleshell Raid
Quercus, published 2012
The story of a commando unit under the leadership of Major “Blondie” Hassler who were without exception ordinary young men, from ordinary streets, in ordinary towns across industrial Britain – given the most extraordinary task of their short lives.
History of War Review
This book examines one of the most famous Commando raids of the Second World War, when a tiny force of men from Combined Operations canoed up the Gironde and planted limpet mines on blockade runners sheltering in Bordeaux harbour. The raiders are now best known as the 'Cockleshell Heroes', after the film and book of the mid 1950s (the book was associated with the film, but was far more accurate).
The raid was carried out in an attempt to disrupt German's small-scale but important trade with Japan, carried out using fast blockade runners based at Bordeaux. The danger of civilian casualties meant that bombing raids were ruled out, and so a number of different organisations began to examine the possibilities for either a commando style raid or sabotage.
Combined Operations eventually came up with the idea of using canoes to paddle up the Gironde to Bordeaux before attaching limpet mines to the blockade runners. This was always going to be a very dangerous task, involving several days of paddling in a difficult estuary, but it was made more dangerous by Hitler's 'Commando Order'. Enraged by successful commando raids Hitler ordered that all commandos captured in Europe should be executed immediately, a clear breach of the rules of war as accepted by the Germans.
This is an excellent account of the raid and everything that surrounded it. We start with a look at the wider situation in 1941 and 1942, the blockade runners and their importance and the difficulties of the target. We then move on to examine the development of the canoe raiding force, a task that included the development of new collapsible canoes capable of being launched from a submarine but robust enough to deal with the difficult waters of the Gironde.
This is followed by a detailed account of the raid itself, from the submarine journey from the UK, through the deadly trip up the Gironde onto the raid itself and then the least well planned part of the entire operation, the attempts to escape from France. Sadly only two of the ten men who started the operation survived, with two drowning and six being executed by the Germans.
That wider context is the key strength of this book, and makes it stand out from many books on similar topics. By giving us so much background the author involves us into the story, but he also keeps the wider context in view. An excellent study of an incredibly daring raid.