The raids by Italian frogmen in the Mediterranean were the stuff of legend in commando circles in 1942. The British didn’t have any similar capability: the Italians were just too far advanced in the technology of underwater demolition. However, the British were quite skilled in the use of small boats to conduct similar type raids, which they had been doing for the last two years in the Aegean. After the disastrous raid on Dieppe over the summer, the British Combined Operations decided they had to up the ante and start small boat raids on German ships in France.
In late October 1942, the innocuously named Royal Marine Boom Patrol Detachment (one of the forerunners of today’s Special Boat Service) was given the mission to sink German ships at Bordeaux. The Royal Marine commandos would be transported by submarine to the mouth of the Gironde Estuary, where they would then paddle upstream to the port in special canoes code named “cockles”, and then plant mines on the ships.
The cockles were semi rigid collapsible kayaks that could fit through the torpedo doors of the British submarines. Each could carry two men and about 200 lbs of equipment. On the night of 7 December 1942, 12 men in six cockles of the RMBPD paddled from the HMS Tuna for the 70 mile trip up the Garonne River to Bordeaux. However, the mission started poorly.
One cockle was inadvertently torn pulling it from the submarine, so two men had to immediately swim back before the Tuna departed. All five remaining crews braved the heavy surf for the ten miles to shore. However, one cockle disappeared and their men were never seen again. Another capsized and the two commandos were dragged close to shore. They were told to make their way home by any means possible, but they died of hypothermia before that could happen. And then one cockle became separated. When that crew made landfall in the morning, they were spotted and captured by the French gendarmes. Only 12 hours into the mission, only two cockles remained.
For the next four days, the commandos paddled by night and hide on shore during the day. On the moonless night of 11/12 December 1942, the four remaining commandos placed limpet mines on eight different vessels in the harbor including a minelayer, a large cargo ship, and small ocean liner. The men then sank their cockles, and set off on foot for neutral Spain. Two were arrested by French gendarmes and turned over to the Germans. All of the captured raiders were immediately executed under Hitler’s “Commando Order” (That they be treated as spies, even in uniform). But two men did make it to Spain, and eventually back to Britain via Gibraltar in 1943.
The next morning the time delayed fuses went off, damaging five ships and sinking one. Unfortunately, the explosions came as a surprise to the Special Operations Executive team (the forerunner of the fun parts of MI6) that were in an apartment down the street. The SOE team spent the last several weeks infiltrating the port defenses to accomplish the same thing.
Even three years into the war, the Allies’ alphabet soup of intelligence agencies and special operations units still needed figure out how to coordinate with each other.
Some things never change. It;s probably for the best though.