Articles - A Kayaking Pilgrimage of Heroes - The Pilgrim Bandits vs. The Gironde Estuary

The Pilgrim Bandits - Cockleshell Heroes!
The Pilgrim Bandits - Cockleshell Heroes!
Article by Bill Mattos, Images by Pilgrim Bandits & Glyn Brackenbury - Posted on 12 Jun 2014
The Pilgrim Bandits were established by a small group of Special Forces veterans in 2007. Their aim is to use their unique training and experience to help and inspire wounded soldiers to live their lives to the full and further, to help and inspire others. This summer, the Charitable Force, as they call themselves, plan to recreate the famous World War Two mission Operation Frankton, which was made famous in the film The Cockleshell Heroes.

On December 7th 1942, the British submarine HMS Tuna surfaced in the Bay of Biscay at the mouth of the Gironde, to deliver six canvas folding kayaks, each with a two man crew of Royal Marine commandos. Their mission, to The Pilgrim Bandits Operation Frankton Kayaking Challengepaddle upstream into German occupied France, to place limpet mines on the hulls of craft in the shipyard there. These included fast blockade runners used to ferry German supplies to and from Japan, critical to the war effort, as well as other vessels of military importance. The commandos would have to paddle overnight, crossing exposed mud flats to lie low under camouflage during the day. While immortalised in the 1955 movie The Cockleshell Heroes, some of the details of the dramatic secret mission were not to become public until quite recently.

One of the kayaks was brought up damaged on board the submarine, and 28yr old team leader Major Herbert ‘Blondie’ Hasler declared it unfit to be used. The two men who had been intended to paddle it were devastated that they had to return with the sub, not knowing that in all probability this frustrating turn of events was to save them from almost certain death.

The other ten men set out into the night, but had to negotiate rough seas and the fearsome Gironde tides. One boat was capsized, but the crew managed to swim to shore and were captured. On the next tide, another boat was lost. The two crewmen were towed close to the bank, clinging to the back of two other kayaks, but it was too dangerous to take them all the way for fear of compromising the mission. They struck off for shore, but the bodies of both men were later found washed up. A third boat was later lost, presumed to have hit an underwater obstacle, and its crew went on the run in France, but were later captured by the Germans. The remaining two kayaks finally caught up with their target on the fourth night, and placed explosives on five blockade runners and a U-boat support vessel, successfully sinking all six. Two of the men were captured, but Blondie Hasler and Bill Sparks were able to run, and spent several months in hiding in France with the aid of an escape network run by undercover agents, before escaping through Spain to Gibraltar.

All of the captured men were executed by the Germans, under a secret 1942 directive from Hitler himself, which instructed that commandos were to be treated just as spies would be. His contention was that their covert operations deprived them of the normal rights of prisoners of war.

The two sole escapees, Hasler and his fellow paddler Bill Sparks were to survive the war, and lived on until 1987 and 2002 respectively.
A memorial to the heroes of Operation Frankton stands at La Pointe De Grave, at the mouth of the Gironde. Another at the Royal Marines base in Poole is not open to the public.

Always A Little FurtherPilgrim Bandits Cockleshell Heroes Kayaking Challenge
The Pilgrim Bandits aim to recreate the journey undertaken by the Marines in Op Frankton, paddling up the treacherous waters of the Gironde estuary. Each two-man kayak will be crewed by at least one injured war veteran, with another able-bodied paddler in the rear. Many of the ex-soldiers are amputees.

The mantra “Always A Little Further” is key to the attitude of the Pilgrim Bandits, who work with wounded men and women from the services directly as well as by utilising their experiences to inspire young people and children. As their website states: ‘We don’t do sympathy, but we bring the rewards of belonging to a team, encouragement, belief and the power of humour over pain!’

A Hostile Environment
The ex-soldiers attempting this trip will certainly need all of these qualities. The Gironde Estuary is not a forgiving stretch of water, even for larger shipping. Wide and exposed, with brisk winds that can whip up a big enough chop to challenge even the modern double sea kayaks the team will be using, and twice a day a huge tide rages in and out of the river mouth. This fearsome tidal race is treated with respect by local fishermen, and on the larger Spring tides, for a few days every two weeks, a tidal bore known locally as the Mascaret can sweep up the river, with occasionally barrelling waves up to two metres in height. An intimidating sight for any seafarer, but especially so when seen from a tiny kayak.

Although the Pilgrim Bandits will be attempting the trip in at a warmer time of year than did the soldiers of the wartime mission, any long open water trip is potentially challenging. Managing clothing, nutrition and hydration will be difficult, especially in a climate that could threaten the team with heatstroke and hypothermia all in the same day. But the challenge will not seem insurmountable compared to what all these men have already overcome. Like Andy Reid, who lost both legs and his right arm to a landmine in Afghanistan in 2009. Now using ‘bionic’ prosthetic limbs to walk, and able to grip a paddle with a special arm. Or ex-Para Ben Parkinson MBE, who also lost both legs and was given zero chance of survival after some of the most extreme injuries ever seen. These men, and all the others on the trip, have a determination to overcome, and to help others, that will see them through. These are big lads, and they'll be wedged into the kayaks (by experienced safety advisors) using inflatable airbags and foam. Some of the kayaks will have seats removed to allow the ex-soldiers to sit lower for increased stability.

Accompanying the war veterans will be some able paddlers who bring a wealth of boating skill and experience to the trip. Peter Holgate is a well-known figure on the canoeing and kayaking scene. A keen racing cyclist as well as a kayaker, his strength and fitness as well as a lifetime of experience (he owns a canoe shop called Kayaking Kit) will see the team safely over the waves. Also paddling will be Sarah Holmes, a relative of one of the original Op Frankton Marines.

The team will have had ten training days together by the time they arrive in France for the mission, some of which have been filmed for an ITV documentary on the trip. The learning curve has been steep, but progress is steady. The Pilgrom Bandits after successfully completing their Operation Frankton Kayaking ChallengePeter Holgate tells how at one time, on a choppy training session in Poole harbour, there was only one kayak left upright as eight of the team were left swimming or clinging to floating kit in the freezing December seas.
The necessity of training for a summer expedition during the winter is always a challenge! But as well as Poole, the Bandits have also been able to secure training at Skern Lodge, in Appledore, in the care of top coach Glyn Brackenbury. As well as helping with their technique and general seaworthiness, Brackenbury has already been able to put them through their paces in the swimming pool, a welcome change from capsizing in the bitter seas.
The primary aim of the Pilgrim Bandits is to directly help those in need, without any compromise, so that soon those who needed help become the ones that give it. They do this the way the military have trained them to do it, by pushing injured men and women into mentally and physically demanding situations that no one would have dreamed possible. Climbing mountains, jumping from planes, running races or trekking across difficult and inhospitable terrain. To quote, “Some view us as a Forces Charity but we are a Charitable Force, bringing support, help and adventure to those we work with.”

And always a little further, as they put it. These words that so succinctly describe their attitude and determination actually come from a verse that is inscribed on the clock tower of the SAS barracks in Hereford, as well as memorials to Special Forces all over the world.

We are the Pilgrims, master; we shall go?
Always a little further; it may be?
Beyond that last blue mountain barred with snow?
Across that angry or that glimmering sea

Excerpt from Hassan... The Golden Journey To Samarkand

And here’s another verse, from Flecker, quoted on the Pilgrim Bandits website at

Go as a pilgrim and seek out danger, and seek stimulation in the company of the brave

Paddly Ashdown launches the Pilgrim Bandit Op Fankton ChallengeFormer Royal Marine and ex leader of the Lib Dems Lord Paddy Ashdown officially launched this daring expedition by the war heroes. Members of the Pilgrim Bandits charity, many of them amputees, will paddle two-person kayaks up the Gironde Estuary in France, retracing the paddle strokes of the original mission. Also at the launch of the challenge in London was Kerry Swain, the great niece of one of the original Marines from Op Frankton

To support the Pilgrim Bandits, to find out more and to follow their progress visit:

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