|While Bill Sparks has nothing to do with
Crete, he was a brave man whose exploits in a kayak gave rise to the
legend of the Cockleshell Heroes. I have used a tenuous link with
Crete. Bill's brother, Bonny, was killed when the cruiser Naiad
sank. The Naiad had been involved in the naval activity off Crete
during the battle. I have taken the photo from the Royal Navy
|I remember as a boy going to see the 1955
black and white film, Cockleshell Heroes, with Anthony Newley playing
Bill Sparks. Just recently the last of those brave men, Marine
Bill Sparks, died. His obituary was in the Daily Telegraph, and
there was also a television documentary featuring Bill on one of his
trips back to France to meet the family who had helped him at one point
in his escape.
|The following is from the Daily Telegraph.
|Marine Bill Sparks was the last of the two
surviving "Cockleshell Heroes" responsible for paddling a
canoe 85 miles through enemy defences to cripple German merchant ships
at Bordeaux. During the night of December 11 1942, 10 Royal
Marines set out in five craft; but eight of them were shot or
drowned. Sparks and Major "Blondie" Hasler found
themselves pursued through France and Spain by vengeful Germans for
three months before they reached safety.
|When Hasler summoned his marines to the
forward torpedo room of the submarine Tuna before the operation,
they were told that their mission was to attack a fleet of armed German
merchantmen, which was preparing to raid British shipping. An
attack using kayaks, known as cockleshells, was the only alternative to
bombing, which would have caused heavy civilian casualties.
Hasler's platoon spent five days in Tuna, escaping a U-boat
attack en-route. They reached their launch point in the Bay of
Biscay, 10 miles from the river Gironde, but had to remain bottomed for
24 hours because of poor weather.
|By the evening of December 7, the sea was
calmer and Hasler and Sparks launched their cockleshell, Cachalot,
first. Sergeant Wallace and Marine Ewart were soon captured,
interrogated and shot; Coporal Shard and Marine Moffatt were
drowned. Lieutenant Mackinnon and Marine Conway went
missing. Hasler and Sparks pressed on with Corporal Laver and
Marine Mills. Although the Germans were now alerted, the two craft
avoided sentry positions and three patrol boats in the estuary.
|Sparks and Hasler were seen, but not
compromised, by French civilians as they used the flood tide by night
and lay in hiding by day. Sparks remembered savouring every brew
of tea and the frequent use of Benzedrine tablets to stave off
sleepiness: he also shared his illicit bottle of rum with Hasler.
On the third night, cold, wet and tired, the two boats lay up on the
small Ile de Cazeau, which was home to a German anti-aircraft battery,
but the marines' fieldcraft was so good that enemy patrols failed to
|At nightfall they realised that they were
sharing the island with Mackinnon and Conway, but these two found their
craft damaged by a submerged hazard; they were betrayed and
executed. On the last night of their paddle, Sparks and Hasler hid
in tall reeds within easy reach of Bordeaux, where they could sleep, eat
and prepare within yards of the bustling harbour. As the pair
proceeded to place their limpet mines on the sides of ships, they
thought that they had been seen by a sentry, and were crushed between
two ships moving together. They managed to escape silently on the
ebb tide, and soon found Laver and Mills, who had also successfully
placed their mines. When the explosions took place, four ships
were severely damaged and a fifth sunk.
|After completing their demolition the two
remaining pairs of canoeists sank their boats and began a trek to Ruffec,
100 miles away. Sparks and Hasler spent the next two months in the
hands of various agents, most notably Mary Lindell, a British agent who
operated in the Lyons area. Greta dangers were involved, though in
one safe house Sparks felt more threatened by the overtures of the
daughter of the family than by the Germans. Eventually he and
Hasler were led over the Pyrenees to Spain; but Laver and Mills were
captured and shot.
|In the TV program they showed that an annual
memorial service is held to commemorate the brave exploits of those
original 10 marines. Bill was a regular visitor until his
death. There is now a ramblers walk to, the 'Cockleshell Walk', in
France for those who want to re-create Bill Spark's escape.