Cockleshell Hero
Home Up Juno Gloucester Cockleshell Hero



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 website.
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 detect them.
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.