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on 4 February 2013
I bought this book as I'd seen the film about the Cockleshell Heroes which really inspired me. This book is an amazingly detailed in-depth account with almost everything verified. It starts off rather slowly and you have to get through a lot of background Ministry information and quite a lot of Forces jargon, and I initially thought that the amount of detailed & cross-referenced verification was spoiling what is a great true story. Don't be put off by this as it really does set the scene. You soon understand why it took Paddy Ashdown 2 years to write this book as the subject is very close to his heart because of his own involvement in the Special Forces. He is clearly determined to write the definitive record which will stand the test of time, with the most careful & accurate research, including the Marine Museum's records, German & French records & interviews with as many people who were involved as was possible. The tension builds slowly as you read the book with details of all the training etc & the description of the tensions involved in the actual raid & the subsequent escape stories make the book a great read. The definitive book on this daring raid and highly recommended!
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Picked this book up after going to a talk given by the former Liberal Democrat Leader where his passion for the Brilliant Little Operation (Operation Frankton) came out.

Ashdown looks upon himself now as primarily a writer and that's certainly a good thing because he manages to simplify a complex area of British military history with the story of the men who became known as the Cockleshell Heroes. Ashdown hammers through the story in a Boys Own style that never diminished the gravity of the subject. A big supporter of the operation which saw a dozen men paddle canoes 70 miles up the Gironde to blow up a German merchant fleet anchored in Bordeaux Harbour. The fact that they weren't entirely successful (only two made it back to England) and the fact they caused minimal damage to most of the vessels doesn't detract from the story.

Ashdown is firmly behind the raid but his prose does allow you to make your own judgement of whether this was a well planned, well drilled and successful operation or pretty much a pointless disaster. Above all the author strips away modern day views to take the reader back 70 years when "times were very different." This is where the real power of a very well written book comes over. A good start to 2013 for my reading.
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on 3 November 2012
Lord Ashdown has produced the most readable, well-researched and objective account of Operation Frankton. This is the definitive reconstruction of events, based on first-hand research. In "Cockleshell Heroes - The Final Witness", Quentin Rees provided much new information, but he wrote in a less accessible style (his book is, nevertheless, certainly worth reading). This is likely to be the "closing chapter" on an incredibly brave attempt by a small group of Royal Marines to influence the course of the war.

Paddy Ashdown's background as a Royal Marines officer and service in the SBS adds credibility to his analysis of the tactics and short-comings of the operation. In 2010, having kayaked the Frankton route, I met Lord Ashdown briefly outside the hotel in Ruffec where, in December 1942, Hasler and Sparks sought to contact the French Resistance. He mentioned that he was undertaking research for a book. It has been well worth the wait.
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on 14 December 2012
This book is much better than I thought it would be. It is very well written, thoroughly researched, and it reads like a thriller. Moreover, the elements of the story have been skilfully assembled.

The account is a mix of rigourous training, an operation that was relentlessly hazardous, an appalling lack of coordination between Combined Operations and SOE, raw courage, and an escape-and-evasion exercise that must have been particularly harrowing. The passages dealing with the teams' insertion by submarine, the terrifying conditions the canoeists had to endure, setting the mines, and how the fugitives moved through occupied territory are gripping. The final chapters are deeply poignant.

Let us salute Blondie Hasler and his men. And congratulate Paddy Ashdown, a former SBS officer.

As an aside, I have a very small personal interest; my father was in the (Army) Commandos (No 12/France and Norway, and No 5/Far East and Burma). His fighting-knife (these were made by Wilkinson Sword and designed by two Hong-Kong and Shanghai policemen called Fairburn and Sykes) lies just in front of me. He didn't know Blondie Hasler but certainly knew of him.

Given the context of the times and the circumstances, Frankton arguably remains the most impressive special forces operation of all-time.

A very good, and authoritative, book.
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on 5 February 2014
A very brave team from ‘Britain’s finest’ that truly deserves a place in British military history.
When I read the objective of the mission and the conditions under which they were to operate, I couldn’t help thinking that the odds of success were minimal and this was another ‘Bridge too far’ type of operation.

To be launched from a submarine, off a heavily guarded coast in freezing weather, with the most basic of survival equipment, was really pushing their luck. They had to penetrate deep into enemy territory with their overloaded flimsy canoes in the middle of winter. Furthermore they had to sleep eat and live in their canoes whilst remaining soaking wet throughout the mission. Back up or support was out of the question.

The success of the mission can be largely attributed to the leadership skills of Hasler combined with the courage, stamina and discipline of his men. Hasler had the unique advantage of small boat experience and sleeping under the stars from an early age. I almost believe he relished the opportunity to conduct this type of mission.

Having kayaked thousands of miles myself through some of the remotest places on earth I would not change places with these guys. Most of my kayaking has been is tropical areas where being wet and sleeping on river banks is more tolerable. With an abundance of sunshine, drying clothes was seldom a problem. I’ve slept in swamps and very uncomfortable places but this in no way compares with what Hasler’s team had to put up with. The occasional death threats to me were usually in the form of wild animals or violent river conditions. However, apart from the harsh living conditions Hasler’s team lived under, the constant threat of a bullet in the back of the neck must have been there. And of course the threats didn’t end with the canoeing mission. They had to get all the way to Spain, living on a shoe string, with the firing squads hunting them down. It’s not altogether surprising that only 2 of the team finally got through to safety.

It was good to read about the post war follow up trips to France to thank all those involved. Some of the resistance fighters and their families paid the ultimate price for providing food and accommodation to the team. We must carve their names with pride.
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on 6 October 2012
This is the story of Operation Frankton in 1942, a daring raid on Bordeaux harbour by a small number of men from Combined Operations also known as the Cockleshell raid led by Blondie Haslar. The hazards faced on the operation were immense from the start. Dropped by submarine in the open sea, strong tides that threatened their small canoes, laying mines and escape across the Pyrenees.
It was another mission during that phase of the war between Dunkirk and D-Day when Britain's only means of striking in the West was missions such as these organised by the likes of Combined Operations, led by Mountbatten. These ranged from the large raids such as Dieppe and the Loftgrun Islands to ones such as this which saw only 12 men from the Royal Marines attempt to canoe 6 Cocklshell canoes into a harbour and sink ships.
The odds against them were high, they were dropped from HMS Tuna on the 7th December off the coast and made their way up river before eventually reaching Bordeaux on the night of 11th/12th December after 4 days of lying up camouflaged, paddling by night. By this stage only 2 canoes were left, however these hour men laid enough mines to damage 9 ships. This relatively high loss of men was still less than one bomber crew for what could be argued to much greater effect.
The Germans had thought of harbours such as Bordeaux impregnable. Raids such as this led to a much heavier defence on the Western Wall and tied down a large number of troops who could have been put to greater use elsewhere.
After the raid, the escape plan had hoped for a link up with the Marie-Claire escape line, it is remarkable given how much thought and planning went into getting the Marines into Bordeaux, how littlw went into their escape. Only Haslar spoke French for example. This was after Hitler's Comando Order so they faced death if captured so could they have gone in civilian clothing which could aided escape and evasion but this was rejected as defeatist. They were to carry out the raid in uniform and then beg, borrow or steal civilian clothing.
This was a raid where the odds on survival are long and this is reflected in the fact that only two men made it back after a long journey overland to Spain on 1st March 1943 and flying back into Cornwall on 2nd April. Major Haslar was awarded the DSO and his fellow survivor Marine Sparks a DSM. 13 men were on HMS Tuna, 6 crews of 2 and a reserve, one canoe was damaged during disembarkation and the reserve was not needed, so 10 set off. 2 died of hypothermia, 6 were captured and shot and 2 made it home.
The author is Paddy Ashdown, former officer in the SBS and former leader of the Liberal Democrats. His writing style is easy to read, even after 400 odd pages! The book is nicely illustrated with both photos, illustrations and maps to compliment the text. It follows the mission from concept, to planning, through the execution and escape before finishing with the aftermath. This is obviously been a labour of love for Mr Ashdown as he quite freely admits to having been fascinated by this operation from his youth.
I enjoyed this book, knowing a little about the raid beforehand but this book is thoroughly researched and very well presented. I would recommend it for any reader with any interest in military history and especially those with an interest in special forces type operations. There is now even a walk in France, the Frankton Trail to commemorate the 100 miles that Haslar and Sparkes covered on foot from Blaye where the left their canoes to Ruffic where they contacted the Resistance. (being covered by some Royal Marines to fund-raise for the RBL Poppy Appeal this year, trying to cover the ground in the same times as the original escapers. [...] )
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on 16 June 2014
I recommend this book without reservation and consider any negative reviews an insult to the the detailed research of Ashdown and the bravery of the young men who trained for this unbelievable mission under their inspired leader Blondie Hasler. As a war-time baby, my parents, relatives and teachers never talked about the war, especially to children. It's only recently that books, such as 'A Brilliant Little Operation', uncover the true stories of political intrigues, secret organisations and astonishing courage of 'ordinary' people who fought against a common enemy for their families and their mates.. Ashdown tells the story clearly with a mixture of honest admiration, outrage and incisiveness. The reader is left helpless with admiration for the dedication of those involved with this operation. The tragedy is that war-time babies who grew up safely in a free country are not able to thank those who risked and lost their lives for our futures. Thank you is not enough.
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on 18 January 2016
This book was fabulous. Bobby Ewart was my Father's cousin so I was brought up on the story and had seen the old British film. I was given his surname as my middle name and am so proud of that. However this book went into much further details after more facts and documents were released which really told the true story of the bravery of these young men. It is astounding the feat and things they achieved and the tragedy that those in power botched many things that could have saved their lives.
I would highly recommend this book and more people should know these stories of the tremendous bravery of British and French people in the war.
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on 11 April 2014
This is a thorough and well researched book. Paddy Ashdown adds a bit of insight, being an ex-marine. A good read for WW2 students. Needs better and bigger maps and charts, as they are hard to read. I hope he can persuade the Royal Marine Museum, Eastley to display the canoes they have, as there was nothing when I visited a couple of years ago. A guide apologised, saying they were in a store room upstairs!
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on 16 October 2012
I have just finished this book, thoroughly enjoyed it. Lots of interesting detail, particularly the events after the actual raid. The bravery of the ordinary French people in shielding the marines and the incredible luck Hasler and Sparks had in their escape was fascinating. The shameful behavour of our rival secret organisations at the time was quite rightly exposed, with a bit of co-operation more of the marines may have made it back.
All in all a very well researched and written book.
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