Last week I briefly mentioned the events that followed Operation Frankton, promising to set them in the context of rural Charente.
Put briefly, Operation Frankton was a commando raid on the port of Bordeaux in early December 1942, carried out by a small unit of Royal Marines. Six folding kayaks were transported to the Gironde estuary by submarine. The plan was that a dozen hand-picked men would paddle overnight to Bordeaux where they would attack the docked German cargo ships with limpet mines, before escaping overland to Spain. One kayak was damaged while being deployed from the submarine and its two-man crew could not take part in the mission. The raid was considered a success, with five German vessels being damaged by mines. It was also a considerable propaganda blow. But only two of the 10 marines survived the raid: the leader, Major Herbert “Blondie” Hasler, and his no. 2 in the kayak, Bill Sparks. Of the other eight, six were executed by the Germans, whilst two died from hypothermia.
The 1955 film Cockleshell Heroes, based loosely – very loosely – on the real operation – starred Trevor Howard and José Ferrer (a Puerto Rican!).
Note the blonde Charentais, added for marketing purposes, to be sure
I like this poster for the German language version, excitingly named Himmelfahrtskommando (= suicide mission).
Rather than make their way directly south to Spain (and thence to Gibraltar), Hasler and Sparks set off north-east towards the small town of Ruffec, 100 miles away, where they knew they would get help from the Resistance. The late Paddy Ashdown describes their miserable trek in his book A Brilliant Little Operation. It’s clear from his description of Charentais villages that he had travelled the route himself (in fact, in August 2010).
Hasler and Sparks trudged at night across muddy, minor country roads from Saint-Même in the Charente valley: hillier than it seems when you are driving a car, and also a lot tougher in the middle of winter, in the dark, soaked, half-starved and pursued by the German Army. Anne’s father, David, read Ashdown’s book and we realised that they must have walked to within a couple of miles of our house in La Bréchoire.
The village of Vaux-Rouillac lies in an attractive setting on the edge of an escarpment. From here they walked north to the hamlet of Le Temple, on the outskirts on Rouillac (an important town by Charentais standards and a major centre for Cognac production). Ashdown says there was a minor railway line passing south of it – long gone. (He also says that soon this would become the centre of a 10-square mile parachute landing site and reception area).
Hasler and Sparks spent the night in a rat-infested railway hut then headed up towards Montigné, another hamlet.
From there they arrived at tiny Bonneville, on the outskirts of Gourville – which has the remains of a medieval castle and, more significantly, was at the time a German Army base.
An information board was erected a few years ago. Here it is with Anne and David.
As Ashdown says, this part of the country is not unlike Salisbury Plain or the south Dorset hills. They ascended to the next village, Mons (as the name suggests), on a hill which is the most prominent landmark for miles.
Owing to road works we couldn’t precisely follow their way to Saint-Fraigne but managed to get there by a tortuous route. Here’s the war memorial and fine church, noted for its (modern) stained-glass windows.
After Saint-Fraigne, they went through or past Beaunac, Souvigné, Raix and Veillemorte and so to Ruffec.
… where the Swastika once flew over the Hôtel de Ville, as you can make out on the cover of this very interesting and illuminating book on the right.
The two disguised and filthy marines presented themselves at a local restaurant, La Toque Blanche (which still exists), and in a scene reminiscent of ‘Allo ‘Allo!, had to hang around drinking wine until the last German soldier had departed. Were they genuinely British or was it a trap? A local doctor, who had spent some time in London, declared Sparks’s Cockney accent as genuine, since it was impossible to imitate!
They were then inserted into the Marie-Claire escape line
From Ruffec they were hidden in a van and driven to an isolated farmhouse at Mariaud near Saint-Coutant. We were taken there by our friends Jane and Mike, who live nearby. It would be very difficult to find otherwise.
Another information board marks the spot. The key point about Saint-Coutant is that it was east of the demarkation line that separated Occupied France from so-called Free (i.e. Vichy) France. For the first time they were beyond the area under direct German military control. They eventually found their way back to England via Lyons, Marseille, Perpignan, across the Pyrenees to Barcelona, Madrid and Gibraltar (reached on 1 April 1943). In other circumstances, a pleasant holiday itinerary!
Because of its geographical position, Charente, normally as sleepy a French department as can be imagined, was far from being so during the Second World War. There are few people today who can remember life under the German Occupation, but some elderly inhabitants certainly do and clearly very bad things did happen. I regret that when we first bought our house 20 years ago I wasn’t able to ask more questions. But would they have wanted to talk to us about it?