By the late 1930s, paddlers in Europe had discovered the joys of running whitewater rivers but kayaking’s pivotal move, the roll, had yet to really take root. And although this series is supposed to be on the evolution of whitewater kayaking as a leisure pursuit, Colonel Blondie Hasler was neither at leisure nor on whitewater as we know it when the hour came upon him to lead what is now thought of as the most audacious small-scale raid of the Second World War.
By Steffan Meyric Hughes.
The year 1942 was not a good one in Britain. The brief ‘phoney’ war of 1939, followed by Operation Dynamo (the ‘miracle of Dunkirk’ in 1940), then the Battle of Britain, had seen Britain by turns passive, gloriously defensive and heroic.
By 1942 though, things seemed bleak, with German submarines decimating British supply convoys in the Battle of the Atlantic and perhaps a creeping suspicion that Germany might prove to be a superior foe, not least because of her stronghold over the port of Bordeaux, in Nazi-occupied France. Control of Bordeaux, on Europe’s greatest estuary, the Gironde, meant being in continuous receipt of the goods that were fuelling the German war effort.
On an unusually cold night in December 1942, Hasler, with nine other paddlers in five commando K2s, were dropped by submarine in the icy black vastness of the Gironde Estuary, with the mission to paddle undetected and upriver for 90 miles or more to Bordeaux, deploy limpet mines on German ships, then escape overland to Spain. The mission was successful but suicidal: only Hasler and Bill Sparks survived, with six men facing execution and two dying of hypothermia after capsizing.
The story of their heroism is well known, but let’s consider their exploits from a paddling point of view. Among the challenges must have been the feeling of sheer exposure, and the navigation, which was achieved by leadline and compass, in often turbulent waters under cover of darkness. Equipment was laughable by today’s standards. The Cockle Mark IIs, as they were known, designed and built with Hasler’s input, were hard-bottomed, semi-collapsible skin boats of 16ft in length and 28.5in wide, in order to fit though a submarine’s forward loading hatch for deployment. This is not unusually narrow, but Hasler and his men were not skilled paddlers in the way we understand that term today.
Their paddles were a full 9ft (274cm) long. Equipped with the limpet mines and other equipment, they were very heavily laden. The men’s clothing was woeful and even included ‘denim trousers’ – jeans, one assumes. They had rudimentary spraydecks, but these spraydecks lived up to their name in the sense that they were purely to deflect airborne spray, of which there would have been plenty.
The men’s training had focused on endurance and stealth, but no record is made of any knowledge of stability strokes like the high and low brace. In any case, the boats are of a shape that would have been very unforgiving in the rough, with flat bottoms and a very angular chine. In the event, the men encountered tidal overfalls that they had underestimated, with turbulent water up to five feet in height, causing the capsize of the kayak Conger, with Sheard and Moffatt suffering capsize and subsequent death by hypothermia. It was a scene that would tragically repeat itself to some degree in the fated school canoeing trip in Lyme Bay in 2003, when four teenagers drowned.
Reading Paddy Ashdown’s book on Operation Frankton, as it was codenamed, reveals a tale of unimaginable fortitude, while Ewen Southby Tailyour’s biography, Blondie, paints a picture of a serious, focused man from an ordinary background in a the privileged officer-class world of the Second World War. He was something of a loner and though incredibly tough, was never directly aggressive, not showing a great propensity for boxing, for example. In that respect, like MacGregor, he can claim to be part of the DNA of today’s paddlers, as well as one of the greatest heroes of the Second World War.
The legacy of Blondie and his men to recreational paddling has been felt, indirectly, in the annual Devizes to Westminster Race, in which many military personnel have raced over the years. Blondie himself went on to found solo transoceanic yacht racing in 1960 by proposing the first OSTAR; he was also the founding father of the modern SBS (Special Boat Service).