Paddy Ashdown: 'I’ve paddled ashore from submarines. I know how it feels’
In his new book, Lord Ashdown – former SBS officer and Royal Marine – pays tribute to the Cockleshell Heroes who took part in one of World War Two’s most daring raids
Photo: JANE MINGAY
By Cole Moreton
Have you ever killed a man? “I’m not going to say,” answers Lord Ashdown, standing by his study window, looking at the street below. “These are not things to talk about.”
The former Liberal Democrat leader was once a member of the secretive and deadly Special Boat Service, so it seems fair to persist.
He is bringing out a new book on the so-called Cockleshell Heroes, who carried out one of the most daring raids of the Second World War — and Paddy Ashdown writes about their exploits like someone who knows what he is talking about, from experience.
“The motto of the SBS in my day was 'Not by strength, but by guile’,” he says, turning back to me. “The technique was not to be seen. Rely on concealment. If you got discovered, you were dead.”
At 71 he still looks like a military man, even in jeans and an open-necked shirt. Lord Ashdown squints as if staring into the sun, scanning the horizon for an enemy, but then he has always done that. It is part of the personal legend of a tough guy who rescued his party from electoral oblivion and was then sent to Bosnia by the United Nations to win the peace. He laughs when I remind him that a colleague once said he was the only trained killer in the House of Commons. But he doesn’t deny the training.
“You only killed someone as a last resort.”
He writes about the Cockleshell Heroes with great empathy, but with even greater admiration.
“What they did was, by a factor of 10, maybe 50, more courageous, more dangerous and more extraordinary than anything I ever did,” he says carefully. “But yes, I paddled ashore in canoes from submarines in the middle of the night, so I know what it’s like.”
The secret unit was the first set up to use canoes as a weapon of war. Ten men set off from the submarine HMS Tuna on the night of December 7, 1942, in five specially built canoes.
The aim was to paddle five miles across the open sea, then 70 miles up the Gironde estuary to Bordeaux. There they would lay limpet mines to destroy as many ships as possible, disrupting a port that was crucial to the Germans.
This would mean evading capture and beating terrifying odds. The Marines knew from the start that it was probably a suicide mission.
One canoe capsized when they reached the mouth of the river. The leader of the raid, Major Herbert “Blondie” Hasler, and the others tried at first to take the two stricken crew members close to shore, letting them cling to the remaining boats.
“On the submarine Blondie had told them, 'Anyone who gets separated must fend for himself. The operation goes on,’ ” says Ashdown. “But when the moment came, he couldn’t do it.”
An hour later there was no choice. Hasler had to tell the men to swim for it, knowing that this meant their death. The passage in which they shake hands and say goodbye is one of the most moving in the book.
“Inevitably in command you are torn between the operation, which has to succeed, and your men whom you love and admire,” says Ashdown. “I was never required to sacrifice any of my men, but Blondie was. I know the turmoil that was going on in his brain.”
Four more men were captured and executed before they could get to Bordeaux. Four made it into the port under cover of darkness and attached limpet mines with nine-hour fuses to merchant ships. They made off on the tide, but two were captured and shot.
That left just Major Hasler and his crewmate Corporal Bill Sparks to make their way on foot through occupied France to Spain.
Ashdown writes beautifully about the two men, who were worlds apart socially, lying huddled together against the cold for hours. “I have spent long days lying up with a Number Two and getting grumpy with him because of his personal habits,” he says. “And he with me, no doubt.”
Jeremy “Paddy” Ashdown was the eldest son of an army officer. He was given his nickname at an English school, after being brought up at first in Northern Ireland. Ashdown joined the Royal Marines as a teenager and served in Borneo before being recruited by the elite SBS.
His book was inspired by a chance encounter on a train in 1965. As we sit in his London home, a tidy period townhouse in Kennington, he sets the scene. “Here I am, a young, newly trained SBS officer, and I’ve been doing the Devizes to Westminster canoe race,” he tells me. “That is 125 miles non-stop, with 77 locks, so I’m exhausted, going back to base. Before I collapse into sleep, I notice the only other person in the carriage observing me closely. But what the hell, I pull my parachute smock round me and fall asleep.”
The train jolts to a halt. “I wake up. He starts questioning me, in a gentle and polite way but becoming quite intrusive. 'You’re a Royal Marine, I presume? SBS, I imagine?’ I say, 'Look, it’s secret. Unless you’re entitled to know, I’m not going to tell you.’ ”
In his book, Ashdown describes himself at that moment as “pompous and irritable”. He and the stranger sat in awkward silence for the rest of the journey.
“A friend of mine bounded up to me afterwards and said, 'What was he like?’ I said, 'Who?’ He said, 'That was Blondie Hasler!’ I hadn’t seen a photograph of him, but he was part of the legend of the Marines. That was my opportunity to meet one of my heroes, and I was rude to him.”
Ashdown describes Hasler as the founder of the SBS and the man who established its ethos. “It’s the silent service. Everybody knows about the SAS. Nobody knows about the SBS. There have been many successful operations, such as in Afghanistan, after which people have said, 'Oh, that was the SAS.’ No, it wasn’t.”
Ashdown signed up after seeing friends killed in Borneo: “One attraction was that the SBS appeared to be about using your brains and your skill rather than just brute force.”
He served in the Far East. “Oddly enough,” he says, he became a Liberal in the SBS after realising that those under his command were “much better men” than he. “You know these guys. They have probably saved your life, and you may have saved theirs. If you go diving under a 20,000-ton aircraft carrier in the middle of the night, grubbing around for a place to put your limpet mine, you’ve got a buddy on a line attached to your wrist. You can’t see a bloody thing but your life depends on your buddy and his depends on you.”
The book marks the 70th anniversary of Operation Frankton, otherwise known as the Cockleshell Heroes raid, and was written using previously unopened files in the National Archive.
“They expose a shocking level of deceit and interdepartmental rivalry on the part of those in London who sent the Marines off on a mission that may never have been necessary,” says Ashdown.
The Special Operations Executive never mentioned that it was already running an operation to sabotage the ships, with safe houses in the town. “Two Marines walked within half a mile of a safe house on their way to getting captured and shot.”
The Germans called it “the outstanding commando raid of the war” but what did it achieve? “Militarily, not much but in strategic terms, a lot. The Germans became nervous about their ports. It dented their sense of supremacy and gave a boost to the spirit of resistance within France.”
It remained a secret here until publication in the early Fifties of a book called Cockleshell Heroes. The film of the book was popular but was also a travesty of the raid, Ashdown says.
“Blondie Hasler was desperate for money and agreed to act as an adviser, but he was so disgusted by the outcome that he slipped off to France to get p----d rather than attend the royal gala performance. The Queen turned up, but Blondie sent his mum.”
Major Hasler was restless after the war. Captain Ashdown left the SBS for the Secret Service, then became an MP. As a man of action, did he find politics frustrating?
“No, I loved my time in politics,” he replies. “Even now, I can’t get my fingers out of the pie.”
The military ethos obliges him to defend his party leader, although Ashdown insists that he does so “with enthusiasm”. But his mind is mostly on writing more about the war now, for personal reasons.
“The book was a labour of love. I wanted to pay homage to the Cockleshell Heroes but also to the blokes I served with,” he says. “They were the finest men you could ever meet.”
'A Brilliant Little Operation’ by Paddy Ashdown (Aurum, £25) is available from Telegraph books for £20 + £2.50 p&p. Call 0844 871 1514 or visit books.telegraph.co.uk
Source: The Daily Telegraph, London, UK.