Firefighter pays tribute to Cockleshell Heroes on 80th anniversary

It was one of the most daring missions of World War II – and from today a West Yorkshire firefighter will be joining in a tribute to a group of brave marines, nicknamed the Cockleshell Heroes.

WYFRS Cockleshell Heroes

As part of the 80th anniversary firefighter Kris Whitworth will spend the next few days retracing the route taken by the marines – which includes Halifax’s David Moffatt, who died during the operation in December 1942.

Operation Frankton saw ten marines damage six enemy ships in the port of Bordeux after paddling in kayaks for five nights. The canoes they used were the Mark II model, nicknamed ‘cockleshells’ as they were semi-rigid with a flat bottom and canvas sides.

Under the cover of darkness they planted a total of 16 limpet mines on the ships and then made for land and began the hike to Spain. Today (December 2nd) the ten ex-servicemen will begin their tribute by retracing the route, kayaking up the Gironde estuary at night, and then walking the same path the two survivors used to escape.

Kris, who was a Royal Marine Commando before joining West Yorkshire Fire and Rescue Service (WYFRS), said he volunteered to take part in the event for several reasons – including overcoming his own fears. “When I was training in the marines I was in a canoe and nearly drowned,” said Kris, 50, who is based at Illingworth fire station. “Since then I’ve been nervous about going in a canoe again and so I’m hoping this challenge will help me overcome those fears. 

“Being a former Royal Marine and from Halifax I volunteered for this anniversary challenge and was thrilled when they selected me to participate. The challenge will see us retrace the raid of December 1942 and we have the backing of some incredible organisations.”

Kris, from Boothtown, said Operation Frankton led wartime Prime Minister Winston Churchhill to say the mission shortened the war by six months.

“Through research, I found that one of the founder members who took part was from West Yorkshire,” said Kris. “This was David Moffatt and he lived in the Wheatley area of Halifax – within my very own Calderdale District. Unfortunately, David, along with some of his comrades, never enjoyed the triumph of this operation as his kayak capsized and he drowned - his body washed ashore.

“Had he lived, he would have had to endure kayaking 90 miles in treacherous tidal conditions through mined and guarded fortifications. He would have then had to plant explosives on ships under enemy noses, before having to make way through enemy territory for a further 100 miles overland to Spain.

“To be able to replicate this mission we have used similar kayaks to the ones they used and we have been training in a number of locations along the British coast in a bid to recreate similar conditions to the ones they had in France. We will be kayaking overnight for five nights and then walk a 100-mile extraction route from Blaye to Ruffec over four days. This is now known as The Frankton Trail and we have been told people are preparing to meet us along this route and help us mark the 80th anniversary of this incredible mission. The interest and support we have had from so many people has been amazing.”

Kris said he is hoping his participation in the challenge will lead to a plaque or statue being installed in Halifax as a memorial to Marine Moffatt. “As part of the 80th anniversary a committee at Calderdale Council is discussing appropriate ways to recognise David Moffatt,” said Kris. “We know that the team were all volunteers and were aware how hazardous the mission was, they knew there was a good chance they would die. These incredible men deserve to be recognised for their bravery.”

Cockleshell-22 held a farewell event on Friday 2nd December in Portsmouth to include VIP guests and The Royal Marines Band. They headed to France and you can follow their progress here:

The team want to raise as much money as charities – here are details for donating: