BBC Two Cockleshell Heroes research reveals "tangled web of rivalry and competition"

By Culture24 Reporter | 01 November 2011
  • Archived article
A photo of a man standing on a beach smiling
Dr Tom Keene, of Plymouth University, takes a look at the Gironde river in Bordeaux, where the Cockleshell Heroes took part in an incredible mission in December 1942
New research suggesting that the famed Cockleshell Heroes of World War II may have died unnecessarily will form part of a documentary on BBC2.

Dr Tom Keene, a Plymouth University graduate who researched the treacherous raid on Bordeaux as part of his PhD, believes that the 12 Royal Marine canoeists who destroyed enemy shipping in 1942 were not informed that special agents were also planning an attack at the behest of Winston Churchill on the same night.

The Marines from Combined Operations failed to liaise with their allies from the Special Operations Executive because of “a cult of obsessive secrecy”, according to Keene.

“This discovery was central to my thesis,” he says. “Had the two allied units co-operated as they were supposed to, the raid might never have been mounted.”

“During the course of his research Tom uncovered a tangled web of rivalry and competition between the different elements which made up British Intelligence during the Second World War,” says Professor Harry Bennett, of the university.

"His findings create a new and disturbing context for the Cockleshell Hero raid and raise difficult questions about whether the lives of brave men were needlessly lost.”

Only two of the 12 participants survived in a daring swoop on cargo ships on one of Europe’s most fortified estuaries. The 70-mile navigation has gained legendary status, and its leader, Major Herbert George 'Blondie' Hasler, is feted as one of the heroes of the war.

Hasler is renowned for telling would-be enlistees: “You do realise, if you join my unit your expectations of a long life are very remote?”

Former Liberal Democrats leader and Royal Marine Paddy Ashdown will present the hour-long BBC programme, which recreates part of the operation.

Keene and Ashdown have collaborated on a book, A Brilliant Little Raid, coming out next year to mark the 70th anniversary of the attack.

  • The Most Courageous Raid of WWII is on BBC Two at 9pm tonight (November 1 2011).
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