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David Moffatt (1920 - 1942):
Royal Marine Commando

David Gabriel Moffatt was a marine commando, member of what now is called a Special Forces team which undertook one of the most daring behind-the-lines raids during World War Two. 

David Gabriel Moffatt was born at 97 Butler Street, Crumlin Road, Belfast, son of John and Elizabeth Moffatt. Although he was from a Yorkshire family, his Belfast mother pointedly travelled home for the birth of each of her children to ensure their Belfast roots were held as strongly as possible. The family had emigrated to Nova Scotia, Canada, where David joined the Scouts, in the 15th Halifax troop at St Joseph & St Bernard’s Church, Boothtown. Early in the war he joined the Mercantile Marine but soon volunteered for more audacious, hence more dangerous, service as a Royal Marine Commando. 

By mid-1942 the war was not progressing well for the Allies, not least in the Mediterranean and Atlantic theatres. In 1940, to general astonishment, the Germans had militarily overrun the French forces in a mere six weeks and one result of this was their total control of the French coasts and their impressive, strategically well-positioned ports. One of these was Bordeaux which was soon established as a major maritime hub for the Germans, though which passed a considerable tonnage of vital war matériel. The conundrum facing the allies (in effect, the British) was how to interdict this shipping at source. Earlier in 1942 a frontal, amphibious assault had been launched at Dieppe on the northern French coast; the assault was little short of a disaster for the British. An open naval assault was then considered too high a risk until the successful mass invasions of June 1944. However, the British throughout the war put much effort into running “special” operations, espionage, sabotage, and commando raids involving small but expert personnel who would carry out what were hit-and-run raids; these were very limited in what they could achieve but so enraged Hitler that he issued a special order (Führerbefehl), that members of such forces, if captured, were to be “executed” at once. 

Much commando activity was co-ordinated by Combined Operations Command which decided on a daring plan to attack German shipping in situ, right in the middle of Bordeaux port with its heavily-guarded approaches. The plan was to launch 12 canoes, or kayaks, at the mouth of the Gironde River, from where the raiders would paddle some 65 miles by night, resting hidden by day, upstream into the harbour and attach limpet mines. This was a very successful weapon, developed by Cecil Clarke, whose special grenade had been used to assassinate Reinhard Heydrich, the “Reich Protector of Bohemia and Moravia”. The limpet mine, in conception a very simple idea, was mass-produced in tens of thousands, and used to destroy a wide range of targets such as factories in the Balkans, or merchant shipping in  Greece. 

The plan was named “Operation Frankton” and was under the field command of Irishman Major Herbert George “Blondie” Hasler (born in Dublin in 1914). He had founded the Royal Marine Boom Patrol Detachment and advertised for “volunteers for hazardous service”. Frankton was certainly hazardous: apart from canoeing such a distance upstream, with no provision for “extraction”; instead the volunteers were vaguely expected to find their ways to neutral Spain. Furthermore, they were well aware of the Hitler “Commando Order”. Another of the volunteers, also an Irishman from Dublin, Sergeant Samuel Wallace quipped that if captured he would tell the Germans he, as Irish, was from a neutral country so would have to be treated accordingly.

The original plan was to launch six canoes, hence 12 men in total but last-minute damage meant that one canoe was unusable. The remaining canoes pressed on nevertheless with the mission facing non-military maritime hazards, (apart from the dangers of detection by the considerable German military forces deployed especially to protect their naval bases), such as tidal wash and rapids. Moffatt and his co-canoeist George Sheard were capsized by the latter such and although they were towed in the water for a time by Hasler and his companion Bill Sparks it soon became clear that this was no solution and that Moffatt and Sheard would have to take their chances swimming to shore. They had in effect no chance and failed to survive, dying of hypothermia; Moffatt’s body was washed up on Plage de Gros Joncs, Ile de Ré, off the coast near La Rochelle and quite some distance from Bordeaux; his body was found by a local teenager. In fact, only Hasler and Sparks – one canoe out of the original six – survived the daunting journey to the target where they were able to place their limpet mines on enemy maritime targets, oil tankers and cargo ships, sinking several. (Hasler was to survive the war by several decades and spend part of his time searching for the Loch Ness Monster.) The other six canoeists either drowned or made it to shore but were captured and duly shot according to the Führerbefehl. Hasler and Sparks eventually managed to reach, on foot, neutral Spain – the only escape route at all originally planned. 

Despite the 80% fatal casualty rate the raid was considered by the British a notable success and its commandos came to be known as the “Cockleshell Heroes”, a reference to the size and fragility of the canoes as well as an amateurish element to the operation. (Hasler was said to disapprove of this expression.) Winston Churchill, no less, estimated that the raid shortened the war by six months. Lord Louis Mountbatten, senior Royal Navy figure and at the time Chief of Combined Operations Command, later wrote that “of all the many and dashing raids carried out by the men of Combined Operations Command, none was more courageous or imaginative than Operation Frankton.” This tribute stands carved into a Purbeck stone at Royal Marines Poole, current headquarters of the Special Boat Service. 

The raid and to a lesser extent its raiders had their fame underscored by the 1956 cinema release, with a strong cast, of “The Cockleshell Heroes”. This was a commercial and popular success, one of the top ten UK films of the year. Though covering the essential events, it was rather (some say highly) fictionalised (names were changed for example, though this was common with World War II-set films of the time) and had a final scene perhaps in slightly questionable taste for a modern (2020) viewer. This juxtaposes images of the Heroes as depicted in the film, with a soundtrack playing the upbeat nineteenth-century sea shanty, Sargent and Russell’s “A Life on the Ocean Wave”; however, this was a march popular with the Royal Marines, and another was produced especially for the film by prominent musician Lieutenant-Colonel F Vivian Dunn, Director of Music, Royal Marines, and named after the film. The rest of the musical soundtrack was the work of leading film music composer John Addison.

Hasler quit his role as technical advisor during filming and disapproved no less of a proposed book on the raid. One of the leading actors in the film always disparaged it in his later years, though other cast members were always very positive about it. According to “The Hollywood Reporter” in September 1956, it was the first non-German war film to be screened in West Germany. 

The escape route taken by Hasler and Sparks, the only survivors of the raid, is commemorated by the “Frankton Trail”, maintained by the Royal Marines Commandos and the French Association Bagheera des Anciens Parachutistes. 

On 1 November 2007 memorials to Moffatt and Sheard were installed at the Cemetery of Le Bois Plage, near where Moffatt's washed-up body had been found. The teenager who had found that of Moffatt was in attendance. On 15 December 2007, a ceremony was held at Halifax, England, at which the Mayor of Calderdale held a re-dedication ceremony with the War Memorial Book being amended to amend a previous entry showing him as MM (Mercantile Marine) now amended to commemorate him as a Royal Navy Marine. Moffatt is also commemorated on the Plymouth Naval Memorial.


Born: 22 November 1920
Died: 8 December 1942
Richard Froggatt

Maud Hamill, Chris Spurr


Quentin Rees: Cockleshell Heroes: The Final Witness (Amberley, 2010);; Irish Independent, 8 January 2011; Paddy Ashdown: A Brilliant Little Operation: The Cockleshell Heroes and the Most Courageous Raid of World War 2, (2012); Irish Roots; www;