This article was first published in the October 2012 issue of BBC History Magazine
Herbert george ‘Blondie’ Hasler is most famous for leading the ‘Cockleshell heroes’ in Operation Frankton, a daring commando raid on the French port of Bordeaux in December 1942. Ten Royal Marines undertook the treacherous task of canoeing up the Gironde estuary and planting limpet mines on German ships in the port. Of the ten men, only two made it back to Britain alive – escaping over the Pyrenees to neutral Spain – one of them Blondie Hasler.
When did you first hear about Blondie Hasler?
The question should really be, when did I first meet Blondie Hasler? I bumped into him on a train, shortly after completing my Special Boat Service (SBS) training in the early sixties. I was slumped in my seat trying to fight sleep when a distinguished-looking gentleman with a blonde moustache sat opposite me suddenly asked me if I was in the SBS. That was, of course, information that I couldn’t divulge!
A friend later told me that this man was Blondie Hasler. I was stunned. After all, Hasler had long been my hero, and has remained so ever since.
What was Hasler’s finest hour?
It was undoubtedly heading the Cockleshell heroes’ raid on Bordeaux. He and nine other men paddled 70 miles through an area swarming with enemy troops to plant mines on German ships. Six men were caught and shot, two died of hypothermia – and the raid only caused limited damage to the ships in the harbour. However, it’s still been described as the outstanding commando raid of the conflict. Why?
It put a huge dent in German morale, and it provided a significant stimulus to the French resistance.
What the raid also did was provide a template for future SBS operations – this was the first time that British special forces had been used for strategic purposes (attacking Germany’s blockade runners was undoubtedly a key strategic aim). Most people in the SBS regard this as the founding event in their service.
What kind of person was Hasler?
What he wasn’t was a boy’s own, muscle-bound, gung ho military obsessive. In fact, he abhorred violence. That’s why the special forces appealed to him, for they rely more on guile than overwhelming force. In some ways, Hasler was quite a vulnerable character. He was always worrying whether his courage would fail him and he would never ask his men to do something he hadn’t done himself.
What made Hasler a hero?
His ability to take ordinary men – one was a milkman from the Wirral, another a coal merchant from Glasgow – and give them the skills and the confidence to do extraordinary things. He was a leader who could bring out the best in his men.
Can you see any parallels between his life and your own?
I was a Royal Marine for 11 years, but I’ve done lots of other things outside of the military, and so did Hasler. He produced a play, wrote poetry and was an accomplished sailor and draughtsman – he even invented the first practical self-steering gear for yachts. So we both pursued plenty of interests outside the Marines. Having said that, he was an incomparably better man than me.
Is there anything you don’t particularly admire about Hasler?
He wasn’t a very jolly, sociable person. He had few close friends – and, unless you were very close to him, you never got to know the real Blondie Hasler. He also kept quite a distance from his men. I get the impression that he wasn’t loved as much as he was respected.
If you could meet Hasler (again), what would you ask him?
I’d like to ask him, what was it like to spend an entire day in a field with no cover, 150 yards from a German gun position. It’s pouring with rain, there’s only two of you left and you can’t move for hours for fear of being shot. How did that feel?
Paddy Ashdown was talking to Spencer Mizen
Paddy Ashdown served for the Royal Marines and the Special Boat Service before being elected MP for Yeovil in 1983. He was leader of the Liberal Democrats from 1988 until 1999. His new book on the Cockleshell heroes, A Brilliant Little Operation, has just been published by Aurum Press. He presented a Timewatch documentary on the Cockleshell heroes in 2011 on BBC Two