You love your folding kayak for its portability, performance capabilities and the freedom it gives you. It’s for those same reasons the British Royal Marines used folding kayaks for a top secret mission during the second world war.
On November 30, 1942, the HMS Tuna set sail in secrecy from Holy Loch in Scotland, just outside of Glasgow, for France’s Bay of Biscay. The port, located in the Gironde estuary, was a major destination for much of the supplies that supported the German war effort. As such, the port was heavily guarded and patrolled– and a prime target for the Allied forces.
The top secret mission was scheduled to begin on December 6, but bad, stormy weather and an aquatic minefield detained the naval submarine, delaying the mission a full day. By December 7, the HMS Tuna had reached the Gironde and surfaced roughly 10 miles from the mouth of the estuary.
On the deck of the naval submarine, five folding kayaks were assembled. By nightfall, 12 Marines would paddle the vessels all night, stopping only five minutes per every hour to rest. By the end of the raid, there would only be two survivors.
During the night, one of the five kayaks disappeared, most likely due to strong cross tides and cross winds. The remaining four kayaks suffered through five foot waves, until another of the kayaks was capsized and lost.
Despite their losses, the three remaining vessels carried on, their Marines paddling over 20 miles in five hours. Upon reaching St. Vivien du Medoc, a town along the estuary, the three kayaks and their crew each took shelter during the day. One crew was captured, leaving only two folding kayaks and their crews to complete the mission.
During the second night, the remaining vessels paddled 22 miles in six hours. During the third, the kayaks covered 15 miles, and on the fourth night the boats covered nine miles.
On the eve of December 11, the Gironde was flat and calm. The sky was clear. The British Marines began placing limpet mines on the shipping vessels docked at the port late in the night on December 11 and finished while the sky was still dark on December 12. Though almost caught by German soldiers, the kayak’s camouflaging kept the marines from detection. After attaching as many limpet mines to enemy ships as possible, the two surviving marines escaped to a small town in France, where they hid for 18 days until escaping to Spain.
British Prime Minister Winston Churchill believed the mission shortened World War II by six months. Admiral Mountbatten, commander of Combined Operations, considered the raid the most courageous and imaginative of all carried out by members of the Combined Operations.
A fictionalized version of this story was told in the film The Cockleshell Heroes.