The Cockleshell Heroes

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The Cockleshell Heroes
The Cockleshell Heroes.jpg
US cinema poster
Directed by José Ferrer
Produced by Phil C. Samuel
Screenplay by Bryan Forbes
Richard Maibaum
Story by George Kent
Starring José Ferrer
Trevor Howard
Music by John Addison
Cinematography John Wilcox
Edited by Alan Osbiston
Distributed by Columbia Pictures
Release dates
  • 16 November 1955 (1955-11-16) (UK)
Running time
97 minutes[1]
Country United Kingdom
Language English

The Cockleshell Heroes is a 1955 British war film with Trevor Howard, Anthony Newley, David Lodge and José Ferrer, who also directed. Set during the Second World War, it is a fictionalised account of Operation Frankton, the December 1942 raid by canoe-borne British commandos on shipping in Bordeaux Harbour. It was the first Warwick Film to be filmed in CinemaScope.


Original cockleshell canoe

Ferrer plays newly promoted Major Stringer of the Royal Marines, who comes up with a novel idea for a raid. By using collapsible canoes, he believes it is possible for commandos to reach an enemy-held harbour undetected and blow up ships with limpet mines. He is given command of a small group of volunteers.

However, he clashes with his veteran second-in-command, cynical, by-the-book Captain Hugh Thompson (Trevor Howard). The two officers represent the clash of cultures in the Royal Marines in World War II and postwar. Stringer is the enthusiastic promoter of commando operations requiring daring and initiative, but has no experience leading men or operations. Thompson represents the old guard of traditional ship's detachments. Sergeant Craig (Victor Maddern) trains the men following Stringer's directions, but Thompson strongly disapproves of his commander's lax methods. When a test mission ends disastrously, Stringer admits his mistake and turns to Thompson, who soon whips the marines into shape.

Ruddock (David Lodge), one of the men, goes AWL due to marital problems. Thompson gets to Ruddock's wife first and finds her with her civilian lover, but leaves when they both insult him. He goes to the local pub for a drink and finds the missing Marine. Thompson gives Ruddock enough time to beat up his wife's paramour, then drives him back to camp.

The raid is launched soon afterwards: the canoes and commandos transported to the mouth of the Gironde by submarine. As they arrive off the Gironde estuary a depth charge attack by a passing German patrol boat knocks out Ruddock's partner. Thompson, who was not supposed to go on the raid, volunteers to take his place. The raiders then disembark and begin their attack. They face seventy miles of paddling upriver in their Cockle Mk II canoes. After moving by night and hiding by day, only four men reach the target, where they plant limpet mines on a number of ships.

The raid is successful, but only Stringer and one marine manage to escape. The rest are captured. When Thompson and the other prisoners refuse to divulge what their mission was, they are shot by firing squad, but not before hearing the mines explode.

Main cast[edit]

Production notes[edit]

José Ferrer had Bryan Forbes's script rewritten by Richard Maibaum,[2] but Irving Allen decided Maibaum's script didn't have enough comedy, so he had Forbes rewrite Maibaum's revision and direct some sequences without telling Ferrer. When Ferrer found out, he left the film.[3]

The movie was filmed in Portugal and several Royal Marine establishments with the Commandant-General Royal Marines ensuring the actors were trained in proper drill and canoe handling. The training camp scenes in the film were shot at Eastney Barracks in Southsea, Hampshire. Eastney Barracks is now the home of the Royal Marines Museum. The Royal Navy ships, HMS Flint Castle (K383) and Leeds Castle (K384), were used to portray a German anti-submarine vessel dropping depth charges. Studio scenes were shot at Shepperton.[4]

Lieutenant Colonel Herbert "Blondie" HaslerRM, the leader of the real-life raid, was seconded to Warwick Films as technical advisor.[5] Ex-Corporal Bill Sparks, the other survivor of the raid, was also an advisor.

The film briefly uses several railway locations including the level crossing at Fort Brockhurst on the (by then 'goods only') Gosport branch in Hampshire. As he cycles south, José Ferrer has to wait for a passing train (a van hauled by T9 class locomotive 30729) so takes the opportunity to abandon his bicycle in favour of a ride in the rear of a fish lorry. Later Ferrer steals the fish lorry only to abandon it at Shepperton Station (Surrey) in order to catch a just-departing train.

In another sequence David Lodge ducks out of sight into a WC alongside the North Woolwich Branch. This was possibly at the footbridge opposite Fernhill Street on Albert Road, west of North Woolwich station. David Lodge is also filmed running over the road bridge adjacent to Chertsey station where a Southern electric train can be seen.

Trevor Howard and David Lodge nearly drowned while filming a sequence in a canoe and the canoe overturned.[6]


The film was one of the ten most popular movies at the British box office in 1956.[7]


  1. ^ BBFC Database: The Cockleshell Heroes - inspected 11/11/1955 Linked 2014-06-07
  2. ^ Forbes, Bryan (1974). Notes for a Life. Collins. p. 249. 
  3. ^ Harper, Sue; Vincent Porter (2003). British Cinema of the 1950s: the Decline of Deference. Oxford University Press. p. 129. 
  4. ^ "These Are the Facts", Kinematograph Weekly, 31 May 1956 p 14
  5. ^ Mackenzie, S.P. (2001). British War Films. Continuum International Publishing. p. 144. 
  6. ^ "It was not an act.". The Argus (Melbourne, Vic. : 1848 - 1957) (Melbourne, Vic.: National Library of Australia). 3 May 1955. p. 6. Retrieved 19 April 2014. 
  7. ^ BRITISH. FILMS MADE MOST MONEY: BOX-OFFICE SURVEY The Manchester Guardian (1901-1959) [Manchester (UK)] 28 Dec 1956: 3

External links[edit]