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13 November 2014

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You are in: Hampshire > History > Local History > Hayling Island's secret canoes

Wartime canoes

Wartime canoes tested at Hayling Island

Hayling Island's secret canoes

Sailors and windsurfers may now enjoy hitting the water around Hayling Island, but 70 years ago there was a more serious purpose to the activities on the water - planning for clandestine wartime missions on board specially built canoes.

Hayling Island Sailing Club was once the top secret depot for the COPPs (Combine Operations Pilotage Parties) - a secret group of special forces brought together during World War II.

Wartime canoes

The canoes were used on clandestine missions

The secluded waters at the mouth of Chichester Harbour were perfect  for testing specialised military canoes as they moved from the drawing board to active service.

The canoes could be used for extracting secret agents from hostile territory, gathering intelligence, mounting guerrilla attacks and even deception raids - planting 'red-herring' clues to trick the enemy.

COPPs were involved in secret under-cover missions all around the world.  Many of their exploits were classified as 'Most Secret' and even after nearly 70 years, the full scale of what went on is still not fully known.

Historian Quentin Rees has documented the history of the Hayling Island site in his new book, The Cockleshell Canoes. 

"Boys with toys"

Quentin explains the flimsy-looking canoes were highly sophisticated and played a big part in winning World War II:

Quentin Rees

Quentin Rees

"All the canoes made during this period were extraordinary - they went from canvas, to plywood to aluminium sectional canoes.

In August 1944 military chiefs gathered at Hayling Island to assess the latest generation of the tiny boats with big potential.  As Quentin explains: "It was like boys with toys!"

One of the canoes trialled at Hayling Island was the 18 foot long Mark 7, one of which Quentin has restored.  Made of aluminium, it came apart in five detachable sections and could carry two people.

"The Mark 7 was a pivotal moment - they were specifically designed for the tropics as plywood canoes had previously been eaten by insects."

A restored Mark 7 canoe at Hayling Island

A restored Mark 7 canoe at Hayling Island

Although they were built by skilled UK aircraft engineers, they had some rather ingenious low-tech features - the outrigger support floats were  filled with ping-pong balls so they would retain their buoyancy if hit by a bullet.

Despite the design, the crews still needed to be resourceful - one of the advantages of aluminium is that bulletholes in the canoes could be plugged by chewing gum.

Cockleshell Heroes

The most famous canoe mission was the 'The Frankton Raid' on Bordeaux Harbour. It was undertaken by 10 Royal Marine commandos who became known as the The Cockleshell Heroes - as their canoes were codenamed 'cockles'.

They succeeded in slipping into the harbour unnoticed and sunk one ship, severely damaged four others and did enough damage to greatly disrupt the use of the harbour for the following months.

Only two of the men returned to the UK alive but such was the significance of the raid, Winston Churchill said it helped to shorten to World War Two by six months.

last updated: 09/12/2008 at 13:11
created: 08/12/2008

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