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FeaturesA Brilliant Little Operation - Paddy Ashdown

A Brilliant Little Operation – Paddy Ashdown

Paddy Ashdown, former leader of the Liberal Democrats and currently the man with the job of driving them through the next election, admits he’s not really a ‘pipe and slippers man’. he talked to Fergus Byrne.

When he threatened to take up cooking in his retirement his wife told him to go back upstairs to his ‘train set’, a term she uses in reference to his current activity of writing books. Outside of his fierce loyalty to the party that he led from 1988 to 1999, Lord Ashdown is now working on his eighth book and will be visiting Beaminster in July to speak at this year’s Beaminster Festival.

His most recent offering, A Brilliant Little Operation, is about a WWII event that is dear to his heart. It tells the story of Operation Frankton, a daring mission led by Major ‘Blondie’ Hasler to blow up German ships in Bordeaux harbour in 1942. The mission was devised by Dublin born Hasler, who personally led the operation and was subsequently awarded the Distinguished Service Order (DSO).

Operation Frankton was the subject of various books, documentaries and a film, but is better known as the story of the Cockleshell Heroes—named after a specially designed canoe that was used to take explosives up the Gironde to reach the targets. In the book, Lord Ashdown says that few other raids in the Second World War could match the audacity of this assault on the massive German naval port of Bordeaux.

Not short of detail, Lord Ashdown’s account of the mission takes a rather different angle to many of those that have already told the story. Ashdown’s heroes, though no less heroic, are unknowingly part of a political tussel where, as he puts it, ‘Confusion, duplication, personality squabbles and petty rivalries in London’ put both the effectiveness of the operation and the lives of those taking part at great risk.
Since conventional offensive operations against the enemy in Europe were beyond Britain’s military means, Churchill had created two new organisations at very nearly the same time, to pursue unconventional methods of disrupting their logostical abilities. These organisations were known as ‘Combined Operations’ (CO) and ‘Special Operations Executive’ (SOE).

Operation Frankton was a CO mission and though not detracting from the brilliance of the mission, Lord Ashdown points out that within a stone’s throw of Hasler’s targets was a Special Operations Executive (SOE) team ‘consisting of six British officers, with reliable wireless communication with London, an extensive network of local Resistance fighters, regular access to the blockade runners and a full suite of equipment, from explosives to light weapons, with which to carry out exactly the same task.’

However, regardless of the fact that, in retrospect, much could have been done differently, A Brilliant Little Operation tells a tale of ingenuity and daring by men who were prepared to put their lives on the line for their country and the man who led them. In the end, out of the dozen that set out, only two returned.
Lord Ashdown’s interest in the story goes somewhat deeper than just admiration for the operation. After initially serving in the Royal Marines he joined the elite Special Boat Service (SBS) and commanded a section in the Far East. Speaking from his home in Somerset he told me: “Writing the book was somewhat a labour of love, because as a young Royal Marines Officer, this is one of the great events that we talk about; secondly, because it was the founding event of the SBS—though the SBS existed before—it is regarded as the event which founded the SBS, which I subsequently joined and whose operatives I’m utterly dedicated to.” He explained that it was also a way for him to pay tribute to ‘Blondie’ Hasler whom, as a young officer in training, he had been less than charming to when coincidentally sharing a train compartment with him. He hadn’t recognised Hasler then and spoke to him ‘in a pompous and irritable tone’, but in the book describes him as ‘a deeply complex and compassionate man who, despite doubting his own leadership qualities, was able to inspire very ordinary men to undertake this truly extraordinary—almost superhuman—mission.’

The book does a superb job of describing the whole operation from setting the context to detailing its planning and execution, as well as describing the escape and aftermath. In a recent piece in The Times Lord Ashdown made a case for Drone warfare, which is a long way from Operation Frankton. He told me how things have changed: “Special Forces operatives are very carefully trained and very carefully selected. This was rudimentary training with people who were just, as I say in the book, ordinary guys.” Unlike perhaps the operation to find Bin Laden where every move was relayed back to base, Hasler’s team had no real special equipment. “The only thing they had was the canoe that Hasler designed for them” he said. “They didn’t have any radios, they didn’t have GPS use obviously, they didn’t have any waterproof kit, they just wore ordinary woollen gloves, they did it as an ordinary soldier in ordinary soldier’s kit and took on these extraordinary hazardous conditions. And the thing that fascinates me is how you can suspend the ordinary laws of war through technology and teamwork. They had only teamwork and yet they still did it.”

Born in New Delhi of Irish ancestry, Paddy Ashdown, as he became known, was actually christened Jeremy John Durham Ashdown. The name John was given after his father, and Durham after what he calls ‘the Victorian family name adopted by my upwardly mobile great-grandfather.’ The name Jeremy was an affront to Indian soldiers in his father’s regiment at the time because, as they said: ‘Sahib, we are at war with the Jerries so it is very improper for you to call your first son after the enemy!’

As Paddy Ashdown he went on to became a Royal Marines Officer and in his services career saw action in Borneo and the Persian Gulf, as well as a stint in Northern Ireland. His autobiography, A Fortunate Life, is only short on detail when it comes to his time spent in what Sir Menzies Campbell, once called ‘the more shadowy side of Foreign Office activity’.

He spent a little over thirteen years as a Royal Marine but when I asked him what service he had learned most from he said: “The conflict I’ve learned most from is the conflict across the floor of the House of Commons. You can learn from everything you do. In Borneo I learned how to operate in the jungle, in Belfast I had to learn how to operate on the streets of an urban city, in Aden I had to learn how to operate in the desert. You learn something from everything, you can’t pick one out, but all of them were preparations for doing battle across the floor of the House of Commons.”

In Bosnia, as the International Community’s High Representative, he learned lessons on intervention and subsequently wrote Swords and Ploughshares which detailed his views on how we can go wrong in ‘post-war planning’. Citing Iraq and Afghanistan as examples of situations that have ‘drained the West of both influence and morality’ he told me that the West needs to understand the new circumstances we are in. “We’re not any longer in the age where the West, if it gets its act together, can do everything,” he said. “You now have to make new alliances. The failure in Afghanistan, one of them, was the failure to understand that you have to build alliances with the neighbours if you’re going to win peace in a country like that, but the Chinese have a role to play in that. The 400 years of the absolute dominance of the Western hegemony in the world and the hegemony of Western power, Western institutions and Western values is over. What we’ve got ahead of us is going to look much more like Europe in the 19th Century where you have shifting patterns of alliances.”

He believes in the need for international intervention in disputes that may develop into full-scale wars, however, he also knows that long term strategy needs diplomacy and points out that, to have a respected long term moral stance we need consistency in our attitude to conflict, instead of getting involved when it is advantageous in the short term. To build influence in the modern world we need to be more consistent in what we do. Speaking of building respect and influence he said: “You don’t build it any longer by gunboat, you build it by saying that this is what we stand for, and what we do reflects what we stand for, rather than contradicts it.”

It may well be that you also build it by admitting and learning from errors and remembering the bravery such as that shown by the twelve men that undertook Operation Frankton back in December 1942. At the end of A Great Little Operation Lord Ashdown points out that those men should be an inspiration to us all.
After a life spent in the service of his country in one way or another, he has become philosophical about his own views of life.

Despite his various battles in and beyond the House of Commons, like any good soldier, his loyalty is his favoured stance. He said: “You know, the point about life, it seems to me, is that views are views and friends are friends, and friends are more important than views.”

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