In a 17th-century fortress high in the Pyrenees Mountains near the Spanish border is a sea kayak. It’s a beat-up folding model from the 1930s, and rests on a stand in the Room of Honour at France’s National Commando Training Centre, where the country’s special forces learn the ropes. The battered wood-and-canvas boat offers a window into the little-known military use of kayaks.
In 1943, two young Frenchmen named Michel Brousse and Georges Schlumberger headed south from Paris. In the midst of the Nazi occupation, they left their reasonably secure existence as university students to make their way to Algeria and join the French Resistance. Schlumberger had trained on the Creuse River four years earlier with French adventurers Genevieve and Bernard de Colmont and Antoine de Seynes. He knew of the trio’s 1938 descent of the Colorado and Green rivers—a pioneering journey documented by Ian McCluskey in the 2015 film, Voyagers Without Trace—and asked de Seynes to borrow the 17-foot kayak he’d paddled through the whitewater canyons.
Brousse and Schlumberger managed to sneak the kayak to France’s southern coast. From there they paddled at night and ate raw fish to avoid campfires and evade detection until they reached Spain. After a run-in with Spanish authorities that ended in their arrest and the kayak’s confiscation, the pair eventually made their way to North Africa to join the Resistance. Schlumberger died fighting in the Battle of Vosges in 1944; Brousse survived the war and returned to Spain in 1948 to reclaim the kayak that had helped them join the fight.
To this day, trainees in the French Commandos eat a dinner of raw sardines and then reenact Brousse and Schlumberger’s 115-mile night paddle from Canet-en-Roussillon to Mataró, Spain.
The Frenchmen weren’t the only ones to recognize the wartime potential of kayaks’ stealth and silence. On the night of December 7, 1942, the British...