The Story of The First Commando


On the night of Sunday July 7th, 1940, just a week after Guernsey was occupied by Nazi Germany, Guernseyman Lieutenant Hubert Nicolle of the Hampshire Regiment landed back on his home island to undertake an espionage mission. This intelligence-gathering sortie behind enemy lines ahead of the first commando raid, named “Operation Ambassador”, has led Nicolle to be dubbed Britain’s “First Commando”, and his story will be celebrated as part of the Channel Islands Heritage Festival with Outdoor Guernsey running a number of special “First Commando” kayaking tours at Petit Bot Bay on Saturdays throughout April and early May.

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Hubert Nicolle was born in Guernsey in 1919. Shortly after being commissioned in the Royal Guernsey Militia in 1939 the Militia was disbanded and he joined the Hampshire Regiment in February 1940. Just a few months later, on June 30th, Guernsey was occupied by the Germans and Nicolle was immediately asked to return to the island in secret to gather information about the effect that the occupation had had on the local population and to evaluate current German defenses and the exact number of soldiers on the island ahead of a planned Commando raid a week later.
Nicolle disembarked from submarine H43 and paddled ashore in a kayak purchased the previous day from a London department store. He wore plain clothes (so would have been treated as an enemy spy if caught) and landed at Le Jaonnet Bay, just to the east of Petit Bot Bay inside Icart Point.

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“They put the kayak together as they were crossing over to Guernsey and they found they couldn't actually get it out of the hatch in the submarine, so they had to dismantle the whole thing and recreate it once they were out, once they were on the surface of the water.”

Ant Ford-Parker, Outdoor Guernsey

Three nights later, having gathered all of the information that he required, Nicolle reconnected with a submarine which landed two further Guernsey born and raised Commandos whose job it would be to guide the raiding Commando parties when they landed at various locations three nights later. Unfortunately for the mission a postponement and miscommunication meant that when two of the four Commando parties arrived they mistook the flashlight signals of their guides for enemy signals and consequently withdrew. Of the remaining two, one lost its way and landed at either Sark or Herm whist the only group to land did so at Petit Port (just to the east of Moulin Huet Bay, a short walk from the Bella Luce) rather than at their intended destination of Vazon Bay on the West Coast. ‘Operation Ambassador’ was not a success, much to the fury of Churchill.
Hubert Nicolle landed on Guernsey once again on another reconnaissance mission in September, landing at Petit Port early on the morning of September 4th with Lieutenant James Symes, another Guernseyman serving in the Hampshire Regiment. The plan was for the two Commandos to be extracted by a motor torpedo boat on the night of September 6th however their transport failed to arrive for three successive nights. Nicolle and Symes were forced to go into hiding, aided by family and friends. Nicolle’s father was the Secretary of the Controlling Committee and alerted its President Major Ambrose Sherwill (whose job it was to deal with the occupying forces on behalf of the islanders) to the plight of the two soldiers, and a deal was struck with the Germans ensuring that “any personnel of the British Armed Forces in hiding in the island (if such there be) must surrender, and that if this direction is complied with, such personnel will be treated as prisoners of war and no measures will be taken against any of their relatives”. Two uniforms were stolen from a forgotten store shed at St Peter Port Harbour by Captain Frank Nicolle, Hubert’s uncle and the assistant harbour master, so that Nicolle and Symes could surrender in uniform on October 21st and be treated as POWs. It transpired that on the date of their surrender the Guernsey Commandant, Major Bandelow, was away on leave and the result was that Nicolle, Symes and 17 of their relations and friends including Major Sherwill were imprisoned in the notorious Cherche Midi prison in Paris, and kept in solitary confinement. Nicolle and Symes were court-martialed and sentenced to death by firing squad however Major Bandelow and the newly appointed Commander-in-Chief Colonel Graf von Schmettow argued the case for keeping their promise in the name of military honour. The civilian prisoners were released and returned to Guernsey, whilst Nicolle and Symes were sent to POW camps.

Lieutenant Nicolle ended up being transferred around six different POW camps. He escaped from Spangenberg POW camp by tunneling out, and was one of 600 prisoners sent to the underground reprisal camp Stalag XX. He was eventually freed by the Americans, and had a further lucky escape when the transport plane returning him to Britain crash landed at Brussels airport. In 1945 Lt. Hubert Nicolle was awarded the Military Cross for having “displayed the highest qualities of fortitude and bravery throughout”. He left the Army in 1946 and returned to Guernsey to marry, settling right here in St Martins where he lived with his wife Barbara and their son and daughter. He passed away on September 19th, 1998, shortly before a book detailing his wartime exploits titled The Commando Who Came Home To Spy was published.

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Outdoor Guernsey’s 3½ hour long First Commando kayak tours will take place on the afternoons of Saturday April 9th, 23rd, and May 7th, and on Tuesday April 26th. Times vary slightly due to the tides and the cost is £35 per person, including use of all equipment. Further details can be found here, and if you'll be staying with us during this time and would like to book a place then please simply ask at reception.

Written by:

Bella Luce