HUBERT COMES HOME – THE FIRST COMMANDO LANDING IN GUERNSEY

Photograph of Hubert Nicolle on display at the German Occupation Museum which I took a photograph of recently.

Just over a week after after the Germans had occupied the Channel Islands twenty year old Hubert Nicolle landed in Guernsey to undertake “Operation Anger”. Hubert was a Guernseyman that had originally served in the Royal Guernsey Militia and then joined the Hampshire Regiment.

Guernsey had been occupied by the Germans on 30 June 1940 and on 4 July Nicolle was ordered to report to Room 74 at the Admiralty. Arriving, still having no idea why, he learned that Combined Operations had been instructed by Winston Churchill to send someone “to find out what is going on in the Channel Islands”. He was told, “If you do this and are caught we don’t want to know you; you are out on your own. You will be shot and that will be the end of it.” Nicolle immediately agreed to go.

Obituary of Hubert Nicolle The Independent 2 October 1998

He was brought to the Island on the submarine H43 and landed at Le Jaonnet Bay on the south coast of Guernsey in the early hours of 8 July.

In an interview with the Imperial War Museum Ian McGeoch who was a first lieutenant on H43 recalls how things didn’t go smoothly.

We found our way to the southwest side of Guernsey and surfaced near the coastline so we could hear the dogs barking. Fortunately, it was fairly calm. Well not calm but fairly calm. I recall an incident, it was a very still night.

I recall probably the second Coxon, the leading seaman whose job it was to open up the casing and help to get the canoe out and so forth when he lifted the big steel plate which was part of the door of the top of the casing, he inadvertently let it drop. And you can imagine the noise made by about 100 square inches of steel being dropped. And of course, we thought oh well everybody is bound to hear the dogs bark and everything I said there was a panic, but we got away with it.

Ian McGeoch
H43

He was taken ashore in a canoe that had been purchased from Gamages a London department store a few days before. The flat pack canoe was originally assembled inside the submarine but they then discovered it wouldn’t fit out of the hatch. It had to be taken apart and reassembled on the hull.

Once assembled a naval officer, Sub-Lt J.L.E. Leitch took him the two miles to shore before returning to the submarine.

This bay is at the bottom of a large cliff. The initial ascent is via a ladder from the beach, sorry no photo, and 218 steps to the cliff path at the top. As you can imagine this beach doesn’t attract the casual visitor given how difficult it is to access. So on a dark night it must have been a challenge to get up from the beach.

The picture below and the map will give you an idea of where he landed.

Looking down from the cliff path at Icart towards Le Jaonnet Bay. This photograph gives you an idea of the terrain. © Nick Le Huray

Nicolle was able to make contact with friends and family. He borrowed a bicycle and was able to move around the island and obtain information about the German garrison and their positions. Now you might wonder how he was able to move about so freely. He was of course in civilian clothes and the island had been occupied for little more than a week.

He had determined that the German Garrison stood at only 469 soldiers based mainly around St Peter Port, this information was provided to him by a friend who was a baker and forced to supply the Germans. His uncle was the assistant harbour master and provided him with information about German shipping activity.

The reason for the small numbers was that they had only been here for a week. At the peak in numbers Charles Cruickshank estimates in in his book there were approximately 12,000. Whilst there were machine gun posts located around the coast he estimated that it would take about twenty minutes for reinforcements to arrive if the alarm was raised.

As a result the Germans were still present in relatively small numbers and identification cards had not yet been introduced. He was of course a local so able to pass without suspicion as well as using his local knowledge to move about through the lanes. He was therefore able to also visit the roads around the airport and assess the position there.

Having gathered this intelligence he was picked up by the same submarine on 10 July 1940 and two other Guernseymen were dropped off, this time using a Berthon boat rather than a canoe. They were 2nd Lieuts Philip Martel and Desmond Mulholland who were to conduct the second phase of Operation Anger.

They were taken to shore by the same navy officer that had dropped Nicolle off. This nearly ended in disaster as the boat became swamped in the waves near the shore. Fortunately they made it with the help of Nicolle. He briefed his two fellow Guernseymen on the curfew, where the Germans were and other useful information.

They didn’t have to wait long to repay the favour of being rescued as the boat began to sink as it was on the way back to the submarine and they had to help bring it back to shore.

Eventually the boat made it back to the submarine and Nicolle was able to report back to London with his findings.

A memorial stone stands at the top of the cliffs in commemoration of Nicolle’s landing.

Memorial at Icart to the landing. © Nick Le Huray

I was privileged to have known Hubert or Mr Nicolle as we called him. He was a past pupil of the school that I attended, Elizabeth College, and was actively involved in college activities when I was a pupil in the 1980s. Little did I know that the gentleman that often started swimming races with a starting pistol was used to more deadly weapons!

He was to return to Guernsey again on 3 September 1940 with another Guernseyman and fellow pupil of Elizabeth College James Symes. That is a story for a future blog and a far more eventful visit it was! I have an interview with Symes that provides some interesting insight into this raid as well as some archive material and an interview with one of the submarine crew who recalled the landing. Sign up for email notifications of you don’t want to miss out.

I have only been able to touch on a fraction of the story here so if you would like to read more about the operation I recommend you track down a copy of William Bell’s “The Commando Who Came Home To Spy” which is out of print but you can pick up for a few pounds second hand on Amazon, eBay or from a second hand book shop.

At this point you are probably wondering what happened to Martel and Mulholland. Well they stayed in the island to gather intelligence and take part in the next phase Operation Anger and the follow up Operation Ambassador later in the month. This was a raid consisting of some 140 men. A blog post about this will be out later in July.

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I will be adding more as time permits. Thank you for taking the time to read this, and I hope you enjoyed it. Please share it on social media or add a comment if you did. Feedback is always appreciated.

© Nick Le Huray

Author: Nick Le Huray 🇬🇬

Guernsey based history geek. Interested in the Occupation of the Channel Islands and wider Second World War history.

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