On my blog post about stage one of Operation Anger we left the story at the point where Hubert Nicolle had been picked up by submarine H43 after two other Guernseymen 2nd Lieutenants Martel and Mulholland had been landed and briefed by Nicolle before he left. If you haven’t read that you might want to start there and come back to this after. You can find it here
This is probably as near to plan a things went! The rest most definitely didn’t go to plan.
The second phase of Anger was to prepare for the arrival of the raiding force of Operation Ambassador. Ambassador was originally planned for a landing in the early hours of 13 July 1940. The idea being that Martel and Mulholland would meet them on the beach and act as guides. The plan being that they would take the first of the raiding party to the airport where they could destroy aircraft and fuel supplies. They would then leave on the boats that had brought the raiding party to the island. The raiding party was to consist of No. 3 Commando and No. 11 Independent Company. Some 140 men were to take part in all.
The commander of the raid was Lieutenant Colonel Durnford-Slater. Upon arriving at Combined Operations Headquarters in Whitehall he was briefed by the actor David Niven, who was one of the staff officers. Niven having been an officer in the army in the 1930s before resigning his commission to embark on his Hollywood career. He returned from Hollywood and re-enlisted following the outbreak of war. Incidentally he recounts in his autobiography “The Moon’s a Balloon” a raid on Sark which he took part in. His other connection was starring in “Appointment with Venus”in 1951 which was filmed in Sark.
The first landing was to take place at Pointe de la Moye immediately south of the airport. The intention being this would be a distraction to the Germans. This aspect of the raid was to be carried out by H troop of 3 Commando.
There were to be two other landings other than the party landing at Point de la Moye to attack the airport. The second landing was to be further east at Petit Port to attack a German machine gun post and a billet that had been identified at Telegraph Bay.
The third landing was to take place at Le Jaonnet Bay where the others had been previously been dropped. The idea being that they would be able to deal with any reinforcements sent from St Peter Port as a result of the landings. They were also tasked with taking prisoners in order to bring them back to England.
At this point the wheels really started to come off the operation.
Mulholland and Martel made for the rendezvous at the appointed time on the night of 12th/13th July but unknown to them bad weather had delayed the mission. It wasn’t possible to contact them to tell them of the delay. They hid during the following two days coming out at night to return to the beach to give the signals again.
The Commander of the submarine that had dropped the three men in Guernsey had been quite robust in his report. He felt that the operation had been put together far too quickly and without time to practice. He felt that it was only because of the experience that the three Guernseymen had with boats that they had succeeded in getting ashore at all.
The submarine was commissioned in 1919 and was not ideal for an operation such as this. They had to stay submerged for most of the trip and this placed a strain on the batteries. Navigation to the Guernsey coast was also problematic for the submarine crew.
The landings for Ambassador were to take place from two destroyers HMS Scimitar and HMS Saladin with six RAF Launches to accompany them. Two RAF Ansons were to circle at low level over the Island to drown out the noise of the engines and provide a distraction.
Having arrived off of the coast of Guernsey they set about landing the men who would have just an hour and a half ashore before being picked up. Well that was the plan anyway!
One launch set off and for some reason immediately headed off in the wrong direction. There are a couple of theories as we know it was because the compass was incorrectly indicating direction. The first is that equipment on the destroyer interfered with the compass or that equipment for the raid stowed on the launch had interfered with it.
Here there are varying accounts as to what happened to the launch. It found its way to one of the islands off of the east coast of Guernsey. Some accounts indicate that they landed on Little Sark, other accounts say they went there but didn’t land. Further accounts appear to indicate it may have been Herm or Jethou. In any event they returned to HMS Saladin.
The second party set off in launches heading for Pointe de la Moye. Here the waited for the signal from Martel & Mulholland who were in fact at Le Jaonnet bay as originally planned. As a result the launches at Pointe de la Moye didn’t receive a signal and failed to identify a beach to land on. Two launches returned to HMS Saladin the third was unable to find the ship so returned to Dartmouth.
If they had managed to make it to the airport they would likely have found rich pickings as the Germans based a variety of aircraft there including fighters. A report of activity at the airport around that time indicated that there were approximately 30 to 50 aircraft. Approximately two thirds were Bf109s the rest being Bf110s and JU52s.
The third landing force successfully landed at Petit Port after a struggle to get ashore involving having to save ashore with all their kit in four feet of water. The delay in the operation had meant that the launches couldn’t get as close in due to the rocks and tides.
They created a road block out of rocks and cut a telephone cable at Telegraph Bay. They sent out patrols and quickly discovered that there no Germans in the area and the machine gun post was deserted. Durnford-Slater gives an account of this in his memoir.
Johnny Giles and I crawled up on either side of the little mound in which the machine-gun nest was dug. I carried grenades and a 45 Webley; Giles, a giant of well over six feet, had a tommy gun.Commando: Memoirs of a Fighting Commando in World War Two – John Durnford-Slater
We jumped to our feet and into the nest, a sandbagged circle. We were both ready to shoot, but I found myself face to face with Johnny’s tommy gun; and he with my Webley. “Hell!” Johnny said bitterly, “there’s no one here!” We went down to where the others were cutting the cables leading from the hut. Knight asked me rather plaintively: “Please can I blow the place up, sir?” He had a pack of demolition stores on his back and was aching to use it.
“No. Apparently the Germans don’t know yet that we’ve come. There’s no point in announcing it. Just cut the cables.”
We went back to see if we could help de Crespigny’s party. It was pitch dark, and as I approached, Corporal “Curly” Gimbert burst through a hedge at me. The next thing I felt was a bayonet pushing insistently through my tunic. “Password!” Gimbert hissed.
He was a big, powerful man. It seemed a long time before I could say anything when I’ve been less scared. At last I remembered the word and let it out with a sigh. “Desmond!” I said. Gimbert, recognising my voice, removed the bayonet quickly. “All right, Colonel.” I thought he sounded disappointed.
They resigned themselves to returning empty handed although they were not happy about it as Durnford-Slater recounts.
We formed up on the road between the barracks and the Doyle Column, a monument we had used as a landmark. It was easy to guess from the muttered curses that the others shared my disgust at our negative performance and at the fact that we had met no Germans.
George Herbert was particularly upset and begged me to give them a few minutes more to visit some houses nearby which he thought might contain Germans. In this atmosphere of complete anticlimax, it was clear that none of us wanted to leave. But I called the officers together. “We’ve got to be back on the beach in ten minutes,” I said urgently.Commando: Memoirs of a Fighting Commando in World War Two – John Durnford-Slater
The only shot fired by the raiders was accidental when Durnford-Slater slipped and discharged his pistol. A searchlight briefly came on followed by a brief burst of machine gun fire. The Germans had only been in the island for two weeks so had not yet built the bunkers that you see on Jerbourg peninsula today.
Their troubles were not over. Due to the tide and the rocks the launches couldn’t get close in. They began ferrying the party out in a dinghy but on one of the trips it was caught in the waves and overturned. One of the commandos, Gunner J. McGoldrick, was lost overboard and feared drowned. He was later found alive and captured remaining a POW until 1945.
They were now left with no choice but to swim to the launches. This presented another problem as three of them couldn’t swim. The three men were Private F.T. Drain, Private A Ross and Corporal D. Dumper. They were left on the beach with instructions to hide and return the next night to be picked up. Unfortunately for them this was deemed too risky and the Navy refused to come and pick them up.
When I mentioned on Twitter that I was writing about Operation Ambassador @GuernseyLiz14 Liz Walton was kind enough to share the information that she had collated about her relatives who helped to hide the non swimmers. Her Aunt & Uncle stayed in contact with Fred Drain after the war with him visiting them. Thanks Liz for your kind permission to share these.
They were later apprehended walking down the road near the airport some days later. At least unlike Mulholland and Martel they were wearing uniform.
There is an account of the raid in an interview held by the Imperial War Museum given in 1988 by Sir Ronald Swayne MC who held the rank of Lieutenant at the time of the raid. In his interview he recalls that some of the boats were towed by the destroyers and that they had gone too fast for these boats which left them damaged and leaking.
But we weren’t remotely ready. We didn’t know what kind of boats we wanted, we didn’t know how to do it, there wasn’t a proper planning body to prepare for these raids. In any case there was a fearful shortage of weapons and everything… we had no Tommy guns and we didn’t have the Remington Colt which we were issued with later… we were armed with .38 revolvers which was, I always thought, a poor weapon. There was a shortage of ammunition for teaching the soldiers to shoot. Some of them had hardly done any practice on the range, it was all frightfully amateurish.Sir Ronald Swayne MC, interview with the IWM which you can find it here.
Interestingly his account regarding the weapons situation seems to different from other accounts as they all refer to them being armed with Tommy guns and Bren guns. The pistol situation sounds about right given that Durnford-Slater’s pistol was cocked when he lost his footing and it discharged. This difference in accounts may be due to the passage of time between the events and the interview some forty eight years later. Many other accounts given more closely to the raid indicate that Tommy guns and Brens were used.
As the party due to meet Martel and Mulholland never made it to the bay instead heading on a trip to another island they weren’t picked up. As a result the two men, fearing for the impact that their capture may have on their relatives still in Guernsey decided they needed to hide then escape.
They left the beach and decided to hide in a barn and spent some time hiding with family. Martel with his sister and Mulholland with his mother then spending some time at a house in Vazon on the west coast of the island. Realising this was putting their family at great risk and after several attempts to escape from Guernsey, including one by stealing a boat from Perelle Bay which left them stranded on rocks, they decided they had no choice but to surrender themselves to the German authorities.
They contacted the Bailiff Ambrose Sherwill and he arranged for them to be supplied with some uniforms as they had come to the island in civilian clothes which would have resulted in them being treated as spies with the prospect of being shot. Luckily for both men the Germans treated them as prisoners of war rather than spies when they surrendered on 28th July.
As with many operations relatively early in the war these two were put together in a rush and a relatively amateur fashion.
The RAF Launches proved to be far from suitable for the job. They were designed for operating over much shorter distances and nearer the coast than travelling over 90 miles to the south west coast of Guernsey. Two of them became unserviceable before the raid even started. They had been supposed to carry twenty men each to the beach. As a results other boats from the destroyers had to be towed behind the launches.
Subsequent raids used larger MTBs, as shown above, which were much more suited to this type of operating environment. Durnford-Slater went on to requisition his own boats that his men were trained to operate and maintain for future raids on mainland Europe.
Ambassador may appear a bit of a disaster with four men captured, Mulholland and Martel subsequently captured and no military objective achieved other than cutting some telephone wires. It did however provide some valuable lessons which were to be implemented for future raids.
Whilst being able to swim was a requirement when signing up for the commandos nobody had actually checked that they could. The unit had only been formed in mid June 1940.
The Navy came in for some criticism from the Army for not being as professional and as experienced as expected. This would seem to me to be a little harsh given the efforts they made to recover the commandos. They stayed beyond the allotted time putting the ships at risk of air attack as dawn came. They had also been promised a pilot with local knowledge but he was not taken onboard before they left England.
The main thing that they learnt was those involved required adequate training and that proper planning was key to the success of future operations.
Churchill was reported to be furious at the amateurish nature of the operation but surely must be partly culpable in the lack of planning because of his wish for it to take place so quickly. After all Anger took place six days after Churchill had ordered the raid and Ambassador twelve days after his initial order.
Dunford-Slater recalls in his memoirs that those involved had all become caught up in the rush to stage the raid that the first proper briefing was on the eve of the operation after they had set sail.
In his interview Swayne puts the blame squarely on the Royal Navy.
It was beautifully planned from an army point of view but the naval preparation was very inefficient, partly due to inadequate equipment of course…. it was a wonderful idea and it could have been a very, very clever raid.Sir Ronald Swayne MC, interview with the IWM which you can find it here.
One aspect of Ambassador that was a success was that it made the Germans nervous. They conducted a thorough investigation into the landing at Petit Port and the activity around Jerbourg. Having been unable to extract any information from the four commandos and with Martel and Mulholland still at large they were unaware of the other two attempts at landing.
They even staged a re-enactment to try and better understand what had happened. Their assessment was rather more generous in the capabilities of the landing party than if they had been aware of the other landing parties and issues.
As a result of this they spent time searching the island for any raiders that had been left behind and became nervous about the defence of the coastal areas. They also instructed the Guernsey Police force to assist with the search, although they didn’t look very hard.
They placed more restrictions on areas around the coast that civilians could visit and deployed more men to those areas. In addition they began laying minefields.
The Bailiff (Leading Citizen see here for the role) Ambrose Sherwill (Later Sir Ambrose Sherwill) was troubled by the raid as the Germans had threatened to bomb the island if there was any trouble, presumably after withdrawing themselves. With the deaths of civilians in the raid before the Germans arrived only a few weeks earlier he was moved to write a letter to the British Government. In it he warned of the consequences of such raids. He asked the Germans to ensure this was passed on through diplomatic channels but they declined. You can read my blog about the air raid here
Durnford-Slater certainly learnt from the lessons of Ambassador and took this forward to lead No.3 Commando to many notable successes in future operations.
If you want to learn more about the raids and some of the individuals I recommend these books:
Commando – John Durnford-Slater at the time of writing free on Kindle.
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© Nick Le Huray