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Wartime heroes capture Petit Port history

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It's 3am on 3 September 1940 and two local men slip ashore in what was to be a daring commando raid - definitely worthy of the big screen treatment, says Rob Batiste reports

It's 3am on 3 September 1940 and two local men slip ashore in what was to be a daring commando raid - definitely worthy of the big screen treatment, says Rob Batiste reports PETIT PORT is one of those beaches that many islanders may never visit in their lifetime.

All those steps, for a start. No facilities either.

But, per square inch of exposed sand, the first south coast inlet west of Jerbourg point possibly has more tales to tell than most of our island sands.

It has seen smugglers, silver mining on either side of its steep slopes and boasts a beach even Winston Churchill once got to hear of as he scratched his bald head, dragged on one of his mighty cigars and supped his scotch, wondering how to defeat the Germans and to protect his 'dear Channel Islands'.

Never mind A Bridge Too Far, Reach For the Sky, Dambusters and bouncing bombs off German lakes.

What about Nicolle and Symes or Operation Ambassador, the failed 1940 commando raid on Petit Port? The first is a story worthy of Sir Richard Attenborough's directing talents.

But what did we get?

Island at War - six episodes of sanitisation and falsehoods - set on a fictional island called St Gregory which looked remarkably like the Isle of Man.

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Their tale of Sarnian born and bred commandos Philip Dorr and Eugene La Salle coming ashore on a reconnaissance mission, is said to have been based on the escapade of two real-life Guerns - Lts Hubert Nicolle and James Symes.

The real heroes came ashore at Petit Port at 3am on 3 September 1940, Nicolle having surreptitiously visited the island only a few weeks earlier, on that occasion arriving by canoe at Le Jaonnet, further along the coast.

Before that excursion to see what the Germans were up to, he was summoned to the admiralty on the instructions of Churchill and told in no uncertain terms, 'If you do this and are caught, we don't want to know you. You are on your own. 'You will be shot and that will be the end of it.'

Being a hero, traits which Nicolle showed from his days at the Elizabeth College, where he broke the school 100 yards record with an electric dash of 10.6sec., he accepted the mission on the spot.

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The mission was successful and he was soon back for a second with Symes.

Dressed in plain clothes and landing by motor torpedo boat, Nicolle and Symes scooted up the rocks, probably the old fishermen's path, utilising knowledge of the area gained from childhood.

The TV series had the pair gunning down Germans, but that was as far from the truth as St Gregory was from St Peter Port.

This time, Nicolle was to be on his homeland for longer than he would have wished.

The Navy's return taxi never arrived and, stuck, they went into hiding for weeks. In the film, La Salle was shot.

In reality, Nicolle and Symes eventually gave themselves up and became POWs in the east.

Nicolle was an enthusiastic tunneller and is said to have made many escape attempts.

He dug his way out of Spangenberg, only to have to surrender as four German Shepherd dogs set upon him.

Even when he was released, he had the misfortune to endure, but also the luck to survive, his plane crashing at Brussels airport.

Half a century later Bill Bell, the Guernsey politician, wrote a book on his life. It was entitled, 'The Commando Who Came Home to Spy'. Sadly, Nicolle, who had read and approved the script, died before its publication.

Awarded the Military Cross, he died in St Martin's in 1998.

An account of the failed 1940 commando raid on Petit Port:

IT WAS still the early days of the Occupation and Churchill's government were undecided as to how to react to the occupation of the Channel Islands.

A full-scale attempt to overturn the German invasion was quickly deemed foolish. However, it was worth a look to see the extent of the occupying forces.

The reconnaissance operation was divided into two phases.

Hubert Nicolle was at the heart of the first two, bracingly titled Anger, while the name Ambassador was given to the third and most ambitious.Petit Port was the focal point of the landing of 140 men of the No. 3 Commando and No. 11 Independent Company.

They were brought to Guernsey by two destroyers, the Saladin and the Saracen, and were transferred to seven air-sea rescue launches off the south coast .

The plan was for three separate landings, all to be made as Anson aircraft flew overhead to drown out the noise of the landing craft.

One party was destined for the airport via Point de la Moye to destroy planes on the ground, petrol stores and aerodrome installations.

A second was earmarked to land at Le Jaonnet Bay to intercept any German troops and the other deployed at Petit Port to attack a machine gun post and German billets.

It was pretty much an unmitigated disaster.

Already postponed for 48 hours due to bad weather, when Ambassador was finally given the green light the tidal conditions were far from perfect.

In short, the party of 11 heading for Le Jaonnet were taken to Sark and did not land. The group bound for La Moye and the airport encountered a series of boat problems.

The Petit Port team did get ashore but they failed to find any of the island's 469-man German garrison.

Patrols were sent out, even a road block set up and the Jerbourg peninsula was thoroughly searched. But the Germans were nowhere to be seen. What is more, the commandos' exit proved more hazardous than anyone could have planned.

Ordered to re-embark, disaster struck as a launch was badly damaged and a naval rating made several trips into the bay to claim three at a time.

On his fifth trip, the dinghy overturned in heavy breakers and a soldier was swept away, presumed drowned.

The few men left on the beach were ordered to swim, but three non-swimmers could not make it and were stuck, left for another day.

(With acknowledgement to Charles Cruickshank's The German Occupation of the Channel Islands.)

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