Obituary: Hubert Nicolle

William Bell
Friday 02 October 1998 23:02

LIEUTENANT HUBERT Nicolle, regarded by many as Britain's first Commando and one of Guernsey's most respected war heroes, spent his 21st birthday in solitary confinement, in the notorious Cherche Midi Prison, under sentence of death by firing squad. He was to tunnel his way out of a POW camp, and then survive an air crash, before returning to civilian life.

A Guernseyman, the son of a senior island civil servant, Nicolle was born in 1919 and educated at Elizabeth College, St Peter Port. He was an outstanding all-round athlete. Commissioned in the Royal Guernsey Militia in July 1939, he joined the Hampshire Regiment in February 1940 when the Militia was disbanded.

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.

Landing in plain clothes from submarine H 43, in a canoe purchased the previous day from Gamages, he carried out a successful reconnaissance of German defences in the island and was re-embarked three nights later. On his return, after being debriefed, he was ordered to report to Winston Churchill. Regrettably Churchill was called away and Nicolle never met him.

Volunteering for a further mission to his home island, he and a fellow Guernseyman, Lt James Symes, were landed in plain clothes by MTB (motor torpedo-boat) at Petit Port beach at 3am on 3 September 1940.

The Royal Navy "taxi service" failed to collect them and, on 2l October, they were forced to give themselves up to the Germans. In the meantime Ambrose (later Sir Ambrose) Sherwill, the President of the island's wartime Controlling Committee, had negotiated with the German Commandant, Major Fritz Bandelow, for any members of the British armed forces still in the island who gave themselves up to be treated as POWs.

The Germans failed to honour this undertaking and Nicolle and Symes were court-martialled and sentenced to death by firing squad. Along with 17 of their relations and friends, including Sherwill, they were imprisoned in Cherche Midi Prison in Paris. It was later established that Bandelow, who had been on leave at the time of their surrender, moved heaven and earth in his endeavour to keep his word. He called for a Court of Honour and General Feldmarschall Von Reichenau was consulted. He declared, "When one gives one's word, one gives one's word." Sherwill later said that he regarded Bandelow's action in time of war as in the very highest traditions of chivalry.

Lieutenant Nicolle was awarded the Military Cross for having "displayed the highest qualities of fortitude and bravery throughout".

He was sent to a POW camp, the first of six, and the other islanders returned to Guernsey. In March 1941 he was amongst 600 POWs transferred to Stalag XX at Thorn in Poland, which was an underground "reprisal" camp - a deliberate act of retaliation by the Germans for what they believed was happening to their officers being held in Canada.

Hubert Nicolle was an enthusiastic tunneller, being involved in many escape attempts. He dug his way out of Spangenberg POW camp only to have to surrender when four Alsatians were set on him. He was eventually released by the Americans after being marched for two weeks towards the advancing Russians. The RAF Hampden carrying Nicolle back to England crashed at Brussels airport, but fortunately he was unhurt.

After leaving the Army in 1946, Nicolle had a long association with Sun Life of Canada, becoming a senior consultant and an honorary life member of their prestigious Macaulay Club.

A book covering Nicolle's wartime experiences, The Commando Who Came Home to Spy, is due to be released shortly. He had read and approved the manuscript before he died.

Hubert Frank Nicolle, life assurance salesman: born Guernsey 23 November 1919; MC 1945; married 1948 Barbara Lattimore (one son, one daughter); died St Martin, Guernsey 19 September 1998.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments