Two days after Germany landed troops on Guernsey, Winston Churchill wrote to General Ismay on the 2nd of July 1940:
‘If it be true that a few hundred German troops have been landed on Jersey or Guernsey by troop-carriers, plans should be studied to land secretly by night on the Islands and kill or capture the invaders. This is exactly one of the exploits for which the Commandos would be suited.’
Lieutenant Colonel John Durnford-Slater of No.3 Commando was called to London to assist with planning the units first raid, known as Operation Ambassador. At Combined Operations Headquarters in Whitehall he was briefed by the actor David Niven, who was one of the staff officers. With not enough trained men or landing craft available for a major operation it was decided to carry out a small-scale raid using No.3 Commando’s ‘H’ Troop.
The plan was for ‘H’ Troop to create a diversion by landing on the south-east of the island, attack a machine-gun post at Telegraph Bay and the barracks on the Jerbourg Peninsula. While the men from Major Ronnie Todd’s No.11 Independent Company attacked the airfield, with the aim of inflicting causalities, taking prisoners and destroying aircraft.
The force set sail on the early evening of 14 July 1940 aboard two destroyers, HMS Scimitar and Saladin. They were accompanied by five RAF crash-boats, to be used as landing-craft.
At around midnight the commandos climbed down nets draped over the side of the destroyers and transferred to the crash-boats.
As they approached the shore they soon ran into trouble, as the boats grounded in what turned out to be a sea bed strewn with rocks, rather than the sandy beach they had expected.
With no time to waste they disembarked only to find that the tide was still high. ‘A wave hit me on the back of the neck and caused me to trip over a rock’ recalled Durnford-Slater while all around him ‘officers and men were scrambling for balance, falling over, coming up and coughing salt water.’
Once ashore they quickly loosened the straps on their battledress and let the sea water pour out. Clothing, weapons and equipment soaked they sprinted for cover. Durnford-Slater and Sergeant Knight amongst the first on the beach headed for the long flight of concrete steps which led to the cliff top. They soon identified the targets, but the lack of any opposition didn’t bode well, and soon found the machine-gun nest empty.
Durnford-Slater headed for the barracks to see for himself the situation there. ‘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. There have been worse occasions since when I’ve been less scared. At last I remembered the word, “Desmond!” I said with a sigh. Gimbert, recognising my voice, removed the bayonet and said, “All right, Colonel.” I thought he sounded disappointed.’
As suspected the barracks was empty and with daylight fast approaching Durnford-Slater gathered up his disappointed men and ran back to the beach. Anxious that they would miss the rendezvous with the destroyers,he called the crash-boats in only to be told that it was too rough, and they would have to swim out.
A dingy was sent in to pick up weapons and equipment as the commandos stripped off, most of them naked apart from their Mae West lifejackets. Despite it being a requirement for joining the Commandos, three men announced that they couldn’t swim and were left on the beach with three hundred Francs and a Tommy-gun.
The raid had turned out to be a debacle. ‘We certainly paid lip service to the idea of lightness and mobility, but on this occasion, we went in loaded like donkeys,’ reflected Lieutenant Peter Young. Ronnie Todd’s men had fared no better, mechanical and navigational problems had yielded the same results. Churchill wasn’t happy either. ‘Let there be no more silly fiascos like those perpetrated at Guernsey,’ he told Combined Operations HQ.
Durnford-Slater was equally disappointed that none of their tasks were accomplished, however they had gained experience and learned lessons that would stand them in good stead for the future. Lessons that would see No.3 Commando serve with distinction in Norway, Dieppe, Sicily, Italy, D-Day, France and Germany from 1940 to 1945.