By Gilly Carr
Ambrose Sherwill was born on 12 February 1890 in Guernsey. He fought in the First World War, where he was awarded the Military Cross for services at the battle Messines in 1917. He was badly wounded in his right arm and leg in March 1918 and discharged from hospital eight months later. While recuperating he continued with his legal studies he had begun at the University of Caen before the war. He retired from the army with the rank of Lieutenant in 1919 and from the Royal Guernsey Militia in 1928, with the rank of Major.
Sherwill resumed his legal studies after the war and was admitted to the Bar in Guernsey 1920 as an Advocate of the Royal Court. He stood for election to the States of Guernsey and served as a Deputy from 1921 to 1926 while continuing in private legal practice.
At the time of the German occupation he was living in Havelet House in St Peter Port with his wife, May, and children. He was by then working as the island’s Attorney General, a post he attained in 1935. He was also appointed as President of the Controlling Committee in 1940, responsible for the running of the island’s government. The context for Sherwill’s deportation from Guernsey in November 1940 is described below.
In the autumn of 1940, the first group deportation of people from Guernsey took place. Those involved were deported for their role in sheltering two commandos, Lt Hubert Nicolle and Lt James (Jimmy) Symes – two Guernseymen in the armed forces who had come to the island to spy for the British government. The event has since become known in the island as ‘The ‘Nicolle-Symes Affair’.
On 4 September 1940, when the island had been under occupation for just over two months, Symes and Nicolle landed at Petit Port on the south coast of Guernsey, in civilian clothes, having been taken across the Channel in a Royal Navy Motor Torpedo Boat. They made their way to the homes of relatives and were sheltered by family and friends during their stay in the island. Attorney General and President of the Controlling Commission, Ambrose Sherwill, was alerted to their presence at an early stage; the men wanted to know if he had a message for the British government which they could take back. Nicolle and Symes intended to return to England three nights after they arrived, but no boat arrived to collect them so they were stuck in the island. Worried for the fate of their family and friends if their presence was detected, and for themselves, as spies, a plan was concocted by Ambrose Sherwill. Sherwill was also afraid that if it was discovered that he had known of their presence, especially given that Nicolle’s father was secretary to the Controlling Commission, then he and his civil servants would also be in trouble. The plan involved finding military uniforms for the two men to pretend that they had been in the island since before the occupation and had missed the opportunity for evacuation and joining up, and had not yet given themselves up. Rather than being shot as spies, this plan would mean that the men would be taken away as POWs.
Meanwhile the Germans had got to hear that some members of the armed forces were in the island. They announced an amnesty for all servicemen who had remained behind when the occupation began. On 18 October 1940 they put a notice in the paper saying that members of the British armed forces in the island in hiding – and those sheltering them – must give themselves up within three days. If they did so, then the soldiers would be treated as POWs and no action would be taken against those who assisted them.
Uniforms were found for Symes and Nicolle and they handed themselves in. However, the Germans reneged on the agreement and the friends and family of the two men were picked up and put in prison. When Sherwill went to complain, he realised that he, too, was a suspect. With days, all involved were deported to France.
Those deported were Ambrose Sherwill; Jimmy Symes’ parents Louis Symes and Rachel Symes; Albert Marriette and Linda Marriette and their daughter Jessie Marriette (Hubert Nicolle’s girlfriend); Wilfred Bird and his adult children Mary Bird (Jimmy’s Symes’ girlfriend) and Walter ‘Dick’ Bird; Emile Nicolle and Elsie Nicolle (the parents of Hubert Nicolle); Hilda Nicolle and Frank Nicolle (Hubert Nicolle’s aunt and uncle); Henry E. Marquand (States Supervisor and senior civil servant, and friend of the Nicolle and Symes family); Bill Allen (the groundsman at the Elizabeth College sports field, who helped shelter the commandos when they were hiding in the pavilion), and farmer Tom Mansell (who was covering for his married brother, Dick Mansell, at whose farm Hubert Nicolle arrived as part of his gathering of intelligence as the Mansell’s farm bordered the airport). 16 people in total were deported.
Those deported were sent in two groups. First of all, Rachel and Louis Symes, the three members of the Bird family, Emile Nicolle, Frank Nicolle and Jessie Marriette were flown on 8 November 1940 to Dinard and then Paris, where propaganda photos were taken of them in front of the Eiffel Tower before they were taken to Cherche-Midi Prison. On 13 November, Albert and Linda Marriette, Henry Marquand, Hilda and Elsie Nicolle, Bill Allen and Tom Mansell were taken by sea, first to Jersey, then St Malo, then Caen Prison. Later, all but Linda Marriette and Hilda Nicolle were taken to Cherche-Midi. On 7 November, Ambrose Sherwill was flown separately to Paris. On 8 November he was taken to Versailles Prison, and on 15 November 1940 he was taken to Cherche-Midi.
On 22 December, Louis Symes was found dead in his cell, his wrists apparently slashed with a razor blade, according to Ambrose Sherwill. There is considerable controversy over whether or not he committed suicide. On the one hand, Rachel Symes was told by another prisoner that he was killed by the Germans. On the other hand, Henry Marquand noted in his diary that the men’s razors were confiscated on 23 December because of the suicide. Both Marquand’s and Sherwill’s diary entries confirm how depressing the experience of being in prison was. Sherwill later recounted of the early days of his prison stay: ‘For the first – and last – time in my life … I understood the meaning of the phrase “the balance of his mind was disturbed”.’ Sherwill also recorded that Symes was temporarily moved to a punishment cell while his own was deloused, and the conditions there were grim, which would have lowered his morale still further. This all perhaps gives us an insight into Symes’ actions, but the case has never been definitively proved one way or the other.
Ambrose Sherwill was deported separately to the others because of his high status as Attorney General. He was first of all held at the rather grand Hotel des Ambassadeurs for 24 hours, then told that he was under arrest and taken to the Versailles Prison. In his diary he described this prison thus:
I am put into Cell no. 54 on the top tier of the prison. Cell 13 ft. long by 6’6” wide. One straw mattress on floor. No blankets. A hot water pipe, a primitive washbasin with running water, a table and form [bench], and in one corner a filthy lavatory and a metal jug which leaks. Window apparently unopenable. Am appalled at the sudden change in my circumstances but curl up in my fur coat (thank God May [Sherwill’s wife] made me bring it), and go to sleep. Called at about 8.30a.m. Cell more appalling than ever in daylight.
Coffee (?) without milk or sugar and black bread very stale. Not very successful breakfast,
My braces and nail scissors were taken away so that I can neither hang myself not cut my throat. I have no towel but have some sort of wash and dry with a handkerchief. Determine not to let it get me down and feel better. German warders not unkind but know no English. I feel so desperately alone and my moods move from utter depression to elation and back again. If only I could talk to someone. I never realised before what solitary confinement means particularly when one doesn’t know how long it will last, what one is charged with or one’s ultimate fate.
Of Cherche-Midi, where he arrived on 15 November and left 29 December 1940, Sherwill wrote:
Conditions here were very tough, the toughest I have ever encountered. I was pushed into Cell no. 38 on the top floor. It was pitch dark and I had to feel around to find my bearings. In doing so I fell over a slop-pail. At Versailles, the food was ample and quite good and there was central heating. Here, the food was exiguous and the whole place, for the first twelve days, freezing cold. When the stoves were lighted – in the corridors – life was slightly more bearable but never comfortable; it was a very cold winter.
We were atrociously fed … Sunday was worst in this respect. At 9am … we received a small mug of unsweetened mock coffee. At 10.30, a big ladleful of soup, then the hard rations to last till 4.30pm the following day were issued: a very small ration of very hard German rye bread, a small spoonful of margarine or lard – occasionally of butter – a tiny piece of sausage or a dessertspoonful of potted meat or – not and – of ham and, if neither of these was available, one held out one’s hand and about a dozen sultanas were placed in one’s palm. On such a diet one grew noticeably weaker.
Our straw mattresses had been in use for so long that the straw was in inch lengths and, consequently, as hard as the boards on which they rested … We each had two very old and thin blankets.
The group were released on 29 December 1940 and allowed to go back to Guernsey. Ambrose Sherwill lost his job, and Wilfred Bird (a States official), and Emile Nicolle and Frank Nicolle (both civil servants) were excluded from holding public office.
Later on in the Occupation, Sherwill was deported to Laufen civilian internment camp in Germany in February 1943 on the grounds of having been both an officer in the British army and having been previously convicted. That conviction is detailed below. While at Laufen he was elected Camp Senior, no doubt because of respect for his high status in Guernsey.
After the war, he served as Bailiff from 1946 to 1959; he was knighted in 1949. Ambrose Sherwill died in 1968.
Bell, W. 1998. The Commando who came Home to Spy. The Guernsey Press Co.: Guernsey.
Marquand, H.E. Unpublished diaries, courtesy of the Creasey family.
Sherwill, A. 2006. A Fair and Honest Book. Lulu.com.
Sherwill, A. Occupation registration forms, Island Archives, Guernsey.