By Gilly Carr
Elsie Nicolle née Hubert was born on 6 May 1893 in Guernsey. At the time of the German Occupation she lived in Rouge Huis Avenue in St Peter Port and was married to Emile Nicolle.
Elsie Nicolle is best known for being deported in the autumn of 1940 because she was the mother of Lt Hubert Nicolle, a British commando who, along with Lt Jimmy Symes, had recently arrived in the Island to spy for the British government. They had gone into hiding after the boat that was supposed to take them back to England failed to show up. The Germans assumed that the men’s families and friends were complicit in hiding them. The event has since become known in the Island as the ‘Nicolle-Symes Affair’.
The full story is as follows:
On 4 September 1940, when the island had been under occupation for just over two months, Lt 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, Linda Marriette and Jessie Marriette, their daughter; 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; 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 (where they spent the night in the local prison), then St Malo, then Caen Prison. Later, all but Linda Marriette and Hilda Nicolle were taken to Cherche-Midi on 20 November. While Sherwill wrote that they stayed in Caen, Marquand remarked that they arrived in Cherche-Midi around 14 December. 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.
No account has yet been found of Elsie’s experience of deportation and imprisonment in her own words, so we do not know much about how she reacted, but as the mother of a POW who was threatened with execution for espionage, she must have been incredibly anxious.
We know from the diary of Henry Marquand and Ambrose Sherwill that Cherche-Midi Prison was very cold, with insufficient food. The sound of various nearby church bells and the prison clock bells kept prisoners awake at night. All of the group would have been consumed by worry, stress, hunger, and the suspense of waiting to discover their fate. The men in the group were kept in solitary confinement.
The group was finally released on 29 December 1940 and allowed to go back to Guernsey. Those who were in Cherche-Midi were driven to Caen to pick up Linda Marriette and Hilda Nicolle (we do not know if they shared a cell).
The Frank Falla Archive would very much welcome contact from members of the Nicolle family who have family stories or documents to share.
Bell, W. 1998. The Commando who came Home to Spy. The Guernsey Press Co.: Guernsey.
Marquand, H.E. Unpublished papers, courtesy of the Creasey family.
Sherwill, A. 2006. A Fair and Honest Book. Lulu.com.
Wood, M. and Wood, A. 1955. Islands in Danger. Macmillan: New York.