By Gilly Carr
Louis Symes was born 20 March 1885 in Guernsey. He joined the army and was posted to India. After leaving the army he stayed in India and studied surveying at a technical college at Roorkee from around 1908 to 1913. After this he travelled to Ceylon and worked for the Imperial Survey. It was while in Ceylon that he married Rachel Tostevin, also from Guernsey, and they were married 15 April 1916 in Colombo. Louis and Rachel went on to have three children: James (born 1919), Margaret (born 1921) and Louis (born 1924). Rachel sailed back to Guernsey for the birth of each child but stayed on in Guernsey after her youngest was born. Louis Symes carried on working in Ceylon until 1931 or 1932, when he retired back to Guernsey due to ill health.
In the early months of the German occupation of Guernsey, Louis was caught up in what became known as the ‘Nicolle-Symes Affair’, and was one of those deported in the autumn of 1940 because of his involvement in the sheltering of two commandos, Lt Hubert Nicolle and Lt James (Jimmy) Symes, Louis Symes’ eldest son. Nicolle and Symes had come to the island to spy for the British government.
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 and 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 (a family friend); 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.
On 22 December, Louis Symes was found dead in his cell, his wrists apparently slashed with a razor blade, according to Ambrose Sherwill. It has never been established whether or not he committed suicide or was killed by the Germans, but there remains four strands of evidence available to us today: the diary and memoirs of three people who were there (Ambrose Sherwill, H.E. Marquand and Jimmy Symes), all of whom were, like Louis Symes, in solitary confinement and therefore not eye-witnesses to Symes’ actions. There are also the words of a prisoner named Losh or Lotze who spoke to William Symes, Louis’ nephew, who was also at the prison from November 1941. William Symes then relayed the information to Rachel Symes, who presented it in her compensation testimony for her husband. She wrote
A nephew of mine, Mr William Symes, told me that a man named Lotze or Losh who had been at Cherche Midi at the time we were there claimed that my husband did NOT commit suicide, but was murdered by the Nazis. No direct evidence can be obtained to substantiate or deny this and it could be that the certificate of my husband’s death and burial could have been signed by French officials under direct pressure from the Germans.
Henry Marquand noted in his diary that the men’s razors were confiscated on 23 December, which suggests that it was 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 cell was deloused, and the conditions there were grim, which would have lowered his morale still further. We must also remember that Symes, who was not in good health, also knew that his son was being held under a death sentence. If we add to this Marquand’s experience of Cherche-Midi, which include extreme cold and hunger and insomnia caused by worry and the noise of church bells, we can begin to understand why the strain may well have been too much. While Louis Symes had enough reason and motivation to have taken his own life, we cannot be entirely sure of this conclusion.
Jimmy Symes’ memoirs also give us a little insight into proceedings. He wrote simply,
On 22 December 1940 my father died in the prison. The cause of his death was given as suicide. To this day I do not believe it was.
Later in his memoirs he wrote of his mother, Rachel’s, hypothesis on the matter:
My mother thought my father had caused a tremendous fuss in his cell at being kept so long in prison against the terms of the German proclamation which stated that those who had helped us would not be punished. My mother thought that a guard had entered the cell to quieten my father, and had hit him. My father had not been well for some years, and he could easily have died from any blow. To cover his death the Germans could possibly have faked death by suicide, and got or ordered the French doctor to issue a death certificate showing the cause of death as suicide.
It is likely that this hypothesis was formed after hearing William Symes’ message. As Woods and Woods wrote in their 1955 volume on the occupation,
The Germans said it was suicide; but those who knew Louis Symes best, and knew his courage and toughness, were certain that he had been killed and an apparent suicide staged afterwards.
In 1946, Louis Symes was awarded a Montgomery Certificate of Service, which reads ‘By this Certificate of Service, I record my appreciation of the aid rendered by Symes, Louis Morin, who, as a volunteer of the United Nations, laid down his life that Europe might be free’, signed BL Montgomery, Field Marshall, Commander-in-Chief, 21st Army Group. 6 March 1946.’
In 1964, Cherche Midi prison was demolished. The door of the prison was kept and reused as a memorial, erected in 1982, which can today be seen in Creteil, a suburb of Paris. The name of Louis Symes is engraved upon the memorial with the other Channel Islanders who were imprisoned in Cherche-Midi, and some members of the French Resistance.
In his memoirs, James Symes wrote how he tried to find his father’s grave in 1981. He discovered that while his father had initially been buried in Thiais cemetery in the 6th Arrondissement, on 10 January 1941, the grave had become a pauper’s grave as it had not been tended for five years (from 1941-1946) and been ‘dug up’. What happened to Louis Symes’ body is still unknown.
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.
Symes, J. Unpublished memoirs. Guernsey Archives ref. AQ 207/20.
Symes, R. Compensation claim for Nazi persecution. TNA ref. FO 950/2068.
Wood, M. and Wood, A. 1955. Islands in Danger. Macmillan: New York