By Gilly Carr
Mary Bird was born on 8 March 1920 in Guernsey. In the early days of the German Occupation she worked as a clerk. Mary is best known for being deported in the autumn of 1940 because she was the girlfriend of Lt Jimmy Symes, a British commando who, along with Lt Hubert Nicolle, 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 Mary and her family were complicit in hiding them, along with a number of other friends and relatives of the two men. 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, 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 Jessie Marriette, their daughter; Wilfred Bird and his adult children Mary Bird 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.
Mary was interviewed in 2015 about her experience of Cherche-Midi. She recalled certain elements of it in snatches:
“We entered Cherche-Midi and it was getting dark – it was just like a film. There was an enormous staircase and the Gestapo led us up … we were going ‘clack clack’ up the stairs and Jessie became hysterical when we got into our room. We had a piece of sacking with hay in it and no pillows and when they switched the light off she started screaming. The next day I was put in a cell with a little girl from Syria and a French nurse – I could converse with her – and a pregnant woman who couldn’t move. We had a German guard and I think he could see I wasn’t in the right room and he put me in with Jessie. Everything was fine except the food was terrible. A Frenchman used to bring me pieces of cold meat – he was a visitor to the prison. He took notes from me to my father; the men were in cells across the courtyard.”
When asked why her mother wasn’t deported like Jessie Marriette, Jimmy Symes and Hubert Nicolles’ mothers, Mary explained that her mother had been a ‘bundle of nerves’ since the day the Island was bombed (28 June 1940). She became worse when she was asked to shelter Jimmy Symes, and when she was put in solitary confinement in Guernsey prison on 25 October 1940, she couldn’t stand it and was taken away to live with Mary’s aunt on 31 October.
Mary was let out of Guernsey prison on 1 November 1940 and returned to work. The weather was still mild and she was in her summer clothes a week later when a guard walked in and announced that she was being taken to prison in Paris and that her family was waiting at the airport. Her great aunt Lil packed a suitcase for her, but when she looked inside, she found nothing but bottles of shampoo. This meant that she had to wear the same clothes every day for 6 weeks while in Cherche-Midi. However, this didn’t seem to matter as the ‘smell of the pail [the bucket used as a toilet] overpowered everything’. She explained that once a day she stripped off to wash, as did the other women, and that the water arrived once a day in a bucket with a lid.
Unlike the men, Mary said that she was questioned only once while in Cherche-Midi. She recalled that while she was being questioned she was not ill-treated. She also remembered that from her cell window she could see being taken away from the prison in lorries. She did her best to hide her fear and not show it.
Mary also remembered that she used to communicate with Louis Symes in prison because their windows were across the prison from each other. They ‘wrote messages on the window to each other using a rag’, one letter at a time, to ask each other how they were. Mary believed that Louis Symes would have stood up to the guards ‘in the worst way possible’.
We know from the diaries of two other members of the group, Ambrose Sherwill and Henry Marquand, 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. Only the men were kept in solitary confinement.
The group was finally released on 29 December 1940 and allowed to go back to Guernsey. On 18 January 1941, the Bailiff received a letter about the group, stating that Ambrose Sherwill could no longer retain his job as Attorney General and President of the Controlling Committee, and that Wilfred Bird (Mary’s father, a States official), and Emile Nicolle and Frank Nicolle (both civil servants) were excluded from holding public office. The letter further said that Mary Bird had given insignificant evidence and could be further employed.
Only much later in life did Mary begin talk about her time in Cherche-Midi prison.
The author would like to thank Mary Bichard and her daughter Jeanne Gathercole for sharing information about Cherche-Midi.
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.