By Gilly Carr
Rachel Symes, née Tostevin, was born 23 November 1884 in the parish of the Vale, Guernsey, where her father was choirmaster and organist at the Vale Church. She had six brothers, two of whom were killed in the First World War.
She married Louis Symes, also from Guernsey, in Columbo, Ceylon, where he was working, on 15 April 1916. Louis and Rachel went on to have three children: James (born 1919), Margaret (born 1921) and Louis (born 1924 and evacuated during the Occupation). 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, when Rachel and Louis were living in St Peter Port, they were caught up in what became known as the ‘Nicolle-Symes Affair’, and were deported in the autumn of 1940 because of their involvement in the sheltering of two commandos, Lt Hubert Nicolle and Lt James (Jimmy) Symes, Rachel 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, and the evidence is discussed in Louis Symes’ biography on this website.
The Guernsey prisoners were let out of the prison on 29 December 1940 and returned home together. In his diary, Ambrose Sherwill wrote:
Poor Mrs Symes; in what a turmoil of mixed emotions she must have been. Widowed, released from prison, her son saved from probable death. She was wonderfully brave and even joked with us as we drove through the countryside. We were in a jocular mood and yet, conscious of what she was feeling beneath the brave face she was showing the world, again and again a ribald joke would be cut off half-way as the joker caught sight of her tense face.
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 names of Rachel and Louis Symes are engraved upon the memorial with the other Channel Islanders who were imprisoned in Cherche-Midi, and some members of the French Resistance.
In November 1964, Rachel applied, unsuccessfully, for compensation for the death of Louis. Her application was factual and without emotion or information about her own experience of imprisonment, except to say that the Guernsey party had not received Red Cross parcels or letters, and had received visits only from American Quakers, as Ambrose Sherwill also noted in his diary. The administrators of the compensation claim (the Foreign Office) preferred to believe that Louis had committed suicide, which invalidated the claim. This was beside the fact that compensation was not given to those who were sent to French prisons.
Rachel Symes’ family later recalled that she never wanted to speak about her experiences in Cherche-Midi prison. Towards the end of her life, she was looked after by her daughter Margaret. Rachel died in 1971.
Bell, W. 1998. The Commando who came Home to Spy. The Guernsey Press Co.: Guernsey.
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.