By Gilly Carr
Walter Arthur Bird (or ‘Dick’ as he was nicknamed, on account of his surname) was born on 14 August 1916 in Guernsey. At the time of the German Occupation he lived in Brock Road in St Peter Port and worked as a bulb grower. He was single.
Walter Bird is best known for being deported in the autumn of 1940 because he was the brother of Mary Bird, 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 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, 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, Emile, 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 their daughter Jessie Marriette; Wilfred Bird and his children Mary Bird (Jimmy’s Symes’ girlfriend) and Walter 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).
In total, 16 people were deported and sent away in two groups. First of all, Rachel and Louis Symes, 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.
When Walter Bird was recorded by his son, many years later, speaking of his experiences during the Occupation, he gave very little information about Cherche-Midi, except to say that his cell was large enough to pace 4 paces up and down every day. He said that the men were given little food and that the only exercise they had was going downstairs to empty their slops bucket. He also recalled that when they were gathered in the reception area of the prison before being let out, his father nearly fainted.
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 Cherche-Midi were also kept in solitary confinement, which would have added to their stress.
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).
As Walter’s father was relieved of his job as a States official on his return to Guernsey, instead becoming a self-employed grower, Walter worked for his father in his vineries (greenhouses) after that date.
The Frank Falla Archive would very much welcome further contact from members of Walter ‘Dick’ Bird’s family if they have any further family stories, photos 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.