By Gilly Carr
Wilfred Bird was born on 28 December 1887 in Guernsey. At the time of the German Occupation he lived in Brock Road in St Peter Port and worked as a States official. He was married to Elise Shave Bird née Jort. In his younger days he served in the Royal Guernsey Militia. His daughter Mary later testified that he had fought in the First World War, when he had been gassed and blinded.
Wilfred Bird is best known for being deported in the autumn of 1940 because he was the father 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 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). Wilfred Bird’s wife Elise was not deported because, as her daughter Mary testified, she was not well enough. Ever since the island had been bombed at the end of June 1940, Elise had become extremely nervous and shaken and had not recovered; quite the opposite. She had become, in the words of her daughter, ‘a wreck’ when the two commandos returned to the Island; she fainted when she saw Jimmy Symes. When her husband and children were arrested, she had at first been arrested with them. However, the Germans recognised that she was in no mental state for prison and so she was let out and sent to live with her sister.
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.
No account has yet been found of Wilfred’s experience of deportation and imprisonment in his own words, so we do not know much about how he reacted. However, his daughter Mary said that her father’s health suffered in prison. She managed to get a scarf to him to keep him warm. She believed that the men suffered constant interrogation, especially her father, and that food was withheld from him. When she saw him again on their release, she said that he had lost his voice and lost weight.
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).
Wilfred Bird was relieved of his job as a States official on his return to Guernsey. Instead he became a self-employed grower and worked in the vineries (greenhouses).
In 1947, Wilfred was awarded a certificate of service signed by Field Marshall Lord Montgomery because he had been sent to prison. Families of some of the other male members of the group still have their certificates today. It is not known whether the women were awarded them. Such certificates have only been seen in the possession of the members of the Symes-Nicolle Affair group and no other islanders to date.
The Frank Falla Archive would very much welcome further contact from members of Wilfred Bird’s family if they have family stories, photos or documents to share.
Gilly Carr would like to thank Wilfred Bird’s daughter Mary for her insight into the experience of the deportation and imprisonment of her family.
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.