By Gilly Carr
William – or Bill – Symes is best known to us as a survivor of Buchenwald Concentration Camp, but he experienced many more places than just Buchenwald. He was also related to other people mentioned on this website: he was the nephew of Rachel and Louis Symes, and cousin of James Symes, the British commando who was sheltered, with fellow-commando Hubert Nicolle, by friends and family in Guernsey in late 1940, which resulted in 16 people being deported to Caen and Cherche-Midi Prisons in France.
Bill Symes was married, but his wife, Iris, and daughters, Myra, Janet, Joan and Audrey, evacuated to England before the occupation, and stayed in Somerset for the duration of the war. Iris had originally gone to England to accompany schoolchildren being evacuated and had expected to return to Guernsey within a fortnight, although this proved not possible. Bill stayed behind in the Island, working as a co-owner in his business with Frank Stroobant (who himself was later deported to Laufen civilian internment camp).
Our knowledge of Bill Symes’ experiences during the occupation come from three main sources: his testimony for compensation for Nazi persecution; his International Tracing Service (ITS) records, and the testimony provided by two of his children, Joan and Peter.
According to official records, Symes was arrested in Guernsey on 10 November 1941 and sent first to Jersey Prison, from where he was quickly deported on 11 November. The charge against him, which Symes’s children confirmed as correct, was that of
… supplying and passing on information regarding the Germans, their occupation and defences of Guernsey via a courier who came to the island in a small boat from Granville. He then went to Bayonne from where, I presume, he mailed the information to a receiver at San Sebastian, Spain, who, somehow, passed on the facts to London. –
William Symes, compensation testimony
Bill Symes had also passed on information from his cousin, commando James Symes. Bill was interviewed a few years after the war by authors Alan Wood and Mary Seaton Wood, who later wrote:
Before Jim Symes gave himself up, he passed on the information he had collected to his cousin in Guernsey, Bill Symes, and asked him to try to get it back to England. Bill Symes ran a pub in Fountain Street known as ‘The Dive’, much frequented by sailors from the ships bringing in supplies from France. Through Maquis among them he was able to smuggle out messages to a British agent in Spain – first the facts collected by his cousin, then a map of German fortifications and other information. He became known to the Maquis as ‘Sandeman Bill’, owing to the Sandeman signs hanging outside his pub. He took the precaution of seeing that his messages were never signed, and when eventually the Gestapo intercepted one of them, and he was arrested, he denied any knowledge of it. Nevertheless he was taken to the Cherche Midi. He still refused, through continual interrogations and maltreatment, to admit that he had been sending out messages, or to give the names of the Maquis who had carried them for him. – Wood and Seaton Wood, 1955, 97
Symes also had a hidden radio in the cellar of his pub, which was discovered, as was a container containing messages, which he was carrying when caught, according to his children.
Bill Symes’ son, Peter, suggested that some of the messages were sent to Granville via Raymond Falla, who was a Guernsey government official in charge of buying food in France for the Island. Symes never named the person who informed on him, other than to say to his family that it was someone very high ranking in the Island who was motivated by wanting to maintain good relations with the Germans.
With regards to the first three places of internment, Bill Symes’ testimony was brief. He wrote that he was ‘first at Cherche Midi and then Fresnes; and then to Bordeaux …’ To acknowledge Symes’ period in Cherche-Midi Prison, his name was engraved on a prison memorial, along with those of other Islanders incarcerated there. This memorial today is in Créteil, on the outskirts of Paris, and an image can be seen elsewhere on this website.
No documents exist in Guernsey for Symes’ trial as he was deported to face trial abroad, in Biarritz, where he was allowed no legal defence and had to defend himself. During the period of the trial he was ‘handcuffed and in a darkened cell in solitary confinement.’ This was likely to be a description of Bayonne Prison, which is less than five miles from Biarritz. Of this prison he also wrote that ‘the prison officials were human but the Gestapo were bestial in the extremes.’
His children later stated that Symes kept sane while in his darkened cell by doing mental arithmetic and by working out how many steps backwards and forwards in his cell he would have to take to walk a mile.
The next stop for Bill Symes on his journey was Fort de Romainville Internment and Transit Camp, which he described as a
… hostage camp which proved, possibly, an even greater strain than a concentration camp. This was a reprisal unit. Here the camp officials were good within their limits, but the Gestapo and Police were brutal at every given opportunity and on the many occasions that they created.
He was then sent to Compiègne Transit and Internment camp, where his prisoner number was 23169. It is worth noting that there were a number of compounds in this camp, where different classes of people were treated differently. Charles Faramus, for example, found it comparable to a concentration camp, and Symes also described it in these terms: ‘The conditions here were terrible and I was placed in solitary confinement after the camp had been bombed’. One of the compounds of the camp was reserved for American citizens, including a small group of Americans from the Channel Islands who had been deported on 2 January 1942. One of them, namely Arthur McGahy from Guernsey, kept a diary of his time in the camp. In his entry for 27 May 1942, he wrote ‘who should come in, William Symes, gave him part of my dinner and some bread … showed him around camp …’ The next day McGahy wrote ‘Symes, in 8 months, in 12 prisons … gave Symes one of my blankets, towel, facecloth.’ 30 May: ‘Symes to go over other side at 9 o’clock … helped him to pack, all gave him plenty, food and cigarettes and tobacco, helped him take his stuff over to [barrack] A3.’
These diary entries are very interesting and tell us a variety of things: we know that between November 1941 (Symes’ deportation date) and arrival in Compiègne in May 1942, he had been in 12 places of incarceration (including Guernsey and Jersey prisons), but we know of only 8 of these places. Either Symes had lost count or else there were other unrecorded places he experienced in those few months. We also learn that Symes was not straight away placed in a compound with French political prisoners, but with other allied civilian internees, who enjoyed a much easier existence. On 15 June 1942, McGahy recorded that Bill was in the American compound once again during an inspection of the Red Cross. In the days following, Bill popped in a few more times. It is unknown how this was possible, as barbed wire separated the compounds and the prisoners were not allowed to mix. Either Bill found a way to sneak in, or else his British citizenship afforded him occasional respite not allowed to other political prisoners. Perhaps McGahy was able to arrange the visits. On 24 June 1942, however, the camp was bombed, as Bill noted in his compensation testimony. McGahy recorded that Bill ‘had a close call’ as his barrack was hit. Within a few days, McGahy was transferred to Paris, seemingly to be put on a boat to America. When this did not transpire, he was sent back to Compiègne after one month. On his return on 31 July 1942, he was told that ‘Bill left for St Denis [civilian internment camp]’ before his return. In reality, we can see from Bill’s own testimony that he was instead placed in solitary confinement. He was there for 18 months.
Records on the French website of the Fondation pour la Mémoire de la Deportation show that Symes left Compiègne on 22 January 1944, as did Faramus, and they arrived in Buchenwald on the same day. As Faramus was in Romainville and then Compiègne, it is clear that Symes, who placed the two locations the other way round in his compensation testimony, misremembered the order of his places of internment. The order presented here is more likely to be correct.
Symes’ final move was to Buchenwald Concentration Camp, which he entered on 24 January 1944. Here his prisoner number was 42446. It is interesting to note that Faramus’ Buchenwald number was 42324, indicating that he was ahead of Symes in the queue of men who had come off the transport, and therefore perhaps unlikely to have been transported in the same cattle truck.
The experience of Buchenwald was so traumatic for Symes that it was too much to articulate. He could only write:
… there is little or nothing I can add to which is already so well known about it … It is very difficult to even attempt to say how long I was in these camps and prisons for time mattered little and communication with the outside world or even my wife from Bayonne and Buchenwald was utterly impossible …
In fact, Symes would never feel able to tell the whole story of his time in Buchenwald. His family encouraged him to write his memoirs, which he had given the title The Oak of Buchenwald, inspired by the acorns from the tree in the camp which he used to eat, but it proved too much for him to place himself mentally back in the camp.
Symes gave his children only small snatches of anecdotes of his time in the camp; he was able to speak a little to his son and grandson, but not his wife or daughters about what he went through. He wanted to protect his family and not share the burden of his experiences. He oft-repeated phrase to them was ‘I don’t think you need to know’.
There were two things that helped him to survive Buchenwald. One was his strong love for his wife and family and his desire to see them again one day. The other was the paper knife, shown on this website, which he carved. It kept him going to have something to work on to distract his mind. It shows his prisoner number on one side of the handle, and ‘Buchenwald’ on the other.
Bill Symes did not elaborate in his compensation testimony about how he came to be removed from Buchenwald; however, Alan Wood and Mary Seaton Wood later wrote
For Bill Symes, release also came from Buchenwald, by a million to one chance. He broke orders by writing a postcard to his wife, who was now in Taunton, and smuggled it out among the postcards which French prisoners were allowed, at rare intervals, to send to their families. By some freak it was actually delivered in England. The result was an official demand, from the British to the German Government, for Symes to be moved to conditions more fitting for a British subject … – Wood and Seaton Wood (1955, 173)
That postcard is shown here, on the website, and was written in February 1944. When Iris Symes received it, she was interrogated at the police station under suspicion of being a German spy. She was unable to account for it, other than to burst into tears saying ‘That’s my husband’s signature! That’s my husband’s signature!’
The postcard reads:
Buchenwald, 2 February 1944
Dear Irie! and most precious daughters! I arrived here in the best of health. Do not worry about me, I am doing well. You could, as usual send me cigarettes. Do so via the Red Cross so that I receive the package — write to “Eureka”. You have to answer me in German and please write to me often. I hope to soon hear news of you. Greetings to all of our friends from me. Heartfelt kisses for all of you.
The British Censor is requested to please forward this card with a translation.
On 6 November 1944, Symes was finally removed from Buchenwald and taken to Biberach civilian internment camp after ‘representations by the British Government’. It had taken many months, but the postcard had done its job.
By this stage, Symes weighed only 83 lb (just under six stone). After Biberach – which was a family camp where many hundreds of people from Guernsey were interned – he was moved on to Laufen civilian internment camp for men, where more Channel Islanders were interned.
Symes was extremely fortunate not to suffer physically from any long-term disability following his experiences but, as he wrote in 1964, ‘the mental suffering is still with me resulting in my having a complex’. These were the terms by which mental illnesses were described in the 1960s; Symes was no doubt referring to a form of PTSD which he was still suffering 20 years after his ordeal.
Bill Symes was successful in claiming compensation. He died in 1982 of lung cancer caused by working in the stone crushing business after the war.
The author would like to thank Joan Hall and Peter Symes for the opportunity to discuss their father’s experiences with them on 10 December 2014.
Wood, A. and Seaton Wood, M. 1955. Islands in Danger. New York: Macmillan.
Entry for William Symes, Fondation pour la Memoire de la Deportation, http://www.bddm.org/liv/details.php?id=I.172.#SYMES, accessed 26 September 2017.
William Symes, International Tracing Service records, Wiener Library refs: 7228060/0/1, 18789711/0/1, 18789719/0/1, 5382989/0/1, 7228060 – 7228073 inclusive.
Rachel Symes, application for compensation for Nazi persecution. TNA ref. FO 950/2068.
William Symes, application for compensation for Nazi persecution, TNA ref. FO 950/2022.
Fondation pour la Memoire de la Deportation: http://www.bddm.org/liv/details.php?id=I.172.#SYMES