Channel Islander Imprisoned in Versailles Men’s Prison:
Ambrose James Sherwill
By Roderick Miller
Just one Channel Islander is known to have been imprisoned in Versailles Men’s Prison in (La maison d’arrêt des hommes de Versailles) in Versailles, France. The prison was built in 1844 as an extension of the Versailles Courthouse (Palais de justice de Versailles). The local populace called it Prison Saint-Pierre, after the street on which it was located, and the prison was notorious as a site of public execution by guillotine. On 17 June 1939, German serial killer Eugen Weidmann was guillotined in front of the prison gate, and the crowd’s behaviour was deemed by officials to be so brutish that public executions were henceforth banned in France. Little more than a year later, troops of the German Wehrmacht marched into Versailles and the prison came under the control of the Nazi occupiers. Unlike most prisons in German-occupied France, which were controlled by the Germans but ran by French personnel, Versailles Men’s Prison also had extensive non-military German staff, probably mostly Gestapo.
Ambrose Sherwill, Attorney General of Guernsey, had been taken prisoner there by the Germans and flown to Paris on 7 November 1940. After a night in custody in a Paris hotel, he was taken directly to Versailles Men’s Prison:
We arrived at a prison which I later found to be Versailles and I was left standing in a corridor with an Englishman (?) and a Frenchman, the officer going into a near-by room and telephoning in my hearing. I heard him speak of ‘espionage’ (pronouncing it in German fashion) several times. Meanwhile, the Englishman approached me without let or hindrance and, as I thought, too effusively. He wanted to know what I was accused of and, to me, seemed to speak a strange brand of English. Believing him to be an agent provocateur (I was highly suspicious by this time for I had demanded of the officer before he left me to telephone that he should tell me what I was accused of and he had told me that he had no instructions on the matter) I brushed him off quite ruthlessly. From the strange brands of English I heard much later in my internment camp, I think it highly probably that the Englishman I was so rude to was quite genuine and merely (like me) in sore need of comfort.
My first night in clink was, naturally, in appalling contrast with my surroundings of the night before. It is adequately dealt with in my diary. The next few days were very difficult ones. For the first – and last – time in my life – so far – I understood the meaning of the phrase ‘the balance of his mind was disturbed’. I swung – without evident reason – from hilarity to deep depression and back again. I told myself, aloud, when at the top of the swing: ‘Don’t be a bloody fool, you’re for the high jump’ and, when in the depths: ‘Cheer up, old chap, things are never so bad as they seem when they first happen’ (Lord Haig, during First World War). Gradually, by this means and by working hard cleaning my filthy lavatory, I achieved equilibrium.
I asked for exercise; I really wanted company. I was allowed to walk alone in a tiny triangular yard. The gale of the night before had stripped the sycamores of their leaves. I picked up three and used two as plates and one – beautiful and multi-coloured – as an ornament. At my request, instead of my food being brought to my cell, I was allowed to walk along the corridor to the kitchen to collect it. Once, getting my coffee, I said to the kind little German soldier: ‘Kein Zucker?’. He said; ‘Ja! Ja!’ and, diving under his bed, pulled out a carton and dropped six lumps into my coffee before I could stop him. On returning to my cell, I tried, unsuccessfully, to retrieve some of them for another occasion.
After one false alarm, I was driven away at 6 p.m. on November 15th in a four-seater car. —Ambrose Sherwill, from A Fair and Honest Book
In his diary, Sherwill described this prison thus:
I am put into Cell no. 54 on the top tier of the prison. Cell 13 ft. long by 6’6” wide. One straw mattress on floor. No blankets. A hot water pipe, a primitive washbasin with running water, a table and form [bench], and in one corner a filthy lavatory and a metal jug which leaks. Window apparently unopenable. Am appalled at the sudden change in my circumstances but curl up in my fur coat (thank God May [Sherwill’s wife] made me bring it), and go to sleep. Called at about 8.30a.m. Cell more appalling than ever in daylight.
Coffee (?) without milk or sugar and black bread very stale. Not very successful breakfast,
My braces and nail scissors were taken away so that I can neither hang myself not cut my throat. I have no towel but have some sort of wash and dry with a handkerchief. Determine not to let it get me down and feel better. German warders not unkind but know no English. I feel so desperately alone and my moods move from utter depression to elation and back again. If only I could talk to someone. I never realised before what solitary confinement means particularly when one doesn’t know how long it will last, what one is charged with or one’s ultimate fate.
According to further diary accounts in his posthumously-published memoirs of his time in Versailles, Sherwill had a warm cell, an ample and nutritious diet, and was even given a French-German dictionary so he could better communicate with his German warders. He left Versailles for Cherche-Midi Prison on 15 November 1940, and was there until his return to Guernsey at the end of December of the same year. Upon return, the Germans sentenced him to one year’s imprisonment with sentence suspended, but he was stripped of his position as Attorney General. Sherwill was transported to Laufen Internment Camp in February 1943, where he spent the rest of the war.
On 24 June 1944, the RAF bombing of German military barracks resulted in the deaths of 324 French civilians. By the time allied troops were nearing the city in mid-August, the Germans began to sabotage their munitions depots and prepare for evacuation. Versailles was liberated on 24 August 1944 by the French 2nd Armoured Division under General Philippe Leclerc, later the commanding officer responsible for re-occupying Vietnam (French Indochina), which had declared independence after the 1945 defeat of the Japanese occupying forces.
The Versailles Women’s Prison (Maison d’arrêt de Versailles), which had no German civilian personnel, had its German sentries evacuated on ‘22 or 23 August 1944‘.  But the same source states that the German personnel of Versailles Men’s Prison evacuated on 25 August, a day after liberation. Perhaps the ‘column of German prisoners on Rue Georges-Clemenceau‘  seen by an eyewitness on 25 August on a street adjacent to the prison, were, in fact, the prison’s Nazi staff.
Ambrose Sherwill was Bailiff of Guernsey from 1946 to 1959, knighted in 1949, and died on Alderney in 1968.
Versailles Men’s Prison continued in operation until its closure in 1980. The building is now occupied by the District Court.
 see Caen Ministère de la Défense Archives in Sources.
 see Laloë in Sources.
Angenault, A. (publisher): Plan pittoresque de la ville et du parc de Versailles, 1845, showing location of Palace of Justice and original street name, via Bibliothèque national de France, Gallica. Link
Anonymes, Justes et Persécutés durant la période Nazie dans les communes de France: Versailles 1949-1945 (in French). Link
Donadieu, Pierre: Dictionnaire-guide des rues de Versailles (‘Dictionary Guide to Versailles Streets’, in French) Link
Laloë, François: La libération de Versailles vue par un enfant de 10 ans (in French), an eyewitness description of the liberation of Versailles. Link
Ministère de la Défense, Bureau des archives des victimes des conflits contemporains, Caen – Chemise 73.
Sherwill, Ambrose: A Fair and Honest Book, Stephen Devonald, lulu.com, 2006.
Soppelsa Caroline: ‘Palais de justice de Versailles‘ in Crimino Corpus: Musée d’histoire de la justice, des crimes et des peines. https://web.archive.org/web/20181016090931/https://hugo.criminocorpus.org/fr/lieu/palais-de-justice-de-versailles-ancienne-prison-sa/
Bonnotte, Claire: Le Soleil éclipsé, le château de Versailles sous l’Occupation (in French), coédition Vendémiaire / château de Versailles, 2018.