Despite Churchill being reputed to have said ‘Let there be no more silly fiascos like those perpetrated at Guernsey’ after the Ambassador operation it was only a matter of a few weeks before another raid was under way.
Following Nicolle’s earlier mission and the subsequent disastrous Operation Ambassador it was decided to send him again. This time it was planned that he and fellow Guernseyman and school friend James Symes would stay for three days and gather intelligence. They had known each other since they both attended Elizabeth College and played in the football team together.
Much has been written about this operation mostly from the perspective of Hubert Nicolle, however, I recently came across an interview in the IWM archives with James Symes where he recounts his memories. I thought that it would be interesting to use this and some other resources to recount his side of the operation. I will also pick out some of the key aspects of the operation.
We pick up the story where Symes recalls how he came to be involved.
I think if I remember rightly, anyway, Hubert Nicolle had already been to and come out from Guernsey. He was summoned to the Admiralty again, because he went in by submarine and came out by submarine and he was asked if he would go again.Symes, James Michael (Oral history) – Imperial War Museum
He said he would go on condition that I went with him. I used to play inside left in the football team and he played inside right between us we had enough. There was something between us like that on the football pitch, which made us friends for life really.
So this was what all that was about and I said yes I would go. So I went up to London, Nicolle at that time was in Parkhurst, in this other holding unit.
Both men knew that they were taking a massive risk as they were landing wearing civilian clothing. They also had family in the island so they were putting them at risk as well. More of that later.
They were landed at 3am on the 4th September 1940 at Petit Port from an MTB.
I went to see him and he had a lot of photographs of German planes which we had to look at and memorise and then we set off London, where we were both asked if we would go and said yes. Did we realise that If we were caught, nobody could help us? Like idiots we both said yes, we were only 20 at the time, both of us and we went.Symes, James Michael (Oral history) – Imperial War Museum
We went over by MTB, Motor Torpedo Boat. I took five and fourpence ha’penny and a flask of brandy. I was dressed in civvies, I was dressed in a Guernsey so was he and that was all we had because we were going to be there for three days and then they would come and pick us up. We could do what we’d like to on the island as long as we got information on the civilian aspects of the island. Not the German military side so much but they wanted to know in London how people were being treated those were our tasks.
Symes recalls that it was either MTB 69 or MTB 70 that dropped them ashore in Guernsey. Photographs of these two vessels are below. Sadly he never solved the mystery of which of these vessels it was as their records were lost.MTB 70 © IWM (FL 25709) LIGHT COASTAL FORCES ON OPERATIONS AT BEEHIVE, FELIXSTOWE. 12-17 NOVEMBER 1942. © IWM (A 12914) LIGHT COASTAL FORCES ON OPERATIONS AT BEEHIVE, FELIXSTOWE. 12-17 NOVEMBER 1942. © IWM (A 12915)
It was decided to use an MTB because of the issues that had previously been encountered using a submarine on the first visit and the difficulties encountered using other types of launch during Operation Ambassador.
Surprisingly they were landed at one of the beaches, Petit Port, that was used during Operation Ambassador in July 1940. Although they were cautioned not to use the same route up the steps and instead used a path that they were familiar with. Given that there are approximately 350 steps this was no mean feat! Instead of the steps they used a steep track to the left of the beach if you stand facing the cliffs.
After a few days they successfully gathered the information required by London and were ready to return.
At the end of the period, we went back to where we had landed earlier. We did take one thing we took a torch quite a large torch, which had been had a metal funnel put on it so when it shone out to sea the beam was restricted by this funnel. All we had to do was once every half hour we had to signal the letter, dot dash dot, dot, dot dash dot, dot and a long one and a little shorter one went straight out to sea.Symes, James Michael (Oral history) – Imperial War Museum
We were on a bay where they would pick us up at approximately 3am They never came. So we went back to our respective homes and the following night we went back to this beach they never came so we went along the third night was a hell of a storm.
Anyway we instead of concentrating on one beam down the middle every hour or whatever the timing was we’ve decided to do one left one centre one right like that in case the ship, the torpedo boat was out there somewhere and one couldn’t see the beam or a direct line. It never came so we both went back to our respective homes.
They had been told that if nobody came they were to wait until the next period with no moon and somebody would come and look for them. This did happen but didn’t go to plan.
A chap came and he got caught. Fortunately for him, he was in uniform and he couldn’t be treated like we could have been if we’d been caught because we were in civilian clothes. He, John Parker, Captain John Parker, he told the Germans he was on a recce. I don’t know whether they believed it or not, anyway, he became a prisoner of war. So we have to sit at home and wait for the next new moon.Symes, James Michael (Oral history) – Imperial War Museum
Parker was later repatriated in 1944 as detailed below.
Now at various times during the time from the landing up until their surrender they stayed with family or friends and even hid in the cricket pavilion at their former school. The problem they had was that they could not move about easily as the Germans were convinced that there were British troops on the island. They could only move around under cover of darkness and after the curfew.
Between the time of the September new moon and the late September and October the Germans issued an order that anybody, after Parker, issued an order in Guernsey that if there were any British soldiers in hiding in the island, they’d already done this once before when they first got there, and they got a few who were on leave. If these people gave themselves up they would be treated as prisoners of war and those who helped them would not be punished.Symes, James Michael (Oral history) – Imperial War Museum
Below is the notice issued by the Germans. As you will see later on the offer of no punishment was an empty promise as Nicolle and Symes were initially treated as spies.
In the interview Symes recalls how Ambrose Sherwill, later Sir Ambrose Sherwill and Baliff of the island post war assisted them greatly. At the time Sherwill was President of the Controlling Committee for the island. Effectively the most senior person in the government during the war. He negotiated with the German Commandant, Major Fritz Bandelow, for any members of the British armed forces still in the island who gave themselves up to be treated as POWs.
A clever man he saved our lives he persuaded the Germans he put up a draft for the letter that sort of go out into the press the notice he knowing full well that we were there. He got the thing worded in such a way that we could go and give ourselves up as if we were as if we’ve stayed behind when the Germans arrived as if we were on leave when the Germans arrived.Symes, James Michael (Oral history) – Imperial War Museum
Under the terms of that letter, which became a German proclamation, we eventually gave ourselves up with five minutes to go to the time when we should have done it. On October the 21st Trafalgar day 1940 we ourselves up to the local police, who then told the Germans and we were then spies captured spies. Terrible now thinking of it, anyway we were court martialled by the Germans. We were sentenced to death.
We were then relieved because of this letter. We were taken to France we went to the prison Cherche-Midi in Paris, Dreyfus was one time so we were in good company.
We spent two and a half months in solitary confinement there and then just before Christmas my father died in the prison. My mother was in the prison, a lot of our friends were in this prison. Terrible place. It no longer exists. We were told on the 21st of December or there about that the Germans had decided we should be treated as prisoners of war.
You can read about the prison on the Frank Falla Archive website here including the experiences of those that assisted Symes and Nicolle.
If you click on the links in the quote below you can access the individual stories.
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.Frank Falla Archive
The uniforms were obtained by the Deputy Harbour Master from stocks left behind by the Germans.
It transpired that the reason that they were treated as spies was that It was later established that Bandelow, who had been on leave at the time of their surrender, moved heaven and earth in his endeavour to keep his word. He called for a Court of Honour and General Feldmarschall Von Reichenau was consulted. He declared, “When one gives one’s word, one gives one’s word.” Sherwill later said that he regarded Bandelow’s action in time of war as in the very highest traditions of chivalry.
Below is the notice that was published in the Guernsey Evening Press of 24th December 1940 announcing the change in the decision and the exemption from punishment. Sadly this was too late for Louis Symes, James’s father, as he had died a few days before.
As you will see from the above the it ultimately cost Sherwill his position although this was reversed during the winter of 1942/43 when he was to return as Attorney General.
Both Symes and Nicolle remained prisoners of war until their camp was liberated. Both men were awarded the Military Cross for their trip to Guernsey for “displayed the highest qualities of fortitude and bravery throughout”.
Symes went on to win a second MC in Malaya in 1955 for anti terrorist work. He finally retired from the army in 1971. You can read his obituary here
Hubert Nicolle returned to Guernsey and was very active in the community as well as being an insurance salesman. I was privileged to have known Hubert or Mr Nicolle as we called him. He was a past pupil of the school that I attended, Elizabeth College, and was actively involved in college activities when I was a pupil in the 1980s. Little did I know that the gentleman that often started swimming races with a starting pistol was used to more deadly weapons!
A plaque was erected at the College Field Pavilion commemorating the actions of Nicolle and Symes.
I have only been able to touch on a fraction of the story here so if you would like to read more about the operation I recommend you track down a copy of William Bell’s “The Commando Who Came Home To Spy” which is out of print but you can pick up for a few pounds second hand on Amazon, eBay or from a second hand book shop.
If you would like to listen to the whole interview with James Symes you can find it here .
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© Nick Le Huray
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