Jack Byrne, born in Preston, enlisted in the 1st Battalion, The Gordon Highlanders, in February 1939. At the Fall of France he was twice wounded, first by shrapnel and then by a deep bayonet thrust just above the groin in a bloody hand to hand encounter during the 51st Highland Division’s rearguard action on the Dunkirk perimeter. Left for dead in the bottom of a trench, he was found in semi-conscious condition by two French civilians who carried him to the beachhead, whence he was evacuated to England. Byrne and another survivor of the 1st Gordons, Lieutenant Bill Fraser, next transferred to the newly-raised 11th Commando, which having been drawn from the pick of the Scottish regiments underwent rigorous training on the Isle of Arran during the autumn and winter. In January 1941, 11th (Scottish) Commando embarked for service in the eastern Mediterranean with ‘LAYFORCE’, and in early June spearheaded the Allied invasion of Vichy-occupied Syria with an amphibious landing and a classic infantry assault in broad daylight across the Litani River; Byrne being part of Fraser’s Troop of Gordon Highlanders which for the purposes of this operation was the part of the Commando under Major (later Lt-Col.) Geoffrey Keyes (the V.C. of the Rommel Raid).
By the time 11 Commando returned to Egypt, the decision had been taken to disband Layforce. Byrne was reluctant to return to his original unit and it was therefore a matter of considerable interest when Fraser told him and three others of the Gordons Troop that a Scots Guards officer called Captain David Stirling was looking for volunteers to join a new independent command consisting of seven officers and fifty nine other ranks, to be known as ‘L’ Detachment of the Special Air Service Brigade - the original S.A.S. formation. The Special Air Service Brigade did not of course exist, but H.Q. Middle East was anxious for the Germans to think it did. Byrne volunteered and was immediately accepted, and next found himself undergoing gruelling training at a fly-blown and spartan camp, consisting of three tents at Karbit on the Bitter Lakes. Toughness was the order of the day. Weapon training included stripping every known make of gun, including all those of the enemy, and long marches were made into the desert carrying crippling loads. In the absence of proper parachute training facilities recruits were made to practice jumps by rolling off trucks traveling at thirty miles per hour. It was soon discovered that forward rolls worked fairly well but backward rolls were somewhat disastrous.
On completion of parachute training from Bombay aircraft, Byrne took part in ‘L’ Detachment’s first operational jump on the night of 16 November 1941. The objective was the destruction of enemy aircraft on five airfields between Timini and Gazala on the eve of Operation Crusader - Auchinleck’s attack to relieve Tobruck. Conditions on the chosen night, however, were wholly unsuitable; there was no moon and high winds whipped up clouds of dust which made accurate navigation impossible. None of the parachutists landed within ten miles of the pre-arranged drop zones, and only a handful of the supply cannisters could be found. At least two men were killed on landing by being dragged along the ground and many others suffered broken bones and minor injuries. Reluctantly Stirling cancelled the mission and struck out for the rendezvous with the Chevrolet trucks of the Long Range Desert Group. Only four officers and eighteen other ranks, out of a total of fifty-three, returned to the safety of British lines. It was the first and last parachute operation in the desert. Thereafter Stirling decided that approaches must be made courtesy of the LRDG.
In December, Byrne, Fraser and three other survivors of ‘L’ Detachment were detailed to attack aircraft on Agebadia airfield prior to the advance of an amoured battle group. The five-man party left Gialo Oasis in trucks of the LRDG’s ‘S’ (Rhodesian) Patrol on 17 December and were dropped off fifteen miles from the target to make the final approach on foot. After dark on the 18th, Byrne, crouching at the perimeter fence, was given the silent signal to take his turn at the front and lead the raiding force on to the airfield. Lewes bombs, fitted with two hour time pencils were attached to thirty aircraft without hindrance. When the first of these exploded, Fraser and Byrne distrubuted the remaining seven bombs amongst an equal number of brand new Me-109 F’s, engaging the alternative 14-second pull-switch on each bomb. With the whole airfield lit up as bright as day, and the German defences suffering from the misapprehension that they were under air attack, Byrne and the others made good their escape, and at length rendezvoused with the Rhodesians. The return journey was marred by a ‘friendly fire’ incident in which two of the Rhodesians were killed by RAF Blenheims.
On Christmas Eve 1941, the same five-man team, Fraser, Tait, Duvivier, Phillips and Corporal Byrne, set out to attack aircraft on an airfield near Mussolini’s Marble Arch monument on the border of Tripolitana. On this occasion there were no aircraft on the strip and the party retired to the RV, but the LRDG truck failed to turn up. Having waited seven days and having consumed most of their meagre water supply, the team decided to walk the 200 miles back to British lines, thus commencing an eight day battle against thirst and despair which Virginia Cowles described in her book The Phantom Major as ‘one of the great adventures of the African campaign’. Having relieved the enemy of water and rations at gunpoint, and having hijacked and been forced to abandon a German staff car, they ultimately contacted an armoured car patrol of the King’s Dragoon Guards on 10 January 1942.
On 15 March 1942 Byrne left Siwa in the south western corner of the Qattara Depression with a 20-strong SAS party under David Stirling to attack four Axis airfields at Berca, Benina, Barce and Slonta. After travelling 400 miles with the LRDG, the party was dropped off and split into four teams. Byrne’s team, consisting of Bennett and Rose, was commanded by perhaps the most famous of Stirling’s officers, the ex-Ireland rugby international and legendary ‘Rogue Warrior of the SAS’, Paddy Blair Mayne, whose enormous physical strength had on one occasion enabled him to rip the instrument panel out of an Me-109 with his bare hands. The four-man team made its way to Berca lying eight miles south of Benghazi, and went to work shortly after midnight. Byrne and Rose deposited a bomb inside the barrel of an anti-aircraft gun and went on to place others in a series of petrol dumps, while Mayne and Bennett dealt with a line of aircraft. In due course the bombs exploded. Byrne felt that he and Rose were too late to make the first of the two pre-arranged RV’s, and they argued with the result that Rose struck out for the first and Byrne for the second. At dawn Byrne found himself alone and confronted by another 200 mile journey to the nearest Allied position. He set off under a burning sun and covered 30 miles on the first day, having resolved to drink from his precious two-pint water-bottle at dusk only. He walked through the night and continued next day until forced to a halt by a sandstorm. On the third day he threw away his Tommy gun, and was violently sick when he tried to drink the last of his water which had turned to slime through repeated swilling. On the fourth day his life was saved by Arabs who gave him water and food, and on the fifth day, when 70 miles from Allied lines, he stumbled into a German patrol. A German officer emerged from the turret of a tank and ran towards him.
Byrne recalled: ‘He stopped about three feet away, breathing heavily, his pistol held in front of him within inches of my face. As I yanked my revolver from its holster and flung it on the ground, the German, either, nervous or sensing defiance drew back his pistol to strike me, then fired point-blank into my face. I fell, half stunned, face down in the sand, blood spurting from nose and temple.’ Shortly afterwards Byrne was brought before a General commanding a large concentration of vehicles laagered nearby, who gave instructions that he should be classified as an aircrew POW, which meant that he would be flown to Germany, instead of being shipped to Italy as was normal with Army POW’s.
Having received several savage beatings at the hands of an Italian officer and guards on account of his ‘saboteur’ satus, he was flown to Athens by Junkers 52, and taken by rail to Dulag Luft, the Allied aircrew interrogation centre near Frankfurt, whence he was sent to the NCO’s Compound at Stalag Luft III (Sagan). Finding no opportunity to escape, he volunteered to work as an officer’s servant in the hope of being moved to another camp, and in September 1942 was transferred Oflag XXI B (Schubin), from which he escaped in October while acting as swill orderly in the camp pigsties. He was recaptured riding a bicylcle through Schubin by a civilian and a soldier. On his second attempt (15-20 March 1943), he hid in a garage while on coal fatigue. Having removed his uniform to reveal pin-striped trousers and morning coat, he made his way to the pigsties where he found another bicycle and pedalled towards the nearby town of Bromberg. He spent the next night in a wood and while wandering about fell into a pond and got soaked. He proceeded south then east and became lost in some marshes - the place names on his maps being in Polish. On the 18th and 19th he boarded several empty trains and was shunted from one place to another. On the 20th he was accosted when changing trains by a German railway worker and handed over to the police who identified him from a police gazette. He was returned to Stalag Luft III under guard and given 24 days in the cooler.
On 16 July 1943 Byrne and five RAF aircrew spent the night at a transit camp at Königsberg while en route to Stalag Luft VI at Heidekrug. Next morning he lowered himself into a latrine drain and passed into a neighbouring Russian compound from which he escaped by breaking through a rusty fence with his bare hands - the whole procedure taking about five minutes. That night he went to Königsberg docks and fell in with some French forced labour. Supplied with a suit of blue overalls, food, money and much advice, Byrne stole a bicycle on the 19th and by a circuitous route, induced by the necessity of by-passing several checkpoints, arrived in Danzig at dawn on the 21st having spent the intervening nights up a tree and in an old signal box. With help of another Frenchman he reached the docks and, mingling with a working party, slipped past a lethargic German guard as it began to rain and boarded a Swedish ship. He hid in the bowels of the ship for the next two days until at last it began to move. A few hours later he revealed himself to the crew and demanded and interview with the Captain who duly congratulated him on his escape.
Byrne returned to the UK from Sweden in an unarmed Mosquito on 14 August 1943, and after a period of recuperation and gruelling re-training at the Commando Depot, Achnacary, was posted 6 Commando, which formed part of Lord Lovat’s 1st Special Service Brigade, with the rank of Lance-Sergeant. In April 1944, he was selected to take part in a carefully scripted campaign to promote the sale of National Savings Certificates with General Sir Frederick Pile, commander of the City of London’s AA defences, which involved addressing an enthusiastic crowd in Trafalgar Square and taking part in a BBC radio broadcast. In May he went into a sealed camp with 6 Commando on the south coast and on D-Day landed on Queen Red section of Sword Beach. He was wounded in the leg during the bitter fighting that accompanied the link up with the 6th Airborne Division on the Caen Canal and River Orne, and was evacuated to the UK. He returned to 6 Commando in time to take part in the hard fighting through Maasbracht in Holland and, promoted to full Sergeant, took part in the crossing of the Rhine at Wesel. In April 1945 he was present at the crossing of the Dortmund-Ems Canal and the capture of Leese. Having crossed the Aller, he took part in the capture at bayonet point of entrenched positions held by fanatical German Marines. On the 29 April 1945 he crossed the Elbe and fought through the night to secure a vital bridge on the Elbe-Trave Canal.
With the war over, Byrne served with the 4th Norfolks in Greece and the 2nd Royal Fusiliers in Egypt until being demobbed in February 1947. He then served with the Kenya Police until the start of the Malayan emergency in 1948. Within a week of his posting to the Kulai Police District in Johore, he shot dead and severely wounded two terrorists on a rubber plantation. He was finally forced to retire in 1953 after an encounter with a Malayan terrorist who shot him in the stomach at point blank range. In after years he published his wartime adventures under a title borrowed from the Savings Certificates campaign, The General Salutes a Soldier.
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