The British Empire Library

The General Salutes a Soldier

By J. V. Byrne

Courtesy of OSPA

Review by E.C.S.
Before this book even starts (the introduction tells us) the author has already survived the Dunkirk campaign, fought with 11 Commando in Syria, taken part in the SAS parachute attack on Gazala and Timimi, and been wounded twice. A man who can omit such events must indeed have a story to tell. And what a story it is!

The opening shot is a night raid on a North African desert airstrip far behind enemy lines, and from then on all is tension and excitement. There follow a further sabotage mission; two desperate desert marches; capture and interrogation by the enemy; two attempted escapes from prison camp; a successful break-out; and commando action in the Normandy landings.

A war-novelist could hardly invent more dramatic material, but Byrne wisely avoids sensationalism. His descriptions are sufficiently detailed to set the scene, but the events speak for themselves. This is unmistakably the ‘genuine article‘.

Nor is it merely a tale of gung-ho heroics - though quiet courage there is in plenty, shown by people as diverse as an Italian barber, a Greek serving-girl, French forced labourers and, of course, Byrne’s fellow soldiers. Indeed the book covers virtually the whole spectrum of human experience in wartime. With us, Byrne re-lives the horror of stumbling into a mass grave; the depair of facing hundreds of miles of desert without water and alone; the pain of being beaten by his captors; the deprivations of imprisonment; the bestial sadism of the Gestapo towards Polish civilians; the savagery of close-quarters combat; and the sadness of losing friends. But there are also the acts of kindness from unexpected quarters; the selfless comradeship of the prisoner-ofwar camp; the joy of reaching saftey; and the gratitude and good-sense of senior officers (including the general who salutes the author).

What really gives the book its character, though, are its insights into the quirks and incongruities of war. Even the ‘iron discipline’ of the German army is no match for the frailties and vagaries of human nature. We have the confused German conscripts who lose Byrne’s captured revolver; the SS soldier who nearly laughs at his absurd escort drill; the prison camp guard who reads a book while Byrne slides under the wire. Most extraordinary of all, we have the chaotic journey across Europe during which Byrne’s escorts make him drink beer with them, bottle for bottle, so as not to be disadvantaged. Other grimmer episodes border on the surreal. A German offier shoots the newly-captured Byrne in the face, then apologises - he only meant to pistol-whip him! The Italians beat him up so badly that he can hardly walk, then march him out... for a haircut.

This is a truly remarkable story, which will not just be of interest to ex-soldiers and those who were with the Colonial Service in Malaya, where Byrne was later a policeman, but to anyone who likes to read of human fortitude and endurance.

British Empire Book
J. V. Byrne
Robert Hale


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