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.