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American agent of French Section, SOE remembered at Brookwood Military Cemetery

Following hard on the heels of the commemoration of two Canadian agents at Brookwood on 11th November 2017, another French Section agent, Lieutenant Robert ‘Bud’ Byerly, was similarly remembered at Brookwood on 12th November 2017 – Remembrance Sunday. The occasion was the annual US Veterans Day event in the American plot at Brookwood – managed and hosted by the American Battle Monuments Commission and organised by the Daughters of the American Revolution.

In addition to the emphasis on WW1, the Secret WW2 Learning Network ensured that, for the first time, Lieutenant Byerly, listed on the Brookwood Memorial to the Missing 1939-45 which is adjacent to the American plot, was remembered.

Robert ‘Bud’ Byerly was born a US citizen on 20 March 1918 in Passaic, New Jersey, USA. Working as a journalist for Associated Press in Paris, he experienced the German occupation first hand in 1940, but left France after three months, determined to fight the Germans. Despairing of the USA’s neutrality, he made his way to Montréal in the spring of 1941 and despite being a US national, successfully volunteered for the Canadian Army. He was posted to the Royal Canadian Corps of Signals where he became a proficient radio operator.

By 1943 he was serving with No. 1 Wireless Section, 2 Company, 1st Royal Canadian Corps of Signals but, bored with his relative inactivity, he responded to a trawl by SOE of UK-based Canadian forces, and of French-speaking signallers in particular, in the early summer of 1943. He joined French Section in June, retaining his Canadian Army service number and rank until later promoted by the Canadians, at SOE’s request, to Second Lieutenant (and later Lieutenant) in the Canadian General List.

His record while at STS 7, the Students’ Assessment Board at Winterfold, is remarkable for the frank and waspish comments of his conducting officer, examples being: ‘A well-educated intellectual American, rather effeminate in appearance, but not lacking in courage and determination’; ‘He is, I should think, rude to waiters and very pleasant to rich old ladies, at the moment he is pleasant to me and would like to be rude to the mess waiter’; and ‘his need for affection and friendships, those with women would not be amorous, those with men possibly’. But despite concerns over his character and suitability, Byerly was desperately needed as a W/T operator in France.

After his training, he was cleared to become an agent in the field and was appointed to serve the new SURVEYOR circuit, to be led by Lieutenant Roland Alexandre and charged with supporting a Résistance group of railway workers identified by Major France Antelme on an earlier mission. Byerly’s code name was BIOLOGIST and his field name was Gontrand.

He parachuted into France near Poitiers on the night of 6/7 February 1944 with Alexandre and two other agents destined for other circuits: Captain François Deniset and Lieutenant Jacques Ledoux. They were dropped by 138 Squadron Halifax from RAF Tempsford, but fell directly into the arms of a German-controlled reception committee.

The enemy had been relaying false radio messages, including the one arranging SURVEYOR’S reception, to London since the October arrest of Noor Inayat-Khan whose radio set and codes the Germans then used in their successful and deadly funkspiel. In his book ‘Between Silk and Cyanide’, Leo Marks recalled that when Byerly’s set came up on the air, his security checks were wrong and therefore, whether it was Byerly transmitting under duress, or the Germans operating his set, the young American had done his duty and London were able to flag SURVEYOR as compromised.

From the post-war investigations by Vera Atkins into the fates of F Section agents, it appears likely that Byerly was among the 19 French Section agents believed to have been shot at Gross-Rosen concentration camp in the summer of 1944.

We remember him.

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