Today is the birthday of Sir Anthony Quayle. When one thinks of Quayle, the first thing that comes to mind is the blockbuster films he was involved in: Lawrence of Arabia, The Fall of the Roman Empire, Anne of a Thousand Days (for which he was nominated for both an Oscar and a Golden Globe), Operation Crossbow, QB VII, Masada, The Eagle Has Landed, and many more.

Quayle was normally cast as the “stiff-upper-lip” type and the good-natured English gentleman.

But perhaps the most intriguing role he played in the film industry was the Guns of Navarone. In it, he portrayed a Special Forces operative, Major Roy Franklin, the commander of an ad-hoc unit sent to knock out the German guns on a fictional island. That island covers the strait through which the Royal Navy will come to the rescue of 2,000 British soldiers.

As it turns out, his playing that role is quite the coincidence. During the Second World War, Quayle was an officer in the British Special Operations Executive (SOE) and was stationed in Albania.

Guns of Navarone cast including David Niven, Gregory Peck, Quayle, and Anthony Quinn.

Quayle was born on September 7, 1913, in Ainsdale, Southport, Lancashire to a Manx (a mixture of Gaelic, Norse, and English) family. He was educated at the private Abberley Hall School and Rugby School and trained at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA) in London. After appearing in music hall, he joined the Old Vic in 1932. He made his Broadway debut in 1936. Due to WWII, he not appear in Broadway again until 1970. Yet, his reappearance would win him a Drama Desk Award for his performance in Sleuth

When Britain declared war on Germany in 1939, Quayle was just 26 and was made an officer. One of his first assignments was to Auxilliary Units or “Auxunits” in Northumberland. These were the stay-behind units that would fight a guerrilla war in the case of a German invasion. One of their training exercises was to test the defenses of the 51st Highland Division headquarters in Middleton Hall, two miles north of Belford.

In a chronicle of the Auxunits, Quayle was quoted in relaying the story of their exercise:

“It was sometime after 1 a.m. when the patrol rendezvoused at the high wall surrounding the house. Inside, there was silence. Each man knew his task and they slid off, faces blackened, into the grounds. What happened not only proved the Scots HQ. was vulnerable-it also tested their patience. Amazingly, the patrol infiltrated the entire building, they planted “time pencils—a thunderflash type instrument—under the beds of the sleeping troops. They crept into the guard-house unseen and left more “pencils” as an abrupt “awakener” for the recumbent guard. Under each vehicle, they planted pseudo-limpet bombs. “I cannot recall if on this occasion they even used plastic explosives. It would have been very dangerous, of course, but those lads were capable of that kind of trick. The place was really badly protected” said Quayle. Tasks completed, the patrol slipped back and returned to their homes.”