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.

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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.”

Quayle joined SOE in 1943. Winston Churchill had established SOE which was known as the “Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare.” Its purpose was to conduct espionage, sabotage, and reconnaissance in occupied Europe against the Axis powers, and to aid local resistance movements. SOE would later also operate in southeast Asia.

Quayle, who was then a major, was sent to Albania on December 31, 1943. He was dropped with a wireless operator at Tragjas. There, he briefly met the man he was replacing, Jerry Field, who had been badly injured in an accident. 

A declassified British report recounts an after-action review written by Quayle. On this particular operation, where the partisans under SOE guidance had succeeded in the blowing up of a bridge at the village of Palasso, Quayle said, “The reprisals the Huns carried out resulted in the villagers running like rabbits to the hills.” Quayle continued SOE’s work with the Albanian partisans under Enver Hoxha. 

Quayle was in Albania for just over three months. There, he got sick with malaria and jaundice. He described his joy at leaving as “so great that it was almost pain. I jolted along in the back of the truck sobbing with happiness.”

After Quayle’s war service, he wrote his first novel, “Eight Hours From England.” Although it was written as fiction, the protagonist, John Overton, very closely mirrors Quayle’s own time in Albania. Therefore, the book reads more like a memoir than a work of fiction.

Perhaps, his choice of making it a novel was since it was published so close to the end of the war, his confidentiality agreement with the government would not allow it to be published as a memoir. 

His “novel,” which was originally published in 1945, was one of the earliest accounts to be published by any ex-SOE officer. It shows the dilemmas faced by Special Operations operatives in their having to deal with occupied populations. It also portrays the challenges they faced in trying to accomplish their mission while maintaining the sympathies of the local population.

Quayle was knighted in 1985. 

Happy Birthday to Sir Anthony Quayle!