André Zirnheld

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André Zirnheld
Born 13 March 1913 (1913-03-13)
Died 27 June 1942 (1942-06-28) (age 29)
Benghazi, Libya
Allegiance  France,  Free French Forces
Service/branch French Army (1939)
Free French Forces (1940-1941)
Years of service 1939–41
Rank Aspirant
Unit
Battles/wars World War II
Awards Médaille militaire
Croix de guerre 1939–1945 avec deux palmes

André Louis Arthur Zirnheld (March 7, 1913 – June 27, 1942) was a French paratrooper, a member of the Free French Air Force, and a member of the French Squadron, Special Air Service during World War II. He is famous for being the first French paratrooper officer killed in action, and was the author of the poem "Prayer of The Paratrooper".

Personal life[edit]

Zirnheld was born in Paris to a family of Alsatian Jews

Zirnheld had been a pupil at the Pensionnat diocésain de Passy (a private Catholic school). A licensed and certified graduate of philosophy, Zirnheld was a college philosophy professor before the war. In 1937 Zirnheld was appointed professor of philosophy at the Lycee Carnot de Tunis in Tunis, Tunisia. In October 1938 Zirnheld served as professor at the French Secular Mission in Tartus, Tunisia.

Involvement in the Second World War[edit]

At the outbreak of the war in 1939, Zirnheld was assigned to a Défense Contre Avions (DCA) unit in Lebanon. Zirnheld tried to transfer to serve in the Metropolitan Army in France, but the Armistice was signed before he could do so. Zirnheld then defected to British-held Palestine to join the Free French forces. He was assigned to the 1st Colonial Infantry Battalion as a private and served at the Battle of Sidi Barani. Because of his education, he was reassigned as the Deputy Director of the Department of Information and Propaganda in Cairo. Although this was a "safe" position, he requested a frontline posting. He was then sent to the Officer Candidates' School in Brazzaville, French Congo, where he graduated 5th in his class as an Aspirant (Brevet-Lieutenant).

He was airborne trained and was assigned to the Middle East in February 1942 to the 1er Compagnie de Chasseurs Parachutistes, assigned to the Forces Aériennes Françaises Libres (FAFL = Free French Air Force). This was later folded into the 3rd French Special Air Service or French 3rd Parachute Chasseur Regiment. Although an officer in the Free French forces, Zirnheld was rated as a corporal in the SAS. This was because no officer slots were open at the time, Zirnheld had just joined the unit, and had no seniority. The SAS, originally conceived as an airborne formation, had at this point been converted to a raiding force equipped with machine-gun-armed jeeps.

On his first mission, Zirnheld commanded a team of four men who raided Luftwaffe airfield Berka 3, Libya on 12 June 1942, destroying six enemy aircraft on the ground. He then received, as all SAS after their first mission, his SAS operational wings or "Egyptian wings". His later missions included the sabotage of a railway track, attacks on Axis convoys, and taking Luftwaffe prisoners. For his actions, he was proposed for the French Médaille militaire and British Military Cross and received the Croix de guerre ("Cross of War") with 2 palmes en vermeil (gilded silver Palm Branch pins worn on the medal's ribbon, signifying two Theater-level Mentions-in-Dispatches).

The Sidi-Haneish Raid[edit]

Zirnheld's fourth and last mission was a raid on Sidi Haneish Airfield on the night of 26 June and the early morning of 27 June 1942. An 18-jeep force attacked the field by driving up the runway in an inverted "vee" formation and strafing the parked planes. 37 bombers and transports were destroyed for the loss of two SAS troopers. Zirnheld's jeep had a flat, but he was picked up by Aspirant François Martin. Zirnheld and Martin drove off, but Martin's jeep broke down, so they began traveling on foot. Three hours later, with the sun now up, a flight of four Stuka dive-bombers spotted them and strafed them. Zirnheld was hit in the shoulder and abdomen on their second pass. Zirnheld died of his wounds thirteen hours later. His last words to Martin were, Je vais vous quitter. Tout est en ordre en moi. (I am leaving you. Everything is in order within me.)

The Paratrooper's Prayer[edit]

While going through a notebook Martin recovered from Zirnheld's body, a text was found that would become La Prière du Para (The Paratrooper's Prayer). Zirnheld had apparently written it before the war, while working in Tunisia in 1938. It is now the official prayer of both the French, Portuguese and Brazilian Airborne forces. Zirnheld and his prayer has also been quoted partially or had its content edited to fit its intended audience. Zirnheld himself, virtually unknown outside France, has been adopted by Allied nations who mistake him for one of their own. He has been quoted by British and Dutch Paras and American Soldiers and Marines, making him a sort of movable "unknown soldier".

As for those who view Zirnheld as a man of peace, he was once quoted as saying: I need not complain about the war. Because of it, I have had to learn to live through anything. Because of it, you could say I have benefited, very greatly benefited even, than that of the life that I have led without it. It is on the contrary peace, that is the situation, the career that had been artificial and dangerous for my progress. After the war, the problem will be to discover a similar pace.

Burial[edit]

Zirnheld's body was first buried in an hastily dug grave in the Libyan desert by Aspirant Martin, who left directions and landmarks to help locate its' whereabouts. After the North African campaign, Zirnheld's remains were located and interred in the British military cemetery at Mersa Matruh, Egypt. After the war Zirnheld's remains were disinterred and sent back to France where they were placed in the family grave in Batignolles Cemetery.

Medals[edit]

Further legacy[edit]

  • Camp Aspirant Zirnheld is named after Zirnheld. Located north of Pau, it is one of the three sites of the School of Airborne Troops (and the location of MUSEE - MEMORIAL DES PARACHUTISTES).[1]
  • The fourth promotion (class of 1964-1965) of the École militaire interarmes is known as the promotion Zirnheld.[2]

See also[edit]

References[edit]