Entry from October 6, 2010

For one in an occasional series inspired by the deaths of old soldiers and others who have accomplished honorable and important things in the world and so reminded us of what it is to live life well, I call your attention to the obituary in yesterday’s (London) Daily Telegraph of Captain Albert Peter “Mickie” O’Brien, M.C. dead at 89. Born the son of an officer in the Royal Marines, as the Telegraph tells us, Captain O’Brien “lived his childhood in barracks, and was commissioned into his father’s corps in 1940.” He received the Military Cross, Britain’s third highest award for valor, in Normandy.

In the early morning of July 23, 1944, O’Brien, commanding Y Troop of 47 (RM) Commando, was leading a patrol on a covert raid on the German lines east of Sallenelles, behind the beaches, when a man trod on a mine and surprise was lost. The enemy lit the battlefield with flares and opened fire with heavy machineguns. O’Brien, with total disregard for danger and by his personal example and determination, rallied his patrol and charged forward to quell the enemy. When he returned to his own lines with an officer prisoner, O’Brien learned that some of his patrol were missing and immediately returned through defensive fire into the minefield. He stayed there until daybreak to supervise the rescue of the wounded.

I particularly liked this bit at the end of the story. “Asked later how he coped with the horror and destruction around him and the prospect of imminent death, O’Brien replied he had the perfect temperament: a strong sense of fatalism and no imagination. He was awarded an immediate MC.”

Not, it has to be said, that he was a model officer. The bravest often aren’t. The Telegraph goes on to describe an incident from his subsequent career in France when

the relief of reaching Fécamp a few weeks later was a setback for O’Brien, who liberated too much of the town’s Benedictine. In consequence he received a blast from his Commanding Officer, who threatened to subject his wayward subordinate to an orchidectomy (with a blunt knife) and partial garrotting, with the coup de grâce delivered by firing squad. The reprimand left O’Brien sweating and trembling, but also trying desperately to commit the tirade to memory for future use, should he ever become a senior officer himself and need to employ it. He was posted to the Far East.

There, in Burma, he was wounded, recovered from his wounds and became a climbing instructor. After retiring from the army in 1950, he became a catering manager and rose to be chairman of the company. The coda goes like this.

When he retired again in 1973 he moved successively to Australia, Cyprus, Florida, Costa Rica, Malta, Majorca and finally Oliva, in Spain, where he died. His lifelong friend was his officer’s servant, “Mint” Burkenshaw, so called because he was always late — or, in rhyming slang “After Eight” — on parade. O’Brien used to claim that his blood group was Johnny Walker scotch whisky, and summed himself up thus: “I revere the Crown. The Law (when it’s not an ass!). The aged. I have faith and believe in the Creator.”

I hope and trust that the Creator, like his old comrades living and dead and the rest of us, believes in him too. R.I.P.

Discover more from James Bowman

Subscribe to get the latest posts to your email.

Similar Posts