Copyright © 2007 Peter Manchester B.Sc (Hons). All rights reserved.

Personal site of Peter Manchester

John Renshaw Starr

John Renshaw Starr

John Starr was a son of Ethel Renshaw, (the third daughter of William Robert Renshaw) and of Alfred Demarest Starr, a book keeper from the United States who became a naturalised British subject.

John was a poster artist by profession and before war broke out in 1939, lived in Paris with his French wife. His attempts to join the Royal Air Force via the office of the Military Attaché in Paris were obstructed by the fact that his father was an American. Having sent his wife and child to his parents' home in Newcastle-under-Lyme, he had to wait until 1940, obtaining special permission from the War Office, before he was allowed to join the army. Having already spent several years with the Officer Training Corps he was sent for ten days training with the King's Own Scottish Borderers, stationed in Rouen, before being assigned to the Field Security Police in Nantes. The German breakthrough in France soon precipitated his return to England, with his companions, via St Nazaire.

For several weeks he continued his training with the Field Security Police in Winchester, before the army discovered his skills as a poster artist and he was assigned to the War Office, designing posters and drawing officers' portraits. After several months he applied for more important work and was commissioned into the S.O.E. In August 1942 he was parachuted into Valence in the south of France. His mission proved relatively uneventful, and he returned to England via Gibraltar, embarking from Cassis on the the same boat which had brought his brother George in.

In the spring of 1943 he returned to France, again by parachute, to begin his second mission to build an organisation around St Etienne and Dijon, known as the Acrobat network.

In July he was captured by the S.S. and placed in the custody of the Sicherheits Dienst in Dijon. In Dijon he was shot in the thigh attempting to escape, and interrogated under torture. After five weeks he was transferred to Paris, where he was held first in Fresnes prison, and then at the Paris headquarters of the S.D. at 84 Avenue Foch, where he enjoyed relative liberty in custody. While there he acquired considerable knowledge concerning the extent of German penetration of S.O.E., in particular, the use of captured radio sets and codes.

In October he met Noor Inayat Khan, another SOE prisoner, with whom at the end of November he attempted to escape, together with a French Colonel (Léone Faye). The attempt failed owing to a delay caused by Khan's initial inability to get out through the skylight of her cell, and a subsequent air-raid during which the cells were checked. He remained a prisoner in the Avenue Foch until August 1944 when he was transferred to Sachsenhausen concentration camp, near Berlin.

Before leaving he learned that Berlin had ordered his execution three times; orders which his captor, S.S. Stürmbannführer Kieffer had refused to carry out. (After the war, Starr was able to confirm this fact for himself by making enquiries with the Paris police authorities.)

In Sachsenhausen he narrowly escaped execution when the other British prisoners were hanged. He had been separated from them by a typhus outbreak which resulted in him being quarantined. Shortly after this incident, knowing the fate of his fellow-officers, he smuggled himself into a group of hundreds of prisoners who were being evacuated to another camp. His destination turned out to be Mauthausen extermination camp in Austria, where he arrived in February 1945. As the end of the war in Europe approached however, French and Belgian prisoners were released from Mauthausen and, posing as a Frenchman with the assistance of other prisoners, he was taken by the Red Cross to Switzerland, where he was interned until the war actually ended. He finished the war with the rank of Captain.

The story has something of a sting in the tail, however. His conduct towards the enemy while in captivity in Paris was considered highly questionable and although not actually considered a traitor, he found himself cold-shouldered by the military establishment.

After the war John Starr opened a night-club in Hanley, Staffordshire, in partnership with the brothers Alfred and Henry Newton, S.O.E. agents whom he had met during his training and also at the Avenue Foch. The Newton brothers had been in the Buchenwald concentration camp. He later returned to live in Paris, before moving to Switzerland. He bore a remarkable physical resemblance to my father, Thomas Lee Manchester (1918-1995) with whom he maintained a regular correspondence until my father died in 1995.

John Starr died at his home in Switzerland in late 1996 or early 1997.