A member of Churchill's Special Army, Muriel was never captured but never returned home
- Credit: Torbay Civic Society
Ian Handford, chairman of Torbay Civic Society, gives us the who and how each of Torbay’s Blue Plaques was chosen. This week: Muriel Byck
This plaque event was one of our most remarkable ever.
With the Jewish community involved, it ensured large numbers of people from the Hebrew community would be attending the ceremony at St Luke's Church Hall, Sheddon Hill, a mere 100 yards from Bayfort Mansions on Warren Road, Torquay, the family home of Muriel Byck before she joined the SOE.
Muriel Tamara Byck was born in London on June 4, 1918, the daughter of French Jewish parents with British nationality.
A dark-haired, petite but very frail girl, Muriel was fluent in French, Russian and some German but very good English.
Prior to World War Two she worked for the Red Cross in London but in Torquay joined the WVS and was an ARP Warden until December 1942 when joining the WAAFs.
But on witnessing the Luffwaffe bomb Torquay, Muriel wanted to do more for the British war effort and when Bayfort Mansions received a direct bomb on May 30, 1943, two months later she was being recruited into Churchill's Special Army - the SOE (Special Operation Executive).
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Her multi-lingual skills and colloquial French made her an ideal applicant, although we learned later meningitis as a child ensured frailty, which she kept from the SOE, fearing this would mean rejection.
In France, her mission as a wireless transmission operator under Major Phillipe Albert de Vomecourt in the Orleans-Blois area, was to also help local aspiring operators.
Her first transmission was sent out on May 7, 1944, and subsequently 27 more went, while she received 16 - never on the same set or at the same hour.
She encoded, sent and received messages while other 'circuits' were helped. At one secret station in a junk yard often visited by the Germans, Muriel spotted an eye peering through a crack and so quickly finished her transmission, threw dust over the table, packed the equipment and left.
She was extremely lucky - a squad of 40 Germans arrived, to find... nothing.
When Major Phillipe's group discovered London was to be bombed, having found the supply ammunition supply dump at Michenon, it was bombed by the RAF on May 7.
The very next evening Muriel was taken seriously ill and with physicians attending (risky), meningitis was finally diagnosed. Her leader took her to Romorantin hospital as her 'uncle' while announcing they were evacuees from Paris.
With an operation undertaken at 7pm on May 23, sadly Muriel died in her leader's arms.
Now buried secretly under a false name in a zinc coffin, this could be removed after the war if desired. In fact, Muriel was eventually re-interred at the Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemetery Pornic, St Nazaire, where an inscription reads 'Here rests in peace Muriel Tamara Byck, our only child and beloved daughter'.
Sixty nine years later, Torbay Civic Society's Blue Plaque would be unveiled. It was the second Torquay plaque to honour an operator of the SOE, the first to Eileen Nearne MBE who having survived two German concentration camps, came to Torquay, whereas Muriel never captured, never returned home.
With guests from the French Embassy, RAF, WAAF, British Legion, Hebrew congregations from Bristol, Exeter, Totnes and Civil Defence Torbay - plus 'Fred' from FANY (First Aid Nursing Yeomanry) and Peter Foreman with family representing Turning Point Heritage Trust, the big surprise to me was 'Fred', a woman in full military uniform representing FANY.
The plaque once formally unveiled in the church hall at 3pm on June 4, 2013, was immediately fitted to the outer wall of Baycourt Mansions (today private apartments).
Meanwhile, in the hall, a little history was given, while a 'Lament for Muriel' was read by Martin Sugarman (Jewish Military Museum) before a Hebrew prayer in Jewish and English was related.
Today, the Blue Plaque is still the only one in Torbay that carries Jewish words which when translated mean 'Be strong and of good courage'.
A Torbay Civic Society pamphlet Muriel T Byck can still be obtained by sending stamps of 50p plus a stamped envelope to Torbay Civic Society, 1 Palace Avenue Business Centre, 4 Palace Avenue, Paignton TQ3 3HA.