In 1916, nine-year-old Paddy Ryan was caught in a shootout between the Irish Republican Army and British troops. One of the British men pushed Ryan to the ground, taking a bullet for the young boy. It inspired Ryan to join the Army.
Except Paddy Ryan wouldn’t join the British Army until 1930. But Alfonsus Gilligan, as Ryan was known at the time joined as soon as he could. And deserted shortly after.
Deserters in the era of the second world war left for many reasons; few of them were actually for cowardice. Most of them were actually because months and years of endless combat pushed many of the frontline British troops past their breaking point.
The British Empire abolished the death penalty for desertion after World War I. In World War II Europe, deserters ran the black markets of occupied countries like France and the Netherlands. In Africa, deserters were often recruited into special operations forces like the British SAS.
Alfonsus Gilligan deserted because he wanted to avoid a court martial.
The 17-year-old wore his Irish Guards uniform to a public event in County Cork, Ireland — in defiance of British Army rules. The Irish, who just fought a war of independence against Britain, started a riot. Gilligan escaped unharmed, but was brought up on charges. He never returned to his London-based unit.
He spent a few years as an itinerant farmer and day laborer before he rejoined the British Army with a new name: Frank “Paddy” Ryan.
He and his fellow Royal Warwickshires deployed to France in 1940. He was part of the rear guard that held back the Nazis at Dunkirk, delaying them long enough for most of the men to make it off the beaches.
The Royal Warwickshire Regiment was overrun at Wormhoudt, in northern France, by the German army. They ran out of ammunition and surrendered with the expectation of proper treatment under the Geneva Convention.
Instead, a Nazi Waffen SS division called Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler took many of Ryan’s friends and brothers from the Royal Warwickshires, along with members of the Cheshire Regiment, Royal Artillery and a handful of French soldiers, to a barn near Wormhoudt, and then murdered them with grenades and rifle fire.
This became known as the Wormhoudt Massacre. Paddy Ryan was not among those killed. He fought on along the Ypres-Comines Canal as they made their way to the beach, being evacuated and returning to England on June 1, 1940.
His daughter didn’t discover her father’s first life until after his death in 2000. It inspired her and her husband to explore his life in more detail.