John Renshaw Starr
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John Renshaw Starr (died 1996), was one of two sons of Alfred Demarest Starr (an American) and Ethel Renshaw (English). He was a grandson of William Robert Renshaw. He was an artist and a soldier during the Second World War. His story is told in a book, The Starr Affair, by Jean Overton Fuller.
When war broke out in 1939, he was a poster artist living in Paris. Nine months earlier he had attempted to join the Royal Air Force but was prevented from doing so on the grounds that his father was American. In 1940, having obtained permission from the War Office, he joined the King's Own Scottish Borderers regiment of the British Army in Rouen before being assigned to the Field Security Police in Nantes. Following the German breakthrough in France, his unit was evacuated to England via Saint-Nazaire.
His first mission in Valence in August 1942 was relatively uneventful, and he returned to England, but in May 1943 he was sent back to build an organisation, to be known as the Acrobat network, around Saint-Étienne and Dijon.
Capture by Germans
On 18 July 1943 he was captured by the Germans and placed in the custody of the Sicherheitsdienst (or SD) in Dijon before being transferred to Fresnes prison in Paris (where he was shot attempting to escape, and then tortured), and eventually to the Paris headquarters of the SD at 84 Avenue Foch.
Several of his fellow-prisoners at the Avenue Foch suspected him of collaboration with the enemy although he made a failed escape attempt (according to his own account) together with another SOE prisoner, Noor Inyat Khan and a French Colonel named Léone Faye. He remained at Avenue Foch until 1944 when he was transferred to the concentration camp at Sachsenhausen near Berlin.
Many British prisoners at Sachsenhausen were executed by hanging, and according to his own account he avoided the same fate because of a quarantine resulting from a typhus outbreak within the camp, and the opportunity which arose to smuggle himself into a group of prisoners who were being transferred to the Mauthausen concentration camp near Linz in Upper Austria.
By exploiting his ability to pass himself off as a Frenchman, he joined a group of French and Belgian prisoners who were released into the custody of the Red Cross and taken to Switzerland as the war in Europe drew to a close.
Stories from other SOE agents who shared his captivity at the Avenue Foch resulted in doubts being raised about his loyalty, and his case became the subject of an MI5 investigation, which concluded that although his behaviour was certainly suspicious, there were no grounds for criminal prosecution.
After the war
After the war John Starr opened a night-club in Hanley, Staffordshire, in partnership with the brothers Alfred and Henry Newton, SOE 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, where he died in 1996.
He had a brother, George Reginald Starr, also a member of SOE