Zirnheld was born in Paris in 1913 to a Jewish family originally from Alsace. He studied at the Pensionnat diocésain de Passy, a private Catholic school in the city, and graduated in philosophy.
Before the outbreak of World War Two Zirnheld was appointed the professor of philosophy at the Lycee Carnot de Tunis in Tunis, Tunisia. and in 1938 he served as the professor at the French Secular Mission in Tartus.
When the war began, Zirnheld volunteered his services and was assigned to an anti-aircraft unit in Lebanon but after the surrender of France he defected to British-held Palestine and joined the Free French forces.
He served at the Battle of Sidi Barani as a private in the 1st Colonial Infantry Battalion but because of his education, he was reassigned as the Deputy Director of the Department of Information and Propaganda in Cairo.
This was a relatively safe posting and yet Zirnheld was keen to see frontline action and so he was sent for officer training in Brazzaville in the French Congo where he graduated with the rank of lieutenant.
He trained as a paratrooper and in 1942 he joined the unit that was to become the 3rd French Special Air Service, adopting the model of David Stirling’s SAS.
Zirnfeld was a character straight out of French central casting
The title Special Sir Service had originally been coined as a ruse to convince the Germans that the British had more paratroops than they actually had but was then adopted by the then small band of men that made up the budding special forces group that operated in North Africa in 1941. And although they were trained, parachutists, they operated deep behind enemy lines and travelled there not by plane but by the jeeps and trucks of the Long Range Desert Group.
As Ben MacIntyre says in his book SAS Rogue Heroes, ‘Zirnfeld was a character straight out of French central casting: intellectual, poetic, handsome and unfeasibly brave.’ He adapted to the hard SAS way of life, spending weeks deep in the desert attacking German and Italian airfields.
The usual tactic was to attack at night, driving their jeeps in an inverted V formation and shooting the aircraft with the mounted heavy machine guns before disappearing back into the desert.
Zirnfeld’s fourth and last mission was the attack on the airfield at Sidi Haneish on the night of 26th June 1942. The 18-strong jeep force destroyed 37 bomber and transport planes but as they prepared to leave, Zirnheld’s jeep was immobilised when the tyres were shot out. He was picked up by another of his team’s three jeeps and when the morning mist lifted they found themselves dangerously exposed in the open desert.
At around midday, they were spotted by the aircraft sent out to pursue the attackers which strafed the men, wounding Zirnheld in the shoulder and abdomen. After nine attacks, the aircraft ran out of ammunition and returned to their base leaving all jeeps riddled with bullets. One was still functioning and Zirnheld was loaded aboard in the hope of getting him back for medical help but he was too badly wounded to withstand the jolting journey and they were forced to hole up in a wadi.
Zirnheld died at around midnight and was buried in the desert, his grave marked by a cross made from a packing case. Among his belongings was a poem that he had written that is now known as the paratroopers’ prayer and is the official poem of the French airborne forces translated into English below.
The Prayer of the Paratrooper
I ask You, O Lord, to give me
What I cannot obtain for myself.
Give me, my Lord, what you have left.
Give me what no one asks of you.
I do not ask for repose
Nor for tranquillity
Of body or soul.
I ask not for riches,
Nor success, nor even health.
My Lord, you are asked for such things so much
That you cannot have any more of them.
Give me, my God, what you have left.
Give me what others don’t want.
I want uncertainty and battle.
And give them to me absolutely, O Lord,
So that I can be sure of having them always.
For I will not always have the courage
To ask for them from you.
Give me, my God, what you have left.
Give me what others do not want.
But give me also the bravery,
And the strength and the faith.
For these are the things, O Lord,
That only you can give.