in a kilt who tackled a Panzer division on his own! (and
then accepted the surrender of 23,000 German soldiers)
By Tony Rennell
The undercover British officer crept silently through
the bushes, his tartan kilt a bizarre form of dress for
a man who did not want to be conspicuous.
Then he stopped to take in the awesome might of the
enemy. Through the gloom, he could make out the 15,000
battle-scarred men and 200 machines of the cruellest and
most feared of all the SS forces in war-torn France in
the summer of 1944.
Parked up for the night, their tanks, half-tracks and
heavy guns stretched as far as his eyes could see. How
could he and the tiny band of amateurish French
Resistance fighters he commanded possibly take on these
professional killers? Yet that, come what may, was his
Tommy Macpherson was an exceptional warrior-hero,
acknowledged by experts as one of the bravest, most
determined and resourceful British soldiers of WW II.
The notorious Das Reich panzer division was on its way
from southern France to Normandy to help repel the
Allied armies that had landed there on D-Day.
If they made the 450-mile journey in time, they could
well be the difference between victory and defeat —
which is why scores of Resistance units like this had
been mobilised to slow their progress by whatever means
they could . . . and at whatever cost.
That cost was already terrible. In towns and villages
of the Lot and Limousin regions, the bodies of
partisans swung from lampposts and telegraph poles as
the SS soldiers — veterans of barbaric battles on the
Russian front — ruthlessly took revenge on anyone who
got in their way.
This do-or-die sabotage halted the SS in its tracks.
And now they had reached the patch of 23-year-old Major
Tommy Macpherson — a fresh-faced former Fettes
schoolboy, athlete and aesthete and, before the war
intervened, a man destined for the dreaming spires of
Oxford rather than this bleak French backwater where
there was every chance of his being killed.
Macpherson was an exceptional warrior-hero, acknowledged
by experts as one of the bravest, most determined and
resourceful British soldiers of World War II. Today, at
90, he is Britain’s most decorated former soldier.
His story — told in his forthcoming autobiography — is
one of remarkable daring and danger, outstanding even in
the annals of that unique generation, as he fought his
very special war, almost entirely behind enemy lines.
He did indeed go up to Oxford after the war, gaining a
first-class degree. Today, he remains president of the
Oxford and Cambridge athletics club, having retired from
his career as a successful businessman: he was variously
a director of the National Coal Board and High Sheriff
of Greater London.
But inevitably nothing in his later life had quite the
drama of the extraordinary exploits he undertook in his
one-man war against the Nazis.
Recruited into the Army straight from the sixth form, he
was picked to be in the newly-formed elite band of
Commandos, and earmarked for specialist training to
carry out clandestine raids on enemy territory.
Tommy Macpherson took on a Nazi division almost
And so began an extraordinary series of escapades in
which he relied solely on his own cunning, bravery and
initiative to stay alive.
In North Africa in 1941, he slipped ashore from a
submarine on a reconnaissance mission.
But his sortie went disastrously wrong when the sub that
was supposed to collect him did not arrive, and he was
forced to trek for days on foot across the desert
towards his own lines, sabotaging enemy installations as
he went, only to be captured by Italian troops.
Held in a prisoner-of-war camp in Italy, he made several
attempts to escape but was caught each time. He was
handed over to the Germans and interrogated by the
Gestapo before ending up in a remote camp on the far
eastern borders of Germany.
He slipped away from there wearing a French uniform,
made it to the Baltic coast and stowed away on a ship to
His flamboyance made him a legend in France.
On his return home in November 1943, he could have been
forgiven for seeking a quiet life after two years at the
sharp end. Dodging bullets and Nazi forces, he had
already endured and survived more danger and hardship
than almost any other soldier.
But his unrivalled experience of clandestine operations
was vital to the war effort. He was needed for the
Special Operations Executive, to parachute into France
and gee-up the reluctant foot soldiers of the French
Resistance in the aftermath of D-Day.
At Churchill’s behest, he was to arm them, train them
and lead them in a guerrilla war against the occupying
In the dead of night and accompanied by a French army
officer and an English radio operator, he dropped into
south-central France on June 8, 1944 — two days after
the Allies stormed the Normandy beaches.
He was in his Highlander’s battledress, kilt and all —
and deliberately so. He was meant to be visible, his
undisguised presence a symbol for any wavering Frenchmen
that liberation was at hand if only they took the
battle to the Boche.
His attire caused consternation. He heard an excited
young Resistance fighter babbling to another that a
French officer had landed ‘and he’s brought his wife!’
The lad had never seen a man in a kilt before.
The Longest Day: With just three companions, Macpherson
bluffed one German garrison of 100 soldiers with a mock
show of force
The unit Macpherson joined was a joke, despite all the
assurances he had been given back in England that the
maquis was a dedicated fighting force.
Here in the forests and mountains of the Massif Central
it had just eight members, four of them mere boys, a few
guns and a single, clapped-out lorry for transport. In
four years, they had never mounted any sort of operation
to trouble the occupying Germans.
He brought them a machine gun, grenades and plastic
explosives, but did they have the savvy and the guts to
use them? He found out soon enough when, just days
later, the Das Reich SS column hove into his sights.
It was do-or-die moment — and dying seemed the more
likely outcome. He decided that engaging them directly
would be suicidal and pointless. But ingenious,
cleverly-planted booby traps might do the trick of
slowing them down.
Through the night, he and his men felled trees to block
the road ahead of the convoy and laid their only
anti-tank mine, strapping plastic explosives to it for
extra oomph. Grenades dangled from overhanging branches
— primed to fall and explode.
Communists and Nazis alike put a price on his head.
Primitive though these measures were, they was
surprisingly effective. In the morning, the Germans had
to bring up heavy equipment to move the tree trunks.
Minutes ticked away. Then a tank hit the mine and slewed
across the road.
More delay. Finally, Macpherson and his men sprayed
troop carriers with their Sten guns and then dashed away
into the trees — classic hit-and-run tactics. Hiding at
a distance, they heard shouts and screams as the
grenades did their job.
Eventually and inevitably, the SS column moved on, but
precious hours had been won. With similar small
victories the length of France, it took Das Reich more
than a fortnight to complete what should have been a
three-day journey, by which time the Allied hold on
Normandy was secure.
So, too, was Macpherson’s hold on his new friends. With
this success under his belt, his status was assured and
streams of newly-emboldened volunteers arrived to join
him. Now they began to fight back in earnest.
German supply lorries were hijacked for food, railway
lines and road bridges blown up, steam engines wrecked,
enemy petrol dumps drained (though not blown up for fear
of civilian casualties). The major encouraged children
to scatter nails in the street to puncture the tyres of
One of his favourite targets was electricity pylons, and
he took enormous schoolboy pleasure from blowing up two
together. As they crashed, massive sparks flew out, like
a giant firework display. To celebrate Bastille Day, he
knocked out eight in one exhausting night.
Macpherson: had a price put on his head by both Nazis
In his Cameron Highlanders’ tartan, with a Sten gun in
his hand, explosives in his pockets and a skean dhu —
the traditional Scottish dagger — tucked into his sock,
his flamboyance made him a legend in this rugged area of
Furious and frustrated, the Germans offered a
300,000-franc reward for the capture of this ‘bandit
masquerading as a Scottish officer’, as Wanted posters
described him, but he seemed as elusive as the Scarlet
Pimpernel and as bulletproof as a tank.
Driving round the countryside to muster and train his
growing fighting force, he narrowly missed German
patrols on the road, or skidded away from road blocks
just in time.
Pursued by an enemy patrol one night, his car’s fuel
tank was hit by bullets, but even then his luck held.
They had just enough petrol left to turn into dense
woods, dump the car and seek refuge with the nuns in a
He was at times able to turn the tables. Returning from
a night raid on a railway, he was warned that the road
he was on was used regularly by the Germans. Indeed,
the local commandant’s staff car was expected shortly.
‘We were at an unmanned level crossing with a heavy
wooden pole that lowered itself across the road when a
train was coming. It was a perfect opportunity. I fixed
some plastic explosive to the wire holding up the pole
and rigged it with a fuse.’
When the open staff car sped into view, he blew the
fuse, the pole came down and the car hit it at 50mph,
decapitating the commandant and his driver. Then
Macpherson’s men mowed down the cavalcade’s motorcycle
escort with Sten guns. All in all, he recalls
phlegmatically, ‘a satisfactory morning’.
By now, the war was swinging decisively in the Allies’
favour and it was time for Macpherson to become ever
more brazen in his defiance of the Germans. To impress
the locals, he began to fly a Union Jack and the Cross
of Lorraine flag of the Free French from his black
Then he sat in full uniform at a café in a town square,
nonchalantly and openly drinking wine with the mayor,
just to show that he could. It was almost an act of
bravado too far.
Suddenly a German armoured car swung into the square. In
the nick of time, Macpherson and his driver leapt into
the Citroen and raced away into the hills, chased by the
With the advantage of the higher ground, they stopped
and lobbed a makeshift grenade into the pursuing
armoured car, destroying it. Then they laid charges
around a bridge over a river and blew that, too. ‘It
was,’ he recalls, ‘just another day at the office’.
But his most extraordinary achievements were yet to
With Allied forces now advancing into the heart of
France from both north and south, the Germans were on
the retreat. But would they depart without causing a
bloodbath? Subtlety and subterfuge were called for.
With just three companions, Macpherson bluffed one
German garrison of 100 soldiers with a mock show of
He and his men wrapped wet handkerchiefs inside the
metal hand grips of their light Sten guns, so that when
fired they made the deafening noise of heavy
machine-guns. The garrison, fooled into thinking
themselves outgunned, surrendered.
Then he went one better when a German column numbering
23,000 men and 1,000 vehicles was heading back to the
German border through the last remaining gap between the
two advancing Allied armies.
In the Loire valley, a small band of Resistance fighters
held a vital river bridge, and a fight to the death —
which they had no hope of winning — seemed inevitable.
Unless the German general could somehow be persuaded to
give up without a fight.
At a parlay with the Germans, Macpherson once more
bluffed. ‘My job was to convince the general that I had
a brigade, tanks and artillery waiting on the other side
of the river and they could not get through.
The clincher was when I told him that I was in contact
with London by radio and could at any time call up the
RAF to blow his people out of sight. In truth, the only
thing I could whistle up was Dixie, but he had no way of
The German general bowed to what he was persuaded was
the inevitable and surrendered, bringing the liberation
of France a large step closer but with no loss of life.
Amazingly, Macpherson’s war did not end even then. With
France freed from the Nazis, he was whisked off to Italy
to organise the partisans in their last struggles to
evict the Germans.
There he found himself up against a new enemy —
communist forces loyal to the Yugoslavian leader, Tito,
and intent on annexing parts of Italy.
Macpherson’s determined opposition succeeded in
thwarting these plans, with the result that Tito
pronounced a death sentence on the ‘interfering major’.
To have had a price put on his head by Nazis and
Communists was a rare distinction, and as highly prized
as the Military Cross and two bars, the Legion d’Honneur
and the Croix de Guerre this most buccaneering of
British soldiers was awarded for his extraordinary
Behind Enemy Lines: An Autobiography Of Britain’s Most
Decorated War Hero by Sir Tommy MacPherson with Richard
Bath, is published by Mainstream at £17.99. To order a
copy at £16.20 (p&p free), call 0845 155 0720.
Sir Thomas Macpherson
- obituary from the Telegraph Newspaper
Sir Thomas “Tommy” Macpherson, who has died aged 94, was awarded three
Military Crosses, three Croix de Guerre (two Palms and Star), and
several Papal and Italian medals during the Second World War; he
subsequently had a successful career in business.
Ronald Thomas Stewart Macpherson, the fifth son of Sir Thomas Stewart
Macpherson, was born in Edinburgh on October 4 1920. His father was in
the Indian Civil Service and became a judge of the High Court and
chancellor of Patna University.
Tommy won a scholarship to Fettes where he was an outstanding athlete,
winning the half mile and taking eight seconds off the school record for
the mile. He subsequently gained the top scholarship to Trinity College,
Oxford, in Classics but the outbreak of war intervened and, in September
1939, he was commissioned into the Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders, TA,
and asked to raise a platoon from his village.
Macpherson volunteered for the Commandos and went through intensive
training in Scotland. To shake hands with the instructor in unarmed
combat, he said later, was the quickest way to find oneself flat on
one’s back. Lord “Shimi” Lovat taught fieldcraft and Macpherson, no
stranger to mountains, became his assistant.
In January 1941 he embarked for Suez with 11th (Scottish) Commando.
Arriving in the desert in March, they unloaded a large consignment of
sandbags destined for the Eighth Army. (The export of many tons of sand
to the Middle East caused some amusement.)
In June, he took part in the commandos’ operation against the Vichy
French, who were holding strong defensive positions on the Litani River,
Palestine. At dawn on June 8, the main body of the force commanded by
Major Geoffrey Keyes was landed close to the mouth of the river with the
objective of seizing the Qasmiyeh bridge intact.
Macpherson, commanding No 10 Troop, was involved in the most northerly
landing. His orders were to take the Kafr Badda Bridge and, after a
fierce action, his men captured it intact and beat off a counter-attack
of enemy armoured cars. But the Allied assault had been postponed by a
day, the advantage of surprise was lost and the commandos took heavy
When Macpherson returned to Cyprus, as the only officer with a working
knowledge of Greek he was appointed military governor of the north-east
of the island. In October, promoted to captain, he was ordered to carry
out a reconnaissance of the beach in advance of Operation Flipper, the
raid by Keyes on Rommel’s HQ in Cyrenaica (now Libya).
Macpherson and three comrades embarked in the submarine Talisman and
were landed in folbots (folding canoes) near Apollonia. For two
successive nights the submarine failed to return to the arranged
rendezvous and the men set out to walk to Tobruk. The party had no food,
water, maps or adequate footwear and were dressed only in PT shorts.
After they split up, two of the group were captured by the Italians.
Macpherson and a comrade reached the outskirts of Derna, where they
sabotaged a telephone exchange. It proved to be a bad mistake; they were
traced and picked up by an Italian patrol.
During his interrogation, one of the patrol brought in his unloaded Colt
automatic and asked him to explain how it worked. Macpherson showed him
by loading a spare magazine, which he was still carrying, and holding up
his captors. At that moment, however, he was incapacitated by a severe
attack of cramp, disarmed and placed in solitary confinement.
Three days later
Macpherson escaped but was caught trying to get away on a motorbike. He
was sent by destroyer to Réggio di Calabria and imprisoned in Campo 41
at Montalbo. In the summer, he and other “pericolosi” were transferred
to Campo 5, a fortress prison built on a rock, at Gavi, near Genoa.
After the Italian armistice in September 1943, the Germans shot many of
the guards, imprisoned others and took over the camp. The PoWs were
being loaded on to a train bound for Austria when Macpherson made
another attempt to escape.
He was caught quickly, but the guard was so annoyed that he emptied his
rifle in single shots between his prisoner’s feet as he marched him to
There he was put against a wall and was going to be shot as a warning to
other would-be escapers, but an officer countermanded the order.
Arriving at the transit camp at Spittal, Macpherson and a New Zealander
exchanged clothes with two Frenchmen, mingled with a party of
agricultural workers and got away.
They were captured by a patrol of Austrian Alpine troops and sent to a
Gestapo camp on the Polish-Lithuanian border before being moved to an
other ranks’ transit camp at Torún, Poland. One night four of them
escaped by using one of the towers to shield them from the searchlights.
They crawled under two perimeter fences and got clear.
They were picked up by the Polish Resistance and taken to a factory at
Bydgoszcz. The nightwatchman hid them in the manager’s office but, after
an air-raid warning sounded, the manager arrived and they were lucky to
The group took a train to Danzig, aiming to board a Swedish vessel. When
one of the German security police came and sat in their compartment,
they decided to get out at the next stop. No ships could sail from the
bombed port of Danzig, so they hid in a lorry as far as Gdynia.
Macpherson and his
comrades concealed themselves in a house near the docks for several days
before they were smuggled aboard a Swedish ship carrying iron ore. When
customs officials arrived to search the ship, Macpherson did his best to
look nonchalant by leaning over the ship’s rail and munching on a
sandwich. One of the group, however, lost his nerve and gave himself up
to the captain.
Macpherson and two comrades climbed down into the hold and tunnelled a
hiding place in the iron ore. When the ship reached the limit of
territorial waters, a launch came alongside and German soldiers with
dogs came aboard. The hatches were lifted and the dogs were sent down
into the hold, but the coal dust proved too much for them and they had
to be brought out.
As soon as they were in
international waters, Macpherson and his comrades gave themselves up to
the Swedes. The ship was diverted to Gotland, where the men were
incarcerated for a spell, before going on to Stockholm where they were
released to the British Embassy.
Macpherson flew by Liberator to Kinloss and arrived home in
Inverness-shire in November 1943, almost exactly two years after his
capture. He was awarded an MC for his part in the Litani River raid, the
Rommel operation and his successful escape.
He was then recruited by the SOE, promoted major and put through
rigorous training at Milton Hall, near Peterborough, before flying on
one of the first Jedburgh missions to be parachuted into France.
In June 1944, in an operation code-named “Quinine”, he, a French officer
and a radio operator were dropped into the borders of the Lot and Cantal
departments to organise and lead Maquis resistance groups. Macpherson,
who was wearing the kilt, was, for a time, mistaken for the wife of the
Within days of their arrival, the “Jeds” led the Maquis in a guerrilla
operation against the Das Reich Panzer division, which was moving
northwards into the Corrèze. The party demolished a bridge, which
delayed the Germans for several hours, and then defended another for six
days against enemy attacks.
They organised a raid by the Maquis on the road and railway from
Montauban to Brive and, by July 1, had eliminated all rail traffic
between Cahors and Souillac. Throughout that month, Macpherson organised
ambushes on enemy convoys and, as the Allied armies advanced from the
south, he co-ordinated large scale guerrilla operations with success.
At Le Lioran, during one of these operations, 300 Germans and 100 Milice,
Vichy France militia, were trapped in a tunnel. When they attempted to
escape in the train which had been forced to stop there, Macpherson, at
great personal risk, went into the tunnel and blew up the railway track,
thus sealing in 400 of the enemy.
French traitors, who had infiltrated the Maquis, made many attempts to
trap him and a 300,000 Franc price was put on his head. He had been
awarded the first Bar to his MC when, in September, he flew to Bari,
southern Italy, and reported to SOE HQ at Monópoli.
In November he was
parachuted into Friuli, north-east Italy, to seek out vulnerable rail
targets. The Germans used a Fiesler-Storch to try to track him down and,
on one occasion, he was nearly captured when Slovenes carved a huge
arrow in the snow to indicate his hiding place.
After the end of the war in Europe, Macpherson was awarded a second Bar
to his MC for his operations behind enemy lines and specifically for a
raid on the marshalling yards at Udine. He also received the Medaglio
d’Argento and the Italian Resistance Medal.
Macpherson moved his base to Udine and for some months commanded a unit
patrolling the border between Italy and Yugoslavia. He complained that,
in Yugoslavia, anyone in command of more than 30 men called himself a
general and that being outranked led to difficulties. General McCreery’s
chief of staff advised him to put up red tabs and call himself a
brigadier-general. After that, there were no more problems.
Macpherson returned to England in September 1945 and was demobilised. He
rejoined the TA and was attached to 21 SAS TA from 1947 to 1952. In 1956
he was staying at a hotel on Lake Bled, near the border between
Yugoslavia and Italy, when he received a rather peremptory invitation
from Marshal Tito to visit him at his summer residence.
In the aftermath of the war, Macpherson had played a part in foiling a
plot to incorporate the Friuli-Venezia region of Italy into Yugoslavia
and he had reservations about complying. “Ah, Macpherson,” said Tito as
he was ushered in, “I have been looking forward to this meeting. We
tried so hard to kill you.”
Macpherson went up to Trinity College, Oxford, in October 1945 and took
a First in Philosophy, Politics and Economics. He represented the
university at rugby, hockey and athletics and was also a Scottish
student international at athletics. He joined the Duchess of Kent’s
household for a spell as a tutor to Prince Edward (later Duke of Kent)
and then joined William Mallinson & Sons, a timber company, as personal
assistant to the chairman.
He was with the company
for almost 30 years and became managing director in 1967. During his
stewardship, profits substantially increased. While with Mallinson
Denny, he was a member of the National Board for Prices and Incomes
between 1965 and 1967.
He held many directorships, including at Brooke Bond Group, Birmid
Qualcast, Scottish Mutual Assurance, UPM Kimmegne, Independent Insurance
and the National Coal Board. He was chairman of Annington Holdings, of
Boustead, of the Association of British Chambers of Commerce (1986-1988)
and of Eurochambres from 1992 to 1994.
Macpherson commanded the 1st Battalion London Scottish TA from 1961 to
1964. He then became Deputy Commander HQ 56 Infantry Brigade TA and,
after a final appointment as Territorial Colonel London District, in
1968 he retired from the Army. He was appointed CBE (Military) the same
Macpherson was appointed a Deputy Lieutenant of Greater London in 1977,
and served as High Sheriff of Greater London in 1983. He was knighted in
1992. Apart from his British decorations, he was also a Chevalier de la
Légion d’honneur and was personally awarded the Star of Bethlehem and a
papal knighthood by the Pope. He was a member of the Royal Company of
He was involved in many charitable activities, and listed fishing,
shooting and languages among his recreations. He was proud of being the
chieftain of the Newtonmore Highland Games, president of the British
Legion for Badenoch and vice-president of the Newtonmore shinty club.
He published, in 2010, Behind Enemy Lines, an autobiography.
He married, in 1953, Jean Butler-Wilson, who survives him, with their
two sons and a daughter.
Sir Thomas Macpherson, born October 4 1920, died November 6 2014
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