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 Britains 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 Churchills 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 Highlanders 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 hes 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 Macphersons 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 cars 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 commandants 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
Macphersons men mowed down the cavalcades 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, Macphersons 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.
Macphersons 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 dHonneur
and the Croix de Guerre this most buccaneering of
British soldiers was awarded for his extraordinary
Behind Enemy Lines: An Autobiography Of Britains 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.