Obituary: Bob McFarlane, SOE agent

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Robert McFarlane, SOE agent. Born: 24 November, 1923, Bridge of Allan. Died: 30 January, 2017.

The cremation service took place on 14 February, at Melrose crematorium in the Borders, of Bob McFarlane, aged 93, one of the few surviving Special Operations Executive (SOE) agents, who risked their lives operating behind enemy lines in various theatres during the Second World War, in Bob’s case, as a clandestine radio operator.

Born in Bridge of Allan and educated at McLaren High School in Callander, Bob left school at 14, like many others of his time, to help ‘put bread on the table’. He worked initially as a farm-hand before joining his father as a coalman in a local coal-yard.

He was 16 when the war broke out, and like many young lads of his time, signed up in 1941 to serve his country, initially wearing the uniform of the Royal Armoured Corps Tank Regiment and later in 1942, that of the Royal Dragoons. At the suggestion of a tank ‘old-timer’ (discussing the chances or surviving a direct shell hit), Bob volunteered for a special mission. He was duly called for interview in London, where he was to be met by someone at the station, but that person didn’t show up. Showing youthful initiative, Bob hailed a taxi and asked the driver if he knew the whereabouts of Fawley Court, getting the reply: “Sure, that’s where they train all the spies”! Bob soon found himself as a secret agent in the elite SOE.

The SOE was Churchill’s ‘baby’, founded in July 1940 to “Set Europe Ablaze”. After undergoing rigorous training (much of it in the Arisaig and Morar areas) in armed and unarmed combat, the use of explosives and weird weapons, demolition techniques, parachute training and Morse code telegraphy, Bob found himself posted to North Africa, for advanced parachute training. Cairo was at that time the SOE station covering operations in the Balkans and N Africa.

Following Germany’s invasion of Yugoslavia (and Greece) in 1941, two ‘resistance’ groups soon emerged – the pro-royalist Chetniks under Draza (later General) Mihailovic, supporters of the young King Peter II, then exiled in London, and the communist partisans led by Joseph (later Marshall) Tito. The Allies initially supported the Chetniks, but their effectiveness began to be questioned. Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin met in Tehran in December 1943 and decided to switch allegiance to the partisans who appeared to be having more success.

In fact, a few weeks before the official ‘switch’, the young Bob – still only 19 years old – had already been parachuted (with the famous “B2” spy-set) into enemy-occupied Yugoslavia, landing in the dark, in a tree, praying to met by the partisans, and not the enemy…and certain death. He was in fact following in the footsteps just weeks before of the late renowned Brigadier Sir Fitzroy MacLean, who had been appointed the UK’s special envoy to Tito.

Bob and the partisans were continually on the move, in mountainous regions to avoid the enemy, sleeping rough, in the open, even in the bitter ensuing winter.

The partisans had ‘found’ Bob a donkey, to carry the heavy battery and hand-generator (though not the heavy 32lb ‘B2’ radio which, as their life-line, he never let out of his sight). Bob transmitted regular coded messages (always with the attendant risk of detection by the nearby enemy), detailing partisan successes as well as making requests for “drops” of essentials such as weapons and ammunition, and even food. Sadly, on a narrow mountain path, the donkey and its precious load, fell irretrievably over the edge. Bob’s despair was soon alleviated when a partisan arrived with a replacement battery. On asking its provenance, he was simply told there was an enemy truck down in the valley, which wouldn’t be going anywhere for a while.

On one occasion, no doubt missing his mother’s morning porridge, he risked requesting some. It duly arrived – several hundredweight! Bob recounted the partisans would have made very successful ‘Bake-Off’ contestants, devising ingenious ways of eating or using porridge oats!

With the war in Europe nearing an end, Bob returned to the UK in late 1944, thinking to himself that his war was over. Instead however, he was given a hard-earned four weeks home-leave and instructed to return to Fawley Court to up-grade his Morse speed to 25 wpm (more than double the now-abandoned speed requirement for radio amateurs/hams such as myself). He then found himself on a troop-ship bound for India, and ultimately Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) where he underwent further parachute and specialised jungle training (including acquiring an essential taste for such delicacies as monkeys’ legs, snake steaks and weevils cooked in mud…somewhat removed from mum’s home-cooking back in Callander!).

Early in 1945, Bob was ‘dropped’ into the Malayan jungle where he was fortunate to join a Malayan-cum-Chinese resistance group with whom he faced, in Bob’s own words (at a talk he gave to members of several amateur radio societies and the Museum of Communication) “formidable Japanese jungle fighters”.

These jungle-fighters at first refused to believe their war was over, when news came in August 1945, of the first A-bomb attack on Hiroshima. But finally they surrendered, and Bob trekked through the jungle to the port of Teluk on the Malayan coast, where he caught a small steamer to Singapore.

On seeing Singapore harbour, Bob told us his first thoughts were “Thank God I’ve ‘made it’ and I’m going home”. But no. He very soon found himself landing on Japan’s Kure Island, and onwards to Hiroshima itself, in charge of a Signals Section of the Commonwealth Occupation Force (and now wearing the uniform of the Royal Corps of Signals).

His only protection against the deadly nuclear radiation, was his British Army great-coat. He survived, but lost many of the photographs he was able to take of the devastation as a result.

But finally, Bob made it back to Britain – still only 22. Surely a real hero. As the SOE had never officially existed, there were no badges, no rank, no medals, no ‘gongs’. The organisation’s very existence was finally admitted, almost as simultaneously as it was officially disbanded in January 1946, and yet immediately re-branded (with some former SOE agents re-employed) into what we know today as MI6 (the foreign section of SIS, the Secret Intelligence Service).

As for Bob, and for many others like him, civilian life had to start at the bottom again.

He was now married to Alma, with two sons of his own, John and Michael. He found a job with Clydesdale (at that time Scotland’s largest electrical retailer) who were looking for someone with knowledge of radios, for their Glasgow shop. Bob’s application was successful – his radio/electronics experience and skills being recognised.

It is of no surprise to those who have known him that he rapidly progressed in that company, eventually transferring to, and becoming a director of, the renowned Harris Queensway rug company, before reaching a well-earned retirement in 1986.

He will be sorely missed by his loving family, and all those who had the privilege of knowing him.

André Saunders