Interview Tommy Macpherson, Britain's most decorated former soldier

Share this article

When Tommy Macpherson was ordered by Churchill to cause chaos for the Nazis and 'set Europe ablaze' he took to his task with relish. Sixty-five years after D-Day, Britain's most decorated former soldier talks about his extraordinary life and his experiences behind enemy lines in France

HE LEARNT quickly because he had to. In no time at all he worked out that plastic explosives smell like almonds, that a Sten gun with a wet cloth wrapped around its barrel produces the same deep percussive thud as a heavy machine gun, that when two sabotaged pylons crash into each other they produce more spectacular sparks than any fireworks, that human flesh smells like bacon when it burns. He also learned that guerrilla fighting came effortlessly to him.

Tommy Macpherson had joined up while he was still an Edinburgh schoolboy, and by the age of 21 he knew more about killing and wrecking and wreaking havoc than most men would ever know. By the end of the war he had become the most decorated soldier of all time. Only 25 men have ever been awarded the MC three times and Tommy is the only one left alive. Only one man has ever been awarded three MCs, three Croix de Guerre and the Legion D'Honneur, and Tommy is that man. Even the Pope knew what a warrior Tommy was, which is why he personally awarded him the Star of Bethlehem and a Papal knighthood.

If the Highlander is weighed down with gongs, it's not altogether surprising. Few men can claim to have single-handedly affected the course of the Second World War, and the 89-year-old is one of them. He's not a boastful man, though, and says simply that he wasn't a hero 65 years ago, that he was "just doing my job". But that doesn't alter the facts, which are that in June 1944, with the Germans throwing men, machinery and malice aforethought at the fragile Normandy beachhead, Macpherson played a pivotal role in slowing the advance of both the Second Motorised SS Infantry Division and Das Reich, the feared 2nd SS Panzer Division that was moving northwards determined to dislodge the Allies' precarious foothold on mainland Europe.

The way in which he did it remains one of the most jaw-dropping acts of chutzpah ever perpetrated by a British soldier. He had been operating as a partisan, blowing up bridges and pylons and generally making himself so incredibly irritating that the Germans had already wasted thousands of man hours trying to capture him. Yet unarmed and accompanied only by a doctor and a French officer, Macpherson drove his stolen German Red Cross Land Rover along ten miles of road lined with crack German troops, through two bursts of machine gun fire and into the headquarters of a division of veterans who learned their trade on the Eastern Front, a division that had become infamous for the brutality of its reprisals against partisans and those who would bar its way.

When Macpherson stepped out of the car in Pont d'Arcay he cut an unforgettable figure. Dressed in full Highland regalia, here was "that lunatic Scotsman who keeps blowing up bridges", the "alleged Scottish Major" whose face adorned wanted posters throughout half of France and on whose head the Germans had put a 300,000 franc reward. But the 23-year-old wasn't there to surrender, he was there to deliver terms.

The terms were simple: surrender or he would unleash a bombardment from the heavy guns stored further down the Allier River and attack with his 20,000 troops. If that didn't work, then he'd call up the RAF and bomb the Germans into oblivion.

It was a remarkable bluff. His hastily assembled ragtag troop of Resistance fighters were callow French novices who would have been routed by the battle-hardened German veterans, he had no heavy guns to speak of, and he might as well have whistled Dixie as try to whistle up a squadron of RAF fighter-bombers. Not that the Germans knew any of that. Remarkably, they threw in the towel with barely a whimper of defiance; Major General Elster and his No.2, a black-uniformed full Colonel, signing the surrender documents there and then. Macpherson had captured 23,000 German troops armed with nothing more than his sgian dubh and the biggest brass neck in Scotland.

"Our lightly armed and inexperienced troops could not have withstood a determined attack," he remembers. "The advance guard of the German Army had 7,000 fighting troops, comprised mainly of battle-hardened veterans of the Russian Front, who would have gone through us like a knife through butter. My judgment was that if we didn't think of something there was going to be a lot of blood shed, including mine."

THE seeds for Tommy Macpherson's transformation from Scottish schoolboy to scourge of the Nazis were planted early in his life. The son of a judge in the Indian courts, Tommy was the last of seven children and, he suspects, coming almost a decade after his next oldest sibling, an unwanted burden on his father's pocket. "I was clearly an error of judgment," he says.

Dispatched to Cargilfield prep school outside Edinburgh, the lack of parental approval and his initial dislike of school made the boy intensely independent and resilient. The taste for adventure came later, when he got ill with osteomyelitis. Forced into long periods of inactivity, he would read obsessively, up to ten books a week, all of them featuring swaggering heroes. Sapper, Buchan, AW Mason, Rider Haggard and Dornford Yates were all hungrily consumed, Robert Louis Stevenson's Alan Breck installed as his hero.

Tommy also felt compelled to excel by the feats of his brother. GPS "Phil" Macpherson, the captain of Scotland's 1925 Grand Slam-winning rugby side, remains for many purists the best player ever to pull on the thistle. Living up to big brother's name wasn't always easy. "Phil was an enormous personality in Edinburgh in the 1920s and early 1930s, a hero to most Scots," says Tommy. "He was probably the greatest rugby centre three-quarter that has ever played for Scotland and almost certainly one of the greatest anywhere in the world, with an extraordinary capacity to flash past an opponent with a burst of speed, along with a devastating swerve, sidestep or dummy."

Although not of a militaristic bent as a schoolboy – he disliked the Corps and took up piping to get out of it – he was unknowingly building up the skills for the life of a special operations agent. At Cargilfield, headmaster Rufus Bruce Lockhart instilled a love of languages, helped by his family's love of singing in both Gaelic and English around the piano.

When his family moved to Newtonmore, he roamed the hills obsessively, building up an incredible stock of fieldcraft and becoming phenomenally fit. He would climb Chailleach, the 3,000ft hill above the village, and he and his brother set up a hide that was just three feet from a golden eagle nest above Loch Dubh on the Cluny estate: the two of them would go in together and then just one would leave while the other lay stock still under cover for hours at a time.

Perhaps his willingness to suffer pain as a means to an end should have indicated how he would turn out. At Cargilfield he was obsessed with cricket and admired the damaged hands of his cricket master, Mr Roly, a former Somerset wicketkeeper. So did several of the other boys, but Tommy went one step further: one of his little fingers is still distorted at the top joint, a dislocation he intended to prove his commitment to the game.

As the 1930s wore on, the teenage Macpherson, by now boarding at Fettes in Edinburgh, bridled at Chamberlain's policy of appeasement. "At school we read in The Scotsman about the invasion of the Rhineland by Hitler and shared with our masters the disillusionment that neither the British nor the French governments thought fit to oppose this.

"With glorious hindsight it is clear that a lot of the future could have been changed if that move had been opposed, particularly as it later came out that Germany was so short of equipment at that time that the soldiers entering the Rhineland so triumphantly had only ten rounds of ammunition apiece."

In 1938, at the age of 18, Tommy won a scholarship to read Classics at Trinity College, Oxford, but wondered whether he would ever get to take it up. "By late August, preparations for war were everywhere in hand and although the politicians were saying it wouldn't happen, the general feeling among the people of Britain was that it was coming and there was very little we could do about it. I remember standing on the top of the Chailleach and wondering if I would ever see that view again, because we had been brought up at the knees of our fathers and uncles who had been involved in the First World War in the certain belief that the lifetime at any battle front of a second lieutenant did not exceed three weeks."

THAT fatalism and Macpherson's youth were to prove a potent cocktail in the heat of action, but first his enthusiasm needed some channelling. As soon as war started he took a commission in the Cameron Highlanders, and was given charge of the Kincraig platoon. But within a year he was on the move again.

Winston Churchill, who had fought in the Boer War, was a great admirer of the Afrikaner commandos and set up a similarly mobile force with which to harass the Germans after Dunkirk. He sent for a First World War hero, Admiral of the Fleet Sir Roger Keyes, who had conducted an extraordinary raid on Zeebrugge in 1917, and told him to raise a force of commandos – irregularly organised, rapidly mobile – and "set Europe ablaze".

Macpherson loved the sound of that, so applied and was accepted. By July he was training on Arran and then at Lochailort, where Lord Lovat taught him fieldcraft, two brutish ex-Hong Kong police tutored him in hand-to-hand combat, a burglar explained the mysteries of locksmith work and blowing safes and the First World War marksman Captain Mackworth Praed showed him how to shoot.

Of the 600 or so Scottish commandos Macpherson trained with, only just over 60 came back alive and in one piece, unwounded or not having been a prisoner.

Macpherson wasn't one of the lucky 60. He had already seen action against Vichy forces in Lebanon, and attacked Crete and Cyprus, when in 1941 he was landed on the coast of North Africa as part of a plot to kill Afrika Korps leader General Erwin Rommel. The so-called Rommel Raid was a disaster, and so was Macpherson's recce, with the submarine failing to turn up at the rendezvous. On the run, the Scot got lucky when a Doberman, unleashed on him by a patrol, leapt for his throat only to impale itself on his commando knife. But that luck couldn't last and he was soon picked up by an Italian patrol.

Sent to Italy to a camp for "naughty boys", he found it "quite an enjoyable place to be", although that didn't stop him escaping, only to be picked up on the Austrian border. This time he was sent to an altogether nastier billet in Poland, from where he also eventually escaped, this time on his 23rd birthday. Working his way towards Danzig and coming close to being captured on several occasions – at one stage he sat on a train next to an SS officer when the Gestapo came around checking documents – he stowed away in the hold of a Swedish coal ship with the help of the Polish Resistance.

By the time he flew into Kinloss from neutral Sweden on 4 October 1943, two years to the day since he was captured in North Africa, he had not only proved himself battle-hardened and resourceful, but had become fluent in Italian, German and French. He had used his time in the camps wisely and, unbeknown to him, had acquired exactly the right skills to lead a Jedburgh unit.

The Jedburghs were another of Churchill's great schemes, with all 60 members handpicked by the cigar-smoking prime minister. All had to be super-fit and preferably fluent in French, and all were to be dropped into France to coincide with D-Day, where they would operate in three-man groups, causing chaos and tying down as many Germans as possible. This time, instead of operating as clandestine units, Macpherson went in full kilted uniform, the idea to be as conspicuous as possible, to raise morale and give the Resistance a focus.

On 8 June 1944, the newly created Major Macpherson MC and his two confreres – Michel de Bourbon, the nephew of the pretender to the French throne, and radio operator Arthur Brown, both of them just 20 – took off from Bida in Algeria and dropped from 7,000ft from a Halifax bomber into the centre of the Massif Central region of occupied France. "I had dropped first and was at the edge of the field," says Macpherson, laughing as he remembers the impression his kilt made on their arrival. "Michel was second. He fell in the middle and made the first contact with our hosts. When I arrived, following the noise of the voices, I heard an excited young Frenchman saying to his boss, "Chef, chef, a French officer has arrived with his wife."

Macpherson soon found, as he had in North Africa, that the term British intelligence was an oxymoron. The well-honed Resistance fighters he expected to find were more like Dad's Army and had yet to carry out any action against the Germans. Indeed, instead of fighting the Germans they spent most of their time avoiding them. The Scot set about changing that, and within hours of landing he had blown up a railway line using a half-pound ball of plastic explosives.

That was the beginning of an extraordinary two months in which the deliberately high-profile Macpherson blew up every bridge he came across, laid low every pylon he saw, shot every German he met. Roaming the countryside in his kilt in a black Citron that had a Union Jack pennant on one side and a Croix de Lorraine on the other, he managed an operation of some sort virtually every day. "My favourite was blowing up pylons, which was great fun. On Bastille Day we blew eight separate lines of pylons in celebration, but putting the railway tracks out of action was probably the most important job," he says.

His roving role gave him plenty of chances for "fun". One day he heard the local commandant was about to drive past, so he lay in wait by a level crossing and as the German's staff car passed he detonated the wires holding up the heavy wooden bar, which fell onto the car, decapitating the officer and his driver. Macpherson and his French accomplice then swiftly finished off the three motorcycle outriders. "Another satisfactory morning!" he quips.

There were close moments, though. At one meeting of the Resistance, they realised they had been betrayed when German soldiers poured into the caf; Macpherson ran for his life out of the back entrance and just escaped, but those Maquis men who ran out of the front door were gunned down in the street. Another time, in the town of Decazeville, he sat in the main square having a glass of wine and had to sprint for his car when a German armoured vehicle unexpectedly appeared in the main street. The Germans gave chase too, but Macpherson outran them and then waited on a bridge, dropping a homemade grenade into the armoured car as it passed beneath him. It burst into flames.

THE fun and games stopped the day the Das Reich Division hoved into view, snaking its way along the Figeac-Tulle road. Macpherson blew up the lead half-track on the bridge at Bretenoux, and in the firefight 27 of the 29 Resistance fighters were killed or seriously injured. They had, though, held up the column.

An hour down the road, Macpherson had booby-trapped the road, felling two trees and sinking a landmine into the road so that the tracks of the tank brought up to move the trees was blown off, blocking the road. Further down the road, Macpherson's men had felled another two trees, this time booby-trapping them with grenades so that the German engineers who came to move them were blown up. Which is the point at which Macpherson's Maquis fighters stepped out of the undergrowth and poured machine gun fire into the stranded troops, losing three men in the process.

That, though, was a small loss for a huge reward. The action against the Das Reich Division acted as a focus for Resistance fighters from the south of France, and gave backbone to some who had previously decided to sit out the war. Soon an army of 18,000 men had been formed, helping to convince the Germans that there were far more Resistance fighters than there actually were. After dispensing summary justice along the way, particularly the retribution hangings at the village of Tulle, the last thing the German forces wanted was to be captured by the French, who they assumed would kill them.

The rump of the Das Reich Division moved northwards, but the delay of two weeks had been crucial to the success of the invasion. "The extra fortnight's delay imposed on what should have been a three-day journey may well have been of decisive importance for the successful securing of the Normandy bridgehead," said historian Professor MRD Foot. "The division might be compared to a cobra which had struck with its fangs at the head of a stick held out to tempt it: the amount of poison left in its bite was far less than it had been."

IF TOMMY Macpherson's war in France was a remarkable martial tour de force, then even more spectacular pyrotechnics were to follow when he was sent to Italy. Shootouts with Germans, betrayals, torture, political intrigue, drunken pilots and renegade Russian troops – he even survived being shot at close quarters, which is more than can be said for the Italian officer who pulled the trigger. He was, as he now cheerfully admits, very lucky to come out alive, especially after Tito put a price on his head for helping stop Trieste ceding to Yugoslavia.

Yet his life since the war has been, in its own way, equally remarkable. He went to Oxford, where he got a first in PPE while also being tutored by AL Rowse and sharing rooms or studying with the future head of the BBC Marmaduke Hussey, with James Ramsden, the minister of war in the first post-war Conservative government, and Dick Crossland, the legendary Labour minister.

The military figures who feature in his life include Charles de Gaulle, Tito, David Stirling, Blair Mayne and Churchill, while Montgomery (whose wartime aide-de-camp was Clement Freud) gave him his home in Paris for his honeymoon with wife Jean Butler-Wilson. He was best man at Michel de Bourbon's wedding, at which Pope John Paul officiated, and the list of people he has hung around with include Neil Armstrong, Sir Ranulph Fiennes, Norris McWhirter, the Queen and Prince Phillip (who he let bowl him first ball in a scratch game of cricket), Tony O'Reilly and conductor Sir Malcolm Sargent.

He enjoyed a stellar career in business, earning a knighthood for his services to British business and chairing the European Chamber of Commerce. As well as his long-term career, which saw him become chief executive of Mallinson-Denny plc, he became chairman or director of, among others, Scottish Mutual Assurance, TSB Scotland, Birmid Qualcast, Socit-Generale merchant bank and the National Coal Board.

Yet if he has one disappointment, it's in the sporting sphere. A talented athlete, he ran in the AAAs at White City, beat Roger Bannister over half a mile and ran against Sidney Wooderson in Dublin and Emile Zatopek in Paris, and is the only man alive who knew Chris Brasher, Eric Liddell and Harold Abrahams. Yet when it came to the big stage, nothing seemed to go right. He was selected for the British team at the World University Games in Paris in 1947 but fell and twisted his ankle. He was invited to be in the 1948 Olympic squad as a miler, having been finalist in the AAAs championship, but simply could not spare the time from his new job.

His rugby was even more frustrating. In 1947 he played for Oxford University, then the best team in the country, against the All Blacks, but was moved to centre from fly-half and didn't have a good game, injuring both thumbs, so missed the Varsity match. Despite playing stand-off for London Scottish until the age of 35, he was the only member of its back division never to play for Scotland, although he was twice a travelling reserve. "I suppose in feeling this frustration rather than achievement, I was conscious of the burden of my brother Phil's reputation upon me," he says.

It is, though, a small slice of regret to put against a life that has been, to use the sort of understatement routinely employed by Sir Tommy, less than ordinary.