Obituary: Sir Thomas Macpherson of Biallid, soldier and businessman

Born: 4 October, 1920, in Edinburgh. Died: 6 November, 2014, in Newtonmore, aged 94

Born: 4 October, 1920, in Edinburgh. Died: 6 November, 2014, in Newtonmore, aged 94

Soldier, scholar, sportsman, captain of industry and royal courtier, Sir Tommy Macpherson was one of the most remarkable men of his generation. Until he passed away peacefully earlier this week in his Newtonmore home aged 94, he had been Britain’s most decorated surviving veteran, a man whose bravery, chutzpah and, as he saw it, “good old-fashioned luck” made him a legendary figure.

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Only 25 men had ever been awarded the MC three times, as Macpherson was, and none of the other 24 had also won the Croix de Guerre, the Legion D’Honneur and a Papal Knighthood; none of the others had the Holy Father personally pin the Star of Bethlehem on their chests for services rendered.

But there was much more to Macpherson than military exploits, immense though his were. He was the wee boy from the Highlands who overcame a crippling childhood illness to emulate his famous older brother GPS “Phil” Macpherson by playing against the All Blacks; he was the braw lad who started by running to school but went on to beat Roger Bannister and Emile Zatopek over a mile before being forced to withdraw on the eve of the 1948 Olympics.

But mostly, when people look back on Macpherson’s life, they will look back on a swashbuckling military career that displayed an almost pathological disregard for his own safety, and which yielded results whose ramifications are still with us today.

Macpherson was the youngest of seven children and an afterthought for his father, a judge in India with no desire for another mouth to feed.

His wartime exploits were a product of his upbringing. Emotionally and geographically distant from his father, he was packed off to Cargilfield boarding school and had already become emotionally self-sufficient when in his mid-teens he was struck down with osteomyelitis, a painful and debilitating infection of the bone marrow, and confined to his bed for several months.

He coped with the enforced bed rest by voraciously consuming tales of the heroism and derring-do of the bluff, self-effacing heroes of Sapper, Buchan, A W Mason, Rider Haggard and Dornford Yates.

He consumed a book every two days, and Robert Louis Stevenson’s Alan Breck was installed as his hero.

While Macpherson recuperated, Hitler’s troops were marching into the Rhineland. Aged just 18, and fresh out of Fettes College, he was drafted into the Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders and spent the first few months of the war near Wick, guarding the nation’s northern coastline.

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Macpherson’s life changed when Churchill, who had learned of the effectiveness of guerrilla units in the Boer War, set up the Commandos and told them to “set Europe ablaze”.

Macpherson immediately volunteered and found himself in Arran alongside legendary figures like Blair Mayne, taking crash courses in how to stab, shoot and kill, skills he employed in Lebanon against the hostile Vichy French in the Litani campaign when his reckless courage earned him his first MC.

If his first taste of action was a triumph, his second was a disaster. Dropped off the coast of Libya to recce the landscape ahead of the ill-fated attempt to capture Field-Marshall Erwin Rommel, the submarine due to be picking him up failed to make the rendezvous and he was forced to walk hundreds of miles to safety.

He made good time for a few days until a patrol of Italians on bikes appeared out of nowhere and captured him.

His regular escape attempts eventually bore fruit, only for him to be captured after a week on the run.

When the Italians changed sides and Macpherson was transferred to a Gestapo camp in Poland, he escaped once again. With the help of a crazed black marketeer and the shadowy Polish Resistance, he covered 300 miles of enemy territory before stowing away on a coal ship bound for neutral Sweden.

It was a nerve-shredding journey that ended when, two years to the day after he was first captured, he landed in his beloved Scotland.

Macpherson’s next mission was as a member of one of the three-man Jedburgh units dropped into occupied Europe (one of his two companions was the heir to the French throne, prince Michel de Bourbon).

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Their mission was to work with partisans to blow up as much infrastructure and dispatch as many Germans as possible, partly to persuade the local population that D-Day was imminent. Within days of being parachuted into the Lot area of France Macpherson had destroyed so many train tracks and pylons that he had the enormous price of 300,000 Francs on his head.

It was then, in the summer of 1944, shortly after D-Day yet before the Normandy bridgehead had been fully established, that Macpherson perpetrated the most remarkable bluff of the war.

A 23,000-strong column of battle-hardened troops spearheaded by the feared Das Reich SS Panzer Division was moving northwards towards the Normandy beachhead from Toulouse.

These veterans of the Eastern Front left a trail of French civilians hanging from lampposts as a statement of their intent not to be waylaid, yet the 23-year-old Scot donned his full uniform, kilt and all, and drove through ten miles of German troops in a stolen Wehrmacht jeep and pulled up at the Das Reich field headquarters to confront their stunned commanding officer, Major General Elster.

When the “lunatic so-called Scotsman who keeps blowing up bridges”, the man whose face adorned wanted posters throughout France, stepped out of the Jeep he must have looked a picture.

Armed with nothing more dangerous than a sgian dhu, he had come to deliver terms. He told Elster of his 20,000 crack troops billeted around the corner, of the tanks at his disposal, and crucially of the RAF bombers he could call up to bomb the Das Reich into oblivion. Surrender at once, he said, or die. In reality, all he had were a few French irregulars who would have been slaughtered by the Germans.

And so it was that a young man barely old enough to buy a pint in Newtonmore accepted the surrender of 23,000 crack German troops from a black-uniformed SS Colonel.

Yet that was by no means the end of his war; far from it. Parachuted into north-eastern Italy, he faced even more hardships and danger than he encountered in France.

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Betrayal, torture and murder all featured prominently in his time there, yet he managed to make arguably an even greater impact, hastening the German departure from Italy and preventing Tito from annexing the whole north-east corner of Italy as he planned.

After the war, Macpherson went to Oxford University, where top-level rugby and athletics once again became a large part of his life. He went on to become a Royal Equerry and then a successful businessman working in the timber trade.

His survivors include his wife, Lady Jean Macpherson, and three children, Angus, Ishbel and Duncan.

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