Obituary: Sir Thomas Macpherson, war hero, 94

Sir Thomas Macpherson of Biallid, one of the most decorated commandos of the Second World War, has died, aged 94.
Sir Thomas Macpherson told of his war exploits in a book. Picture: contributedSir Thomas Macpherson told of his war exploits in a book. Picture: contributed
Sir Thomas Macpherson told of his war exploits in a book. Picture: contributed

Born in Edinburgh on October 4, 1920, Thomas was the youngest of seven children. His father was a judge in India. Thomas went to Cargilfield boarding school, but was struck down in his mid-teens with osteomyelitis, a painful and debilitating infection of the bone marrow, which confined him to 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, AW Mason, Rider Haggard and Dornford Yates, consuming a book every two days.

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At Fettes, he proved himself a talented rugby player and athlete and at 18 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.

When Churchill set up the Commandos, Macpherson immediately volunteered. He took part in an operation to kill General Erwin Rommel in Libya in November 1941, but faulty intelligence led to him being captured and taken to a PoW camp in Italy.

He made several escape attempts before finally breaking free from a camp in Poland by crawling under two perimeter fences. He returned to the UK via Sweden after hiding in the hold of a cargo ship.

He was then recruited by the Special Operations Executive and dropped into France as part of a three-man team to help the French Resistance.

It was in this role that he audaciously forced the surrender of 23,000 Wehrmacht troops by telling Major General Botho Elster that 20,000 Allied troops and RAF bombers were waiting for his word to attack. It was a bluff, but it worked.

It was not until he was in his eighties that Sir Thomas discussed his wartime exploits in detail. It culminated, four years ago, in the publication of his autobiography, Behind Enemy Lines.

He explained: “In the years after the war, no-one spoke about what happened. It just wasn’t the done thing.

“But now I realise if I don’t talk about what happened to me, it may disappear for ever.”

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Sir Thomas was awarded three Military Crosses and three Croix de Guerre. The Pope also awarded him the Star of Bethlehem and a Papal Knighthood.

After the war, he 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.

He died on November 6 in Newtonmore.

He is survived by his wife, Lady Jean Macpherson, and three children, Angus, Ishbel and Duncan.