Fitzroy Maclean owes his
place in history to the extraordinary 18 months he spent as Winston
Churchill's special envoy to the Yugoslav leader Josip Tito in 1943-45. He
sometimes expressed regret that, as with his hero Bonnie Prince Charlie, the
historically significant portion of his life was compressed into 18 months
at a comparatively young age. More dispassionate commentators would say that
he packed an unbelievable amount into his 85 years. Maclean always believed
in the motto that it was better to live a day as a tiger than a year as a
donkey, but in fact he managed to combine the excitement of the one with the
longevity of the other. His background as member of a Scottish clan and its
Jacobite connection was extremely important to him. "Thank God I am a
Maclean" was the family motto.
Born in 1911 in Egypt, the son of an officer in the Cameron Highlanders,
Fitzroy inherited from his father the martial tradition and from his mother
the love of languages. Educated at Eton and King's College, Cambridge, where
he took a First in Part One of the Classical Tripos, Maclean was initially
drawn to the academic life but the crisis in Europe in the early 1930s
convinced him he should enter the Diplomatic Service, then a tightly knit
body numbering no more than 250 souls. After passing the stiffly competitive
examinations, the young Maclean was marked down as "one to note".
His initial three-year posting was to Paris, which he saw in the troubled
context of the Front Populaire years. Then, in 1937, instead of opting for a
"fast track" posting to Washington, he made what was considered an eccentric
decision to plump for a posting in Russia. He arrived at the time of the
great purge trials, and in February 1938 was in court daily for the nine-day
trial of Nikolai Bukharin, later memorably recreated in his first book,
Eastern Approaches. Through a close friendship with his opposite number in
the German embassy, he was able to give advance warning of the likelihood of
a Nazi-Soviet pact.
His two years in the Soviet Union were also memorable for the many
unauthorised journeys be made to the eastern Soviet Union, principally
Samarkand, Bokhara, Tashkent, Batum, Tiflis. He led the Russian secret
service agents, who dogged his steps, a merry dance, travelling on trucks
and second-class trains. But he was adamant that he made these journeys for
his own self- realisation and was never himself a secret agent.
In 1939 he was transferred to London, to the Russian desk of the Foreign
Office's Northern Department. He had always wanted to emulate his father and
be a soldier, so when war broke out in September he was eager to sign up
with a combat regiment. But the Foreign Office counted as a reserved
occupation, and two dull years elapsed. Poring through service regulations,
Maclean discovered the loophole he was looking for: on election as an MP, a
Foreign Office man was obliged to resign. Using his charm and considerable
diplomatic skills, he got himself adopted as the Conservative candidate at
the 1941 by-election in Lancaster. He then immediately enlisted as a private
in the Cameron Highlanders.
For an Etonian diplomat and prospective Member of Parliament to enter the
ranks in such a crack regiment was an extraordinary thing to do, and the
singularity of the decision has perhaps not been sufficiently underlined.
Rubbing shoulders with tough squaddies from the Gorbals was a key formative
process. Elected MP for Lancaster, he was now safe from recall to the
After basic training Maclean was commissioned as a lieutenant and seconded
to an elite commando unit being trained in Cairo to destroy the Baku
oilwells on the Caspian - a bizarre project to have been entertained against
the property of an ally but one thought necessary if the German army broke
through in the Caucasus. The project was soon shelved, so Maclean, at a
loose end in Cairo, accepted an invitation from David Stirling to join the
newly formed Special Air Service. It is on his daring exploits behind enemy
lines with Stirling that his reputation as war hero securely rests.
On one occasion, while trying to mine Benghazi harbour, Maclean posed as an
Italian officer and, in fluent Italian, roundly berated the sentries for
inattention while mounting sentry duty. Seemingly a man oblivious to danger
and with nine lives, Maclean had his only near brush with death after a car
crash resulting from Stirling's reckless style at the wheel. He was
unconscious for four days after the crash and later remarked: "David
Stirling's driving was the most dangerous thing in World War Two!"
On recovery, Maclean took part in another raid on Benghazi and was then
employed by General "Jumbo" Wilson in Persia (Iran) on a further mission, to
arrest the pro-Nazi governor-general of Isfahan, General Zahidi. His rapid
promotion, from lieutenant to brigadier in two years, provoked envy among
his critics. But his success in these missions later led his friend Ian
Fleming to base aspects of the character of James Bond on Maclean. More
importantly, they convinced Winston Churchill that Maclean was the right man
to head a military mission to Tito and the partisans in Yugoslavia.
Since 1941 Tito had been pinning down more and more German divisions in a
highly successful guerrilla war. But there was another faction in
Yugoslavia: the royalists and their military arm, the Chetniks, led by
General Draza Mihailovic. Maclean's task was to find out, in Churchill's
words, "who was killing the most Germans", regardless of political ideology
or affiliation. Maclean's unorthodox methods, his refusal to go through
channels, and the fact that he was known to have Churchill's ear, infuriated
Special Operations Executive, who felt that he vas meddling in areas that
were properly theirs. Friendly critics dubbed Maclean "the Balkan
brigadier", "the Scarlet Pimpernel" and even (from his penchant for Highland
dress) "Lothario in a kilt". Inveterate enemies, like SOE's Brigadier Mervyn
Keble, had a less complimentary spread of nouns and epithets.
Maclean parachuted into Yugolavia with his mission in September 1943. His
subordinates were a motley crew, some first-rate technicians, others mere
prima donnas such as Randolph Churchill and Evelyn Waugh. Maclean built up a
personal rapport with Tito which never faded, established a supply lifeline
which ensured that the guerrillas received arms and material from the West,
and managed the problem of "cohabitation" with a prickly Soviet military
mission, also attached to Tito. He discovered that the partisans were
bearing the overwhelming brunt of the war and reported to Churchill
For nearly two years, based either on the Adriatic island of Vis or in the
Yugoslav interior, Maclean and his companions shared the fluctuating
fortunes of Tito and the partisans, culminating in the triumphant battle of
Belgrade in October 1944, when the partisans co-operated effectively with
Stalin's Red Army to destroy German military strength in the country.
Maclean also acted as go- between in an acrimonious meeting between the
Yugoslav leader and Churchill in Naples in August 1944.
When Tito came to supreme power in Yugoslavia after the war and executed
Mihailovic, the cry arose that Britain should never have supported Tito and
the Communists but should have made Mihailovic and the Chetniks the target
for their military aid. For nearly 50 years the canard persisted that
Maclean misled Churchill about the true situation in Yugoslavia and, even
more absurdly, that he was "soft on Communism". Several comments are in
First, Maclean was always a fervent anti-Communist and man of the Right. But
he was a realist, unable to deny the evidence of his senses for ideological
reasons, and he had a clear, military, non-political mandate from Churchill.
Secondly, Tito would have prevailed in Yugoslavia with or without British
aid, but the British connection was all- important psychologically when Tito
broke with Stalin in 1948 to pursue an independent, non-aligned, "Third Way"
style of Communism. Thirdly, Mihailovic and the Chetniks were the military
arm of Greater Serb nationalism. Events since the break-up of Yugoslavia in
1989 have tarnished the credibility of Serb nationalism. It is ironic that
it took the horrors of the Yugoslav civil war before the claque of
anti-Maclean tongues was finally silenced.
Tito's calibre as a leader was fully demonstrated by the Herculean task he
performed in keeping Yugoslavia united for 35 years after the war. It will
be surprising if he does not gain stature as post-war history is reassessed,
and such revisionism can only vindicate the correctness of the advice
Maclean gave Churchill in 1943-45.
Maclean the war hero found it difficult thereafter to find a niche for his
unique talents. His autobiography Eastern Approaches was a best-seller in
1949, though none of the 15 books he wrote afterwards was quite so well
received. He continued as Conservative MP for Lancaster until 1959 when,
wanting a Scottish constituency, he became the member for Bute and North
Ayrshire, and served there until 1974. Churchill appointed him
Under-Secretary of War in 1954, where he had an important behind-the- scenes
role during the Suez crisis of 1956, but Harold Macmillan sacked him in
1957, allegedly for poor performances in the House.
Created a baronet in 1957, Maclean branched out in other directions. He ran
his own hotel, "The Creggans", on the shore of Loch Fyne. He became a
respected associate producer, writer and presenter of television travel
documentaries, specialising in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. Above
all, he was a tireless traveller. He travelled light, with a kitbag
containing a Russian novel and an ancient classical author, both in the
original. At an age when most people have given up on linguistic ambitions,
Maclean continued to hone his knowledge of French, Italian, German, Russian,
Serbo- Croat, Latin and Greek.
An admirer of Margaret Thatcher, he steered her through the intricacies of
Yugoslav politics, advised her to put her political money on Gorbachev in
1985, and acted as special adviser to the Prince of Wales when he visited
Tito in the 1970s.
The steep downward spiral towards disaster in Yugoslavia after Tito's death
in 1980 deeply saddened him. One of only three foreigners allowed to own
property in the country during the Tito period, Maclean spent a good part of
each year at his seaside villa on the Adriatic island of Korcula.
A man of great physical courage and enormous charm, Fitzroy Maclean was
certainly the last of a breed, a real-life imperial adventurer in the
tradition of Kim and Richard Hannay and an action man in the mould of Sir
Richard Burton and, his own special hero, Bonnie Prince Charlie. He loved
food and drink, good conversation and the company of pretty women. The
initial image of a haughty, suave, privileged Etonian gave way, for those
who knew him well, to a man with an advanced sense of humour and the absurd.
The patrician persona masked an essentially simple man, with a rugged
humanity that seemed to belie the breadth of his interests; there was
nothing of the oddball about Maclean.
Politically he was the kind of Conservative who believes in order and
hierarchy rather than original sin, and he expressed an optimistic view of
human nature. He liked other human beings and was at ease with people from
all walks of life, from dustmen to duchesses.
As his Scottish parliamentary colleague for the last 12 years of his 33
years as a Member of Parliament, writes Tam Dalyell, I never heard Fitzroy
Maclean say anything simplistic.
Had the House of Commons been televised when he and his generation,
Conservative and Labour, were in the autumn of their parliamentary careers,
a different impression would have been created on the viewer. These were
people who had come to politics from very different experiences, and had
done their apprenticeship not as political researchers, but on the anvil of
world war danger. Their presence enhanced the House of Commons as a serious
forum of the nation. In the early 1960s it simply would not have occurred to
any of the generation of new MPs to be rudish or cheekyish to Maclean and
Furthermore, as incoming prime minister, Harold Wilson handled the questions
of such as Sir Fitzroy Maclean, Brigadier Sir John Smyth Bt VC, Commander
Sir John Maitland RN and Air Commodore Sir Arthur Vere Harvey with gingerly
Maclean's political importance lies not in the office he held as
Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for War but in his personal
relationships over 30 years particularly with leading Conservatives, such as
Churchill and Macmillan. Harold Wilson knew that Maclean had been one of the
prime movers in Macmillan's visit to Moscow in 1959 which started the thaw.
Usually through George Wigg, Maclean reciprocated by offering Wilson as
prime minister his best advice and contacts in Eastern Europe.
Unsurprisingly Maclean was cool about Alec Douglas-Home and the only
occasion on which I saw Maclean verging on anger was when, in 1971, his
foreign secretary had expelled 90 Russian diplomats. "It was an indulgent
and expensive gesture which could serve no useful long-term purpose." Who
else, again, but Maclean would tell Winston Churchill to his face that his
speech at Fulton, Missouri, in 1946 coining the phrase "Iron Curtain" and
ushering in the Cold War was unwise to the point of being ridiculous?
The day after John Smith's funeral the then government Chief Whip, Richard
Ryder, said to me, "As we passed you in our official car the Prime Minister
and I wondered who on earth was that man with you bent double struggling up
the pavement with such courageous gallantry and tried to place him."
"Fitzroy Maclean," I said "determined to come to say goodbye to his Labour
friend of the Scotland/USSR Association." "A legend," said Ryder. A legend
of courageous gallantry.