Churchill's envoy fought his own secret war

Brigadier who backed Tito was at odds with top brass instrumental in rise of Tito British maveric Support of Maverick operator put rise of Tito
Click to follow
The Independent Online
Fitzroy Maclean, the maverick Highland laird chosen by Churchill as his personal emissary to Tito , fought his own private war with his nominal superiors in the Special Operations Executive (SOE) who were jealous of his special link with the Prime Minister.

Top-secret SOE files released yesterday at the Public Record Office give an often startling account of the stormy relationship between Maclean and the sabotage organisation, prompted by their disagreement over the importance of Tito.

At the time Maclean parachuted into Yugoslavia in September 1943, Tito was dismissed as a peripheral figure in the resistance. By the following spring, such had been Maclean's impact regarding Tito and the organisation of the communists' partisan campaign that Churchill withdrew support to the Yugoslav royalist leader General Draza Mihailovich. Until then, the SOE in London had been supporting the general with parachute drops amounting to pounds 400,000 in gold bars.

Maclean alienated SOE's headquarters echelon in Baker Street, London, by openly defying their orders when he found it convenient, and upholding the Titoist cause of a socialist Yugoslavia against the official Foreign Office line.

Lord Selborne and the Baker Street "regulars" had not wanted him in the first place, dismissing him contemptuously in a report as having had "negligible military training; his experience consisting of a small raiding party behind enemy lines in Libya, without having a shot fired in anger".

This was the operation for which Maclean, had received the Croix de Guerre, and his promotion on being assigned to Yugoslavia was spectacular - captain to brigadier in a few months. The SOE memo questioned how he would fare with a partisan commander who expected "British officers with battle experience and suitable decorations".

In February 1944, Baker Street tried to reassert its authority over Maclean and the Yugoslavian mission, responsibility they they said they wanted to be rid of. Maclean was called to a meeting where he was required by Selborne and General Sir Colin Gubbins, head of SOE, to agree to documents strictly detailing his responsibilities and allegiances. General Gubbins minuted Henry Sporberg, Vice Chief of Staff SOE, on 10 May 1944: "I wish to put on record my feeling of alarm that Brigadier Maclean should continue to plough a lonely furrow without owing allegiance to any one department. From the security point of view such practices are most undesirable and should be terminated as soon as possible."

He said SOE could no longer accept responsibility for Maclean's security "as we have no real knowledge of his activities and no apparent control of them. If anything were to go wrong, we should be regarded as owning him and if everything goes right I am convinced we shall get a very small share of the credit." Gubbins said Maclean had shown himself to be "completely freelance".

t The film actor Anthony Quayle, star of many Second World War dramas, played a real-life role in undercover operations for SOE in Albania, the records show.

In his report on one such operation, detailing the blowing up of a bridge by partisans at the village of Palasso, he says: "The reprisals the Huns carried out resulted in the villagers running like rabbits to the hills."