George Millar

Wartime secret agent turned writer and farmer
Click to follow
The Independent Online

George Millar was in turn a journalist, a soldier, an escaper from wartime Germany, a resistance leader in France, a writer and a farmer.

George Reid Millar, soldier: born Boghall, West Lothian 10 September 1910; Paris correspondent, Daily Express 1939; MC 1944; DSO 1944; married 1936 Annette Stockwell (marriage dissolved 1945), 1945 Isabel Paske-Smith (died 1990); died Uploders, Dorset 15 January 2005.

George Millar was in turn a journalist, a soldier, an escaper from wartime Germany, a resistance leader in France, a writer and a farmer.

His father was an architect in Glasgow, and took for granted that his two sons would follow in his footsteps. As a small boy, George shared his cot with the family Airedale. The dog had to be put down in 1917, because U-boat attacks made it impossible to get meat enough to feed him; this did not make George love the Germans. His father died when he was 11.

George Millar went from Loretto, for which he did not much care, to St John's College, Cambridge, to read Architecture and enjoy himself. He worked briefly for a London firm of architects, but gave it up to try his hand at journalism. He began on a Glasgow newspaper, which sent him to cover an early, unsuccessful attempt to find the wreck of the Lusitania.

He was tall, sturdy, cherub-faced, and always attractive to women. His first wife Annette, the daughter of an army colonel, had set eyes on him twice before she abandoned her previous husband to live with him.

He secured a post on The Daily Telegraph, and managed to scoop the Daily Express in that paper's heyday when Arthur Christiansen was its editor. Christiansen sent for Millar, and offered him a large salary increase, which he accepted. Lord Beaverbrook thought well of him, and he became one of the Express's three correspondents in Paris.

When the Second World War began, Millar was left in sole charge of the Express office, and got away from Paris to Bordeaux, under fire from the Luftwaffe, with a carful of White Russian friends, as the Germans swept over northern France. He got a boat out of Bordeaux to England, where he at once enlisted in the London Scottish.

Obvious officer material, he was soon commissioned into the Rifle Brigade, and went out to North Africa with its first battalion. In a brush with the Afrika Korps, he had the misfortune to be taken prisoner and was packed off to a prisoner-of-war camp near Taranto, where he ran a black market in food. This was rumbled, and he was dispatched to the punishment camp at Calvi above Genoa. With stout friends, he was at work on a tunnel when Italy surrendered to the Allies; the Germans took over the camp, and he found himself crossing the Alps in a guarded train.

From this train he and a friend jumped clear, near Munich. They got help from French forced labourers, as far as Strasbourg, where he lost his companion; he managed to get across into France, and hid in a small hotel near the Swiss border. At nightfall one evening, four men closed in on him. " C'est vous l'officier anglais" - statement, not question. One of them took him into a side room and greeted him in English: Robert Heslop, the local SOE organiser. Heslop put him on an escape line to Spain.

Millar got as far as Perpignan, where he was twice betrayed by bad guides, but then managed to cross the Pyrenees and so get back to Great Britain. He was at once taken on by SOE - having an elder brother in SIS probably helped - and trained as a secret agent.

Briefed by Vera Atkins, and codenamed "Emile", he parachuted into eastern France a few days before Normandy D-Day, to run a new circuit called Chancellor in the Ognon valley north of Besançon. In three hectic months he managed to do a great deal of harm to the Germans, for which he received a DSO to add to the MC he had been awarded for his home run from Germany. Sixty years later, women in the Ognon valley who had worked for him would still cry "Ah! Emile!" when his name was mentioned, and lay a hand on their hearts.

This work Millar described in his Maquis (1945), still the most vivid book to have come out of the secret war, crisply written to convey what it felt like never to know, from hour to hour, whether you would live to see the next hour. He wrote it as soon as the ordeal was over, and followed it with Horned Pigeon (1946), an account of his escape; so named because the wife whose memory had sustained him as an escaper had not waited for him, and was living with somebody else. He at once divorced her and married a friend of hers, Isabel Paske-Smith, the half-Spanish daughter of a diplomat.

He took Isabel by small boat across France for a tour of the Mediterranean, being sent for by General Charles de Gaulle as they passed through Paris. De Gaulle thought highly of his Maquis, though he could not say so in public, and made sure Millar got the proper French decorations. This journey in turn led to a good book, Isabel and the Sea (1948), and he wrote several more, including Oyster River (1963), on the Cornwall-Brittany wartime small-boat link, and several other books of travel.

Millar was no great lover of city life, Paris apart, and settled instead to be a Dorset squire, buying a thousand acres near Dorchester. Farming, hunting and shooting suited him - he once regretted that, although he had shot several Germans while he was "Emile", he had not shot a great many more. In 1979 he published his autobiography, Road to Resistance.

His life had a sharp jar in 1989, when Isabel was involved in a banal car accident from which she never recovered consciousness. He gave up their farm, and moved to a house near Bridport, where Venetia Ross-Skinner looked after his closing years. Once such a pillar of physical energy, he was reduced to a wheelchair, and went blind; his spirit remained glowing.

M. R. D. Foot