Sir Fitzroy Maclean Bt: Obituary

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 Foreign Office.

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 accordingly.

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 order.

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 his contemporaries.

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 deference.

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.

Fitzroy Hew Maclean, diplomat, soldier, politician, writer: born Cairo 11 March 1911; MP (Conservative) for Lancaster 1941-59, for Bute and North Ayrshire 1959-74; CBE (mil) 1944; Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for War 1954-57; Bt 1957; KT 1993; married the Hon Mrs (Veronica) Phipps (nee Fraser; two sons); died 15 June 1996.

Voices
On the last day of campaigning before the polling booths open, the SNP leader has written to voters in a final attempt to convince them to vote for independence
scotland decidesIs a huge gamble on oil keeping First Minister up at night?
Arts and Entertainment
Rosalind Buckland, the inspiration for Cider with Rosie died this week
booksBut what is it like to be the person who inspires a classic work of art?
Life and Style
techApple has just launched its latest mobile operating software – so what should you do first?
News
A male driver reverses his Vauxhall Astra from a tow truck
newsThe 'extremely dangerous' attempt to avoid being impounded has been heavily criticised
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Messi in action for Barcelona
filmSo what makes the little man tick?
Arts and Entertainment
tvReview: An undercooked end (spoiler alert)
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell dismissed the controversy surrounding
musicThe singer said 'the last thing I want to do is degrade'
Sport
Cesc Fabregas celebrates his first Chelsea goal
footballChelsea vs Schalke match report
Arts and Entertainment
Toby Jones (left) and Mackenzie Crook in BBC4’s new comedy The Detectorists
tvMackenzie Crook's 'Detectorists' makes the hobby look 'dysfunctional', they say
Life and Style
fashion

Olympic diver has made his modelling debut for Adidas

News
i100
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Maths Teacher

£110 - £200 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Secondary Maths Teacher for spe...

Maths Teacher

£90 - £160 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Secondary Science Teacher (mater...

Maths Teacher

£110 - £200 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Secondary Maths Teacher for an ...

Maths Teacher

£22000 - £37000 per annum: Randstad Education Leeds: A West Yorkshire School i...

Day In a Page

Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

The Imitation Game, film review
England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week