Through the trees a group of men and boys watched the harbinger of death: SS Panzer division Das Reich, which had stopped for the night as it traversed France. They did not know its name; only that its men were taking vengeance by stringing villagers up on lamp-posts along the way. The motley group was a French resistance cell, and they had a new leader, a vision in the moonlight in full Scottish Highland military rig, his kilt swinging, who now inspired them to quick work to stop the tanks.
The Nazis' most feared armoured force had been stationed 400 miles to the south when the Allies landed in France on D-Day, 6 June 1944, and now it was passing through the Corrèze department in a hurry northwards to join battle with the invaders. At their new chief's orders the resisters felled trees, planted their only anti-tank mine in a scraped-out hollow, and laced branches with a pair of primed grenades.
By dawn two makeshift booby-trapped tree-trunk road-blocks were ready, and a third, a mile farther on, nearly so. To complete it, the group uprooted the trees with an explosion masked by the thunder of the German engines all starting up at once. The first blew the track off a tank support vehicle and slewed it across the road. The second killed and maimed investigators sent forward on foot. The third brought down on them a spray of Sten gun bullets.
With this operation on the Figeac-to-Tulle road the new chief restored the resisters' courage after four years of Nazi occupation. The coded message "La chouette au merle blanc" ("owl to white blackbird") had announced his arrival when he had parachuted in days before, his kilt arranged as a cushion beneath the fastenings of his jumping-smock. The 23-year-old Major Thomas "Tommy" Macpherson of the Cameron Highlanders brought as his second-in-command the 20-year-old Lieutenant Michel de Bourbon-Parme, a man of French royal connections, and a radio operator, Sergeant Arthur Brown, also 20. They were the British special operations "Jedburgh" group called "Quinine", dropped 48 hours after the Normandy landings.
Their army comprised a dentist, a peasant farmer, and four young boys. Macpherson was master of every ruse of guerrilla warfare: his tutors were the designers of the British commando knife, Major WE Fairbairn and Eric A Sykes of the Shanghai police, and he was versed in every means of blowing things up.
In 1941 he had been delivered into Libya by submarine to reconnoitre, using collapsible boats, the possibilities for a plan to capture Rommel. Taken prisoner after the submarine failed to rendezvous, he was held in an Italian castle, from where he briefly escaped, and was then transported in a metal-grilled freight truck all over Germany, interrogated by the Gestapo in East Prussia and deposited at Stalag 20A in Poland. In 1943, with the help of a Polish black marketeer, he escaped to Gdynia, then reached neutral Sweden – and thence Britain – by hiding under coal in a ship's hold.
Now in 1944, the centre of his operations was Cahors, south-west France, and admiring village women had adorned his purloined black French police Citroen with gold-tasselled flags, the Union Jack and a French tricolour with the Cross of Lorraine, attached on metal posts that a local garagiste had welded to his bumper. The Germans put up notices offering large sums for his capture, describing him as "A bandit masquerading as a Scottish officer."
His talents for blowing up railway lines, bridges, and electricity pylons, and for bluff, were about to be called on. From Biarritz came a column of German troops hoping to squeeze past the bridge at Decize, where the Allier and Loire rivers join. He had mined it but left it intact in case he should need to move west.
Major General Erich Elster, former commander of Biarritz, sought to flee with 16,000 civilians and ex-garrison troops, but he also had, Macpherson said, "7,000 hardened fighting troops who could go through our inexperienced irregulars like a knife through butter."
To snuff out any hopes Elster might have of just such a fight, Macpherson drove, with a French army major and a German doctor on board, at speed over the bridge and five miles past the retreating column in a captured German Red Cross van. Twice, machine guns opened up at them. Meeting Elster in Pont d'Arcay, Macpherson recalled, "I was able to say... that we had tanks, and artillery... I told him that I was in full contact with London by radio and could at any time call up the RAF to blow his people out of sight."
In fact he had only a French squadron of tank chasers and four Bofors guns. Elster nevertheless surrendered, and Macpherson handed the 23,000 Germans over to US forces.
Macpherson then went to Italy, leading parties of non-communist Osoppo fighters, opponents of the communist Garibaldi brigades attempting to take control of Trieste and the Veneto for Marshal Tito: "I later found out [Tito] had put a death sentence on my head."
As the Germans left Trieste they sent out firing squads, and at Udine, 50 miles to the north-west, Macpherson saved the life of Archbishop Giuseppe Nogara. "We took to sniping in the streets, slowing them to the point where the archbishop was able to slip away and hide." Macpherson received the surrender of the German garrison 20 miles farther on at Gemona.
The youngest of seven children of a judge in British imperial India, he was educated at Fettes College in Edinburgh, where his sporting determination was whetted by his struggle to overcome osteomyelitis. After the war he gained a First in PPE from Trinity College, Oxford. In 1953 he married Jean Butler-Wilson. She was an acquaintance of his friend and fellow runner, the record-setter Roger Bannister, whom he once beat in a half-mile race.
He ran for Britain at the World University Games in Paris in 1947 and was briefly a royal equerry, then joined the timber company William Mallinson, rising to chairman of the Mallinson-Denny group, also commanding in the Territorial Army until 1967. He served as chairman of the National Employers' Liaison Committee, encouraging employers to support army reservists. His many honours included Chevalier, Legion d'Honneur.
Ronald Thomas Stewart Macpherson, commando and businessman: born Edinburgh 4 October 1920; MC 1943, and Bar 1944, second Bar 1945; CBE (Mil) 1968; Kt 1992; married 1953 Jean Butler-Wilson (two sons, one daughter); died Newtonmore, Inverness-shire 6 November 2014.Reuse content