October 5, 2006


Arabs, Nazis and Comrades: The Life and Travels of Sir Fitzroy Maclean (Cali Ruchala, May 6, 2004, Sobaka)

His reports for the Foreign Ministry - vast, lurid tales that might have appealed to the readers of dime-store novels - caused a sensation in London. No other country knew what was going on outside of Moscow and Leningrad, in cities with "perfumed names" like Tashkent, Baku and Samarkan. Maclean's reports - between descriptions of his arrests by the NKVD - drew on his interviews with locals and observations of a country ripped apart by the most intense, savage streak of repression in history.

In these reports, former American diplomat Charles Thayer remembered, "Maclean recounted his adventures in that lively, lucid style which is the specialty of the English public schools and the envy of so many of us in the American service." In one report, Maclean described his arrest by a brigade of Soviet cavalry. "He was ordered to put up his hands, and in the process of complying he inadvertently dropped his bottle of mineral water. His agony as he contemplated the last of his drinking water slipping out onto the dry ground was almost heartbreaking. It was these apparently trivial details which made Maclean's dispatches our favorite reading."

Maclean's visits to the forbidden zones of the Soviet landscape recommended him for a career boost. But he was stuck in London in 1939 when World War II began. Maclean's father had been a war hero; four generations of the "exciting, romantic and bloodthirsty" Scottish Clan Maclean had served as officers. Maclean desperately coveted an assignment in the armed forces, but British law forbade civil servants from enlisting in the army. In a ruse that Winston Churchill later cracked "used the Mother of Parliaments as a convenience," Maclean announced he was running for office, for the same law prohibited civil servants from standing for any sort of election. His resignation from the Foreign Service happily accepted, Maclean enlisted in the Cameron Highlanders - but not before, to his genuine surprise, he was elected a Member of Parliament for Lanchester, though he hadn't broken a sweat campaigning.

Churchill, something of a larger-than-life character himself, was favourable toward "wild men" and eccentrics like Maclean. The latter was assigned to the British Special Air Service Brigade (SAS) and sent to Egypt to assist with special operations there. Among his adventures in the SAS, Maclean infiltrated the Afrika Korps and kidnapped a pro-Nazi general in Iran, earning several high decorations in the process.

With the war in Northern Africa coming to an end, Maclean was desperate for a new assignment. After a meeting with Churchill, he may have gotten more than he bargained for. Maclean was to parachute into Occupied Yugoslavia with a small team, to establish - in Churchill's words - "who was killing the most Germans and suggest means by which we could help them to kill more."

For the better part of two years, Maclean would lead a small team traveling with the Communist Partizans and the Serbian Chetniks, participating in guerrilla raids and sabotage and being chased through the thrush by several German offensives. Maclean even helped to plan the famous Operation Ratweek, which sought to cut off the German route of escape from the Balkan peninsula in the closing days of the war.

His fellow Tories later vilified Maclean for his reports, claiming he'd been "duped" by Communist agents. Maclean in fact agonized over British support to what would become, for a brief time, a Soviet satellite. He poured out his anxious thoughts to Churchill. "[I]n my view," he said, "the Partizans, whether we helped them or not, would be the decisive political factor in Jugoslavia after the war and, secondly, that Tito and the other leaders of the Movement were openly and avowedly Communist and that the system they would establish would inevitably be on Soviet lines and, in all probability, strongly orientated towards the Soviet Union."

Churchill didn't bat an eye. "Do you intend," he asked Maclean, "to make Jugoslavia your home after the war?"

It's a terrific book, not least because of what that last comment reveals about how we lost the war.

Posted by Orrin Judd at October 5, 2006 1:56 AM

Evelyn Waugh, who was an intelligence office, iirc, working in Yugoslavia gave the same warning. His disillusion when he was ignored led to his Sword of Honour trilogy on the war.

Posted by: Jim in Chicago at October 5, 2006 11:54 AM

Russia invaded Poland. Guy found no sympathy among these old soldiers for his own hot indignation.

'My dear fellow, we've quite enough on our hands as it is. We can't go to war with the whole world.'

'Then why go to war at all? If all we want is prosperity, the hardest bargain Hitler made would be preferable to victory. If we are concerned with justice the Russians are as guilty as the Germans.'

'Justice?' said the old soldiers. 'Justice?'

'Besides,' said Box-Bender when Guy spoke to him of the matter which seemed in no one's mind but his, 'the country would never stand for it. The socialists have been crying blue murder against the Nazis for five years but they are still pacifists at heart. So far as they have any feeling of patriotism it's for Russia. You'd have a general strike and the whole country in collapse if you set up to be just.'

'Then what are we fighting for?'

'Oh we had to do that, you know. The socialists always thought we were pro-Hitler. God knows why. It was quite a job keeping neutral over Spain. [...] It was quite ticklish, I assure you. If we sat tight now there'd be chaos. What we have to do now is to limit and localize the war, not extend it.'

Posted by: oj at October 5, 2006 12:03 PM