Tuesday, 24 January 2012

Behind Enemy Lines - Book Review

I'm not sure that they make them like Sir Thomas Macpherson anymore - this is a remarkable autobiography of a truly extraordinary man.

Catapulted from a privileged upbringing in the highlands of Scotland and at Fettes into military service, the young officer spent most of the war causing trouble 'behind enemy lines'. He was captured and escaped three times, before being parachuted into France in 1944 with a small elite team charged with the task of disrupting the German withdrawal. At times his account reads like a Biggles novel: blowing up railway lines, power cables and bridges before escaping under fire on a motorbike or stolen car. But the reader needs to be reminded that this is no work of fiction, and these were not pranks - these were real operations that had a significant impact on the course of the war. The French phase of his "war" culminated in the kilted Macpherson personally taking the surrender of 23,000 SS soldiers of the Das Reich tank column. He was then transferred to northern Italy, a region which he already knew well from one of his escapes from the Germans earlier in the war, where he almost single-handedly prevented Tito's Yugoslavia annexing the whole of north-east Italy. No one could doubt that he had a "good war" - his tally of decorations speak for themselves: three Military Crosses, a Croix de Guerre, a Papal Knighthood and the honour of being a Chevalier in the Legion d'honneur.

But there is so much more to this autobiography than the reminiscences of a war hero. Sir Thomas story didn't end with the German final surrender - his fascinating life continued. A talented sportsman, he combined playing fly-half for London Scots with a top athletics career, even beating a young Roger Bannister whilst at Oxford. After graduating with a First in PPE, he went on to be tutor to the young Prince Edward (later the Duke of Kent), mixing with the royal family, where he showed excellent diplomatic skills by allowing himself to be bowled out by Prince Phillip (later the Duke of Edinburgh). Leaving royal service, he went on to qualify as a lawyer before embarking on a distinguished career in industry which saw him take seats on the Board of many of the country's top companies, culminating in him becoming President of the London, then British, and finally, European Chambers of Commerce.

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