Wit and Wisdom: Fitzroy Maclean, 1911-1996

Wit and Wisdom: Fitzroy Maclean, 1911-1996

Sir Fitzroy Hew Royle Maclean KT CBE  was a swash­buck­ling adven­tur­er, sol­dier, writer and politi­cian. In the Sec­ond World War he was Churchill’s per­son­al rep­re­sen­ta­tive to Tito, who led Yugoslav Par­ti­sans against the Ger­mans. One of my great priv­i­leges was know­ing him and Lady Veron­i­ca, and hear­ing their cap­ti­vat­ing rec­ol­lec­tions. (Updat­ed from 2016.)

Proof­ing gal­leys for Win­ston S. Churchill: Doc­u­ment Vol­ume 20, May-Decem­ber 1944, the Hills­dale Col­lege Churchill Project came across many gems. Not least of these was an account by Fitzroy of Churchill’s first meet­ing with Tito—and a minor adven­ture in Bay of Naples in August 1944.

Maclean on Tito

I found him to be a tough, alert man of about fifty, at the head of a far more for­mi­da­ble resis­tance move­ment than any­one out­side Yugoslavia could pos­si­bly have imag­ined…. He made no bones about being a Com­mu­nist, but… he showed a sur­pris­ing inde­pen­dence of mind, and above all an intense nation­al pride which did not at all fit in with my idea of a Russ­ian agent. All this I report­ed to Mr. Churchill [in late 1943]…. I thought it right to remind him that the Par­ti­sans were Communist-led.

“Do you intend to make your home in Yugoslavia after the war?” he asked.

“No,” I replied.

“Nei­ther do I,” he said. “That being so, don’t you think we had bet­ter leave it to the Yugoslavs to work out their own form of gov­ern­ment? What con­cerns us most now is who is doing the most dam­age to the Ger­mans.” Think­ing our con­ver­sa­tion over after­wards, I felt con­vinced, and still feel con­vinced, that this was the right decision.

[Tito indeed proved to be a Com­mu­nist, but one with ardent inde­pen­dence, who balked at fol­low­ing the Sovi­et line. As a school­boy I remem­ber maps of the Sovi­et empire, its nations col­ored red, except for Yugoslavia, which was always col­ored pink.]

The PM and Tito

Tito meets Churchill, Naples, 1944. (Wikimedia Commons)
Tito meets Churchill, Naples, 1944. (Wiki­me­dia Commons)

They met in Naples on 12 August at what had been Queen Vic­to­ria‘s sum­mer vil­la. Tito was wear­ing a splen­did new uni­form which Fitzroy was sure had been made for the occa­sion. Although suf­fer­ing from the heat, Tito “looked every inch a Mar­shal, which he had just made him­self.” With Tito were two gigan­tic body­guards, Boško and Prl­ja, who, with sub­ma­chine guns at the ready, kept a con­stant watch over him.

It was at lunchtime when Churchill, with all his cow­boy instincts, almost caused an inter­na­tion­al inci­dent. It might have end­ed with the death of the Prime Min­is­ter by semi-friend­ly fire. Sir Fitzroy recalled:

At one o’clock pre­cise­ly, we broke for lunch. The vil­la was large enough to pro­vide fresh­en­ing-up facil­i­ties for each del­e­ga­tion. Accord­ing­ly, the Prime Min­is­ter and I dis­ap­peared down one long cor­ri­dor. Tito and the two body­guards, their sub­ma­chine guns still at the ready, went off down anoth­er, run­ning at right angles to each other.

Five min­utes lat­er, hav­ing washed our hands, we made our way back, con­verg­ing from dif­fer­ent direc­tions on the same cor­ner. It was thus that the Prime Min­is­ter found him­self look­ing down the bar­rels of two sub­ma­chine guns.

Boško’s and Prlja’s near-miss

This, I real­ized too late, was the sort of sit­u­a­tion that appealed to him immense­ly. He at once entered into what he imag­ined to be the spir­it of the thing. Whip­ping his large gold cig­ar case out of his pock­et like a pis­tol and sud­den­ly lung­ing for­ward, he pre­sent­ed it in one abrupt move­ment at Tito’s stomach.

What he didn’t know, but I did, was that Boško and Prl­ja, after three years as guer­ril­las, were men of light­ning reflex­es who took no chances at all. If they thought their Marshal’s life was in dan­ger they would glad­ly have wiped out all three of the Big Three in a sin­gle burst.

In the space of a split sec­ond I saw their trig­ger fin­gers twitch. I only had time to hope that I for one would not sur­vive what came next.

Then Tito began to laugh. Win­ston, see­ing that his lit­tle joke had been a suc­cess, laughed too. Boško and Prl­ja, observ­ing that the dan­ger had passed, low­ered their guns. Fol­low­ing on into Queen Victoria’s fusty din­ing room, I took out a large kha­ki hand­ker­chief and wiped the cold sweat off my brow.

“Careering around the Bay of Naples”

Dur­ing Churchill’s stay in Naples, an urgent deci­sion was need­ed from the PM, who was nowhere to be found. Some­one men­tioned that he had said he was going swim­ming in the Bay of Naples. The Allied com­man­der instruct­ed Fitzroy Maclean to find him:

The Roy­al Navy kind­ly pro­vid­ed a motor tor­pe­do boat, and the Unit­ed States Army a stenographer—a young lady of con­sid­er­able per­son­al attrac­tions, in a form-fit­ting trop­i­cal uniform…..

The first thing we saw as we emerged from the har­bour into the wider waters of the Bay was a great fleet of ships of every size and shape, steam­ing majes­ti­cal­ly towards the open sea. It was the first phase, as I sud­den­ly real­ized, of the Allied inva­sion of the south of France….

As we watched, one of the troop ships slight­ly slack­ened speed, as if to avoid some­thing. Simul­ta­ne­ous­ly there was a burst of excit­ed cheer­ing from the troops on board, and a small, bright blue object shot across their bow. I rec­og­nized it as an admiral’s barge. And there, stand­ing by the coxswain, wear­ing a boil­er suit and a broad-brimmed Pana­ma hat, smok­ing a cig­ar and giv­ing the “V” sign, was the object of my search.

Royal Navy greetings

He swerved out and round and dis­ap­peared behind the next ship in the con­voy. Clear­ly there was noth­ing for me but to give chase…. We set out bold­ly on our errat­ic course down the line. As we passed them, the troops on the trans­ports gave us an extra cheer for luck—followed by a sal­vo of whis­tles as they spot­ted my female companion….

Even­tu­al­ly, we over­took and head­ed off the blue barge. There fol­lowed an intri­cate board­ing oper­a­tion in rather a rough sea. I land­ed pre­cip­i­tous­ly in my kilt at the Prime Minister’s feet. The blonde stenog­ra­ph­er, anx­ious to miss noth­ing, hung over the rail of the MTB.

Mr. Churchill seemed keen­ly inter­est­ed. “Do you usu­al­ly,” he asked, “spend your after­noons career­ing around the Bay of Naples in one of His Majesty’s ships with this charm­ing young lady?” In vain I explained the object of the exer­cise. He wouldn’t lis­ten. I was not to hear the last of that episode for a long time.

Sir Fitzroy on WSC

I should not like to give the impres­sion that all Fitzroy had to say was joc­u­lar. His mem­o­ran­da to Churchill cru­cial­ly influ­enced British pol­i­cy in the Balka­ns and his eval­u­a­tions of Tito and oth­er play­ers in Yugoslavia was uni­form­ly accu­rate. Nev­er­the­less, these won­der­ful snip­pets are worth recall­ing, if only as a tes­ti­mo­ny to what he always con­sid­ered the pre­mier expe­ri­ence of his life.

He spoke to us twice on the Churchill tours my wife and I con­duct­ed. The venue was his Creg­gans Inn in Stra­chur, on Scotland’s Kin­tyre Penin­su­la. He spoke mov­ing­ly and I think pro­found­ly on the Great Man he’d known so well:

Today, look­ing back over a long life, I can hon­est­ly say that almost the only things in which I take any con­scious pride or esteem in one way or anoth­er is my asso­ci­a­tion with Win­ston Churchill. After the war I was lucky enough to be a mem­ber of his Gov­ern­ment and also, with my wife, to be asked every now and then to Che­quers or Chartwell to join him and his fam­i­ly in their noisy, affec­tion­ate, hilar­i­ous, often uproar­i­ous fam­i­ly life. That, as a friend said to me the oth­er day, was some­thing that left you both wis­er and also warmer at heart.

After our meet­ing in Naples I asked Tito, a most per­cep­tive man, what had struck him most about Win­ston. Tito replied instant­ly and I thought it was very clever of him: “His human­i­ty. He is so human.”

By this cen­tral human­i­ty, and his states­man­ship and courage, Churchill did some­thing that not many politi­cians seem to do nowa­days. He caught people’s imag­i­na­tion and won their affection.

When I heard of his death I was on the hill here with my head shep­herd. Not a man much giv­en to sen­ti­ment, he was great­ly moved. “I feel,” he said, “as if I’d lost one of my own family.”

That is how, I think, many of us felt and still feel today.

2 thoughts on “Wit and Wisdom: Fitzroy Maclean, 1911-1996

  1. Thank you for the MacLean piece. As a Scot­tish-Amer­i­can, I first came to Sir Fitzroy’s writ­ings via his Scot­tish his­to­ry con­tacts with Churchill. One of my ear­li­est pub­lished reviews for Mil­i­tary His­to­ry was of his High­landers: A His­to­ry of the Scot­tish Clans….

    “No sin­gle group of inhab­i­tants of the British Isles inflict­ed more seri­ous set­backs on the Eng­lish con­quest of their lands than the Scot­tish High­landers. Eng­lish defeats like Stir­ling Bridge, Ban­nock­burn and Pre­ston­pans must per­ma­nent­ly coex­ist with vic­to­ries like Falkirk, Flod­den and Cul­lo­den in British his­to­ry books. But if the Scots made for­mi­da­ble foes, the Eng­lish found them to be good men to have on their side in the cen­turies fol­low­ing the final fall of the old Scot­tish High­land clans at Cul­lo­den on April 16, 1746. Water­loo, the Alma, Ypres, El Alamein and Port Stan­ley are only a few of the bat­tles in which High­landers made a vital con­tri­bu­tion toward victory.”

    MacLean’s glos­sary of clan tar­tans and brief his­to­ries is both com­pelling and enlight­en­ing. The cov­er price of his last great work should not deter prospec­tive pur­chasers, because the book is worth every pen­ny. High­landers is a won­drous resource for the mil­i­tary his­to­ri­an in gen­er­al, and cer­tain­ly a must for any­one whose “blood is strong” and whose “heart is Highland.”

    Thanks, WJS. A link to your review is pro­vid­ed above. —RML

  2. Great arti­cle. A favourite book of mine is his East­ern Approach­es, an amaz­ing account of his adven­tures pri­or and dur­ing the Sec­ond World War.

    Thanks, Ter­ry. Most of the quotes in my piece are from East­ern Approach­es. After join­ing the For­eign Office Fitzroy asked to be sent to Moscow (they were astonished—no one ever did), because he want­ed to get to the fabled cities like Bokhara and Samarkand. And of course he did, though Sovi­et Cen­tral Asia was offi­cial­ly off lim­its to for­eign­ers. When the war came he got round the ban on F.O. per­son­nel join­ing the army by resign­ing and run­ning for Parliament—MPs could enlist. In 1942 Churchill intro­duced him to Smuts: “Here is the young man who has made a Pub­lic Con­ve­nience of the Moth­er of Par­lia­ments.” —RML

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