Deceptively laid-back, with a razor-sharp mind and an audacious twinkle, Fitzroy Maclean breezed through hair-raising encounters with the composure of Ian Fleming’s Bond. 

On 21st May 1942, as night was falling across the Libyan desert, a British army vehicle was racing towards the Italian-occupied port of Benghazi.   Disguised as a German staff car, it carried six British soldiers from the newly-formed Special Air Service brigade.  One of them was Fitzroy Maclean;  another was the brigade’s founder, David Stirling.  Their mission was straightforward.  They were to enter the town under cover of darkness and inspect the harbour, which at that point was being used as the principal supply port for Field-Marshal Erwin Rommel’s Afrika Korps.  If opportunity allowed, they were to blow up any German supply ships.  Then, having evaded capture, they were to slip away and rejoin the men and vehicles of the Long-Range Desert Group in time for breakfast.

Libyan Desert

The plan was an outrageously daring one and its success depended on several factors, not least the men’s ability to enter and drive around the town without attracting attention.  But as their specially-converted Ford station wagon bumped over the boulder-strewn wadis of the western desert, it had developed an ear-piercing screech.  Dismayed, the men tried in vain to fix it.  As they approached Benghazi, Maclean reflected that they could hardly have made more noise if they had been in a fire engine with its bell clanging.  Speed was now the best option, and Stirling put his foot to the floor.  But a few seconds later, looming ahead of them, they saw the red light of a road block. 

Fitzroy Hew Royle Maclean was born in 1911 in Cairo, the son of an officer in the Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders.  Educated at Eton and King’s College, Cambridge, he passed the examinations for the Diplomatic Service with spectacularly high marks and was posted to the British Embassy in Paris.  He thrived in the city’s glittering social life, but after three years he was ready for a complete contrast, so he requested a transfer to Moscow.  His friends were alarmed;  at the Foreign Office, a posting to Moscow was generally avoided because it was so ‘notoriously unpleasant.’  But Maclean persisted, and in February 1937 he stepped out of a train carriage into the bitterly cold Russian winter.  The windows of his office gazed across the river to the Kremlin, where Joseph Stalin wielded his grip of iron. Here, Maclean began to hatch some startling plans of his own. 

Benghazi, around 1940

The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) had been formed in 1922, after the Russian Revolution had brutally disposed of the Tsar and his family.  The Communist party, led by Vladimir Lenin, took control of the government, and shortly after Lenin’s death a new dictator, Joseph Stalin, set about making the Soviet Union a superpower.  Stalin’s policies were horrifying. The ‘Great Purge’ resulted in the execution of around 600,000 people, and many more were sent to labour camps or succumbed to famine. For Soviet citizens, even minor transgressions from Communist ideology were punishable by death.  In Moscow, foreign embassy officials were tolerated, even respected, but their movements were closely monitored and it was considered dangerous to socialise with them. 

In this environment of fear and suspicion, Maclean opted to take himself on some unofficial and decidedly risky travels in Central Asia.  He had always wanted to see the ancient treasures of Tashkent and Samarkand;  he just needed to circumvent the entire Soviet establishment in order to get there.  But discouragement fed his curiosity;  he already spoke several languages, and he picked up others quickly and easily.  He saw no insuperable problems.  He packed a kit bag with some books, a few tins of sardines and some clean shirts, and boarded a train.

Sir Fitzroy Maclean and his family at Strachur, Argyll

Over a period of about two years, Maclean made repeated forays around the Caspian and Aral Seas, and eastwards as far as the deserts of Uzbekistan and the Tien Shan mountains, gazing upon the remnants of cities founded by Alexander the Great.  Quite simply, he defied all odds and expectations.  Finding himself invariably tailed by one or more members of the NKVD - the Soviet police - he either gave them the slip or led them on such gruelling walks that they dropped off through exhaustion and hunger.  He honed his survival instincts:  on one occasion, as he explored the country around Lenkoran on horseback, he was arrested by the NKVD at gunpoint and taken to their headquarters where he was assured he would be executed.  Finding that no one except himself could read Russian, he read his ‘official papers’ aloud to his captors, making some ad lib embellishments regarding the fate of anyone who impeded his progress, and ignoring the fact that he was actually holding an outdated invitation to a May Day parade in Red Square.  Luckily, they believed him.  Abject apologies were offered.  They begged him not to mention the incident to their superiors when he got back to Moscow.

It was this potent mix of cool composure and quick thinking that made Maclean such a perfect candidate for the newly-fledged SAS.  He had arrived in North Africa via a roundabout route, because when war was declared, he was told that his country expected him to remain in the Diplomatic Service.  But Maclean neatly side-stepped the rules and joined his father’s former regiment of the Cameron Highlanders.  As he rose quickly through the ranks, his potential was noticed and he was sent to British military headquarters in Cairo, where he bumped into David Stirling. 

A fellow Scotsman, Stirling had a reputation for unorthodox behaviour and flashes of utmost brilliance.  A few months previously, he had successfully harangued his superiors into forming an unconventional military unit that would make swift, unexpected strikes behind enemy lines.  To get them where they needed to go, the SAS had quickly progressed from using parachutes to relying on the Long-Range Desert Group, a patrol unit experienced in desert navigation.  Stirling asked Maclean if he would care to join them.

The undercover raid on Benghazi’s harbour was Maclean’s first mission with the SAS.  He trusted that it wouldn’t be his last.  Besides David Stirling, his other companions were Lieutenant Gordon Alston, Corporal Johnny Cooper, Sergeant Johnny Rose, and an over-excited, last-minute addition in the form of Captain Randolph Churchill, the son of the Prime Minister.  A journalist by training, Churchill was a brave soldier, and he had wheedled and coaxed until Stirling allowed him to join the mission.  But they all knew what was at stake.  If he was captured, Churchill would make a high-profile prisoner of war. 

As they halted at the checkpoint, an armed sentry stepped towards them.  Through the darkness, they could make out more armed guards and a machine-gun post.  They were outnumbered. Only bravado could save them.  The Italian sentry demanded to know who they were.  ‘Staff officers’, snapped Maclean, ‘and in a hurry!’  In the long seconds that followed, he hoped that his Italian was convincing enough.  From the back of the car, he heard the click of a gun’s safety catch being released.  But the sentry lowered his weapon and saluted.  ‘You should get your lights dimmed,’ he said, and stood aside to let them pass.

Ford station-wagon with SAS officers (L to R):  Reg Seekings, Johnny Rose, David Stirling, Johnny Cooper.

Once inside the town, it seemed as if the alarm had been raised anyway: rockets were being launched, and air raid sirens wailed.  Their screeching wagon had to be disposed of quickly,  but now it was being followed.  They led their ‘tail’ on a white-knuckle car chase and lost it by turning abruptly into a side-street.  A quick decision was needed:  their plan of scoping out the harbour now looked like a lost cause.  Opting to escape on foot, they planted a timed explosive in the wagon and set off in single file down the dark street. 

On the other side of a bombed-out building, they came face-to-face with an Italian guard.  Bare-faced nerve had worked the last time;  it was worth a try.  ‘What’, asked Maclean, ‘is all the commotion about’?  ‘Just another damned British air raid,’ replied the officer.  Maclean persisted, feigning anxiety.  ‘Might it be that enemy ground forces are raiding the town, and are the cause of the alert?’  The Italian thought this was an excellent joke.  ‘No need to be nervous,’ he said.  ‘The British are almost back on the Egyptian frontier.’

This encounter gave the commandos pause for thought.  Perhaps they had slipped the net, in which case they still had a chance to complete their mission.  They just needed to retrieve their equipment from the vehicle, which had a ticking time-bomb in it.  Back at the ill-fated station-wagon, the timing device was safely removed with minutes to spare;  an inflatable boat and a bundle of explosives were hurriedly pulled out of the back.  Leaving Rose and Churchill behind to conceal the vehicle, Maclean, Stirling, Alston and Cooper set off for the harbour. 

Finding a sentry guarding a barbed-wire fence, their creativity was tested again.  ‘We’ve just met with a motor accident,’ explained Maclean politely.  ‘And this,’ he added, nodding towards their large bundles, ‘is our luggage.  Could you direct us to a hotel?’  Apologetically, the sentry replied that all the hotels were closed because of the recent bombing.  He hoped that they would find somewhere to sleep, and wished them good night.  Moving on with a word of thanks, Maclean’s party began to look for somewhere to get through the wire.

David Stirling

While Stirling and Alston checked out the harbour, Maclean and Cooper set about inflating the boat.  Despite their best efforts, it was found to be punctured beyond repair.  How lucky, they reflected, that they were carrying a spare.  They returned to the vehicle, dragged out the second boat, and lugged it through the streets and down to the harbour.  But this boat also failed to inflate.  Reuniting with Stirling and Alston, who had successfully reconnoitred the docks, they packed everything away into their bags and prepared to leave.  They were still on the wrong side of the barbed wire fence when they noticed a couple of guards advancing on them with bayonets.

Now was not the time to be escaping through a hole in the wire, however tempting it might be.  There was nothing for it.  Maclean strode purposefully towards the main gate of the docks, followed by Stirling, Alston and Cooper and their unwanted companions.  To the Guard Commander on duty there, Maclean announced himself as an officer of the General Staff.  Assuming an attitude of righteous outrage, he demanded to know how he and his colleagues had been able to wander at will around the harbour without once being challenged.  Security was lamentably lax;  it was an absolute disgrace.   What if they had been British saboteurs, intent on laying high explosives?  The embarrassed commander chuckled nervously, as if this scenario was rather far-fetched.  And, continued Maclean, in a devastating parting shot, the guards had better smarten themselves up a bit.  As he passed by, two sentries almost knocked themselves out in their haste to present arms. 

Having made a suitably dignified exit, Maclean and his three comrades perhaps didn’t allow themselves to reflect on their own surprisingly shabby appearance, or the fact that they were wearing British uniforms.  Unbelievably, no one had noticed.  Returning to Churchill and Rose just before daybreak, they spent the hours of daylight hiding in a derelict building and emerged again as night fell, strolling down the streets and whistling nonchalantly while taking a more than passing interest in some torpedo boats that were tied up by the quay.  Then, feeling like time-honoured inhabitants of Benghazi, they drove their squealing battle-wagon out of town, brazened their way through the same road-block, and were back with the Long-Range Desert Group in time for a long-overdue breakfast of tea and porridge.

Sir Fitzroy Maclean enjoyed a distinguished career in the British army.  He is perhaps best known for his daring rendezvous with President Tito in Yugoslavia, in order to ascertain the capabilities and intentions of the Partisans who were fighting a guerrilla war against the forces of Nazi Germany.  He was well acquainted with the writer Ian Fleming, who is said to based his character of James Bond on the exploits of Maclean, among others.  Although his reports were of great value to the Foreign Office, Maclean insisted that he was never a spy. 

In his talk entitled ‘Escape to Adventure’, which was hosted by RSGS in the Usher Hall, Edinburgh in 1951, Maclean admitted that he always derived considerable pleasure from finding himself where he was not supposed to be.  From his hair-raising explorations in the Soviet Union, and from his service with the SAS, he had learned an important lesson:  “If you showed a sufficiently blatant disregard for the laws of probability, and if, when you were where you had no business to be, you behaved as if you belonged there, there was practically nothing you could not get away with.”



Fitzroy Maclean, ’Eastern Approaches’ (1949)

Frank McLynn, ’Fitzroy Maclean’ (1992)

Ben MacIntyre, ’SAS: Rogue Heroes’ (2016)

The Scotsman, 16th November 1951

Images (public domain):

Libyan Desert

Benghazi, around 1940

Sir Fitzroy Maclean and his family at Strachur, Argyll

Ford station-wagon with SAS officers (L to R):  Reg Seekings, Johnny Rose, David Stirling, Johnny Cooper.

David Stirling