Eastern Approaches - Book Review
Fitzroy Maclean was an adventurer, a gentleman, a scholar, a diplomat, a warrior, and a hero. His autobiographical work Eastern Approaches describes his years in the pre-war British diplomatic service and his exploits in Britain’s SAS during the Second World War in North Africa and the Balkans. Maclean was witness to so many seminal events in his lifetime, that he could have written three separate books on the various stages of his career, all before the age of thirty-four.
Maclean joined up with the British Foreign Office in the 1930s. After several years at a cushy posting in Paris, Maclean decided he wanted more challenging work. He was posted to the British Embassy in Moscow at the height of the Stalinist purges. Not only did he sit in to witness and catalogue several of the more important show trials (including Nikolai Bukharin), but he also was able to travel to areas of the Soviet Union that were off limits to foreigners. He was one of the first Westerners to see conditions in the Caspian region and Central Asia after the Bolshevik Revolution. The manner in which he was able to shake off government agents tailing him, and somehow blend in is legendary, especially considering he was a six-foot four-inch, red-haired Scotsman. Upon leaving the Soviet Union in 1939 Maclean told the Foreign Office he was resigning to join the Army, since Britain was on the doorstep of war. He was told that this was impossible since he already ‘belonged’ to the diplomatic service. He found a bylaw that allowed Foreign Office employees to resign if they are elected to Parliament. He ran for office as a Conservative in the district of Lancaster in northwest England and won handily. He then resigned from office and joined up with the Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders.
Maclean was later recruited into a new branch of the armed forces known as the Special Air Service (SAS), where he would learn tradecraft on the art of parachuting, sabotage, explosives, and living behind enemy lines. The SAS grabbed the world’s attention in the desert of North Africa by carrying out daring raids, hundreds of miles behind the lines against the German forces of General Erwin Rommel, known as the ‘Desert Fox.’ Their work was carried out in groups of heavily-armed jeeps modified for long desert patrols. The missions were extremely dangerous and the group’s leader, David Stirling, was ultimately captured by the Germans. Maclean served afterwards in Iraq and Persia (1942-43), where he was responsible for capturing a pro-Nazi Persian general.
In 1943 Maclean, now a major, was sent personally by Winston Churchill to be the envoy to Yugoslav partisan General Tito. He parachuted into Bosnia in the summer of 1943. Maclean led British efforts in support of the partisans who were giving the occupying German forces hell in the Balkans, particularly in the mountains of Bosnia and the Dalmatian coast. Large numbers of German forces that could have been deployed on the Eastern Front or in Italy against the Allies, were instead pinned down fighting the effective resistance put up by Tito and his forces. Maclean got on splendidly with Tito and was instrumental in getting the British to focus their supply efforts exclusively on Tito’s forces. Maclean witnessed the liberation of Belgrade by Soviet forces in the fall of 1944. There he met Tito for the last time before leaving again for London. By war’s end Maclean was promoted to brigadier general.
Maclean’s writing style is so self-effacing that one hardly recognizes the incredible nature of his exploits as they are being carried out. He relates some of the missions in such a way that you feel he is describing an outing in the country. But this does nothing to diminish the bravery and dashing nature of the author.