The “Kilted Killer” – The Scottish Officer Who Made Almost 20,000 Of The Enemy Surrender

During and after WWII, the Nazis and then the communists were so annoyed by one man they wanted him dead; and not just because he wore a skirt.

Ronald Thomas Stewart “Tommy” Macpherson was born on October 4, 1920, in Edinburgh, Scotland. At 14, his athleticism earned him a scholarship at Fettes College where he joined the Officers’ Training Corps. From there, he went to Trinity College at Oxford, until 1939.

At the outbreak of WWII, he joined the Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders. In November 1941, he was sent to Libya to participate in Operation Flipper – a raid on the headquarters of Erwin Rommel, German Commander of the Africa Corps. It failed spectacularly.

Afterward, Macpherson and the remaining survivors were stuck on the beaches north of the city of Beda Littoria, which was under Italian occupation. Despite their lack of food, water, supplies, or maps, they attempted to walk back to the British-held city of Tobruk almost 200 miles away.

They met some Italians who asked MacPherson to show them how his Colt Automatic worked. He obliged by trying to shoot them. He was sent to a POW camp in Italy in June. However, by September 1943, the Italians surrendered to the Allies, enraging the Germans who invaded Italy.

Rommel in France in 1940
Rommel in France in 1940


Macpherson was sent to Austria on September 14. He escaped, was recaptured and nearly executed. A Wehrmacht officer intervened and sent him to Stalag XVIII-A in Austria. That did not stop him. He escaped from there seven days later but was caught on September 30.

Then he was sent to Stalag XX-A at Toruń, Poland where he again escaped on October 1. He made it to neutral Sweden where the British embassy repatriated him back to Scotland on November 4. For escaping, as well as for his role in Operation Flipper, he received the Military Cross on February 17, 1944.

 More details Men of the 1st Battalion, Queen's Own Cameron Highlanders digging trenches at Aix, France, November 1939.
Men of the 1st Battalion, Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders digging trenches at Aix, France, November 1939.

With the Allied invasion of France pending, he was asked to join Operation Jedburgh to conduct guerilla warfare in Nazi-occupied Europe. Trained in sabotage and communications, he was made a Major in charge of team Quinine.

Together with a French lieutenant and a British radio operator, they were going to France. Their mission was to get as many Germans as they could away from the beaches of Normandy to give the impending invasion a chance.

On June 8, the trio was parachuted into Aurillac in the mountainous Massif Central region where they met up with a small resistance unit. One of the Frenchmen did not understand what he saw. He claimed the British had sent them a woman. He was referring to MacPherson, dressed in a Scottish kilt, who later explained, “Their mistaking me for a woman wearing a skirt was an easy error to make.”

The Scotsman acted right away. The next evening, he led them in the destruction of the Aurillac-Maurs railway bridge, proving that kilts in no way detracted from either his manhood or his considerable abilities. This was how the legend of the “Kilted Killer” was born.

Commandos preparing to deploy for Europe as part of Operation Jedbhurgh Photo Credit
Commandos preparing to deploy for Europe as part of Operation Jedburgh.

Heading their way was the 2nd SS Panzer Division Das Reich on the Figeac-Tulle road for Normandy. They mined the road and surrounding terrain, managing to destroy the tracks of the lead tank. German soldiers chased them, but were stopped by falling trees and mines.

More such operations prevented trains passing between Cahors and Souillac. On August 15, the Allies landed at Côte d’Azur in Southern France. MacPherson’s group destroyed more railway lines, roads, and bridges – managing at least one operation daily and drawing more resistance fighters to join.

To annoy the Germans, MacPherson rode around openly in a black Citroën sporting the Union Jack (the British flag) and the Croix de Lorraine (of the Free French forces). The Germans retaliated by placing a 300,000 franc price on him, calling him a “bandit masquerading as a Scottish officer.”

One of his most spectacular exploits involved booby-trapping a barrier arm at a road crossing. When a German commander drove past, it beheaded him and his driver.

At Le Lioran, he waited for a train carrying 300 Germans and 100 Millice (pro-German French soldiers) to enter a tunnel. Rushing in, he blew up the railway track, trapping the enemy inside and almost himself.

Perhaps his greatest achievement, however, was getting almost 20,000 Germans to surrender. By August 1944, Major General Botho Henning Elster realized that Germany was losing and sent out feelers to the suspicious Allies.

MacPherson took a German Red Cross car, and with a German doctor and a French officer, drove to the city of Beaugency. Dressed in full Scottish regalia, he told Elster he could contact the Royal Air Force via radio. At his command, they would rain down death on the German troops.

MacPherson did not have that ability, but Elster bought it. He surrendered along with 18,850 soldiers and 754 officers on September 16.

When France was liberated, he was sent to Italy to help them. Parachuting into Friuli in November, he targeted railway lines at Udine and sabotaged German lines at Tarvisio. During an Allied air raid, he saw pro-German Italian soldiers running into a bomb shelter, so he followed and chucked a grenade in after them.

Then he got into trouble with the communists. After the war, Yugoslavia captured the Italian cities of Istria, Zadar, and Rijeka. Trieste was next, but MacPherson did what he did best, and Trieste remained Italian. Yugoslavia’s leader, Josip Broz Tito was angry.

In 1956, he invited MacPherson to Yugoslavia, and typical of the Scotsman, he accepted. Fortunately, it was cordial, although Tito told him, “I have been looking forward to this meeting. We tried so hard to kill you.”

Along with the Military Cross, MacPherson also got the Légion d’honneur, the Croix de Guerre (thrice), as well as the Star of Bethlehem and a papal knighthood from the Pope. Not bad for a man who fought in a dress… eh, kilt.

Shahan Russell

Shahan Russell is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE