By Order of Hitler

On this day in 1944, John Kenneth Macalister died at Buchenwald concentration camp, executed as an Allied spy on the personal order of Adolf Hitler. He was 30 years old.

Macalister, a native of Guelph, Ontario, was the only son of the editor of the Guelph Mercury. After completing a degree at the University of Toronto, he went as a Rhodes Scholar to Oxford, and then passed the Bar exams in London. He was studying at the Institute of Corporate Law in Paris when WWII broke out in 1939 and immediately tried to enlist in the French infantry, but his need for thick eyeglasses disqualified him for active service. Instead, he returned to Britain and joined the Special Operations Executive. This organisation, established by Churchill specifically to locate, support, and build resistance groups in occupied countries, was “like something out of a John le Carré novel”. U.S. General Eisenhower believed that its efforts “shortened the war by months”[1], but the work was so dangerous that hopeful agents were warned they had only a 50% chance of surviving the war.[2]

On 24 June 1943, Captain Macalister and another Canadian, Frank Pickersgill, were parachuted into occupied France to set up an SOE wireless network, codenamed ‘Arch-deacon’. Although the men connected with resistance agents as planned, they were almost immediately arrested by the Gestapo – as spies rather than prisoners of war, which meant their rights were not protected by the Geneva Convention.  Several explanations are given for their quick capture. Most sources suggest that the Gestapo had been tipped off, possibly by a mole within the resistance, though such a person has never been identified. One of the other airmen captured by the Nazis blamed their exposure on Macalister’s ‘terrible French’ (which seems odd considering he had studied the language enthusiastically for years, had lived in France, and had a French wife). In fact, it seems likely that the Gestapo needed neither a mole nor bad French to discover the spies. Only days before the men were dropped in France, a preparatory drop of explosives had been made. The explosives went off upon landing, and about 2,000 German soldiers “poured into the area to investigate.” If the Germans thought these explosions suspicious enough to send so many soldiers, surely they would have been actively looking for the explosives’ intended recipients. The SOE agent on the ground certainly believed Archdeacon endangered: He immediately radioed London advising that the second drop (of Macalister and Pickersgill) be aborted. Whether the message was received or not is unknown, but the mission went ahead.

Macalister and Pickersgill were interrogated and tortured by the Gestapo for some time. The Nazis hoped to convince the men to set up the wireless network as planned; the Nazis could then use it to lure other Allied agents into a trap. But SOE agents were trained to resist torture, and neither would agree to help. They were finally sent to Buchenwald[3], where they arrived on 27 August. Only two and a half weeks later, as the Allies closed in, Hitler ordered they be hanged and their bodies destroyed, so that their fate would never be known. Several of their fellow inmates survived, however, and before too long the story of Macalister and Pickersgill emerged. Today they are remembered as war heroes.

John Kenneth Macalister is commemorated on a memorial in Surrey, England, and by a plaque in Scotland (where the SOE men underwent training) as one of the agents who died for the liberation of France. He is listed in the Roll of Honour at the Valençay SOE memorial in France itself; there is a park named after him in Guelph, and a Pickersgill-Macalister garden at the University of Toronto. In 1995, late University College principal Douglas LePan, who was also a poet and had known Macalister personally, produced the epic poem Macalister, or Dying in the Dark in his honour.

Copyright (c) Lynn McAlister, 2012


[1]A. Scott, Behind Enemy Lines, University of Toronto magazine on-line, Autumn 2012. The SOE was originally intended to be part of the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6), but its particular mission led to its establishment as a separate organisation. Known as ‘Churchill’s Secret Army’ and ‘The Baker Street Irregulars’, its existence was not even officially acknowledged until years after the war had ended. When the group was dissolved in 1946, most of its responsibilities were given back to the SIS.[2] Of the first 10 Canadians parachuted into occupied France, seven – including Macalister – would never return (Requiem for the Brave, University of Toronto magazine on-line).
[3] Buchenwald Concentration Camp was one of the first camps established on German soil. Between July 1937 and April 1945 about 250,000 people were imprisoned there, roughly 56,000 of them dying. It was the first camp to be liberated by the US army, 13 months after Macalister’s death.
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