A tripartite memoir of intrigue, travel, and military adventure, relating the author’s experiences as a diplomat in the 1930’s USSR, as a member of the early SAS (part of the UK Special Forces) in WWII North Africa, and finally as an important liaison to the Partisans in Yugoslavia, his two previous experiences providing the background for this capstone mission.
The early part of the book is largely concerned with his travels in Soviet Central Asia. This section was probably much more interesting when the area was largely closed to foreigners; his descriptions are fairly stereotypical, though as someone who knows little about the area, they had some interest. Maclean can be quite the stereotypical Englishman himself in his generalizations and attitude to foreigners, at one point saying he’s always found it helpful to shout when there’s a language barrier. However, this isn’t so bad as it could be, as he is genuinely interested in the culture and history of the areas he visits throughout the book.
This first section is the dullest, but it does show two strengths that continue throughout the book- his descriptions of logistics, of how to get places, dodge pursuit, and carry supplies, and his capsule histories of the individuals he meets on his journeys, which are interesting and telling. It also has a great set-piece description of the Trial of the Twenty-One and Bukharin’s confession. It’s clear from the narrative why it was this particular speech that inspired Darkness at Noon, though given that the novel came out before this book, I wondered if there was some retrospective influence on Maclean’s conclusions. Either way, it’s a tense, atmospheric piece of writing.
The second section was surprisingly interesting to me as a person who has little interest in the military. It mainly describes two raids on Benghazi (a city which a few years ago was a lot less famous!). He shows the truth of the old proverb that combat is ninety-percent waiting and ten-percent sheer terror. The amount of preparation and travel time behind brief and unsuccessful or narrowly successful raids is amazing, as is the way in which missions that fail in their original goals can still contribute positively to the larger strategy. This is the most fast-paced, absorbing section.
The final section is the most detailed and interesting. Maclean parachutes into Yugoslavia as an envoy to the Partisans (as an Italian, I’m accustomed to calling all resistance groups “partisans,” and so find the Yugoslavia usage in which it refers to a specific, Communist-led group confusing), and helps persuade the British to switch support from another, less-effective resistance group, the Chetniks, to the Partisans (though according to Wiki, intel from decoded signals was the main factor in the switch in support). He then coordinates a massive support effort for the Partisans, staying in Yugoslavia with them for most of the time till the fall of Belgrade. This section is fascinating for obvious reasons, though it’s clear that Maclean idealizes the Partisans and especially Tito (understandably given the circumstances under which he interacted with them). The descriptions of the Balkans are also a bit stereotypical. There’s another interesting set-piece on the history of Yugoslav dynastic rivalry, with lots of dry humor. The earlier thread about logistics becomes deeper and the capsule histories of various Yugoslavs he meets add interest (“It was an exaggeration,” complains a passed-over prince about the scandal that knocked him out of the line of succession, “to claim that he had killed his valet.”). This section is a bit slower than the previous one, being about a long, slow build-up rather than a specific mission. But it serves as an appropriate culmination for the entire book, what all the previous elements had been leading up to.
The book is well-written and well-structured, with the ending bringing the story full circle. Its main weaknesses are that the least interesting section comes first, that Maclean’s descriptions can be overly stereotyped or idealizing and thus less interesting, and that there isn’t much “character development” (in quotes as this is nonfiction) with it being hard to keep track even of recurring characters. It’s clearly a personal memoir rather than history with an attempt at objectivity, but in general I find memoirs more interesting. I wouldn’t reread this book and it didn’t live up to my high expectations, but I’m glad I read it and recommend it to those interested in irregular warfare and in WWII resistance movements.