They were ‘to set Europe ablaze’

In 1943, two Canadian spies went to France. Their timing couldn’t have been worse.

In mid-April 1945, even before the Second World War had ended, Georges Vanier, Canada’s ambassador to France (and future governor general), flew to Weimar, Germany. Outside the city, at the Buchenwald concentration camp, he found what he very much hoped he would not: records of the execution of two Canadians, Frank Pickersgill and Ken Macalister. Vanier had unearthed the end of a story, one the Allies had lost the thread of two years before. In Unlikely Soldiers (HarperCollins), historian Jonathan Vance fills in the blanks of a remarkable and tragic tale.

His book might well have been subtitled The Canadian Establishment Goes to War: the Macalisters were prosperous burghers in Guelph, Ont.; Pickersgill’s brother, Jack, was an influential civil servant and, later, cabinet minister. Among classmates and friends in Canada and England whose wartime paths crossed with theirs were diplomats Saul Rae (Bob’s father) and George Ignatieff (Michael’s father), and MI5 staffer Alison Grant (Michael Ignatieff’s mother), who was the sister of philosopher George Grant.

When war broke out, Macalister, 25, was a Rhodes scholar, studying law in France. Refusing to return to Oxford, he stayed and married—secretly, because it was against Rhodes regulations—the daughter of his host family. He was in England seeking war work, after the French army had turned him down for his poor eyesight, when the Nazi blitzkrieg separated him from his pregnant wife. Pickersgill, 24, fresh from crafting an English translation of Nausea by Jean-Paul Sartre (an up-and-coming writer he’d met in Paris), was in Poland, hoping to establish himself as a foreign correspondent. He barely got out ahead of the Wehrmacht. Back in Paris, life proved frustrating. Canadian media were a tough sell for articles on French politics. Other times they stiffed Pickersgill: the Vancouver Sun published a few pieces but never paid him, and his hometown Winnipeg Free Press sent him a cheque that his bank refused.

But, like Macalister, Pickersgill too had romantic attachments, as well as a love affair with France itself, that kept him there and fired him with a hatred of Nazism. Then the Germans interned him for 18 months, until he escaped to Britain. There, both men felt useless and unhappy—Macalister all the more so after he learned his baby girl had died. But the Special Operations Executive, charged by Churchill “to set Europe ablaze” by organizing resistance networks, soon discovered the two young French speakers.

Trained in spycraft, Pickersgill and Macalister were paired together and parachuted into France on June 15, 1943, near the town of Blois, 170 km west of Paris. (Blois is now, ironically enough, a twin city with Weimar.) Their timing couldn’t have been worse: the Germans were busy rolling up the so-called Physician network they had come to join. Six days later, they were arrested.

The destruction of Physician was one of the catastrophes of the secret war. Some 1,500 arrests and executions came in its wake; perhaps worse, the Germans successfully played at being the network, including taking over the identities of the two Canadians, for months to come. They didn’t get everything note-perfect. In early 1944, after Jack Pickersgill pulled some strings and had a message sent to his brother (“Jack says mother is well”), he received the answer (“Thank Uncle Jack”), but even that didn’t raise alarm bells in the SOE, which continued to believe until after D-Day that its agents remained free.

In August 1944, Macalister and Pickersgill were taken to Buchenwald. The end came in September, according to eyewitnesses. The Canadians, and 14 others, were marched into the Leichenkellar (corpse cellar), where the elevator from the crematorium stopped, and hanged from hooks by wire nooses. It took 20 minutes for the last man to die.

Half a century later, Macalister’s old classmate Douglas LePan, by then a Governor General’s Award-winning poet, wrote Macalister, Or Dying in the Dark. In its plangent conclusion, LePan questions the point of the sacrifice: What is left? I ask of the silence at the heart of the whirlwind / ask of high heaven, with its ragged, indifferent clouds. / Ash, ash in the wind, in my mouth, in my nostrils.

Vance doesn’t agree. Everyone who knew Pickersgill and Macalister, and everything they wrote, he argues, points to a willingness to die for their ideals. And although they could not have foreseen their end, “they surely had some inkling of its meaning.”