We don’t know if they were acquainted when they were students at University College. But we know they were together at the moment they died, far from hope and home.
On Sept. 15, alumni veterans from the Soldiers’ Tower Committee and members of 2 Intelligence Company of the Canadian Forces honoured John Kenneth Macalister (BA 1937) and Frank Pickersgill (MA 1939) with a brief ceremony at Soldiers’ Tower. The service marked 60 years since their executions in the Buchenwald concentration camp by the German Gestapo
Pickersgill and Macalister had enlisted with army intelligence in the Second World War. Macalister had turned down a lectureship in law at U of T to sign up. Pickersgill, trapped by the war while bicycling around Europe and imprisoned in a labour camp with other enemy aliens, had already escaped the Nazis once. (In an adventure that sounds more like A Boys’ Life magazine story, he sawed through his cell bars, using a blade smuggled to him in a loaf of bread, then journeyed alone across Occupied France to freedom.)
Both men became attached to the British Special Operations Executive (SOE), and, nearly a year before D-Day, volunteered to parachute together into Occupied France to work with the French Resistance. Supporting the Resistance, which conducted espionage and sabotage operations, proved extremely dangerous: of the first 10 Canadians who parachuted into France for the SOE prior to D-Day, seven (including Pickersgill and Macalister) would never return.
Captured in a random traffic stop, both men were tortured to persuade them to collaborate and lure other agents to their deaths by providing “safe” locations for meetings and paradrops. They refused, and Pickersgill nearly managed to escape again, disabling one guard with a bottle, rushing others and throwing himself out of a second-storey window onto a Paris street, where he was shot and recaptured. Their endings were particularly cruel: the Nazis did not let Allied “spies” die easily.
While soldiers stood in silent vigil, ceremony participants read excerpts from the never-performed 1995 verse-drama Macalister, by the late University College principal Douglas LePan (BA 1935, DLitt 1990, DLitt Sac. Hon. 1997). LePan, a veteran and award-winning poet, had known Macalister as a student, and was chiefly responsible for the creation of the Pickersgill-Macalister garden on the west side of Soldiers’ Tower.
Together the poem, the garden and a plaque form a shrine to the two heroic U of T graduates. “I’m convinced that as far as this war is concerned, there are certain jobs I could do better than anybody but about a handful of people,” wrote Pickersgill in an explanation about volunteering for near-certain death. “That such jobs would be dangerous is just one more thing in their favour.” Macalister’s explanation was briefer: offered a choice between military intelligence work and a post teaching law at U of T, he responded to the faculty with only, “Sorry. Many thanks. Macalister.”
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