Mackenzie, Archibald Donald
Donald Mackenzie was born, probably in Cheshire, on 22nd October 1914, the son of Captain Lynedoch Archibald Mackenzie and Dorothy Yates, sister of two Wykehamists, Joseph Mervyn St. John Yates (I 1892-1895) and Humphrey William Maghall Yates (I 1897-1900). A third Yates brother (H. Gervase N. Yates) did not go to Winchester, owing to illness, but went on to become a tea-planter in Ceylon. His father was wounded at Gallipoli and died on 19th October 1915 and was buried at sea. He is commemorated on the Helles Memorial, Gallipoli. He never met his son who was born six weeks after his father left for the war.
Donnie (as he was known) came to Winchester from the Reverend W.R. Mills’ school, Highfield, at Liphook in Hampshire, arriving at B House under H A Jackson (“The Jacker”) in 1928. It appears he led a full and active life at the school. A good athlete, he was in OTH VIs and XVs; he played soccer and cricket for the school. He also boxed against Bradfield, and would later box for his battalion in the Middle East.
He was a keen debater, speaking on many subjects. On October 13th 1932 he spoke in a debate on the motion that “This House endorses the Germans’ claim for equality of status in armaments”. His opposite number in the debate was R.M.P. Carver (G1928-1933), later Field Marshal Lord Carver, one of Britain’s finest soldiers of the twentieth century. Carver won the debate.
He was a member of Winchester OTC, coming third in Recruit Cup and by October 1932 had risen to head his House platoon, with the rank of Lance-Sergeant.
He spent a year in Senior Division and a year as a School Prefect. As Mackenzie left Toye’s, his cousin Brian (Brian Douglas Mackenzie (B 1933-1938)) arrived; he recalled that Donald came back on occasion: “His occasional visits from Oxford were delightful, as he always gave me a meal in the School Shop, as well as renewing friendship with Colin Pitman (also in Toyes).” Colin Pitman (L.C. Pitman, B 1930-1936) would also go on to join the Cameron Highlanders (5th Battalion), and would be killed in action in Tunisia on March 23rd 1943 (see individual entry).
He went up to Christ Church, Oxford in October 1933 with a Kitchener Scholarship, emerging with a Second Class BA in Classics. In January 1936 he was granted a commission in the Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders, serving for a short time with 1st Battalion at Aldershot, before joining 2nd Battalion in Palestine.
On the outbreak of the Second World War, Mackenzie seems to have returned to the Middle East, where he served with HQ Mediterranean Expeditionary Force, and attended the Staff College in Haifa in 1940. He was certainly in Cairo in March 1940 when he attended an OW Dinner at the Turf Club on 9th. He then saw service in Libya, Greece and Cyprus. In May 1942 he took over C Company of 2nd Battalion, which then moved to the defensive Gazala Line, south east of Tobruk. Tobruk was captured by the Axis forces a month later and orders were issued by the Camerons’ commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel Duncan, that every fit man should try and escape to Alamein, over 500 miles away. Donnie Mackenzie was one of those who got away only to be captured at the end of June and sent to a prisoner of war camp near Veano in northern Italy.
On 8th September 1943 it was made known that an armistice had been signed between Italy and the Allies. The British authorities ordered prisoners of war to stay in the camp, under the belief that they would be better off where they were. Unfortunately the Germans moved rapidly to take over the camps, sending many prisoners north and Mackenzie realised he had to get out of the camp quickly. The following day, he and another prisoner of war, Captain Tresham Gregg of 3rd Royal Tank Regiment, escaped. Mackenzie was unwell, probably suffering from malaria contracted in Palestine, as well as dysentery and had he been well, Mackenzie and Gregg might well have travelled north with the others escapers to Switzerland. Instead the two men agreed to stick to the local area and wait until he was sufficiently recovered to make a move into the mountains. They were given refuge by a family in the village of Travo and a doctor found who agreed to treat Mackenzie. Within a week he was much recovered although still unsure whether he could manage the journey across the Po and into Switzerland. As result, they stuck to their original plan of hiding in the mountains. They were given shelter by a group of charcoal burners who lived in the tunnels dug into the mountains by their counterparts centuries earlier during the Austrian occupation, living almost exclusively on a diet of chestnuts, and occasional Red Cross parcels which they shared with their hosts.
In the aftermath of the Armistice a resistance movement formed, centred in the isolated village of Peli di Coli on Monte Aserei, at the head of the Val Nure in the Piacenza region of north Italy and Mackenzie and Gregg joined this group.
The focus of the local farmers’ fear was the Ferriere garrison of Sicilian and Calabrian Carabinieri and the many Italian deserters were afraid that they would be rounded up and forced into Mussolini’s army. When Mackenzie and Gregg discovered that the Ferriere Carabinieri numbered only two or three men, they organised a small raiding party and, armed with carbines, pistols and shotguns, surrounded the police station at Ferriere, yelling for the occupants to come out. The police were too scared to do so and the following morning it was reported that they had fled in the night. Sure that the Fascists would retaliate, they decided to blow up the only access to the village, a small bridge over a stream, and obtained explosives from local quarrymen. One lorry full of Fascist soldiers was destroyed although the second managed to get away, but with casualties.
In the spring and early summer of 1944, Mackenzie and Gregg, with their growing army of partisans, continued with their liberation of the rest of the Val Nure, blowing up bridges and allowing the inhabitants to escape. Careful to maintain good relations with the local community both men even helped with the cultivation of the farmers’ fields, and the loyalty of the Italians to the pair went deep. There is a stone monument on the road between Farini and Olmo where two partisans were tortured to death by the Germans for refusing to divulge where they were. Fresh flowers are still frequently laid at this monument. As Gregg wrote in 2008 “I am alive today because the locals, who were brave Italians, refused, even under torture, to divulge to the Germans the ‘posizione della squadra di partigiani’… Thanks to the loyalty of all the locals, nobody ever claimed the reward. Donnie and I never felt in danger of betrayal, as we knew that the loyalty of all the locals was to everyone who was fighting the tyranny of the Germans”. Mackenzie and Gregg also helped many Allied solders to make their way to Switzerland and safety.
The summer of 1944 was relatively quiet, with Mackenzie and Gregg helping to run an escape route over Monte Carrara, along which at least 126 aircrew, mainly Americans, were escorted to the Allied lines. After the liberation of Bettola he sent out raiding parties down the main German transport road, the Via Emilia, and hi-jacked lorries of valuable supplies.
It was when the liberation of Ponte dell’Olio was undertaken, in early October 1944, that Mackenzie was killed in action, at the age of twenty-nine. Ponte dell’Olio was the lower point in the valley before the plain of the River Po. The town was captured, but early on the morning of 6th October, Mackenzie decided to make a reconnaissance north across the river bed to make sure that the enemy was not in the area. Under cover of a thick mist, he set out along the eastern back of the Nure below Ponte dell’Olio with two Italian partisan companions. Just as they got half way across the mist lifted and they found themselves exposed to machine gun fire from an armoured vehicle. All three men were killed.
Gregg described Mackenzie’s death as “the saddest day of my life”.
His body was laid in state in the church at Bettola until his funeral, and a local artist drew a picture of him. The entire population of the valley turned up for the funeral of the British officer and his two companions, and Gregg helped to carry his coffin to the cemetery. Photographs show the huge turnout and the ceremonies which were conducted, and bear witness to the popularity which Mackenzie had enjoyed and the grief which his death brought to the inhabitants of the Val Nure.
“All the people and the mayor arranged the funeral. There were thousands if not tens of thousands of people. Everyone turned out, from all the villages round. The women were all crying. We had the church service first of all. It was a Catholic service, and the bells tolled the whole time that day, and there was a lot of incense. And we had this procession, which went on a mile, and went right the way through the town and ended up at the cemetery. I was the first person on Donnie’s coffin, and I had two men behind me and there were three on the other side. They were Donnie’s partisans. Then we had the interment, and there was a lot more chanting from the priest. Needless to say, it was a very sad moment for me.”
After the war, Mackenzie’s body was moved by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, and now rests in grave III.A.5 of the Staglieno War Cemetery, Genoa. There is also a memorial to him in Bettola.
- Surname: Mackenzie
- Forenames or initials: Archibald Donald
- House: B
- Years in School: 1928-1933
- Rank: Captain
- Regiment: Queen's Own Cameron Highlanders
- Date of Birth: 22nd October 1914
- Date of Death: 6th October 1944
- How Died: Killed in Action
- Location in War Cloister: Inner F2
- Decoration: NA
- Burial Site: Staglieno Cemetery, Genoa: Grave III.A.5