Tributes to Sussex war hero who rescued resistance leader

A second world war hero who was awarded the Croix De Guerre for rescuing the head of the largest resistance movement in France was remembered on Friday in West Sussex at a service of thanksgiving.

Stevenson Moir Mackenzie CBE DSC
Stevenson Moir Mackenzie CBE DSC

Stevenson Moir Mackenzie CBE DSC - known to his family and friends as Steven - died at his Tangmere home at the age of 95 after a life which combined exemplary courage with enormous humour and modesty.

A close friend of 007 James Bond creator Ian Fleming - they worked together during World War II and remained firm friends - he embodied all the traits of bravery and selfless service to country of the fictional spy; and there were even those who suggested that in these two respects he was an inspiration for Fleming’s enduring creation.

Sign up to our daily SussexWorld Today newsletter

Indeed, Steven worked covertly for MI6 after the war - a revelation even to members of his family - and very nearly became a writer of spy novels himself, which he also loved reading.

At Friday’s service at St Andrew’s Church, family members including Rupert Rayner, Hamish Mackenzie, Alexander Rayner, and Juliet Mackenzie, read poems and blessings in celebration of Steven’s life.

His son Robert Mackenzie recalled his extraordinary achievements.

“He was a complex character, quite reserved, possibly as a result of a fairly strict upbringing by a Scottish father and a mother from a prominent Newcastle family, neither of whom suffered fools gladly. However, he had enormous courage, he was a very good writer, handled all kinds of DIY before that term was invented, and was a loving husband, father and friend. He was a good conversationalist, with a great sense of humour, he loved pulling people’s legs, I remember one occasion when he convinced my mother-in-law that submarines have pink bottoms!

“Steven was born in Newcastle in February 1918, where I presume his mother was staying with her parents while her husband, our grandfather, was serving with the Dover Patrol. After the end of the First World War, the family moved south to Chislehurst and then to West Byfleet. In the mid 20s they bought a holiday home at Selsey, and that was the beginning of a long association with this part of Sussex by several members of the family. His parents retired to Selsey, as did he eventually, and both of his sisters lived for many years in Bosham. The house at Selsey stayed in the family until the late 80s or early 90s, when he moved first to Sidlesham and later to Tangmere.

“Steven was sent away to a prep school in Seaford called King’s Mead, and then to Eton, where he excelled in sports. He was a well-built man, inherited no doubt from his father, who had been Captain of Rugby at Fettes, Edinburgh University and then Scotland. Steven was a wetbob, but did not quite make it into the first rowing 8, and became 9th ceremonial boat carrying 10 men rather than the usual 8. As such he was responsible for arranging all the outside fixtures of the school rowing 8s. He was Keeper (or Captain) of the Mixed Wall, about as rough a game as you will find anywhere, and it will come as little surprise that he also won the school heavyweight boxing title.

“After school, Steven went up to Clare College, Cambridge, where he earned a degree in history, and this might be where he honed his writing skills.”

The second world war started shortly after Steven came down from Cambridge.

“He left some well-documented accounts of his exploits during this period, which are absolutely fascinating. I gave him my first Amstrad computer in the early 90s, and he proceeded to produce a 76-page memoir, no mean feat for a 77-year old who had never touched a computer, particularly as the operating system was in Spanish! He called the book Grandad’s Navy, typical of his wit!”

In 1939 he joined the RNVR, and after a couple of months’ training was assigned to the Naval Intelligence Division and sent to Paris.

“There he had to report to Ian Fleming, with whom he struck up a friendship which continued after the War was over, they used to lunch together at (their club) Boodles.

“When France was invaded in 1940, he escaped via Bordeaux on a Canadian destroyer which then collided with a cruiser and was sliced in half. Steven managed to jump on the deck of another destroyer as it came alongside, how I don’t know, but any James Bond fan will realise that must have been a piece of cake!”

Back in London, he joined a group headed by Commander Frank Slocum, with whom he helped set up and run naval operations to mainland Europe, to land and pick up agents, resistance fighters, and British and American airmen who had been shot down.

These operations ranged from Northern Norway to the Mediterranean coast of France and entailed the use of submarines, motor gunboats and fishing vessels, the latter particularly to Norway and France.

Steven skippered a number of these operations, the most important of which was the rescue of a man called Rémy, the head of the largest resistance movement in France, plus his wife and children, for which he was awarded the Croix de Guerre.

Robert continued: “In 1942, Steven married Angela (Sykes-Wright), our mother, who was Frank Slocum’s secretary. When the War ended, Steven was offered a job with the Intelligence Department of the Foreign Office, which – with a young family in tow – looked like a better bet than some lower-paid position in industry. After postings to Germany, Holland, Hong Kong and Argentina, he took early retirement in 1969. It wasn’t until I joined them in Buenos Aires on my gap year in 1963 that I discovered (from my mother) that he had all this time been working with MI6.

“Not long ago, I asked him if he could write something of his experiences in that role, but he was of the old school and never uttered a word. Maybe one day this information will become available. It only dawned on me years later, after reading one or two other obituaries, that many, if not most, of their friends who I had known as a boy were in the same business.”

For the next 13 years, Steven was Director General of Canning House, a position usually taken by retiring ambassadors in those days, and a place where his diplomatic skills were well applied.

“I was fortunate enough towards the end of his time there to be able to attend lectures and other functions on behalf of my employer, Blue Circle, which was very special. Angela died in early 1978, while we were based in Saudi Arabia.”

Steven subsequently married Dolores Vyner-Brooks, his second wife, and he retired from Canning House in 1982.

“But he didn’t stop there. He took on part-time consultancy work on South America, mainly with the Inchcape Group, and only gave that up in 1989, by which time he was 71. He and Dolores visited us in Santiago in the mid-80s, when he was on an assignment to inspect the methanol plant under construction in Punta Arenas.

“He was a wonderful writer, as anyone who has read his war memoir will attest,

and he very nearly became a writer of spy novels, which he also loved reading. He started to write his first novel on the boat going to Argentina, to be called ‘Death of a Taipan’, based on his time in Hong Kong. The next was going to be called ‘Death of a Gaucho’. His style was definitely of the new genre, the anti-hero, and he would have been about 2 years ahead of John Le Carré at the time, but sadly he only got as far as chapter five …”

Steven was a ‘passable’ golfer, and was a member at Royal Wimbledon for many years. He was also an accomplished fisherman.

Robert concluded by paying special thanks to Dolores, who survives him with a son and a daughter of his first marriage.