Roger Lewis reviews Master of Deception: The Wartime Adventures of Peter Fleming by Alan Ogden
The Second World War was undergone twice, first in actuality, then as surreal comedy in The Goon Show – all those explosions (“Quick, nurse, the screens!”), bursts of gunfire, ex-servicemen jokes and military nincompoops, like Major Bloodnok – on radio throughout the Fifties. For Peter Fleming, however, elder brother of Ian and a colonel attached to the Secret Intelligence Service, which in the Far East operated as the Inter-Services Liaison Department, goonishness was there from the beginning.
As a founder member of the “deception organisation”, or “D Division”, Fleming’s forte was to engage in sabotage and propaganda, operating along enemy borderlands – “mystifying and misleading the enemy whenever military advantage may be so gained”. Wheezes included placing booby-trapped flowerpots on the terrace of Monty’s headquarters (“the prickly general took it well”), hiding ammunition in a badger’s sett and rope ladders in hollow trees, and supplying the Home Guard with bows and arrows “tipped with a particularly useful poison Fleming had discovered in Brazil”.
It was Fleming’s job to dissuade the Japanese from invading India by pretending our forces were greater than they really were. He devised dummy parachutists and tanks made of cardboard, the camouflage to be painted by “a splendid fellow who used to do the chorus girls’ dresses at the Prince of Wales Theatre”. This phoney battalion was to fool enemy air reconnaissance, and did so.
Another trick was the phoney haversack, containing mock battle plans and staff briefings, the papers stuffed in among dirty laundry, a shaving kit and a half-empty tube of toothpaste. “The idea was to convince the Japanese that a clumsy or drunk brigadier had accidentally dropped it from an observation flight.” Also pure Spike Milligan was “sonic deception,” whereby huge speakers were wheeled into the Burmese jungle to relay the pre-recorded noise of tanks and landing craft, waves crashing, vehicles advancing along shingle, “footsteps on coral, the cracking of twigs and dried seaweed”. From the flashes of small arms fire that ensued, the Allies could spot and identify enemy positions.
It’s a wonder that, intending “to confuse and keep the enemy off balance and in a constant state of jitters”, Fleming and his team didn’t hurl socks full of custard or batter pudding about the place. Perhaps they did. From what Alan Ogden recounts in this fascinating book, D Division comprised a colourful crew, “a scratch battalion of odds and sods, including several lunatics and deserters”.
I loved hearing about the one-eyed, one-armed Lt Gen Carton De Wiart VC, who said of the French: “Damn Frogs, they’re all the same. One bang and they’re off.” And Sir Hughe Knatchbull-Hugessen, who “was shot in the bottom when a Japanese fighter strafed his car”. And let’s not forget Sir Percy Cox, who wandered in disguise through Kurdistan “as a seller of cheese”, spoke five dialects of Persian, and “could easily pass for a Bedouin with his dark looks and camel-riding expertise”.
Such characters make Lt Col Dudley Wrangel Clarke seem almost nondescript. Clarke was arrested in Madrid for wearing a floral cretonne frock, “lipstick and a pearl necklace”. His luggage contained further women’s apparel, and superfine toilet paper, which was submitted by the Spanish police for chemical tests. “We can only await developments in a spirit of calm and resignation,” responded “C”, the chief of MI6.
Before long, Clarke had turned up working for D Division in Cairo, his office a requisitioned brothel, running a fantasy network of non-existent agents. He may have confused his own side as much as the enemy.
As for Peter Fleming himself, he comes across as one of those privileged people (Eton, Christ Church, the Guards) for whom warfare is not wickedness and inhumanity but, on the contrary, the excuse for adventure, for japes that induce a “state of pleasurable excitement”. He reminded me of Basil Seal in Put Out More Flags, for whom war “is what he’s been waiting for all these years… He’s not meant for peace.”
Exactly like an Evelyn Waugh protagonist, Fleming’s young manhood was spent in South America and China, paddling canoes, starting revolutions, spending long days in the saddle – grand capers, which he wrote about in popular travel books. Ogden makes large claims for Fleming as an author, and quotes Harold Nicolson’s verdict with approval: “No modern writer can equal Peter Fleming as an astringent narrator of romantic and dangerous voyages through unknown lands.”
Fleming’s style was a very English amalgam of “liberal dollops of understatement and laid-back insouciance”. News from Tartary was typical of them – light reading, of a kind which is very dated today. Fleming seems to me one of those moody and aloof authors (Bruce Chatwin the culmination), prone to patches of purple (“four geishas mopped and mowed upon a windswept stage”) and contrived derring-do. But Ogden would disagree. For him, Fleming was one of England’s “most glamorous literary lions”.
Fleming worked at the Talks Department of the BBC, was a newspaper special correspondent in Moscow, joined the Grenadier Guards in 1937, and was deployed to run the Street Fighting Wing of the London District’s School of Tactics, in Battersea. (His brother Ian joined the Naval Intelligence Division, and “installed himself in the mysterious-sounding Room 39 of the Admiralty”, which is where he must have learnt to wave a cigarette-holder about.)
Fleming advised the Home Guard on guerrilla techniques. (Though had 80,000 Germans invaded our shores between Thanet and Pevensey, as once was very much anticipated, the game would have been up. Faced with booby-trapped flowerpots, Nazi reprisals would have been humourlessly brutal.) Next, he trained Greeks in Athens to blow up Nazi trains, then was posted to the Far East, where “the rat population was about five times that of the human”.
In Ceylon, he fabricated secret messages, which were sent to the Japanese Military Attaché in Stockholm, who would in turn send the material on to Tokyo and share it with his German opposite number in Sweden. A similar carry-on with invisible inks and false intelligence involved a trumped-up WRNS’s love letters, posted to Lisbon, where D Division felt sure they’d be intercepted and treated as genuine. Fleming was demobilised in 1946, aged 39. He died in 1971, on a grouse moor. Somewhere along the line he married Celia Johnson, a special constable in Henley, though better known as an actress.
Master of Deception contains immensely complex charts and maps, to explain the military chains of command. Memos, reports and contemporary digests abound. It is a very serious, painstaking book – but the undercurrent of black comedy is what brings things to mad life.
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