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November 21, 2010

The gadgets of Q – Charles Fraser-Smith’s secret war

by quaesitor

This is not quite the biography of the Man who was Q I was hoping for (for that you need David Porter’s The Man Who Was “Q”) – but then I should have read the small print! But it does recount a story that he was undoubtedly desperate to tell for years but prevented from doing so by the 30 year restrictions of the Official Secrets Act.

Before World War II, Charles Fraser-Smith had been many things: a prep school teacher, a despatch rider, a factory worker and a missionary agriculturalist in north Africa. In their different ways, all wonderfully equipped him for his extraordinary, secret role during the war as an inventor at the Ministry of Supply. He had been recruited, bizarrely enough, while on missionary deputation at an Evangelical church in Leeds. They invited him to join them, ‘to do a funny job in London’.

Ian Fleming encountered him in that capacity when he worked for Naval Intelligence – and it is widely accepted that he was the inspiration for Bond’s supplier Q. And in this book, Fraser-Smith (who died in his 80s in 1992 – see New York Times obit) lists the gadgets and schemes that were a lifeline to those working undercover on the continent, or those who were trying to escape the clutches of the enemy. Consequently, the book zips along with a narrative that could have been told by a character from Boys’ Own or Biggles. There are the wonderful colloquialism of 1940s received pronunciation and understatement. The enemy are despicable, diabolical and dastardly; our chaps (especially the heroes of S.O.E.) have real pluck and vim, for which he has only admiration; and when people on our side don’t pull their weight (e.g. businesses looking to their profits rather than supplying the war effort) he writes ‘the worst stinker of a letter I was capable of writing. It made my day.’ (p141)

Above all, this gives an extraordinary insight into a world which was by necessity secret until long after the events described. Fraser-Smith invented all kinds of things and he gives details of how they were supplied (and which firms ‘came up trumps’. He would be sitting in his drab civil service office at the Ministry of Supply (where he was undercover as a regular civil servant) and get a phone call from an anonymous voice who would bark a password and a demand – 400 miniature cameras by next week. And so he would have to find them. But as well as finding the impossible (like special Balkan tobacco to supply as morale-boosters to Tito’s partisans in former Yugoslavia), he came up with some classics which became integral to escape packs smuggled to POWs in camps. Hairbrushes, dominoes and pipes containing maps, fountain pens containing miniature magnetic compasses, shoelaces containing surgical saw-wire. He came up with the idea of chocolate infused with garlic to give airmen who landed instant garlic breath to help them blend in more to French life. And he can take the credit for having the brainwave while brushing his teeth of supplying food inside toothpaste tubes (vitally portable for escapers), which is now a multi-million pound industry.

The ingenuity knew no bounds. But just occasionally, in this book, there are hints of the wider, Christian worldview which was Fraser-Smith’s bedrock. So here is one example which both illustrates the horrors of war, Fraser-Smith’s turn of phrase and the beliefs he held to. Michel Hollard was a key member of the French resistance, and he had used a miniature camera supplied from the British very effectively for getting intelligence of enemy activities back to Britain:

Hollard’s personal story came to me long after the war. He was finally captured by the Gestapo. After a year in a concentration camp, he was loaded and locked into the hold of a German ship. This was one of those crammed with ‘unwanted’ prisoners which were abandoned in the North Sea with engines running but no crews aboard. When challenged by Allied aircraft or ships, the floating coffins would fail to heave to, thus inviting certain attack and destruction. This diabolical way of getting rid of hapless prisoners was typical of the Nazi mind, and horribly successful. Two of the ships, the Deutschland and the Cap Arcona, were sunk and thousands perished.

Fortunately Hollard was on the third, the Thilbeok. Locked in the hold, he heard the ship’s engines stated up and guessed the fate in store for them. Later that day he raised his voice, inciting all his doomed companions to link hands and pray. IT is a matter of record that those prayers were answered. A Swedish Red Cross boat mercifully arrived at that moment and took possession of the hapless Thilbeok. (p40)

He was desperate to cut through red-tape, overcome desk-bound idiocy and to find better ways of operating. So another idea was to encourage Arab farmers behind German lines in North Africa to develop farming practices that would sustain them and supply the war effort when the time came.

My Moroccan farming, the Malta storage experience, a strong BBC overseas service and some rather heavy-handed but quite sincere messages of inspiration, all tossed into a  plan which was basically just common-sense. But when one remembers the story told of the First World War – when sandbags needed in the desert were reportedly sent by sea from Europe, filled with sand – the need for this commodity can be fully appreciated. (p124)

All in all, this is a very enjoyable book – patriotic, justly proud but quick to give credit where credit is due, an insight to a bygone era. To coin a cliché, they don’t make ’em like this anymore.

I leave off 1 star only because there are no pauses for reflection or questioning of the rightness of everything done by the Allies. This is the breathless account of a dutiful servant of the war effort, who unthinkingly obeys orders and would never for a moment seek to do less than his best. But then, in an account of the whys and hows of Q gadgets, perhaps that is all one can expect.


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