The Real ‘Q’ – Charles Fraser-Smith.

1196255.jpg charles fraser smith q

Today in 1964 was a sad day for lovers of spy fiction everywhere. Ian Fleming, creator of the archetypal fictional superspy James Bond and a former intelligence officer himself, die at his Jamaican home ‘Goldeneye’ of a heart attack. But we won’t be looking at Ian Fleming today, although he, like James Bond, will return (albeit in another blog post). Today we’ll be looking at another of his fictional creations, a character without whom Bond would have been resident of an unmarked grave for some considerable time. We’ll be looking ‘Q’ or rather the man behind the character. A certain Charles Fraser-Smith…

Like Bond himself ‘Q’ is a composite of many different secret agents that Fleming met during time in Naval Intelligence. Bond was patchwork creation comprising parts of Dusko Popov, Patrick Dalziel Job, ‘Biffy’ Dunderdale and yes, a certain Ian Fleming himself. ‘Q’ is a patchwork as well, but most of his character and personality comes from Charles Fraser-Smith who had what used to call “A funny little job in London.” It wasn’t a little job. His gadgets were deadly serious and sometimes seriously deadly. Many escaped prisoners-of-war, Allied aircrew trying to evade capture and secret agents from MI6 (the British Secret Service, actually known as SIS or the Secret Intelligence Service), the SOE (Special Operations Executive) and occasionally OSS (Office of Strategic Services, the forerunner of the CIA) had cause to be grateful to this man they’d probably never met or even heard of, for their lives often depended on his little gizmos.

RAF aircrews, for instance, had one tunic button looking just like all the others, except for the miniature compass hidden inside it. Secret agents carrying secret messages or microfilms could walk through a Gestapo checkpoint safe in the knowledge (or at least less at risk) that their shaving brush with its hidden compartment (packed with microfilm copies of stolen enemy documents or secret photos of a V1 launch site) would remain undiscovered. Charles Fraser-Smith had a mind so flexible and capable of lateral thinking that the base of the brush unscrewed in the opposite direction which made it unlikely that anyone examining it would find it held more than just bristles and a trace of shaving foam. Still, if you were stopped by a member of the secret police, you could always whip out the miniature knife concealed under your lapel or even strangle them using the bootlaces that looked like bootlaces while containing a steel cord doubling as a garotte or gigli saw. Handy if you were in a tight spot and needed a last-ditch weapon. And, if all else failed and your lethal bootlaces and lapel knife didn’t keep you from capture and interrogation, then his having designed a hollow ring that could contain a hidden cyanide capsule was better than the alternatives. 

The Hollywood idea of a Q Branch gadget, a sleeve gun firing poisoned or explosive darts.
The Hollywood idea of a Q Branch gadget, a sleeve gun firing poisoned or explosive darts.

Like ‘Q’ he did design all manner of unconventional little gadgets that could prove vital for escapers, evaders and secret agents. Unlike ‘Q’ his devices were ruthlessly practical. If you needed a hollow ring for your suicide pill, a miniature lapel knife, a hollow shaving brush, a concealed compass button then Charles Fraser-Smith was your man. If you wanted a shiny sports car with hidden machine guns, bulletproof shield, rockets launchers, smoke screen dispensers and an oil slick for confounding a pursuing vehicle then he might well look at you as though you’d appeared from Planet Zog and plainly didn’t have the faintest idea about exactly what he did for a living. And don’t ask for a one-man auto-gyro with heat-seeking missiles, aerial mines and machine guns, either. ‘Little Nellie’ belongs firmly in the realms of fiction.

 One of his actual inventions, a miniature escape compass inside a tunic button.

One of his actual inventions, a miniature escape compass inside a tunic button.

It’s doubtful that he would have been as obviously eccentric as his Hollywood alter-ego, either. That isn’t to say that the mighty Desmond Llewellyn didn’t make ‘Q’ the most essential bit-part in film history (how can you have a Bond movie without ‘Q’ and whatever he’s come up with this time, after all?). Part of the fun of the Bond movie formula is seeing what ‘Q’ delivers early in the film as you just know it’ll save Bond’s bacon about twenty minutes from the big finale and end credits. But Charles Fraser-Smith was an altogether less conspicuous soul. He was perfectly happy to while away his wartime service as inconspicuously as possible doing his “Funny little job in London” knowing all the time that escapers, evaders and agents were surviving all manner of death-defying adventures that would probably have Bond (or Fleming, for that matter) reaching for another stiff vodka Martini just thinking about them. His was a silent war, a battle of wits instead of weapons. But no less vital, or life-saving, for all that.

Ironic then, given that his gadgets saved so many lives, that his masterstroke involved somebody already dead. When Lieutenant Commander Ewan Montagu devised ‘Operation Mincemeat’ Charles Fraser-Smith played a vital role. Montagu’s idea was to take a corpse, dress him as a Major in the Royal Marines, provide him with a false identity (major Martin, RM) and have a briefcase chained to the phantom Major’s wrist containing lots of intelligence leading no less than Hitler himself to believe that the Allied liberation of Southern Europe would come via Greece and Sardinia, not Sicily which was the obvious (and correct) target area. ‘Major Martin, RM’ would then be placed in a custom-made, refrigerated casket, placed aboard submarine (HMS Seraph) whose skipper (William Jewell) would surface near the Spanish coast and send ‘Major Martin, RM’ off to war.

It worked. The Spanish ensured German Military Intelligence received copies of all the paperwork in the briefcase (given Franco’s leanings this was a fairly safe bet). Once the paperwork reached Hitler (the only person in the entire Third Reich whose opinion on anything actually mattered) huge numbers of troops were diverted to defend Greece and Sardinia, many of whom were transferred there from Sicily. It was Charles Fraser-Smith who designed the specially-refrigerated casket that not only fit through the sub’s torpedo loading hatch like a glove, but also worked in such a way as to ensure that ‘Major Martin, RM’ went off HMS Seraph to do his duty as fresh and recently-deceased-looking as he needed to be to not be instantly spotted during an autopsy as having actually been dead for some considerable time. ‘Operation Mincemeat’ saved thousands of Allied lives and helped shorten the war. Charles Fraser-Smith was content for nobody to know he’d even been involved, much less that the job probably couldn’t have been done without him.

After the war he retired to Devon, running a small farm with his second wife and three children. He remained there in almost-total obscurity until the 1970’s when his family prevailed on him to ask for security clearance to write a book about his wartime service. He ended up writing several and donating the profits to charity. ‘The Secret War of Charles Fraser-Smith’, ‘Secret Warriors – MI6, OSS, MI9, SOE And SAS’ and ‘The Man Who Was ‘Q” were all published. Having kept a large collection of his own inventions, he spent one week every year displaying them and explaining their purposes to visitors at the Exmoor Steam Railway. Charles Fraser-Smith died in 1992, survived by his wife and three children, without ever having become as well-known or widely-acknowledged as his big-screen alter-ego.

I suspect, though, given his modesty and sense of a good job secretly done, that he would have preferred it that way. . ‘

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