The real Bond? How Hollywood overlooked the other Fleming brother

·13-min read
Unsung: Peter Fleming - Getty
Unsung: Peter Fleming - Getty

It never hurts the box office of a spy movie if there’s a suggestion of a dash of James Bond in its mix. So it comes as no surprise that John Madden’s new film Operation Mincemeat – a dramatisation of a famous Second World War Intelligence wheeze – emphasises the involvement of Bond’s future creator, Ian Fleming.

Fleming (played by heart-throb of the moment Johnny Flynn, currently being touted as the next Bond) narrates the film, and is portrayed as something of a suave proto-Bond himself, cutting as much of a dash around the headquarters of the Intelligence Services as 007 would go on to do. But it’s still undetermined whether Fleming played as central a role in devising Operation Mincemeat as the film makes out.

Whenever Ian Fleming is thrust into the limelight in this way, I find myself thinking the same thing: could we not hear a bit more about his brother Peter for a change? Peter Fleming (1907–71) deserves to be a character in a film; indeed, he deserves to have a whole film made about him. As head of the propaganda and sabotage unit “D Division”, he devised deception operations every bit as ingenious as anything Ian came up with during his time in Naval Intelligence; moreover, Peter had a far more active and dangerous war than Ian, coming close to death during operations in Norway and Greece.

Even before the war, he had faced danger countless times as an enthusiastic traveller in out-of-the-way places – adventures he chronicled in a series of best-selling books. Indeed, while Ian – a year Peter’s junior – was struggling to find his place in the world in the 1930s, Peter was a celebrity: an intrepid and witty author, married to one of the most acclaimed actresses of her generation, Celia Johnson – future star of Brief Encounter and Dame of the theatre.

James Fleming, son of Peter and Ian’s brother Richard, thinks that his uncle Peter has been unfairly overshadowed. “A man from America wrote to me a few weeks ago to say he liked the book I’ve just written about Ian Fleming and Russia [Bond Behind the Iron Curtain], but couldn’t I please publish something about Peter now, because he was so much more interesting. I think they were both fabulous, really, but Peter does get less attention than he deserves. He was the glamour boy of the ’30s – women flocked to him.”

Johnny Flynn as Ian Fleming in Operation Mincemeat - Warner Bros
Johnny Flynn as Ian Fleming in Operation Mincemeat - Warner Bros

“'One reads Fleming… for the pleasure of meeting an Elizabethan spirit allied to a modern mind,” wrote Vita Sackville-West in 1934, and for the rest of the 1930s Fleming was often referred to as “a modern Elizabethan”, reviving the lost swashbuckling spirit that had attended the founding of the British Empire – just as James Bond would later be said to do during the new Elizabethan age, encapsulating the best of the British gung-ho spirit even as the Empire faded.

As Peter grew older, he became an ever more impressive figure; although the highest rank he attained in the army was Lieutenant-Colonel, he was held in such esteem that generals would stand up for him if he came into a room. If we want a proto-Bond, we may be wiser to look not to Ian but to Peter.

Peter Fleming was the oldest of four sons of the Conservative MP Major Valentine Fleming, who was killed by German shellfire in France in 1917, a few days before Peter’s 10th birthday. Peter recalled that he and Ian were close as boys, “like two fox cubs”, but also fought “like cats and dogs”.

Peter was something of a paragon, being both sparklingly intelligent and well-behaved; when Ian found out as an adult that Peter had once thrown his porridge out of the nursery window, he exclaimed: “Oh, I wish I’d known that at the time. He always seemed so perfect.” According to Ian’s biographer Andrew Lycett, his “uncompromising sense of his own failure” throughout his life had much to do with “having to play second fiddle to Peter”.

After Eton and Oxford, Peter had a false start working in the New York office of the Fleming family banking firm – “My aversion to business and all that it stands for grows almost hourly”, he reported – and in 1931 he returned home to become literary editor of The Spectator, finding his niche at a time when Ian was dropping out of Sandhurst and then failing to get into the Foreign Office.

And then in 1932 came the fateful moment when Peter chanced on an advert in The Times: “Exploring and sporting expedition, under experienced guidance, leaving England June, to explore rivers central Brazil, if possible ascertain fate Colonel Fawcett; abundance game, big and small; exceptional fishing; ROOM TWO MORE GUNS; highest references expected and given.” Fleming, a keen marksman, decided to join this expedition to find out what had happened to the English explorer Percy Fawcett, who had vanished in Brazil seven years earlier trying to find the city of “Z” which he believed lay deep in its untracked jungles.

The trip resulted in Brazilian Adventure (1933), the book that made Fleming’s name – “a marvellous… travel book and skit-on-travel-book in one”, as Kingsley Amis once described it. There is no doubt that the dangers Fleming faced on this journey into the Amazon – he encountered caymans and cannibals, and got caught up in a revolution at one point – were considerable, and he evoked splendidly the “fierce and irresponsible delight that comes when you are contending with odds to the limit of your physical energies”.

Peter Fleming riding a yak in Pakistan in 1935 while working for The Times - AP
Peter Fleming riding a yak in Pakistan in 1935 while working for The Times - AP

But he also delighted in the “splendid incompetence” of his team, as they managed to drop all their money in a river and fall out with each other. The book ends with the expedition split into two factions racing each other to return and be the first to give their account of how useless the other group was. “Beyond the completion of a 3,000-mile journey… through a little-known part of the world, and the discovery of one new tributary to a tributary to a tributary of the Amazon, nothing of importance was achieved,” Fleming concluded.

The book’s “unique blend of disillusion, foolhardiness and high spirits”, as JB Priestley put it, was unprecedented in the pompous and self-aggrandising genre of explorer memoirs. Fleming went on to deploy this formula of high adventure self-deprecatingly described in further books.

One’s Company (1934) recorded a trip to China, with a memorably scathing account of an interview Fleming secured with Chiang Kai-shek, leader of the newly-founded Republic. News from Tartary (1935) described a seven-month journey, all carried out either on foot or by pony, from Peking to Kashmir. His friend, the novelist Eric Linklater, declared that the book was so hair-raising that he found himself skipping to the final pages to make sure Fleming made it through alive.

Fleming had also by this time been recruited by the intelligence services and reported back to them on anything of interest he picked up during his travels. When war broke out, he immediately joined the Grenadier Guards and longed to see action with them, but his previous work made it inevitable that he spent most of the war in intelligence postings – although these carried their fair share of danger.

Initially he spent his time in Kent and Sussex training members of the public to become Resistance cells, who would fight in the event of a German invasion: he had them kitted out with bows and arrows, the arrows being dipped with a deadly poison he had come across in Brazil. His primary concern was the relaxed British attitude to the possibility of attack: on one occasion he broke into General Montgomery’s HQ and attached sticks of gelignite to his flower pots in order to demonstrate how lax army security was.

Alan Ogden, author of the fascinating Master of Deception: The Wartime Adventures of Peter Fleming (2019), records an occasion on which Fleming led a visiting general into woodland in Kent and challenged him to find the entrance to a concealed resistance shelter.

“The officer searched for several minutes before Fleming nonchalantly kicked a tree stump. It tipped back, revealing a hole with a rope ladder dangling into a cavern that had been enlarged from a badger’s sett. In this cave, sitting on kegs of explosives and surrounded by weapons, booby traps, a radio and tins of emergency rations, were about 10 grimly silent soldiers.”

Ian Fleming with Sean Connery on the set of Dr No - Bert Cann
Ian Fleming with Sean Connery on the set of Dr No - Bert Cann

The same general was alarmed during dinner to find that Fleming used a crate of gelignite as a table and was none too careful with his candles. Fleming certainly relished danger, and embraced operations such as a mission to Nazi-occupied Norway to facilitate commando landings: the Daily Sketch reported that he had been killed and he had the pleasure of reading one or two of his own obituaries before the War Office issued a correction.

Later he went to Greece with the fledgling Special Operations Executive, where he enjoyed “causing... havoc of a spectacular and enjoyable kind”. On leaving the country, however, his boat was strafed and bombed – the planes were coming in “at the height of a driven partridge”, he recalled in a characteristic observation – and he was deeply affected by the death of a young comrade, Oliver Barstow.

In 1942 he was summoned to India by General Wavell, where, as Head of “D Division”, he came up with numerous deception operations. “Operation Error” saw him stage a crash involving Wavell’s staff car near the Burmese border; it contained papers that looked as though they had been forgotten, but were of course intended to be found and convey false information. Wavell sent Fleming a congratulatory note reading: “When I am old and garrulous and blimping, I shall probably tell a story of how I tricked the Japs and saved India from invasion!”

Meanwhile, “Operation Fathead” involved planting fake intelligence on a corpse and throwing it out of a plane attached to a faulty parachute, in order to suggest an accident. Another scheme involved asking retreating troops to leave behind letters containing misleading information – including one tucked inside a pornographic magazine.

A particularly brilliant stroke was Fleming’s idea of using sound effects to confuse the enemy. Alan Ogden notes that recordings of tanks, bulldozers, boats, “footsteps on shingle and seaweed crackling underfoot”, were deployed during commando attacks to suggest the presence of more men and resources than were really available. Fleming also authorised the construction of cardboard tanks, the camouflage designed by “a splendid fellow [who] used to do the chorus girls’ dresses at the Prince of Wales [theatre].”

Whenever he could, he slipped away from his day job to see action, often unauthorised. He was nearly killed in 1944 when, without permission from his superiors, he flew into Burma with Orde Wingate’s Chindits as part of a major offensive. And yet after the war, he seemed to have lost his appetite for adventuring, and settled down to life as a country squire at the 2,000-acre Nettlebed estate near Henley, which an uncle had given him as a gift in 1938.

He wrote journalism and popular history books, but gave the appearance of being semi-retired by the time he was 40. He was certainly not ambitious, turning down offers to become editor of The Observer and The Times. “He told them if there was a war going to start tomorrow he would jump out of his chair and join it, but he didn’t want to edit a newspaper,” recalls James Fleming. “I don’t think he was a man for offices or admin or even dealing with people probably – I think he was quite introverted. But he would have been perfect for the job in other ways – he was brave, he wrote beautifully.”

In 1952 he published a spy novel, The Sixth Column, dedicated to his brother Ian. One character is a best-selling novelist who writes about a secret agent called Colonel Hackforth – “thrillers with violent, and to say the least of it, curious events... which had far-reaching international implications”. Whether Ian took the hint from that character we don’t know, but his first Bond novel, Casino Royale, appeared the following year.

Peter certainly played an important role in the genesis of Bond; the book’s eventual publisher, Jonathan Cape, was hesitant about taking it on, but Peter, one of the firm’s best-selling authors, put his weight behind it. He looked over Ian’s manuscript so thoroughly that Ian nicknamed him “Dr Nitpick”; it was Peter who suggested that a better name for M’s secretary, Miss Pettaval, might be “Moneypenny”.

Despite the tricky aspects of their relationship, Peter and Ian were fond of each other; they rarely met but when they did, “for much of the time they were alone together they were incapacitated by laughter”, according to Peter’s biographer Duff Hart-Davis. Peter was overjoyed by Ian’s late success – and devastated by his death in 1964. For some years thereafter Peter ran Glidrose, the company that Ian had founded to manage the Bond income, and launched an uncharacteristically angry attack on Malcolm Muggeridge in The Observer in 1965 for speaking slightingly of Ian.

Peter Fleming’s 1933 travel book Brazilian Adventure - Alden Press
Peter Fleming’s 1933 travel book Brazilian Adventure - Alden Press

The book that might have revived Peter’s own reputation in his latter years was his proposed history of wartime Strategic Deception, an inside story that might have been a masterpiece – but bureaucratic obstruction from Whitehall repeatedly held him up. In his last years he devoted more and more time to his greatest passion – shooting.

“If things went wrong, he never resorted to conventional swear-words, but let off steam with vaguely Shakespearean objurgations: ‘Curses!’, ‘God's boots!’ or ‘God's foot!’” recalled Hart-Davis. “His succession of black Labradors played a central part in his life. Many became brilliant retrievers but, because he trained them himself and was never a strict disciplinarian, they were often incurably wild.”

I asked James Fleming for his memories of his uncle. “He was a great man. He couldn’t have been kinder, reading my manuscripts when I started writing as a young man. He was always most courteous, and quietly humorous – he wouldn’t talk a lot, but then he would take the pipe out of his mouth and say something funny and quiet to the point. Laconic is the word.

“He didn’t care about money. Unlike Ian, he was not a commercial man. And he wasn’t one to push himself forward. He was a quiet man, and I don’t think you’ll find anywhere an exact image of him in his writings, because he was not one to show his heart.”

Despite now being firmly in his brother’s shadow, Peter Fleming still has his devotees. Brazilian Adventure has never been out of print, and he is commemorated by the Royal Geographical Society’s Peter Fleming Award, given to a “research project that seeks to advance geographical science”.

He died of a heart attack, aged 64, in August 1971, while shooting grouse near Glen Coe. “Half the party decided to go on shooting, for they believed – and surely they were right – that this was what Peter would have wanted,” reported Hart-Davis. The funeral instructions found in his effects were characteristically wry: he insisted that his dog be allowed to attend, and stipulated that “if there is a memorial service, I would like it to be at the Guards’ Chapel; the parking facilities are unrivalled”.

Operation Mincemeat is in cinemas now

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