True Spies Episode 74: The Gadget Master
NARRATOR: Welcome to True Spies. Week by week, mission by mission you’ll hear the true stories behind the world’s greatest espionage operations. You’ll meet the people who navigate this secret world. What do they know? What are their secret skills? And what would you do in their position?
CHARLES FRASER-SMITH: I’ll be honest. I loved my work. It was based on secrecy and deception, yes. But secrecy and deception in fighting the greatest evil the world had known in a generation. No shame in that.
NARRATOR: This is True Spies Episode 74: The Gadget Master.
CHARLES FRASER-SMITH: I always remember this line from the psalms: Blessed be God who trains my hands and fingers for war. And that’s what we were doing - training hands, and fingers, to be ready to fight in any way necessary. And with any tools necessary in a conflict we could not afford to lose.
NARRATOR: What does an agent need in order to survive undercover in hostile territory? What tools make the difference between escape and capture? Could a well-placed gadget help?
CHARLES FRASER-SMITH: There was no way we could guarantee the safety or success of our brave agents - particularly not their safety. But I like to think that my more unorthodox devices may have tipped the balance ever so slightly in their favor, given them - let’s say - an edge.
NARRATOR: In World War II, Britain possessed a unique asset in its fight against the Axis powers. A civil servant officially posted to the Ministry of Supply with a secret mission: to provide British agents and servicemen and women with the secret devices, gadgets needed to survive undercover. Meet Charles Fraser-Smith.
CHARLES FRASER-SMITH: Are we recording?
NARRATOR: Fraser-Smith died in 1992. The following is a recreation based on his memoirs and the writings of those who knew him. His words are spoken by an actor. But the stories contained in them are absolutely real.
CHARLES FRASER-SMITH: Probably the best place to start is with one of the moon flights.
NARRATOR: 21st November 1942. A beautiful moonlit night over occupied France. An RAF Lysander - one of the slowest and most outdated aircraft still in service - is making its ponderous way to a rendezvous at low altitude.
CHARLES FRASER-SMITH: There’s an RAF saying: ‘Birds and fools fly by day, but only fools by night.’
NARRATOR: The slow-moving Lysanders, affectionately known as Grasshoppers, have one redeeming feature: their ability to land and take off without a runway in even the smallest fields and pastures. Perfect for dropping off agents at remote locations for work with the French Resistance. These missions can only take place under exactly the right conditions - dark enough to evade detection by the Luftwaffe, light enough to enable landing on rough terrain. A full moon is ideal, hence the ‘moon flights’. Getting the balance wrong has been fatal. The Grasshoppers have also been painted midnight black to camouflage against the night sky. In the cockpit is a pilot who has already had an eventful war: 22-year-old Flight Sergeant Jim McCairns. By this point in the war, he has already been shot down and captured by the Germans once, but managed to escape from a POW camp and make it home. He volunteered for Grasshopper work out of gratitude for the Belgian Resistance fighters who helped him get away. This is his first moon-flight mission, and he hasn’t been able to sleep from sheer nerves.
In the rear cockpit is an agent ready for his drop-off. He’s a fully trained member of the SOE, Britain’s Special Operations Executive. If you’ve listened to some of our other episodes, you might remember SOE’s mission to disrupt the Nazi war machine through sabotage, espionage, and guerrilla warfare. As they near the landing point, the atmosphere in the cabin grows ever more tense. No small talk: operational security demands that the agents and pilots keep communication to a minimum. An SOE agent’s chances of survival are, frankly, slight. Life expectancy at this point in the war can be measured in weeks. But in their favor is the meticulously designed arsenal of devices and equipment that both men are carrying. Nothing has been left to chance.
CHARLES FRASER-SMITH: Start with one of the cigarette holders - I was particularly proud of them. Looks like an ordinary, well-used, holder doesn’t it? We actually stained them deliberately with tobacco and tar to be more convincing. But inside each one, if you pull it just so - like this - is a miniature, fully functioning telescope, no more than half an inch in diameter. A Swiss lens maker living in England helped us create that and it worked perfectly.
NARRATOR: Even if an agent has the tools to observe the enemy, they also need a way of recording their findings.
CHARLES FRASER-SMITH: The dangers of note-taking to an agent are, of course, immense. Discovery would be a death sentence and the same goes for the written instructions given to agents. So I came up with a couple of practical solutions. First, flash paper - paper impregnated with a chemical that allows it to burn instantly without ash or smoke. It just disappears. Quite magical.
NARRATOR: And if a flame isn’t to hand...
CHARLES FRASER-SMITH: The other solution was to have our agents literally eat their words. Edible paper - gone in a couple of chews and a swallow. I wouldn’t recommend it to any gourmets, but we never had any complaints. SOE and the other intelligence services took pages and pages of both types. Burn or eat after reading.
NARRATOR: If a spy needs to record information even more quickly there is the photographic option.
CHARLES FRASER-SMITH: Ah yes, the Minox camera. Absolutely essential. The best miniature camera available then - film smaller than a postage stamp. The whole thing was tiny enough to hide in a cigarette lighter. Light your cigarette near a military installation or important factory - a few clicks - and we would have something you could frame on your wall.
NARRATOR: Guerrilla warfare isn’t cheap. Agents need to be able to pay their way through enemy territory. But again, SOE and Fraser-Smith have a solution:
CHARLES FRASER-SMITH: Forgeries of French francs were provided to us by Waterlow Ltd. They had an excellent pedigree. At one point, they were the official printers of real British banknotes. At first, the problem was that their fake francs were a little too good - looked brand new off the press. My contact said that the staff solved this in a very elegant way. Ballroom dancing on top of piles of banknotes. But I can’t vouch for that.
NARRATOR: We can’t be sure exactly which tools the agent on this mission has been equipped with but we do know what the pilot has brought with him. Flight Sergeant McCairns has no intention of being under-prepared if he were ever to be stranded in occupied Europe again. Under his flight overalls, he is wearing a complete suit of Belgian civilian clothes and has a .38 revolver strapped around his waist.
CHARLES FRASER-SMITH: I heard he also carried a modified fountain pen filled with tear-gas instead of ink - not a design I would have sanctioned. Not something you want going off by accident.
NARRATOR: Another pilot in the squadron keeps a beret stashed in the cabin at all times to allow him to transform himself instantly into a convincing Frenchman. McCairns has a similar attitude of preparedness.
CHARLES FRASER-SMITH: Around his person, I learned, were some more of my creations. A minute surgical saw secreted into the lining of his clothes, more than a match for the bars on many prison cell windows. A miniaturized map of France printed on a silk handkerchief also hidden in the lining. We used silk to minimize rustling, and because you can fold it all you like without tearing.
NARRATOR: And, of course, escape boots.
CHARLES FRASER-SMITH: Standard provision. Each pair had a tiny knife hidden in the leather. On being stranded, a pilot simply uses it to cut away the fur-lined upper part of the boots, revealing neat and convincing civilian shoes. Laces were stored in the lining. The excess leather could then be quickly stitched into a very serviceable and warm shepherd’s waistcoat.
NARRATOR: But perhaps the most important gadget for a mission like this is already in France. Even a Lysander can’t land completely blind, so each mission also requires someone in the landing zone to light the way - to act as air traffic control. What’s known as the ‘operator’. Their job is to set out lights to mark the landing zone, and use a torch to flash a password in Morse code to the pilot. The problem is that what the pilot can see, the enemy might also see.
CHARLES FRASER-SMITH: They tried marking the landings with flares at first, and I’m afraid we lost agents as a result. I got an urgent request for something more discreet and bespoke. It was quite an interesting challenge. Something that would provide enough illumination but not too much. And which could be excused as having a perfectly innocent civilian purpose. So this is what we came up with. A small battery-operated torch with a flared plastic head. Roughly in the shape of a large mushroom. The stem of the mushroom is pushed into the ground so that the top can only be seen from above. When switched on like so - sorry, like so. It’s been ages - yes, it gives out a strong but diffuse glow, and small enough to be easily hidden. It has the added advantage that when not in use, it looks remarkably like a ladies’ darning mushroom. I believe female agents used to store them amongst their knitting needles as a form of disguise. Very gratifying.
NARRATOR: On this night, the Grasshopper approaches the landing spot with customary caution. The moment of greatest risk is approaching. Waiting for the signal. And there it is - a single light, shining, not too brightly, from a corner of a remote pasture in the French countryside. Morse code flashes between operator and cockpit. All clear. Then two other lights appear, marking out a faint triangle for the runway. If this is an ambush, it’s one where they know all the SOE procedures. McCairn circles, slows, and... he’s down, safely. A few minutes to exchange passenger and cargo - hurried wishes of good fortune - a short taxi for takeoff, and the Grasshopper rises back up into the moonlight. Mission accomplished. Charles Fraser-Smith was never a civil service man.
CHARLES FRASER-SMITH: Exactly, much less an inventor or engineer. When the war started I had already found my calling. I was 36, married with a young family, and living very far from Whitehall and England.
NARRATOR: In Morocco.
CHARLES FRASER-SMITH: Blanche and I had been in North Africa for years and expected to stay. We did missionary work as well as running two farms and an orphanage. I enjoyed it, the problem-solving element of farming. At one point, I even worked for the Moroccan Royal Family.
NARRATOR: Hitler’s invasion of France changes all that. Morocco is at this time a French colony. And, if and when Paris falls, Morocco is likely to be a hostile place for British subjects.
CHARLES FRASER-SMITH: Official orders from the British embassy at that time were for British citizens to stay put. Do nothing. But I could see where that would lead. At the very best, our farms would end up supplying German forces with food. At worst - well it didn’t bear thinking about. But French friends of mine in Marrakech and Casablanca were speaking about underground Resistance. I knew the country, at least.
NARRATOR: What would you do? Stay on and work with those opposed to the Nazis? Or abandon your home and life’s work to try and join the war effort in Britain?
CHARLES FRASER-SMITH: Blanche and I spoke long into the night. It wasn’t an easy decision but it was the right one.
NARRATOR: When France surrenders there are still boats traveling between Casablanca and Britain. But not many, and the war in the Atlantic is heating up.
CHARLES FRASER-SMITH: We left everything really, all we’d worked for and built. You could take only very limited funds with you. I remember standing with our son Brian near the quayside, waiting to board, and then the gendarmes began searching everybody. And that’s when I realized that things might not go so well for me.
NARRATOR: Charles is carrying a souvenir. A small automatic pistol, from his days with the Moroccan Royal family. Not a good thing to be found with. And the gendarmes are working their way down the line - closer and closer.
CHARLES FRASER-SMITH: I had to think quickly. As they approached, I quickly slipped the automatic into my handkerchief and affected a loud sneeze into it. Surprisingly, he didn’t care to inspect the handkerchief after that.
NARRATOR: A first experience of concealment and misdirection as a tool of warfare.
CHARLES FRASER-SMITH: It was quick thinking but also an example of God’s providence.
NARRATOR: In Britain, the Fraser-Smiths are put up by fellow members of their church, and Charles gets a junior job in an aircraft factory.
CHARLES FRASER-SMITH: The church was at the center of our lives and one evening I was asked to give a talk to the congregation about my work in Morocco. I think people wanted some distraction from all they were hearing on the wireless. I gave my usual talk, explaining some of the unusual techniques I had devised for improving agricultural yield and, at the end, two gentlemen approached me.
NARRATOR: Two fellow committed Christians but these two happened to have a major role in Britain’s war effort. Ritchie Rice was the director of the Ministry of Supply in the city of Leeds, and Sir George Oliver was the director general of the Ministry of Supply in London.
CHARLES FRASER-SMITH: We made some cursory chit-chat about my talk and the next day I received a message to pop by Rice’s office.
NARRATOR: Rice had a job offer.
CHARLES FRASER-SMITH: He said he was impressed by my initiative and inventiveness, and he was looking for someone with those qualities to work in his department.
NARRATOR: The fact that Fraser-Smith had no civil service background, no relevant qualifications, and absolutely no experience of government work - well, that was all an advantage.
CHARLES FRASER-SMITH: He said he was looking for someone who wasn’t an insider, someone with the kind of brain that could cut corners. The civil servants in his office were too hidebound and inflexible for a time of national crisis. Well, I jumped at the chance.
NARRATOR: Understandable. This was a step up from the aircraft factory. But what would Charles actually be doing?
CHARLES FRASER-SMITH: It was all most peculiar. I couldn’t quite get a straight answer and, for the first three weeks, I appeared to have been assigned quite ordinary work pen-pushing in the Ministry’s textile office.
NARRATOR: In fact, this was a probationary period testing him out.
CHARLES FRASER-SMITH: And then, quite without warning, I received a message that I was being reassigned to London and that I would be required to sign the Official Secrets Act.
NARRATOR: The British law that binds all who sign it to 30 years of silence about government work, on pain of imprisonment, a pre-condition of spycraft.
CHARLES FRASER-SMITH: That’s when my war really began.
NARRATOR: The textile job is a front. Fraser-Smith’s real job is to be a one-man equipment supplier for Britain’s numerous intelligence agencies. A fixer, a corner-cutter, someone who can get things done quickly outside official channels.
CHARLES FRASER-SMITH: A ‘floating production and procurement man’. It was well thought out. I was provided with a modest office in Portland House not far from the Houses of Parliament, and next door to MI6, to whom I was ultimately answerable. I had a secretary and three telephones on my desk - one for local calls, one for long distance, and the red one for priority. That’s the one the requests came in on.
NARRATOR: Even the man who hired him, Ritchie Rice, was not permitted to know the full extent of his work.
CHARLES FRASER-SMITH: The automatic pistol job was a good example.
CHARLES FRASER-SMITH: The red phone - an evening call. By this stage, I had been doing this work for some time so I recognized the voice on the other end immediately. Commander Ridley, my contact at MI6, although I had never met him. Or so I thought...
NARRATOR: They exchange the all-important passwords to ensure security then...
CHARLES FRASER-SMITH: “We’re rather short of automatic pistols at the minute.” Or words to that effect. “Would you be able to find us a few rather quickly, 300 of them to be precise? No fewer. You’ve got three weeks.” My job wasn’t to ask questions but I surmised that they were needed to supply SOE agents in occupied Europe or our brave friends in the Resistance. Here was the snag: I knew that every privately-held handgun in Britain was already required to be surrendered to the Crown under The Defence of the Realm Act - to be put towards the war effort. There had been a purchase program early in the war.
NARRATOR: Naturally. If the job were easy, there would have been no need to call Fraser-Smith.
CHARLES FRASER-SMITH: Manufacturing them from scratch was out of the question, which meant finding guns that had already evaded the authorities and persuading their owners to relinquish them.
NARRATOR: The real opponent here wasn’t the Nazi war machine, but bureaucracy - Fraser-Smith’s fellow civil servants and the police.
CHARLES FRASER-SMITH: I knew that if I were to deliver satisfactorily and on time, I would have to bend the rules to their limit. One of my first calls was to Scotland Yard to see if they could be persuaded to renew the government offer to buy privately held handguns - this time offering a higher price. But they said they’d need the approval of the Home Office. I knew well enough that waiting for that to happen would take weeks. So I asked if they would mind if I advertised myself, putting notices in the press offering generous prices for handguns. No-go there too I’m afraid. No one fully understood the new wartime regulations, but no one wanted to risk running afoul of them.
NARRATOR: Time to get creative.
CHARLES FRASER-SMITH: The thing is, I had an inkling that there might be more of these weapons floating about than anyone was prepared to admit. I still had the gun I’d smuggled out of Morocco, for example, and it wasn’t uncommon for servicemen to come back from the frontline with a souvenir or two. A pistol from the enemy was a common enough trophy. The higher-ups tended to turn a blind eye.
NARRATOR: The question is, how to winkle these trophies out?
CHARLES FRASER-SMITH: I’d already been told by Scotland Yard that I was forbidden to place advertisements in the press offering money for guns. But what if someone else did? The next morning I contacted the London manager of a well-known firearms firm, an American chap. I immediately got him to sign the Official Secrets Act and explained what was needed. Without going into too much detail, I drew up a contract for him to place the advertisements on my behalf. Very good prices - higher than ever - offered.
NARRATOR: With just one precaution.
CHARLES FRASER-SMITH: Given my unrewarding conversation with the police at Scotland Yard, I stipulated that no classifieds were to be placed in the London newspapers. I had a hunch that the Yard wouldn’t keep such a close eye on the regional press.
NARRATOR: So it proves.
CHARLES FRASER-SMITH: Most gratifying. The most beautiful automatics began rolling in, some in immaculate condition. The kind of thing I’m sure any brave Resistance fighter would be glad to get their hands on. With only a few days remaining before the deadline, we had more than 200 serviceable weapons in storage. It was then that my secretary got a rather unpleasant call from Scotland Yard. Bad news. A policeman in a city on the south coast had spotted one of our classifieds and notified London. Could I please call them back immediately? Most unwelcome.
NARRATOR: It’s the kind of situation that Fraser-Smith has been hired for. Corners need cutting.
CHARLES FRASER-SMITH: I’m ashamed to say that I became unaccountably busy over the next few days, almost impossible for Scotland Yard to reach on the phone, and almost never in the office.
NARRATOR: In a very gentlemanly way, Charles was now on the run.
CHARLES FRASER-SMITH: I decided it was high time I took a day off and visited the countryside. Totally incommunicado. I did take the precaution of calling my handlers at MI6 from a rural phone box. I knew I had to keep the advertisements up just long enough for us to make our target of 300 automatics.
NARRATOR: And it isn’t just Scotland Yard.
CHARLES FRASER-SMITH: The Home Office got awfully upset too. When it was all over I was called in for a frightful rocket from a very senior figure there. Of course, I promised that the infraction would never occur again. It didn’t need to.
NARRATOR: His contact at MI6 on the other hand feels differently.
CHARLES FRASER-SMITH: We got Commander Ridley every one of his 300 guns on schedule. I understand he was most pleased. Later he told me how they’d obtained the ammunition to go with such a wide variety of weapons. Their contacts in America had arranged for an appeal to go out to the Chicago mob for bullets of all kinds. Apparently, even American gangsters have a sense of duty. Around that time, I decided that my office at Portland House needed a little decoration. In a second-hand shop near the office, I found a rather charming painting of two fat cows sitting in a field, chewing the cud, and doing absolutely nothing. I hung it over my desk and wrote underneath my own title for the painting: The Civil Servants.
NARRATOR: September 1944. The Netherlands. Near the frontline, close to the town of Apeldoorn. Twenty kilometers away, the Battle of Arnhem is nearing its endgame. In the pitch black, four British prisoners of war are making a break for freedom. One of them is Lipmann Kessel, a surgeon in the British Army who was treating injured soldiers before he was arrested by the Wehrmacht. Lipman has an additional reason to avoid being taken to Germany. He’s Jewish. It’s his account that this is based on. So far, the four of them have successfully made it out of the grounds of the makeshift prison where they were being held, evading the guards in the watchtower and slipping past the perimeter patrol. They’ve hidden in an air-raid shelter, cut through a barbed-wire fence, and become soaked crossing a stream. They are now exhausted, stumbling in the pitch black through a forest of some kind, aware that they are still dangerously close to their captors.
And that’s when the man at the front - ‘Shorty’ Longland - another Army surgeon - calls a halt. His precious compass, their guide through the night, has been knocked out of his hand by a branch. It’s completely lost in the blackness. It could spell the end for their attempt but fortunately, these men have another card to play. They’ve been equipped with one of Charles Fraser-Smith’s most famous devices: the escape compass.
The third member of the team reaches down into his crotch, gropes around, and grabs the fly buttons on his trousers. With a sharp tug, they come away. To the casual observer - or a German arresting officer - they appear to be ordinary Army uniform buttons. But when opened and placed one on top of the other, their true purpose emerges. A perfect miniature compass, complete with a phosphorescent, luminous dot to aid navigation in the dark. The little green dot swings on Shorty’s palm and settles. North is revealed. The escape bid is back on.
CHARLES FRASER-SMITH: Yes, we had many models of those things. Put them in buttons, cap badges, and the linings of jackets. We even got a dentist to fix them in airmen’s fillings in case they ended up behind enemy lines. The poor fellow would have to get the thing out himself if caught, of course. This one here was one of our earliest models. Looks like a perfectly innocent fountain pen, doesn’t it? But open the lid and there you go - a fully functional compass. And here, in the body of the pen itself, when you unscrew it you can see the ink reservoir is rather smaller than normal. That space is where a map, on tissue-thin paper, would be placed. The fountain pen company was understandably proud of that although they were worried that their reputation for ink capacity might take a knock in military circles. The whole approach came out of the overwhelming emphasis we placed on our men being escape-minded, that it was their duty to attempt to escape when captured and the duty of people like me in London to assist them.
NARRATOR: And so, the escape kit was born.
CHARLES FRASER-SMITH: The escape kits evolved during the war considerably, and as I became more experienced I began to come up with more gadgets and devices of my own to improve them. I certainly wasn’t their only author but I’m proud of what I did contribute.
NARRATOR: Here was a different set of requirements from those of the elite SOE agents being dropped into enemy territory. Escape devices for ordinary soldiers needed to be mass-produced so that any British serviceman would have an arsenal of secret tools at hand if captured.
CHARLES FRASER-SMITH: Sometimes, of course, it’s not necessary to find a hiding place for an object if it can itself be disguised as something innocuous. That’s why I ordered handkerchiefs printed with maps in invisible ink. We knew we needed a simple formula to reveal the ink. We examined several possibilities but I’m afraid to say urine is highly effective for this purpose. At least it’s readily available for a POW.
NARRATOR: Other elements were designed to prolong your ability to survive on the run.
CHARLES FRASER-SMITH: Chemical firelighters, chocolate, bandages, map, compass, miniature saw, benzedrine tablets.
NARRATOR: Benzedrine - amphetamines, speed, basically - to reduce the need for sleep. You might be buzzing, but you would still be one step ahead of the Wehrmacht.
CHARLES FRASER-SMITH: And a full tube of Nestle’s concentrated full-fat cream-enriched condensed milk, the most high-energy preserved food we could produce. I persuaded a rather reluctant toothpaste company to pack it into toothpaste tubes to save space.
NARRATOR: Fraser-Smith’s gadgets don’t just assist you after you have made a break for freedom. They can also help set you free in the first place. Captured British soldiers are expected to form secret groups to plan escapes called ‘escape committees’. The idea is to make breakouts an organized, disciplined process. And there was a way to supply the escape committees.
CHARLES FRASER-SMITH: Our POWs were entitled to receive carefully vetted gifts from home. And so, we had a means of getting my little gadgets into the prisons so long as they could be adequately disguised.
NARRATOR: If you’re on an escape committee, a major priority is creating convincing forged documents, not easy from inside a jail.
CHARLES FRASER-SMITH: I was lucky enough to have the assistance of a very patriotic young Frenchman living in London: Monsieur A. Journet, a gentleman of endless invention. The chess set was one of our proudest achievements. Perfectly legitimate to send to POWs, but a number of hollow pieces contained a hidden reservoir of ink for forgeries. There were also dominos with secret compartments, radio components in cigarette boxes, tobacco pipes with fireproof maps inside, and endless variations on shaving brushes and hairbrushes with secret chambers. I took the precaution of ensuring that they unscrewed backward. If you tried to unscrew them normally you would just tighten the device. I felt sure that the rigid logic of the German mind would be unlikely to fathom that.
NARRATOR: If all of this sounds a bit familiar - a bit James Bond - well there’s a reason for that.
CHARLES FRASER-SMITH: Ian Fleming certainly had charm and an ability to get things done. At that time, he was personal assistant to the Director of Naval Intelligence.
NARRATOR: A spymaster, essentially.
CHARLES FRASER-SMITH: One of the chaps who would occasionally call me on the red phone with a secret request or a gadget instruction. Very able and highly inventive certainly, as you can see in the James Bond books he wrote after the war.
NARRATOR: Which aren’t Fraser-Smith’s cup of tea really.
CHARLES FRASER-SMITH: Harmless fun I suppose. But is there really a call for quite so many superficial sex encounters?
NARRATOR: In Bond films, the hero is always shown an array of gadgets and secret weapons by an avuncular and slightly irate intelligence office known as ‘Q’. Pay attention 007.
CHARLES FRASER-SMITH: It’s no secret I was the model for Q. During the war we always referred to my gadgets as ‘Q items’ - Q being the letter originally assigned to disguised warships in the First War. So with my focus on concealment, my work became ‘Q branch’. Fleming was intrigued by one of my proudest creations - hollow golf balls which could be packed with messages or a compass and sent to POWs - so much so that he attempted to copy the idea in one of his books.
NARRATOR: Diamonds are Forever. Bond goes undercover with a shadowy, all-powerful American organized crime group called the... well it doesn’t really matter. The point is that the group uses hollow golf balls to smuggle diamonds.
CHARLES FRASER-SMITH: Entirely impractical. The point of my golf balls was that they functioned as golf balls with the requisite weight and bounce. Fleming’s device wouldn’t have fooled a half-witted peasant, far less an officer of the SS.
NARRATOR: They did work together on one operation though, a ruse worthy of Bond at his most daring,
CHARLES FRASER-SMITH: Fleming was determined to get his hands on German codebooks. And at that time, a number of German bombers had been captured more or less intact after crash landing in Britain.
NARRATOR: Fleming’s plan was to refurbish one of these Nazi bombers and train a crew of British commandos to fly it.
CHARLES FRASER-SMITH: Then, have the repaired plane take off and join a squadron of real German bombers returning from a raid over southern England. A Trojan bomber if you like. At a certain point, the crew would activate fireworks hidden in the wings to simulate engine trouble, and would then fake a crash landing at sea, somewhere off the coast of France.
NARRATOR: Following so far?
CHARLES FRASER-SMITH: Then, Nazi air-sea rescue would no doubt be scrambled to rescue the bomber crew. Once they reached the crew, Fleming’s commandos would throw off their disguises, assassinate their rescuers and steal the German codebooks. My job was to provide disguises. Quite an intriguing challenge, as it happens, from a textile point of view.
NARRATOR: There was just one problem. Someone points out that there is no way of guaranteeing that the bomber won’t simply sink after crash landing in the sea, drowning all the commandos. The mission is called off.
CHARLES FRASER-SMITH: I’m quite sure Fleming was livid, but it couldn’t be helped.
NARRATOR: The afternoon June 5th 1944. Northern France, the town of Bayeux, not far from the coast. In the back of his bike shop, Guillaume Mercader is doing the same thing as thousands of other people across France: risking his freedom - and possibly his life - to listen to a BBC French Service broadcast on an illegal radio. It’s not the only risk he takes. As a professional cyclist, Guillaume has a special license from the German authorities to take long training rides across the region. Those journeys are also the perfect cover for a Resistance organizer like him - creating the opportunity to collect and pass on detailed intelligence and descriptions of the Nazi coastal defenses. In fact, his rigorous training regime is sponsored from London.
CHARLES FRASER-SMITH: I’m pleased to say that even his cycle tires and brakes were provided by me. Very hard to get the materials at that time in France. No need for any cloak and dagger devices though. It was enough we were able to support his very demanding practice rides. The last thing one wanted was for him to take a tumble.
NARRATOR: In the preceding months, organizers like Guillaume have been increasing their intelligence work along the coast - including the use of Fraser-Smith’s Minox cameras - to collect information on troop movements, blueprints of fortifications, and estimates of German reinforcements. And on this day, Guillaume hears the message he and his network has been waiting for - part of the regular ‘personal messages’ section of the broadcast.
CHARLES FRASER-SMITH: ‘The dice are down’. That meant sabotage was to commence immediately. ‘It’s hot in Suez.’ No doubt it was, it usually is, but that also meant that D-Day was starting - the invasion of mainland Europe. As I understand it, Monsieur Mercarder got back on his bike immediately and began pedaling to spread the news. It had begun.
CHARLES FRASER-SMITH: If I made any contribution to the war effort it was in assisting the unimaginably brave, largely unsung heroes like that: Resistance fighters, SOE agents, ordinary soldiers behind enemy lines. Mine was a secret war, but not without honor.
NARRATOR: You can find out more about the life of Charles Fraser-Smith in his autobiography The Secret War of Charles Fraser-Smith, and his biography The Man Who Was Q - The Life of Charles Fraser-Smith. We also made extensive use of Lysander Pilot by James Atterby McCairns and Surgeon At Arms by Lipmann Kessel - both superb memoirs of the war. Antony Beevor’s D-Day: The Battle For Normandy was one of our main sources for the description of the announcement of D-Day.
I’m Vanessa Kirby. Join us next week for another glimpse into the shadows with True Spies. We all have valuable spy skills, and our experts are here to help you discover yours. Get an authentic assessment of your spy skills, created by a former Head of Training at British Intelligence, now at SPYSCAPE.com.
Charles Fraser-Smith, born in 1904, was an inventor, author, and one-time missionary who worked for Britain’s Ministry of Supply in WWII making gadgets for spies and soldiers in occupied Europe. While at school at Brighton College, he was described as ‘scholastically useless except for woodwork and science and making things’.