How A Pulp Writer Helped Win The War

Great Britain


I’m still researching, peering into the years following the Second World War (it may lead nowhere, but that’s the peril of finding a subject to write about).

National defence was very different then. Stories emerge that still defy belief, of fake villages being built as bomb targets and fishermen’s wives knitting sea-mine nets.

Coupled with family memories, these tales have constructed a contradictory composite of Britons at war; while a combination of unity, bravado, propaganda and military intelligence staved off invasion, an image of makeshift home-front charm abides, of elderly farmers and butchers beetling about with pitchforks and muskets, of misdirected signposts and leaflet bombardments.

We know that a cash-strapped government put its faith in very young scientists (my  own father included) to conduct experiments in lateral thinking, and that Churchill was determined at all costs not to allow Britain to fall back into a defensive position, but in one of the most surprising stories of WWII the War Office commissioned a fading crime/horror writer to come up with strategies for resisting the Nazis, something akin to Trump hiring Stephen King to sort out Syria.

Dennis Wheatley is faintly remembered as the author of thuddingly earnest adventure stories and ludicrous witchcraft tales that include ‘The Devil Rides Out’ and ‘The Haunting Of Toby Jugg’, but he was recognised to be a powerful populist storyteller (see ‘It Came From Behind The Shelf No.8’ on this site). It is this skill that attracted the government, who hired him to offer a layman’s advice on wartime tactics, although Wheatley had first-hand knowledge gained fighting at the Somme.

The highlife-loving author’s first defensive action at the outset of hostilities had involved digging tunnels for his servants, but after his wife offered his services to the War Office as an original thinker, Wheatley locked himself in the study with plenty of fags and champagne to hammer out advice for national defence.

Despite his amateur-status military knowledge and frequently overblown prose, he made a decent fist of his first paper, ‘Resistance To Invasion’, even if his idea of telling the Nazis we owned a death ray was a little over-enthusiastic. Invited to examine the conflict from a German mindset, Wheatley really came into his own, chillingly outlining why German avocation of poison gas and bacterial weapons should be taken seriously.

Wheatley’s analytical approach to fiction paid off, providing his prose with a sense of urgency. ‘Reservoirs’, he pointed out, ‘are very vulnerable points in a highly populated country like Britain…when the invasion takes place main exits can be dynamited and the population deprived to a larger extent of its drinking water.’ Although he humbly stressed his lay-skills, he was capable of amassing data with such a common-sense air, it was unlikely government officials had ever considered the war from this viewpoint.

Wheatley’s ingenuity in coming up with ways to decimate plucky Englanders makes you glad he wasn’t working for the other side – he suggested dropping delayed-reaction bombs disguised as common British household items that would be carried home before detonation – and Churchill’s aides took him very seriously. Wheatley’s war writing is as square-jawed and cold-blooded as his novels, but here it worked to his advantage, as he carefully calculated the human losses to the German forces, noting that ‘half a million casualties, with 8,000 planes and the remnants of two Navies, are but a small price to pay’ for the subjugation of Britain.

Upon being told that his papers were now being read by all three Chiefs-of-staff, Wheatley set about providing ideas for the Home Guard that included overcoming squeamishness when faced with the prospect of killing soldiers who might appear boyishly innocent, to reusing village gravestones as pavements.

It’s easy to scoff while reading the detailed instructions, but Wheatley was saying something that had not been spelled out to military tacticians. As his confidence grew, so did his ideas. He itemized the mistakes of British war policy, and suggested that combat now had to be carried into the enemy’s country, explaining in detail how this might be accomplished, starting with an attack on Sardinia.

You can’t help but doubt whether our modern-day militia would be prepared to take the advice of civilians so much to heart, but Churchill’s staff listened to his ‘uninstructed imagination, vision and ability to write attractively’, and it must be said that, for a civilian, Wheatley was astonishingly well-informed. His suggested invasion never happened, but there is evidence that it may well have proved expeditious.

Wheatley’s natural deviousness as a writer of occult thrillers surfaced in his construction of deception plans, some of which were recycled into his novels, notably ‘The Man Who Missed The War’. For his efforts, he was proudly commissioned into Whitehall’s Joint Planning Staff, crafting a magnum opus that looked beyond the major campaigns of the conflict to the aftermath of victory and the prevention of Germany starting a third world war.

Perhaps all government policy should be dictated by writers; I for one would have loved to hear JG Ballard’s suggestions for the survival of the nation.


11 comments on “How A Pulp Writer Helped Win The War”

  1. Rachel Green says:

    Fascinating. Some of those ideas are truly horrifying.

  2. John Howard says:

    I remember reading a lot of his books in the 70’s. The one that really stuck with me was “The Ka of Gifford Hillary”. I suspect one of the reasons was that I had to go and look up the word Ka in the dictionary.

  3. brooke says:

    “You can’t help but doubt whether our modern-day militia would be prepared to take the advice…”
    The US defense and CIA (DARPA, the venture fund) definitely use writers, especially novelists and sci-fi writers. Are you thinking about a career transition?

  4. admin says:

    It’s always a good idea to have another string to your bow…

  5. Martin Tolley says:

    I read some time ago about the planning for D Day. We lacked detailed maps and plans of the northern coast of France. The War Office appealed to folk who’d holidayed there before the war and who might have holiday snaps of known places to send them in. A team were organized to patch together the several thousand photos that arrived and by linking these with aerial photos, detailed maps were composed which proved invaluable. We printed maps of Germany on silk squares and hid these inside hollowed out pencils (the erasers concealed a compass too) for airmen who might be shot down over enemy territory. We exploited the one mathematical flaw of the Enigma machine to begin deciphering German messages. We developed the Mulberry floating harbours. There are many many more examples like those. All of those feats required a great degree of ingenuity and lateral thinking, and combined that with a massive amount of dedicated follow-up work. Maybe it’s just cynical old age setting in with me, but these days I can’t see that our solutions to problems have that level of ingenuity, that element of flexible, creative thinking.

  6. Peter Tromans says:

    In a book about JD Bernal, ‘the Sage of Science’, there’s a mention that in preparation for D-Day, someone realised that we were going to be sending a large number of wheeled vehicles across the Normandy beaches with absolutely no knowledge as to whether the sand could support them. Experience in the desert was of no value as the sand is very different and the strength also depends on layers below the surface. Allied armoured cars marooned on the beach would have been a disaster. Fortunately, Britain had lined up a great expert on the subject: Malcolm Campbell had set land speed records on such surfaces and along the way generated extensive formulae on the resistance of different surfaces to wheels. His equations and survey work by very brave Royal Engineers resolved the problem. There may have been some incompetents around in those days, but the UK also had more than its share of talent and genius and very often made great use it.

  7. RoyE says:

    Interesting post – Wheatley did much more than this as he relates in The Deception Planners: My Secret War published in 1980. He was involved in writing cover stories for strategic deception within the cabinet war rooms. For a full account of this and the appropriately named London Controlling Section and the role of deception see Thaddeus Holt The Deceivers: Allied Military Deception in the Second World War, for an interesting read. Google Combined Operations Pilotage Parties for amazing stories of courage and fitness. A work that capture the eccentric, courageous and bizarre is Gerald Pawle. The Secret War 1939 – 1945 about the Dept of Miscellaneous Warfare who were responsible for Mulberry Harbours amongst other things. Bryant and May would have fitted right in….
    The National Archives at Kew holds a great deal of material on these characters and their plans.

  8. Roy E says:

    Sorry – another literary connection was the elder brother of Ian Fleming, one Peter Fleming was also involved in writing strategic deception – and Ian had his own commando unit – 30 Au – that might have influenced his literary output! I’ll shut up now.

  9. Vivienne says:

    One can quite understand the fascination with WW2. It involved everyone and everything from sticky tape crosses and blackouts on windows to the level of ingenuity mentioned by people here. An identifiable goal and real commitment.

  10. Helen Martin says:

    Is there anything happening in today’s world, where people have constant access to knowledge of events, to draw the population’s strengths toward a shared goal?

  11. Mark Pontin says:

    ‘he suggested dropping delayed-reaction bombs disguised as common British household items that would be carried home before detonation’

    Sounds somewhat like the bombs the Germans drop in the great Powell-Pressburger film THE SMALL BACK ROOM and the equally great Nigel Balchin novel on which it was based.

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