Well Worth A Deep Sea Diver

Winston Churchill on next £5 bank note The fiver has a new face – Sir Winston Churchill. He’s certainly had his detractors in the past, but what a life! His ‘History of the Second World War’ is not only a staggering achievement but also very funny. Setting aside his governance of Britain and roles in two world wars for a moment (because we can here, it’s a blog), Churchill is responsible for something else; the Bryant & May novels.

It was his insistence on employing unlikely young people to think laterally about warfare that led to the creation of the unit my father was in, and divisions like the Peculiar Crimes Unit. There’s a terrific book called ‘Churchill’s Wizards’ by Nicholas Rankin about his employment of camouflage and propaganda, fakery and impersonation, phantom generals and mirage armies: “Monty’s Double” was the tip of the iceberg; they were busy hiding bodies and disguising spies all over the place.

It’s a bizarrely comic history of the national “genius for deception” that collects the rackety secret careers of figures from TE Lawrence (a “fake sheikh” if ever there was one) to Dudley Clarke – the man who invented a fictitious “Special Air Service” to frighten the Nazis before any real SAS existed.

The British triumphs of illusion are connected to a national flair for acting and pretence. It’s a miracle so many stunts worked: above all, the ghost army of Fusag – a mighty but non-existent US force – that the Germans feared would invade France from Kent. These huge fibs changed – and maybe saved – the world.

Also born from this was the age of the internet, because without Churchill’s approval of Bletchley Park’s codebreaking unit there would have been no team of scientists creating the first computer. Churchill’s life made for a compelling adventure story, but apart from Richard Attenborough’s tiresomely plodding ‘Young Winston’ no-one has tackled the man behind the myth. It’s a surprise that the son described by his father Randolph as his greatest disappointment hasn’t been captured on film in a more revealing manner, the way ‘Patton’ was.

I’ve always loved the photograph of Churchill facing off against anarchists in the siege of Sidney Street – he’s in the top hat (of course).


19 comments on “Well Worth A Deep Sea Diver”

  1. snowy says:

    There are lots of little known tales from that era that still surprise people.

    Most of the gadgets beloved of 60’s spy films originated from ‘Churchill’s Toy Shop’ based in Welwyn Garden in the 40’s. [Including the exploding rat and landmines disguised as camel dung.]

    The activities of Agent Zigzag and Operation Mincemeat have been turned into books several times.

    But there are other lesser known tales, [as they are in the news today], the remotely piloted ‘drone’ was used during the last years of the war. It was a complete failure resulting in the death of a person who might have changed American history had he lived.

    There was also a lot of terrible rubbish also built, including the Blacker Bombard, an anti-tank weapon so poor that to use it was to invite death. [There were some placed in Kew as part of the anti-invasion stop lines.]

  2. Dan Terrell says:

    Great stuff, Admin. You’ll have to tell us more about your Dad’s work some blog.
    His history of WWII, each volume of which was eagerly awaited over here, were each very good. Sold exceptionally well and were huge Book of the Month Club offerings.
    My family has a Churchill, Roosevelt, and Brussels Sprouts story, which I may even write about in return.
    Good weekend.

  3. jan says:

    well worth having a look at the exploits of Jasper MASKELYNE a conjuror/ illusionist who worked with the core of Royal Engineers during the Second World War ………the stuff he conned the German air force with is pretty stunning and his ideas which were used initially in North Africa i think went on to adapt and improve massive aerial illusions making enemy bomber pilots think they were bombing ship yards when they were dropping bombs on empty cliff heads and pretend air fields. I thought the story of MASKELYNE would make a pretty good film but someone will no doubt tell me its been done! in my head i sort of cast Robert Downey Jr for the role of MASKELYNE.. i doubt it would tempt mr Downey into taking the part but Jasper’s dad or grandad invented the penny in the slot machine for public toilets. Just thought i’d throw that one in for you

  4. snowy says:

    The Maskelyne story is fantastic, or to put it another way it’s a fantasy dictated by the man himself. Well he was a consumate showman, and a superb self publicist without any doubt.

    The fake airfields [Starfish] were created in 1940 by John Turner.

    In the Middle East the driving force was Geoffry Barkas, aided by a lot of talented painters, sculptors and film bods. Maskelyne was there, didn’t do much of any use and was quietly shifted away from any serious work.

    Maskelyne’s fictional account would make a great film, but there are a couple of problems for Hollywood to overcome, it was all going on before they got properly involved and so not many Americans were kicking about.

    [But that never stopped them “re-imagining” the events around HMS Bulldog].

  5. snowy says:

    Though if we are pitching possible RD Jr projects isn’t it about time for a Houdini bio-pic? I think he’d be rather good.

  6. Helen Martin says:

    Yes, Snowy, especially as the blow to Houdini’s unprepared solar plexus that may have killed him was delivered by a Canadian university student. (poor sentence) The photograph on the British note was taken by Yousuf Karsh in either Ottawa or Quebec in 1941. I have no confidence in my remembered historic information. I notice that the Nobel citation omits his middle name of Spencer, although does the Nobel committee use whatever name under which the author published?

  7. Helen Martin says:

    Which of the two men in top hats is WSC?

  8. snowy says:

    Typically he is the one nearest the front [closest to the shop doorway], but I had to do an image search for ‘Siege of Sidney Street’ to find an ever so slightly larger pic.

    [He got told off when his boss found out what he had been up to. His picture was published in various papers and even captured in a newsreel. So he couldn’t really deny it.]

  9. snowy says:

    Not sure if will be viewable in all countries?

    But there is a dramatised eye-witness account of the seige intercut with the newsreel footage.

    [Link in the usual place.]

  10. Diogenes says:

    When Churchill visited Bletchley Park, he was very unimpressed by Turing. As he left the building he said to his offsider
    “I know I told you to leave no stone unturned to get staff, but I didn’t expect you to take me literally.”

  11. Helen Martin says:

    Nope, Snowy, not viewable here, but the little para was a nice summation. Burn ’em to death, that’s our Winnie. If they didn’t want to die all they had to do was come out. No wonder he got in trouble, I don’t suppose the fire brigade was too happy, either.

  12. agatha hamilton says:

    Have just read, belatedly and with pleasure the excellent review of ‘Film Freak’ by Tim Robey in last Saturday’s Telegraph Review. He said many nice things and gave it five stars. All good publicity.
    On the subject of Churchill and innovation in WW 2: Rick Stroud ( among other things, Chairman of Chelsea Arts Club) has just written a book on Operation Bertram, which involved the use of camouflage during the battle of El Alamein.

  13. snowy says:

    @Helen that is a crying shame, because it is beautifully restored. There is a copy of the original film on the BritishPathe site and another on ITNsource but they are very grainy and indistinct. Though the latter is much longer and shows the Fire Brigade in action.

    Another person came to mind, Geoffrey Pyke [cousin of the more famous Magnus], who escaped from a German POW camp during the First World War, who had a scheme to build artificial iceburgs [and even launched one into Patricia Lake in Alberta] as aircraft carriers.

    Other inventions never got that far, such as his plan to shoot soldiers through pipes under the channel, [like the system to transport money from the tills to the back office in little capsules.]

    The most popular book was ‘Churchill’s Wizards: The British Genius for Deception 1914-1945’, but now agatha has brought to my attention another book, I will wander off and see what that is all about. 🙂

  14. Ken M says:

    Another WW2 boffin was J D Bernal, whose genius was such that his political views did not prevent him from working directly to Churchill. One of his colleagues was however refused a security clearance, the reason given being that he was a known associate of J D Bernal…

  15. Helen Martin says:

    Ken, that is absolutely fabulous and quite typical of most identity warning systems; the right hand never knows what the left hand is doing. The cross indexing never seems to be complete.
    Snowy, I’d never heard of Patricia Lake and had to look it up. Near Jasper and named for Princess Patricia, as was the PPCLI, the Princess Pats. That ice must have been pan ice rather than a berg since even WWI planes required a flat landing place, but the inventiveness of some people’s minds is startling.

  16. jan says:

    Just to throw in another little wrinkle – and have taken on board all you told us about Maskelyne Snowy.
    Lots of the work credited to Bletchley park in fact took place at Paddock the Dollis Hill Post office research centre in North west London (Neasden to be precise!) theres a fantastic set of little local publications outlining how there was a plan to relocate the government to various sites in North West London Wembley and Harrow. I came across this stuff many years ago when researching a house in Sudbury near Sudbury Dairy. Underneath the Post office research centre was “Paddock” the out of town government bolthole where the cabinet could meet in relative safety. And right up to the 1980s the government kept lots of flats flats allocated to prison wardens, police and various occupations in the area including two in a plush private block right next door to “PAddock”. Which incidentally Churchill really hated. You can gain access to this place on Open house week and its well worth a visit. Also visit the Naval bunker beneath a carpet Emporium on Cricklewood Broadway. The owner is as good as gold and will show u round if hes not busy and you ask nicely! The naval bunker was so important they were willing to drain the Welsh Harp to disguise its location and painted false road markings and disguised the railway sidings nearby – which neatly takes us back to the art of illusion in WW2.
    I think for a long time Flowers worked @ Post Office research centre before being relocated to Bletchley Park.

  17. snowy says:

    Hi jan, Tommy Flowers’ role in the design and construction of Collosus is very sadly overlooked in most histories.

    He did get a gong during the war, and was well respected as an engineer. He also had a good post war career, and lived long enough to get some of the recognition he deserved from his peers in industry.

    There are 10 pages of quite decent pics of what remains at PADDOCK on SubBrit but they don’t quite replicate the experience [space, sound, smell] of actually going underground.

  18. Murless says:

    Churchill responsible for Bryant and May, and the Internet! Sounds obvious now everyone has pointed out what he helped develop, but it all seems forgotten in cigars and bath meetings. Possibly the last creative PM we’ll have. I guess Bond can also be attributed to him.

    First time poster, so excuse a gush. I am a huge Bryant and May fan – mainly due to my best mate insisting I read the books. Thank god! I saw you do a reading a few years ago and always regretted not saying hello. So to thank my mate, I thought you might like to read his blog on your crimefighters. http://www.shapetheday.com/article/185-20130308.php

  19. jan says:

    Yes its well worth the trip to go and see Paddock on open house day and you can get a nice cup of tea and a cake in that little cafe in the garden just over the road!! In Gladstone Park by the way are they any further on with the Gladstone house appeal?
    Flowers does have a college named after him in east London but when you think of the work he did – as you make the point self publicists do well and the socially connected do even better!

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