The Man Who Was Q

Charles Fraser-Smith supplied British intelligence and soldiers with a number of innovative gadgets during WWII. When Ian Fleming began writing his James Bond novels, he based the detective’s gadget master, “Q,” on Fraser-Smith. A few months ago, I reviewed Fraser-Smith’s memoir of his war-time activities, The Secret War of Charles Fraser-Smith, the “Q” Gadget Wizard of World War II.

David Porter wrote a full biography of Fraser-Smith in The Man Who Was Q: The True Story of Charles Fraser-Smith, the “Q” Wizard of WWII.

Fraser-Smith’s parents died when he was a child. He was brought up by a missionary family and became a Brethren missionary to Morocco. His ministry was what we’d call a “tent-maker” type today, a phrase coined from when the apostle Paul made tents to support himself for a while. Fraser-Smith directed a large farm for which he hired local workers. He was able to have conversations with them about the Lord while working side by side.

Charles and his wife had to leave Morocco and go back to England when WWII started ramping up. As was told in the previous book, Charles was sharing some of his experiences with a local church one day, especially how he had to come up with innovative ways to do things in Morocco. A British Ministry of Supply official in the audience was impressed by Charles’ innovation and flexibility. A few days later, Charles was invited to work for the Ministry of Supply, but without much information about the work involved. Charles accepted, and his book tells about his experiences obtaining supplies or creating devices to help the British during the war.

Only one chapter here is devoted to Charles’ “Q” activities, since the previous book had already been published.

After the war, Charles was heavily involved in relocating supplies that were no longer needed. He and his wife wanted to go back to Morocco, but a serious illness disrupted their plans.They then began dairy farming, with Charles creating innovative and sometimes controversial improvements in the process. He and he wife continued ministry work in various capacities.

After his wife died of cancer, Charles was involved in a number of ministry enterprises. One was funding a Bible translated into Arabic.

His son talked him into writing about his war experiences, since the period of secrecy he had agreed to was over. Charles did not consider himself very educated or articulate, so two ghost writers worked with him. “Charles was somewhat disappointed that the finished book contained relatively few of his outspoken Christian statements. But enough of his highly individual views, and his remarkable life, characterises the book for the reader to understand that this is no conventional story of espionage and undercover work” (p. 151). The book made him a celebrity, with interviews and showings of some of his gadgets. He wrote a couple of other books, with proceeds going to Arab World Ministries.

An appendix contains a treatise of Charles’ views of how missionary work could be expanded among Arabs by ministering to those who had traveled to Europe so they could go back and be a witness to their own people. He also advocated for unconventional ways (at the time) to minister to them, like hospitality, literature, and other methods. He stresses the importance of establishing indigenous, not westernized churches.

This book was originally written in 1989 and is no longer in print, but I had no trouble finding a used copy. I enjoyed learning more about Charles’ remarkable life.

The Secret War of Charles Fraser-Smith

I have not seen the James Bond films, but evidently the supplier of his cool spy gadgets is someone known as “Q.”

“Q” is based on a real person: Charles Fraser-Smith.

Charles started out as a British missionary in Morocco. One day he spoke at a church about his “pioneer missionary work in Morocco and the often unorthodox methods I had used to keep my various projects alive” (p. 22).

Sitting in the audience was the director of the Ministry of Supply, who chatted with Fraser-Smith afterward. The next day the director asked Fraser-Smith to meet him at the ministry headquarters and offered Fraser-Smith a job.

Outwardly, Fraser-Smith was a civil servant of the Ministry of Supply’s Clothing and Textile Department.

In reality, he procured or developed an astonishing numbers of gadgets and supplies for the Special Operations Executive during WWII.

Fraser-Smith and most of the people he dealt with had to sign an Official Secrets Act, requiring thirty years of silence about their wartime activities.

Some time after that thirty years, Fraser-Smith wrote The Secret War of Charles Fraser-Smith, the “Q” Gadget Wizard of World War II along with Gerald McKnight and Sandy Lesberg.

The “Q” designation came from “warships disguised as freighters and unarmed trawlers” during WWI which were known as “Q ships” (p. 10).

Some of what Fraser-Smith supplied were kits to go with soldiers in case they were captured: miniature maps and compasses hidden in hairbrushes, pipes, pens, even dominoes. Sometimes these included a flexible surgical saw with which to try to cut through bars to escape. Fraser-Smith also supplied spies and other soldiers.

He had to take great care that nothing would alert a casual observer—or a sharp-eyed prison guard—to anything that was hidden or unusual. One trick Fraser-Smith often used was to thread a screw-on lid or top in the opposite direction, so if anyone tried to unscrew it in the usual way, he’d actually be tightening it.

Hairbrushes had to be made with bristles native to the country his clients were going to. Sometimes he had to supply uniforms from other countries for men to go undercover. Fraser-Smith had to make sure the fabric was the same type and quality. In one of his first attempts, the manufacturer he used made the uniforms too well and had to redo them.

Sometimes Fraser-Smith came up with ideas himself. Other times, he had to consult with experts and convey what he needed without giving away too much information. And in either case, he had to employ manufacturers to produce what he needed in sufficient quantity. He had to swear many of these folks to the Official Secrets Act. Most of them rose to the challenge admirably. A few dragged their feet, not wanting to vary what they did for their own profit.

One of the most interesting parts to me were miniature cameras which were used to take pictures of the terrain of certain areas. These pictures would be smuggled back to photographic interpreters who would project the height of hills, depth of crevices, etc., so invading soldiers would know the lay of the land exactly.

Another fascinating section told of the S. O. E. employing an illusionist to disguise things, like making a military base look like a working farm.

Fraser-Smith had to come up with various ways to get his supplies to people, particularly POWs. He never used food packages like the Red Cross sent, because he didn’t want to risk those packages being refused if someone found one of his gadgets in them.

Fraser-Smith wrote that he “slightly” knew Ian Fleming, the creator of James Bond. But he said Fleming misused one of his ideas of hiding things in golf balls. Fleming’s golf balls would not have performed as golf balls and “wouldn’t have fooled an Irish farmhand let alone the lynx-eyed prison officers and S.S. of the O Flags” (p. 128).

Fraser-Smith also wrote of the “everyday people,” from resistance fighters to sympathetic citizens, who would pass on vital information or supplies at great risk to themselves. “Day after day these men and women continued against the greatest odds with no one present to encourage them. Seldom was it possible to let them know if their arduous and perilous work was successful. Much of it went unrecognized. Those who fought in the services were spurred on by team spirit, e’sprit de corps. The S. O. E. agent and the resistance fighter were alone. This was the highest order of heroism” (pp. 152-153).

I was surprised that some of these tricks would be revealed even after thirty years. Maybe most of them had been discovered by then. I’m sure the types of things that are hidden and disguised now are much different from what they were then.

I first heard of Fraser-Smith in this post, and I was so intrigued, I had to look up his book. It’s long out of print now, but I found used copies on Amazon. He reminded me of other pioneer missionaries, like Nate Saint, who devised ways to carry sheet metal strapped under his small plane or to drop a bucket to people below while flying in a circle. John Paton once had a major spiritual opening with a tribe after building a well. God doesn’t just use preachers and scholars, speakers and writers: He uses people He has gifted in various ways.

This was quite a fascinating book. I read it for pure interest, but I am also counting it towards the Nonfiction Reading Challenge. It would fit equally well for the Inventions or Wartime Experiences category, but I think I’ll count it for the former.

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