Basil Seal Rides Yet Again

The Daily Telegraph has a review of a book entitled Master of Deception: The Wartime Adventures of Peter Fleming by Alan Ogden. This is about something called D Division (or “deception organization”) in the Inter-Services Liaison Department. Peter Fleming, Ian’s older brother, was assigned to this while serving in the Secret Intelligence Service in WWII. One of his tasks was to confuse the Japanese plans to invade India. This involved “mystifying and misleading the enemy whenever military advantage may be gained.”

D Division is described as a “scratch battalion of odds and sods, including several lunatics and deserters.” Among its leaders was “one-eyed, one-armed Lt General Carton de Wiart who said of the French, ‘Damn Frogs, they’re all the same. One bang and they’re off.” Although not mentioned in the review, written by Roger Lewis, Carton de Wiart has been identified as a model for Brigadier Ben Ritchie-Hook in Waugh’s novel Sword of Honour.

The review concludes:

As for Peter Fleming himself, he comes across as one of those privileged people (Eton, Christ Church, the Guards) for whom warfare is not wickedness and inhumanity but, on the contrary, the excuse for adventure, for japes that induce a “state of pleasurable excitement”. He reminded me of Basil Seal in Put Out More Flags, for whom war “is what he’s been waiting for all these years… He’s not meant for peace.”

Exactly like an Evelyn Waugh protagonist, Fleming’s young manhood was spent in South America and China, paddling canoes, starting revolutions, spending long days in the saddle – grand capers, which he wrote about in popular travel books. Ogden makes large claims for Fleming as an author, and quotes Harold Nicolson’s verdict with approval: “No modern writer can equal Peter Fleming as an astringent narrator of romantic and dangerous voyages through unknown lands.” Fleming’s style was a very English amalgam of “liberal dollops of understatement and laid-back insouciance”.

According to the book’s table of contents, Fleming also saw action with the SIS in Norway and Greece before his assignment to India. Waugh met up with him in Egypt (c. 14 May 1941) before embarking for Crete. Waugh was tasked with obtaining some “time pencils” from Fleming. This was apparently some sort of fuse used in the  “booby traps” being promoted by Fleming’s organization. According to Waugh, these were receiving a “poor audience” in the North Africa theater–at least during the few days he spent in Fleming’s company. (Diaries, p. 497).

I can’t think of a Waugh protagonist who spent his young manhood in China, although Waugh spent some of his in Brazil and used that as the basis for Tony Last’s trip to that part of the world in A Handful of Dust.  According to his Diaries (p. 355), Waugh consulted with Fleming in 1932 about “equipment for forests” shortly after the latter’s return from Brazil on the trip that provided the material for his 1933 book, Brazilian Adventure, which is probably his best. Waugh also reports in a 1946 letter to Nancy Mitford of a short visit to Fleming on a large farm he had bought near Nettlebed in Oxfordshire. He lived there with his wife, actress Celia Johnson. According to Waugh, the farm was not prospering at the time (Letters, p. 234).

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