Peter Fleming’s War Career (More)

In the current New Criterion, D J Taylor reviews the recent biography of Peter Fleming, brother of Ian and friend of Evelyn Waugh. See previous post. Before addressing the contents of this biography, which covers his military career, Taylor discusses Fleming’s life before WWII, concluding that discussion with this:

[In 1938] Fleming was installed in Merrimoles House on a two-thousand-acre estate in Oxfordshire given to him by his uncle Phil. As well as furnishing him with a home and the occupation of a country squire, the locale also gave him the chance to indulge the great hobby of his life. This, it seems fair to say, was killing things. Even Alan Ogden’s Master of Deception, [the book under review] a punctilious and notably well-researched account of Fleming’s military career, can’t quite ignore the altogether exceptional havoc that its subject wreaked on the fauna of the United Kingdom (and other places) during his five decades or so behind a rifle sight.

Waugh knew Fleming and records in his Diaries a brief meeting with him in 1932 just as Fleming was returning from Brazil (where he gathered material for his Brazilian Adventure) and Waugh was leaving for Guyana. Waugh was looking for advice about the kit he was taking along on a trip to gather material for Ninety-Two Days. Waugh also met up with Fleming in North Africa in WWII where Fleming was looking for Army customers to use secret espionage appliances developed under his supervision. See previous post.

Taylor also mentions Waugh’s war writings in connection with Fleming’s military career:

As for the military environment that Fleming found himself in between his re-enlistment in the Grenadier Guards in 1939 and his eventual demobilization seven years later, it takes only a chapter of Master of Deception to establish that, if conducted at a stratospherically higher level, this was a version of Crouchback’s war—as in the hero of Evelyn Waugh’s Sword of Honour trilogy. […] There is a literal connection, too, for in the Norwegian campaign Fleming served as aide-de-camp to the legendary one-eyed, one-armed, death-defying General Adrian Carton de Wiart, the model for Waugh’s Brigadier Ben Ritchie-Hook, who returns from a raid on the African coast with a sentry’s severed head. Here the real-life de Wiart confines himself to marching off with unimaginable sangfroid through a village being obliterated by Heinkel bombers in search of rations. “Better get rid of those egg-shells,” he instructs Fleming on his return; “Don’t want the place in a mess.”

Fleming admired de Wiart, whose biography he mysteriously failed to complete, and was admired by him in return. Meanwhile, Ogden’s account of Fleming’s time in Greece emphasizes just how closely he and his fellow soldiers share some of the attitudes quietly on display in Men at Arms, Officers and Gentlemen and Unconditional Surrender. There is, for example, the undisguised contempt for foreigners. […] Like Waugh, he is no fan of the Royal Air Force, routinely describing its representatives as “mongrels” and remarking of the raf men attached to the party during the retreat from Greece that “they all flap and gas and give a sorry exhibition.” […]

On his demob from the army, Fleming declined the offer of a safe Conservative seat in parliament, detached himself from the Times hierarchy, and spent the last quarter century of his life managing his estate and, after a slow start, writing best-selling works of popular history. It was almost as if a part of him realized that the world he had strode through so blithely in the 1930s was dead. “You’re the flower of England’s youth,” one of Crouchback’s friends observes in Men at Arms, “and it just won’t do.” […]

This entry was posted in Biographies, Men at Arms, Newspapers, Ninety-Two Days, Officers and Gentlemen, Sword of Honour, World War II and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.