The Real Q from James Bond and the Ingenious Inventions
The first James Bond novel, Casino Royale, appeared on bookstore shelves on April 13, 1953. Its author, Ian Fleming, had served in British Naval Intelligence during WWII, and based much of his famous super-spy’s world on his own personal experiences. For example, Bond himself was inspired by Fleming’s own personality and tastes as well as numerous wartime intelligence operatives including Canadian spymaster William Stephenson and Serbian triple agent Dusko Popov; while “M,” Bond’s boss and head of MI6, was based on Rear Admiral John Godfrey, Fleming’s superior in Naval Intelligence – as well as Sir Mansfield Smith-Cumming, the first director of the Secret Intelligence Service or SIS, who signed his name on official documents as “C.” But one character whose inspiration has never been firmly established is “Q”, Bond’s long-suffering purveyor of spy gadgets. Short for “Quartermaster,” a naval officer responsible for provisioning ships, the character as portrayed in the Bond films never appears in Fleming’s novels, though “Q Branch” and its inventions are referred to throughout. Nonetheless, two men are believed to be the inspiration for the fictional department, both of whom helped create some of the Second World War’s most offbeat and unusual clandestine equipment.
The first possible candidate is Christopher Clayton Hutton, known to his friends as “Clutty.” Born in 1893 in Birmingham, during the First World War, Hutton fought as an infantryman on the Western front before joining the Royal Flying Corps, completing his flight training in 1918 but serving barely a year before being demobilized. In the 1920s and 30s Hutton worked as a journalist and film publicist, but when war broke out again in 1939 he volunteered to re-join the RAF only to be rejected on account of his age. Not a man to give up easily, he began pestering various Government departments with telegrams urging them to make use of his talents in any way they deemed fit.
To Hutton’s surprise, he was soon approached by Colonel Norman Crockatt, head of the newly-formed organization MI9. During his interview Hutton revealed his lifelong obsession with illusionists and escapologists, revealing that in 1912 he had challenged the great Harry Houdini that he could not escape from a crate built by the workers from his uncle’s factory. Houdini simply bribed the workmen to build the crate with dummy nails, and easily won the bet. This was apparently enough to convince Crockatt of Hutton’s usefulness, for as he later stated:
“This officer is eccentric. He cannot be expected to comply with ordinary service discipline, but he is far too valuable for his services to be lost to this Department.”
Hutton was duly placed in charge of developing equipment to help Allied airmen shot down over occupied Europe evade capture. Though the RAF impressed upon every man that it was his duty to escape and re-join the war effort, this was easier said than done. With most of Western Europe under Nazi control, a downed airman’s only option was to make his way to a neutral country like Spain or Switzerland or make contact with local resistance networks who could hopefully spirit him back to England. This involved walking hundreds of kilometres across territory patrolled by German troops and the Gestapo, and risking betrayal by civilians and militia groups sympathetic to the Nazi regime.
In order to determine the bare minimum an airman needed to make a successful escape, Hutton met with MI9 technical officer Lieutenant Johnnie Evans, one of the few POWs to escape German captivity during the First World War. Evans revealed to Hutton that there were three things an escaping pilot needed: a map to find his way across the country, a compass, and – most importantly – food. Hunger, Evans explained, was an escapee’s worst enemy, as it made him take risks like as trying to steal or beg food from civilians, making him likelier to be captured. Hutton thus developed an emergency food pack housed in a small metal box like a cigarette case, which contained high-energy foods like chocolate powder and condensed milk, stimulant tablets, and a rubber water-bag. While better than nothing, pilots downed over the North Sea soon reported that the box was insufficiently waterproof and that seawater quickly leaked inside and ruined the food. Hutton thus designed a new ration pack in the form of a cylindrical clear-plastic bottle with a wide mouth and waterproof cap.
To provide pilots with a robust and easily-concealable map, Hutton hit upon the idea printing the image onto silk handkerchiefs, which required the development of special printing techniques to prevent the ink from smudging. Hutton also printed escape maps on Japanese mulberry paper, which could be soaked in water, rolled into a small, easily concealable ball, then unfolded and spread smooth without wrinkling. More ingenious still was a map printed on a set of playing cards, which had to be soaked in water, peeled apart, and taped together to reveal the whole design.
Completing Evans’ trio of essentials was a miniature compass hidden inside an airman’s tunic button. In a testament to Hutton’s attention to detail, the button compasses were manufactured with a left-hand thread, such that if a German tried to unscrew it the regular way, it would not open. Hutton also produced a variety of regular-looking objects which could be used as compasses, including magnetized pencil clips which could be balanced on a pencil-point, magnetized razor blades which could be floated on water or suspended from a string, and fountain pens with magnetized nibs and filling levers.
Such was Hutton’s genius that many of his creations solved problems few of his colleagues had ever considered. For example, while the heavy fleece-lined boots worn by airmen protected them from the freezing temperatures at high altitudes, on the ground they quickly became a liability, becoming hot and sweaty, inflicting blisters, and making the airman extremely conspicuous to passers-by. Hutton thus designed “escape boots” in which the upper and lower portions were connected by a thin strip of webbing. Using a folding knife stored in a special pocket, an airman could cut away the upper portion of the boot, leaving a pair of more comfortable and ordinary-looking civilian shoes. Another footwear-related innovation was the Gigli saw, a wire-like device used by surgeons for delicate bone-cutting operations. Hutton covered the saw in felt to disguise it as an ordinary shoelace, thus providing downed airmen with a handy means of cutting through bars, fences, and other obstacles.
Hutton’s department also produced equipment designed to be smuggled into Prisoner-of-War camps via care packages, sent by various fictitious charitable organizations set up by MI9. This included maps, foreign currency, and identity documents pressed into phonograph records and even Monopoly boards, specially prepared by the game’s British license-holder. But especially vital to a successful escape was convincing-looking civilian clothing or military uniforms, and in providing these Hutton came up with some of his most ingenious ideas. One provision of the Geneva Convention entitled prisoners to receive new uniforms as they became available, so Hutton created a new, fictitious pattern designed to resemble German uniforms as closely as possible. To allow the prisoners to recreate the distinctive gold and silver braid particular to German uniforms, the packages were wrapped in fine metal wire. Upon learning that POWs had become skilled at creating their own false Iron Crosses, Hutton began sending packages wrapped in the same red, white and red-striped ribbons used with the actual medals. Hutton even created blankets bearing sewing patterns for coats, trousers, and other items of clothing, printed in a special invisible ink that was only revealed once the blankets were washed. These could then be turned into suitable escape clothing by the camp tailor. And in a final stroke of genius, Hutton invented a fountain pen with a secret compartment containing ink packs which could be used to dye the cloth various colours.
Hutton’s escape devices were highly valued by Allied airmen, many of whom admitted they would not have gotten far without them. By the end of the war 35,000 Allied personnel managed to evade capture or break out from POW camps, with around 1,500 succeeding in making the “home run” back to England. But the efforts of the rest were not in vain, for guarding and hunting down escaping prisoners tied up massive amounts of German manpower and resources more urgently needed elsewhere, helping to hasten the end of the war.
As for Clutty Hutton, however, his creations would bring him nothing but trouble. After the war, Hutton attempted to recount his wartime exploits in a memoir titled “A Journey Has Been Arranged.” But while he was careful to include only those facts which had already been revealed in other public sources and would be of no strategic value in the Cold War, the British Government nonetheless blocked the book’s publication on the grounds that it violated the Official Secrets Act. What followed was a nearly decade-long legal struggle in which Hutton was subjected to a number of indignities, including the unauthorized publication of his book in heavily-redacted form under a different author. Adding insult to injury, the publisher redacted Hutton’s name in the text and added copious statements disparaging his work and judgement throughout the war. But Hutton prevailed in the end, and his memoir, now titled Official Secret, was finally published in 1960.
But while Hutton certainly fits the profile of James Bond’s “Q,” an even better match is Charles Fraser-Smith, who at one point even worked with Ian Fleming. Born in 1904 in Hertfordshire, Fraser-Smith worked a variety of odd jobs throughout his early adulthood, eventually ending up as a Christian missionary in Morocco. An inveterate tinkerer, in 1939 he gave a sermon at a church in Leeds about the art and virtues of scrounging, which happened to be attended by two officials from the Ministry of Supply. Soon after, Fraser-Smith was approached and offered a job in the Ministry’s Clothing and Textiles Department.
This was, of course, a cover story, with Fraser-Smith’s real job being to design equipment for the Special Operations Executive, or SOE. Created soon after the evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force from Dunkirk, SOE’s mission was, in the words of Winston Churchill, to “set Europe ablaze” and take the fight to the Germans by carrying out espionage, sabotage, and subversion operations behind enemy lines. Among Fraser-Smith’s first assignments was to create forged Spanish Army uniforms for an SOE plan to infiltrate Spain and prevent the then-neutral country from entering the war on the Axis side. Demonstrating his talent for logistics, Fraser-Smith managed to contract some 300 firms around the country to produce the uniforms without any of them discovering just what they were producing or why. In the end, however, the planned operation was never carried out.
Fraser-Smith’s penchant for gadgetry soon led him to develop a variety of exotic devices for both SOE agents and downed Allied airmen. Independently of Clutty Hutton he invented the reverse-threaded button compass and the Gigli saw disguised as a shoelace, as well as a variety of ordinary objects such as pens, flasks, shaving-brushes, and pipes with hidden compartments for concealing camera film, secret messages, and escape maps. Even more James Bond-esque were a pen that fired a tear-gas cartridge and a miniature camera hidden in a cigarette lighter. Further making the case that he was the true inspiration for Q, Fraser-Smith called his creations “Q devices,” after the “Q” ships of WWI – civilian vessels with hidden guns used to ambush German U-boats.
At one point in 1943, Fraser-Smith was instructed to construct an aluminium canister large enough to contain a human body and a load of dry ice with which to keep it preserves. After the war this was revealed to be part of Operation Mincemeat, a plot to dump a body carrying secret documents off the coast of Spain to fool the Germans into thinking the Allies would invade Greece instead of Sicily. And for more on this, please see our video The Bizarre World War II Plan to Score a Major Victory for the Allies.
Closely fitting the mould of Q branch itself was Station IX in The Frythe, Hertfordshire, which produced various pieces of exotic weaponry and equipment for SOE. Station IX was also known as the Welwyn Experimental Laboratory, and thus many of its creations bore a “wel-” prefix. This included the Welrod, a 9mm silenced pistol; the Welman, a one-man submarine for attacking ships in harbour; the Welfreighter, another miniature submarine for sneaking agents and equipment into enemy territory; the Welbike, a folding motorcycle designed to be dropped by parachute; and the Welpen, Welpipe, and Welfag, single-shot .22-calibre pistols concealed in a pen, smoking-pipe, and cigarette, respectively. The station also produced a variety of other clandestine weapons such as the “footshooter” – which as the name suggests was a booby trap that shot its victim in the foot when stepped on – as well as a dizzying assortment of explosives, fuzes, and detonators for blowing up ships, railroad tracks, electrical substations, and nearly everything else under the sun. A more subtle sabotage weapon was “Caccolube,” a small rubber bag filled with abrasive carbide powder designed to be slipped into a vehicle’s oil tank. When the oil got hot enough the bag would dissolve, causing the engine to seize within 20 minutes. Slightly more overt was the “Firefly”, a small explosive charge designed to be dropped into the fuel tank; after a certain amount of time immersion in gasoline would cause a pair of rubber washers to swell, triggering the detonator and blowing up the vehicle.
However, for various reasons including supply chain issues, the changing strategic situation on the ground, and fear of German reprisals against civilians, the vast majority of these exotic gadgets never reached the field, with most sabotage operations being carried out using regular weapons and explosives. But the legacy of Station IX and the real ‘Q’s of SOE and MI9 lives on in the iconic spy gadgets of the James Bond movies and the many classic scenes of an exasperated Desmond Llewelyn exclaiming “oh, grow up, 007!”
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On several occasions in the James Bond films, Q is referred to by his real name, Major Boothroyd. This, too, is based on a real person: Geoffrey Boothroyd, a British firearms expert who in May 1956 sent Ian Fleming a letter criticizing his super-spy’s choice of weaponry:
I have, by now, got rather fond of Mr. James Bond. I like most of the things about him, with the exception of his rather deplorable taste in firearms. In particular, I dislike a man who comes into contact with all sorts of formidable people using a .25 Beretta. This sort of gun is really a lady’s gun, and not a really nice lady at that. If Mr. Bond has to use a light gun he would be better off with a .22 rim fire; the lead billet would cause more shocking effect than the jacketed type of the .25.
May I suggest that Mr. Bond be armed with a revolver?
While enthusiastic about Boothroyd’s suggestions, Fleming preferred automatic pistols, so the two settled on a compromise: the .32 calibre Walther PPK, a gun which has become synonymous with James Bond. In recognition of this contribution, in his 1958 novel Dr. No, Fleming named the armorer who presents Bond with his new pistol after Boothroyd. While this was not intended to be the “Q” of Q branch, the two were merged for the film series, with the character being played by Peter Burton in the 1962 adaptation of Dr. No and by Desmond Llewelyn in 17 of the 18 official James Bond films produced between 1963 and 1999.
Dear, Ian, Escape and Evasion: POW Breakouts in World War II, Rigel Publications, 1997
Dear, Ian, Sabotage and Subversion: The SOE and OSS at War, Cassell Military Paperbacks, 1996
Charles Fraser-Smith, Croxley Green History Project, https://www.croxleygreenhistory.co.uk/charles-fraser-smith.html
Charles Fraser-Smith, The Legend of Q, https://www.thelegendofq.co.uk/charles-fraser-smith.html
The Secret War of Charles Fraser-Smith, Tangmere Military Aviation Museum, http://www.tangmere-museum.org.uk/artefact-month/the-secret-war-of-charles-fraser-smith
May I Suggest that Mr. Bond be Armed with a Revolver? Letters of Note, June 1, 2011, https://lettersofnote.com/2011/06/01/may-i-suggest-that-mr-bond-be-armed-with-a-revolver/
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