Friday, 8 April 2016

Ian Fleming, Q Central and Q Branch

I was interested to learn recently of the history of Q Central, a British wartime establishment that was just as secret and vital to the war-effort as the code-breaking base at nearby Bletchley Park. What is especially intriguing is the likelihood that Ian Fleming was well-acquainted with the operations of Q Central and its satellite units.

Q Central was based at RAF Leighton Buzzard, a purpose-built station on the edge of the Bedfordshire town. Its importance cannot be overstated. The station served as the communications hub for all radio signals produced by the RAF, navy and army, and those of MI5, MI6 and MI8, as well as other secret units. Operators there also intercepted German radio traffic, which was then forwarded to Bletchley Park, and were responsible for transmitting coded messages and misinformation. It also operated, at the time, the largest telephone exchange in the world.

As personal assistant to the director of Naval Intelligence Division (NID), Ian Fleming would have been well aware of Q Central. He is likely to have known that signals sent by the Admiralty were routed through Section 2 of Q Central, and he was a regular visitor to other establishments in the area that were linked to Q Central.

 
Milton Bryan studios. Photo by Jayembee1969 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

One of these was, naturally, Bletchley Park. Another, perhaps lesser-known, location was Milton Bryan, a village eight miles north-east of Leighton Buzzard. This was home to the Political Warfare Executive (PWE), Britain's 'black propaganda' unit. Led by Sefton Delmer, a Daily Express journalist and friend of Ian Fleming, the unit recruited writers, foreign-language speakers, PoWs, and forgers to create and transmit material designed to demoralise the enemy.

Much of the information that formed the basis of radio broadcasts directed at the German navy was supplied by the NID. Ian Fleming, along with NID colleague Donald McLachlan, even set up two radio stations, which, from Milton Bryan, transmitted demoralising information to U-boat crews.

Fleming often visited the studios to see the work of the unit first-hand, and when broadcasts of propaganda to what had been occupied France ceased in April 1945, Fleming joined members of the PWE at Milton Bryan for an end-of-operations celebration.

The PWE at Milton Bryan was one of a number of secret and otherwise special establishments in the area, including No. 60 (Signals) Group, which operated radar stations, the Met Office, based at Dunstable, and USAAF Cheddington, whose crews flew sorties to drop propaganda leaflets. At the heart of all this activity was Q Central.

Given its name, and Ian Fleming's connection to the area, it is tempting to link Q Central with Q Branch of the James Bond books. There is no suggestion in the books that Q Branch was based on the wartime establishment – the role of Q Branch is one of supply, gadgets and equipment, rather than communications – but it's possible that Fleming had Q Central in mind when he came up with the name (it should be remembered that there is no Quartermaster in the books). This is, of course, highly speculative, but it seems just as likely as the alternative hypothesis that the name of Q Branch derived from the Q ships of the First World War.


References:
Brown, P and Herbert, E (eds), 2014 The secrets of Q Central: How Leighton Buzzard shortened the Second World War, The History Press 
Lycett, A, 1995 Ian Fleming: The man behind James Bond, Turner

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