Peter Fleming

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Person.png Peter Fleming   Amazon WikiquoteRdf-entity.pngRdf-icon.png
(writer, spook)
Peter Fleming.jpg
BornRobert Peter Fleming
31 May 1907
Mayfair, London, England
Died18 August 1971 (Age 64)
Black Mount, Argyllshire, Scotland
Alma materEton, Christ Church (Oxford)
ParentsValentine Fleming
Children • Nicholas Peter Val Fleming
• Kate Grimond
• Lucy Fleming
SpouseCelia Johnson
Member ofBullingdon Club
RelativesIan Fleming
British adventurer, spook,journalist, soldier and travel writer.

Lieutenant Colonel Robert Peter Fleming was a British adventurer, spook,journalist, soldier and travel writer.[1] He was the elder brother of Ian Fleming,[2] creator of James Bond. Peter Fleming was a member of the Bullingdon Club.

Early life

Peter Fleming was one of four sons of the barrister and Member of Parliament (MP) Valentine Fleming, who was killed in action in 1917, having served as MP for Henley from 1910. Fleming was educated at Eton, where he edited the Eton College Chronicle. The Peter Fleming Owl (the English meaning of "Strix", the name under which he later wrote for The Spectator) is still awarded every year to the best contributor to the Chronicle.[3] He went on from Eton to Christ Church, Oxford, and graduated with a first-class degree in English.

Fleming was a member of the Bullingdon Club during his time at Oxford.[4] On 10 December 1935 he married the actress Celia Johnson (1908–1982), best known for her roles in the films Brief Encounter and The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.[5]


In Brazil

In April 1932 Fleming replied to an advertisement in the personal columns of The Times: "Exploring and sporting expedition, under experienced guidance, leaving England June to explore rivers central Brazil, if possible ascertain fate Colonel Percy Fawcett; abundant game, big and small; exceptional fishing; room two more guns; highest references expected and given." He then joined the expedition, organised by Robert Churchward, to São Paulo, then overland to the rivers Araguaia and Tapirapé, heading towards the last-known position of the Fawcett expedition.

Fleming's book about the expedition, Brazilian Adventure, has sold well ever since it was first published in 1933, and is still in print.

In Asia

Fleming travelled from Moscow to Peking via the Caucasus, the Caspian, Samarkand, Tashkent, the Turksib Railway and the Trans-Siberian Railway to Peking as a special correspondent of The Times. His experiences were written up in One's Company (1934). He then went overland in company of Ella Maillart from China via Tunganistan to India on a journey written up in News from Tartary (1936). These two books were combined as Travels in Tartary: One's Company and News from Tartary (1941). All three volumes were published by Jonathan Cape.

According to Nicolas Clifford, for Fleming China "had the aspect of a comic opera land whose quirks and oddities became grist for the writer, rather than deserving any respect or sympathy in themselves".[6] In One's Company, for example, Fleming reports that Beijing was "lacking in charm", Harbin was a city of "no easily definable character". Changchun was "entirely characterless", and Shenyang was "non-descript and suburban". However, Fleming also provides insights into Manchukuo, the Japanese puppet state in Manchuria, which helped contemporary readers to understand Chinese resentment and resistance, and the aftermath of the Kumul Rebellion. In the course of these travels Fleming met and interviewed many prominent figures in Central Asia and China, including the Chinese Muslim General Ma Hushan, the Chinese Muslim Taoyin of Kashgar, Ma Shaowu, and Pu Yi.[7][8]

Second World War

Just before war was declared, Peter Fleming, then a reserve officer in the Grenadier Guards, was recruited by the War Office research section investigating the potential of irregular warfare (MIR). His initial task was to develop ideas to assist the Chinese guerrillas fighting the Japanese. He served in the Norwegian campaign with the prototype commando units – Independent Companies – but in May 1940 he was tasked with research into the potential use of the new Local Defence Volunteers (later the Home Guard) as guerrilla troops. His ideas were first incorporated into General Thorne's XII Corps Observation Unit, forerunner of the GHQ Auxiliary Units. Fleming recruited his brother, Richard, then serving in the Faroe Islands, to provide a core of Lovat Scout instructors to his teams of LDV volunteers.

Meanwhile, Fleming wrote a speculative novel called The Flying Visit in which he imagined Adolf Hitler flying to Britain to propose peace with that nation, only to have United Kingdom let him return in light of the awkward diplomatic quandary he placed the British government in. It proved curiously prescient in 1941 when Hitler's Deputy, Rudolf Hess, did that exact excursion into Britain and Britain found their new high ranked Nazi prisoner cumbersome for their foreign and propaganda policies.[9]

When Colin Gubbins was appointed to head the new Auxiliary Units, he incorporated many of Peter's ideas, which aimed to create secret commando teams of Home Guard in the coastal districts most liable to the risk of invasion. Their role was to launch sabotage raids on the flanks and rear of any invading army, in support of regular troops, but they were never intended as a post-occupation 'resistance' force, having a life expectancy of only two weeks.[10]

Peter Fleming later served in Greece, but his principal service, from 1942 to the end of the war, was as head of D Division,[11] in charge of military deception operations in Southeast Asia, based in New Delhi, India. He was scheduled to take part in the second Chindit operation, but this was cut short by the premature crash landing of a defective glider. The episode is described in an appendix Fleming contributed to Michael Calvert's book on the operation.[12]

Fleming was appointed an Officer of the Order of the British Empire in the 1945 Birthday Honours and in 1948 he was awarded the Order of the Cloud and Banner with Special Rosette by the Republic of China.[13][14]

Later life

After the war Peter Fleming retired to squiredom at Nettlebed, Oxfordshire and was appointed a Deputy Lieutenant for Oxfordshire on 31 July 1970.[15]


Fleming died on 18 August 1971 from a heart attack while on a shooting expedition near Glen Coe in Scotland.[16]


After the death of his brother Ian, Peter Fleming served on the board of Glidrose, Ltd, the company purchased by Ian to hold the literary rights to his professional writing, particularly the James Bond novels and short stories. Peter also tried to become a substitute father for Ian's surviving son, Caspar, who overdosed on narcotics in his twenties.

Peter and Celia Fleming remained married until his death in 1971. He was survived by their three children:

  • Nicholas Peter Val Fleming (1939–1995), writer and squire of Nettlebed. He deposited Peter Fleming's papers for public access at the University of Reading in 1975. These include several unpublished works, as well as the manuscripts of several of his books that are now out of print. Nichol Fleming's partner for many years was the merchant banker Christopher Roxburghe Balfour (born 1941), brother of Neil Balfour, second husband (1969–78) of Princess Jelizaveta of Yugoslavia. Nettlebed is now jointly owned by his sisters.
  • (Roberta) Katherine Fleming (born 1946), writer and publisher, is now Kate Grimond, wife of Johnny Grimond, foreign editor of The Economist. Johnny is the elder surviving son of the late British Liberal Party leader Jo Grimond, and grandson maternally of Violet Bonham-Carter, herself daughter of the British Prime Minister H. H. Asquith. Kate and John have three children, Jessie (a journalist), Rose (an actress turned organic foods entrepreneur) and Georgia (a journalist, formerly at The Economist online, now living and freelancing in Rio de Janeiro).
  • Lucy Fleming (born 1947), now Lucy Williams, is an actress. In the 1970s she starred as Jenny in the BBC's apocalyptic fiction series Survivors. She was first married in 1971 to Joseph "Joe" Laycock (died 1980), son of a family friend Robert Laycock and his wife Angela Dudley Ward, and was on honeymoon at the time of her father's sudden death in Argyllshire. Lucy and Joe had two sons and a daughter, Flora. Flora and her father, Joe, were drowned in a boating accident in 1980. At the time of their deaths Lucy and Joe were separated on good terms. Lucy later married the actor and writer Simon Williams. Her sons are Diggory and Robert Laycock.

Peter Fleming was the godfather of the British author and journalist Duff Hart-Davis, who wrote Peter Fleming: A Biography (published by Jonathan Cape in 1974). Duff's father Rupert Hart-Davis, a publisher, was good friends with Peter, who gave him a home on the Nettlebed estate for many years and gave financial backing to his publishing ventures.


Event Participated in

1948 Hague Congress7 May 194811 May 1948The Hague
Landmark conference which had a profound influence on the shape of the European Movement. Many of the groups organizing the conference received covert funding from the CIA.
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  1. "Obituary Colonel Peter Fleming, Author and explorer". The Times, 20 August 1971 p14 column F.
  6. Nicholas J. Clifford. "A Truthful Impression of the Country": British and American Travel Writing in China, 1880–1949. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2001. pp. 132–33
  7. Pacific Affairs 9.4 (1936): 605–606 [1]
  10. Atkin, Malcolm (2015). Fighting Nazi Occupation: british Resistance 1939–1945. Barnsley: Pen and Sword. pp. 24, 26, 31, –2, 56–61, 66, 72, 76–7, 87, 172, 181
  12. Calvert, M. Prisoners of Hope, Pen and Sword 1995, ISBN 978-0850524925
  16. 'Grave of Capt. Peter Fleming', film of Fleming's grave, published on YouTube, 26 July 2014.
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