Robert Peter Fleming
31 May 1907
|Died||18 August 1971 (aged 64)|
|Resting place||St. Bartholomew's Churchyard, Nettlebed|
|Alma mater||Christ Church, Oxford|
Celia Johnson (m. 1935)
|Relatives||Ian Fleming (brother)|
Lieutenant Colonel Robert Peter Fleming (31 May 1907 - 18 August 1971) was a British adventurer, journalist, soldier and travel writer. He was the elder brother of Ian Fleming, creator of James Bond.
Peter Fleming was one of four sons of the barrister and 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. 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. 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.
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.
During the inward journey the expedition was riven by increasing disagreements as to its objectives and plans, centred particularly on its local leader, whom Fleming disguised as "Major Pingle" when he wrote about the expedition. Fleming and Roger Pettiward (a school and university friend recruited onto the expedition as a result of a chance encounter with Fleming) led a breakaway group.
This group continued for several days up the Tapirapé to São Domingo, from where Fleming, Pettiward, Neville Priestley and one of the Brazilians hired by the expedition set out to find evidence of Fawcett's fate on their own. After acquiring two Tapirapé guides the party began a march to the area where Fawcett was reported to have last been seen. They made slow progress for several days, losing the Indian guides and Neville to foot infection, before admitting defeat.
The expedition's return journey was made down the River Araguaia to Belém. It became a closely fought race between Fleming's party and "Major Pingle", the prize being to be the first to report home, and thus to gain the upper hand in the battles over blame and finances that were to come. Fleming's party narrowly won. The expedition returned to England in November 1932.
Fleming's book about the expedition, Brazilian Adventure, has sold well ever since it was first published in 1933, and is still in print.
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". 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.
Of Travels in Tartary, Owen Lattimore remarked that Fleming, who "passes for an easy-going amateur, is in fact an inspired amateur whose quick appreciation, especially of people, and original turn of phrase, echoing P. G. Wodehouse in only a very distant and cultured way, have created a unique kind of travel book". Lattimore added that it "is only in the political news from Tartary that there is a disappointment," as, in his view, Fleming offers "a simplified explanation, in terms of Red intrigue and Bolshevik villains, which does not make sense."
Stuart Stevens retraced Peter Fleming's route and wrote his own travel book.
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.
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.
Peter Fleming later served in Greece, but his principal service, from 1942 to the end of the war, was as head of D Division, 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.
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.
Fleming died on 18 August 1971 from a heart attack while on a shooting expedition near Glen Coe in Scotland. His body was buried in Nettlebed Churchyard, where a stained glass window was later installed in the church dedicated to his memory. The gravestone reads:
He travelled widely in far places;
Wrote, and was widely read.
Soldiered, saw some of danger's faces,
Came home to Nettlebed.
The squire lies here, his journeys ended -
Dust, and a name on a stone -
Content, amid the lands he tended,
To keep this rendezvous alone.
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:
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.