Charles Fraser-Smith was, to many that knew him in the Second World War, a junior civil servant in the clothing section of the Ministry of Supply in London. In fact this was an elaborate cover for his real task of procuring items for Britain’s intelligence services. He was the James Bond ‘Q’ figure of the Second World War.
He was never given a specific job definition. Orders from MI6 which gathered military intelligence abroad, MI9 (concerned with escape) and the SOE came in by telephone for Fraser-Smith to deal with. He would often sit in his small office furnished only with a desk and two telephones and very rarely met the person at the other end of the telephone, the voice identifying itself as say, MI6, who, for example, would ask him to provide 300 small automatic pistols within ten days. He was asked to provide all types of items ranging from a tin trunk suitable for preserving a corpse in dry ice (used in the deception plot known as the ‘The Man Who Never Was’) to 100 cubes of potato powder or paper that could be disposed of easily (rice paper that could be eaten or ‘flash’ paper that burned rapidly). Fraser-Smith was adept and very successful in approaching firms to manufacture what he required. His wartime notebook was the only record he kept, containing a meticulous record of more than 300 firms, usually, for security, only telephone numbers and contact names.
Many of the items produced were ordinary day to day objects such as shaving brushes, torches and cotton reels but Fraser-Smith was very inventive and saw in such items the possibility of storing escape equipment such as maps. The difficulty was in designing them to ensure that if captured, the enemy would not be able to find the escape material e.g. the handle of the shaving brush had a double cavity with the second inner cavity having a reverse thread to open it. When manufacturing the items, every care was taken to use materials, such as wood that would be found in the enemy territory where the British secret agent was operating or prisoner-of- war was being held.Some very ingenious objects were produced one being ‘luminous balls’. These small balls, painted with radium paint, were found to be more effective than torches in aircraft pick-up operations. When placed in a field to mark the landing strip they could not be seen by people on the ground but could be seen by Tangmere pick-up pilots in their Lysander aircraft up to about 400 feet.
Some of the items produced by Charles Fraser-Smith for Britain’s intelligence agencies will be displayed in the enlarged and revamped SOE exhibit when the Museum reopens in February 2008.