The Fly Fisherman Who Always Was

When a gentleman becomes enamored of a sport or pastime, he begins to find ways to work it into every conversation. He mentions it often and finds immoderate importance in its lessons. The ideas and memories of its practice roll around in his mind constantly. When a gentleman is truly smitten, he finds a way of making it the metaphor for everything important in life.

Many of the souls committed to the art of casting a fly — Ernest Hemingway, Norman Maclean, or the Catholic priest in The Quiet Man — will forever have their legacy naturally associated with fish and streams. But not all authors who found their inspiration in fly-fishing did so in such an apparent way.

In the very early days of World War II, when England stood nearly alone to face the Nazi menace, a young British naval commander spent his long hours in service daydreaming about catching fish and killing boche. His passion for each was, evidently, at equal measure. The stress of his work and the inherent creativity of his mind began a gradual conflation of these two missions, until, eventually, this officer began to see the tactics of both as one in the same.

After quietly mulling over the similarities of fly-fishing and naval warfare with Germany, he began typing up a memo that he would publish and distribute to Royal Navy Intelligence. It compared explicitly the similarities between duping German Naval Intelligence and angling for trout. The memo was titled, unambiguously: The Trout Memo.

In the memo, the author specified 54 ideas that compared how a trout and a German Naval officer might be, similarly, brought to shore (the word play here being my own). One might expect that such a memo would cause the demotion, or at least mental evaluation of an officer who would dare share such absurd opinions. However, the Royal Navy must have been filled with like-minded sporting gentleman who looked closely at this memo and its outlandish ideas. The consensus was: The idea was just crazy enough to work. One of those 54 plans detailed a mission to bait the Germans with the planted dead body of a British officer (from an unrelated accident of course) who was to possess on his person plans of an an Allied invasion of Greece. In fact, the Allies intended to invade Italy instead.

The Germans found the body, and took the bait, as it were. Hitler ordered the preparations for invasion — through massive movements of troops and materials — to Greece. Allied troops landed, not safely but more safely, in Sicily, infuriating the Fuehrer and saving the lives of soldiers and civilians.

The author of The Trout Memo went on to write much more famous works, but none of which was of equal consequence. By no means shall I cheapen the posterity of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, The Diamond Smugglers and the entire collection of James Bond Books. But I will always think of Ian Fleming as the fly-fisherman who helped win World War II.

* * * * *

For further reading about Fleming’s secret mission that was inspired by the art of fly-fishing, I recommend :: Montagu, Ewen (1954). The Man Who Never Was. Philadelphia: Lippincott.


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  1. An Unexpected Turn « Modern Gentleman - September 9, 2011

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