Dennis Wheatley: Churchill's Storyteller by Craig Cabell

Thank God he was on our side
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The Independent Culture

In the years following the Second World War, national defence stories emerged that still defy belief, of fake villages being built as bomb targets and fishermen's wives knitting sea-mine nets. Coupled with family memories, these tales have constructed a contradictory composite of Britons at war; while a combination of unity, bravado, propaganda and military intelligence staved off invasion, an image of makeshift home-front charm abides, of elderly farmers and butchers beetling about with pitchforks and muskets, of misdirected signposts and leaflet bombardments. We know that a cash-strapped government put its faith in very young scientists to conduct experiments in lateral thinking. Now Craig Cabell has unearthed one of the most surprising untold stories of the war, in which the War Office commissions a fading horror writer to come up with strategies for resisting the Nazis, something akin to George W Bush hiring Stephen King to sort out Iraq.

Dennis Wheatley is remembered as the author of earnest adventure stories and lurid witchcraft tales, but he was recognised to be a powerful storyteller. It is this skill that attracted the government, who hired him to offer a layman's advice on wartime tactics (although Wheatley had first-hand knowledge gained fighting at the Somme).

The highlife-loving author's first defensive action at the outset of hostilities had involved digging tunnels for his servants, but after his wife offered his services to the War Office as an original thinker, Wheatley locked himself in the study with plenty of fags and champagne to hammer out advice for national defence. Despite his amateur-status military knowledge and frequently overblown prose, he made a decent fist of his first paper, Resistance to Invasion, even if his idea of telling the Nazis we owned a death ray was a little over-enthusiastic. Invited to examine the conflict from a German mindset, Wheatley really came into his own, chillingly outlining why German avocation of poison gas and bacterial weapons should be taken seriously. Here, his analytical approach to fiction paid off. "Reservoirs," he pointed out, "are very vulnerable points in a highly populated country like Britain... when the invasion takes place main exits can be dynamited and the population deprived to a larger extent of its drinking water." It was unlikely that government officials had ever considered the war from this viewpoint.

Wheatley's ingenuity in coming up with ways to decimate plucky Englanders makes you glad he wasn't working for the other side - he advocated the dropping of delayed-reaction bombs disguised as common British household items that would be carried home before detonation - and Churchill's aides took him very seriously. Wheatley's war writing is as square-jawed and cold-blooded as his novels, but here it worked to his advantage, as he carefully calculated the human losses to the German forces, noting that "half a million casualties, with 8,000 planes and the remnants of two Navies, are but a small price to pay" for the subjugation of Britain.

Upon being told that his papers were now being read by all three Chiefs-of-staff, Wheatley set about providing ideas for the Home Guard that included overcoming squeamishness when faced with the prospect of killing soldiers who might appear boyishly innocent, to reusing village gravestones as pavements. It is perhaps easy to scoff while reading these detailed instructions, but Wheatley was saying something that had not been spelled out to military tacticians. As his confidence grew, so did his ideas. He itemised the mistakes of British war policy, and suggested that combat now had to be carried into the enemy's country, explaining in elaborate detail how this might be accomplished. One wonders whether our modern-day militia would be prepared to take the advice of civilians so much to heart, but Churchill's men listened to his "uninstructed imagination, vision and ability to write attractively", and it must be said that, for a civilian, Wheatley was astonishingly well-informed. His suggested invasion never happened, but there is ample evidence that his input was useful.

Wheatley's natural deviousness as a writer of occult thrillers surfaced in his construction of deception plans, some of which were recycled in his novels, notably The Man Who Missed the War. For his efforts, he was proudly commissioned into Whitehall's Joint Planning Staff, crafting a magnum opus that looked beyond the major campaigns of the conflict to the aftermath of victory and the prevention of Germany starting a third world war. Perhaps all government policy should be dictated by writers; I for one would love to hear J G Ballard's suggestions for the survival of the nation.