Dennis and Joan Wheatley 1930’s.
Dennis Wheatley : Churchill’s Storyteller
Few people are aware that Dennis Wheatley spent the Second World War as a member of Winston Churchill’s Joint Planning Staff, dedicating his talents to the formation of ideas and plausible scenarios to assist the war effort.
Before Ian Fleming there was Dennis Wheatley. A best-selling spy novelist at the outset of World War II, Wheatley became a master of deception for Great Britain, turning pulp fiction fantasies into real-life espionage. This is the amazing true story of one man who applied the plots of his own novels to the battlefield—and changed the course of history.
Dennis Wheatley was born in London in January 1897, the son and grandson of Mayfair wine merchants. From 1908 – 1912 he was a cadet on HMS Worcester, then spent a year in Germany learning about wine making. In September 1914, at the age of seventeen, he received his commission and later fought at Cambrai, St. Quentin and Passchendaele.
Gassed, he was subsequently invalided from the army and entered the family wine business, and following the death of his father in 1926, became its sole owner. During this period he began to write short stories, a number of which were later published or expanded into full-length novels. Following the failure of his first marriage, in 1931 he married Joan Younger.
Wheatley’s business was badly affected by the slump of the early thirties and by 1932 he was forced to sell up and came close to bankruptcy. As a diversion from his financial worries and with the encouragement of his wife, Wheatley set about writing a full-length murder mystery that he called ‘Three Inquisitive People’. His agent’s reader considered the book to be weak, commenting:
“This story shows considerable promise but does not conform to the accepted formula for murder stories. We do not see enough of the murderer, and the construction is poor in that the heroine is not brought in early enough and plays no essential part, and that after the point at which the book should normally be concluded there is a long epilogue tacked on which is unduly loaded with bathos.”
However, this book introduced the characters of the Duc de Richleau and his friends who were to become Wheatley’s most popular inventions. Whilst ‘Three Inquisitive People’ was in the hands of his agent he set about writing a second book featuring the same characters, ‘The Forbidden Territory’, which was immediately snapped up by Hutchinson. This adventure story won immediate acclaim from both the press and public alike. It was reprinted seven times in as many weeks, was translated into many languages and the film rights were bought by Alfred Hitchcock.
This book was followed by a string of thrillers that, throughout the 1930s, propelled Wheatley into the category of best selling author. As an avid reader himself, and fanatical collector of modern first editions, he was familiar with the work of authors such as H. Rider Haggard, Conan Doyle, William Hope Hodgson, John Buchan and his particular favourite Alexandre Dumas, and was influenced in varying degrees by each. His work in the thirties seemed to be perfectly in tune with the spirit of the age, enforcing the virtues of imperialism in which he totally believed, and countering the rising threat of communism.
In 1939 he became the editor of the ‘Personality Pages’ of the Sunday Graphic and a volunteer speaker on behalf of the war effort. In the early days of the war, despite his best efforts, Wheatley was unable to find suitable war-work and so continued to write his novels, being one of the first writers to use the real life events of the day as the backdrop to his stories.
Then in May 1940, following a chance conversation between his wife and her passenger while she was a driver for MI5, Wheatley was commissioned to write a series of papers on various strategic aspects of the War. These ‘War Papers’ were read by the King and the highest levels of the General Staff, and as a result in December 1941 he was re-commissioned, becoming the only civilian to be directly recruited onto the Joint Planning Staff. With the final rank of Wing Commander, for the rest of the War, Wheatley worked in Churchill’s basement fortress as one of the country’s small handful of ‘Deception Planners’ who were charged with developing ways to deceive the enemy of the Allies real strategic intentions. Their top-secret operations, which included the plans to deceive the enemy about the true site of the Normandy landings, were highly successful and saved countless lives.
Read more »