Ian Fleming, the creator of James Bond, was a spy of sorts in the Second World War. But he was pretty much a desk jockey. His greatest creation is said to be a composite of various commandos and field operatives that he encountered during the war years.
It is unlikely that any of them had quite the skill set of Bond, who was constantly making amazing shots with his pistol, flying and crashing all manner of air and sea craft, escaping his captors with impunity, traveling the globe to exotic places. And of course seducing women. Lots of 'em.
To find somebody who actually did all these things, albeit with less actual spying, Fleming would have done better to go back a little further in history. To World War One. And to the towering historical figure of Gunther Pluschow. Uh........who?
In the fateful summer of 1914 Pluschow was a young naval aviator heading across Russia on a train to assume his duty post at the German colony of Tsingtao on the coast of China. Shortly after his arrival two Rumpler-Taube scout planes came in by cargo ship. Both crashed and only one could be repaired leaving Pluschow the sole aviator able to observe the approaching Japanese forces when war broke out in August.
It was a difficult assignment. Keeping his plane flying was near impossible, in fact the home made replacement propeller he had to use needed to be removed and re-glued nightly. But he persevered, not only helping with artillery targeting but even attempting some improvised bombing runs. Lacking any real ordnance he used four pound tins of "Sietas, Plambeck and Co. Best Java Coffee" repacked with dynamite and scrap iron.
He even claims to have shot down a Japanese plane....using his revolver. He says it took 30 rounds to accomplish this, perhaps the first aerial victory in human history.
On this point I have doubts. He mentions this event only briefly in a post war recounting of his adventures. And what weight conscious pilot would carry five reloads for his side arm? It would be tempting to write it off entirely, but everything else he did in the year that followed was equally implausible, yet apparently quite true.
Tsingtao never had a chance, it was an isolated outpost halfway around the earth from Germany. On November 6th as the Japanese troops were making their final assault Pluschow took off under fire with a box of secret papers. He made it away safely, crash landing in a rice paddy.
What followed was a bewildering odyssey of Mandarins and Missionaries, of captivity and escape, of superstitious peasants who thought he was the devil, and of a remarkable 36 course meal that included shark fins and swallow nest soup.
Eventually he made it to the international enclave of Shanghai, but he was still under close watch. In an incident where he is clearly hiding some details he recalls being driven out of town for a quick switch in carriages. As he puts it, genteelly, "..with deep respect and gratitude I kissed a woman's slim white hands which were extended to me from the interior of the carriage.."
He still had to spend a few days acting like a mad man to discourage curious Chinese from approaching too closely. Then he boarded a ship with false papers identifying him as being an Englishman named MacGarvin, representative of the Singer Sewing Machine Company.
There was still the small matter of police inspection when the ship docked at several Japanese ports, but the connivance of the ship's doctor allowed him to pass himself off as having ptomaine poisoning and being too ill to get out of his bed.
The rest of the trip to San Francisco was uneventful. America was still neutral at this point in the war. He enjoyed a bit of Society life and a trip to the Grand Canyon before heading east.
In New York he was frustrated by his difficulty booking passage to a neutral European country. Eventually he met a shady fellow: "I was never really quite able to ascertain his real occupation. However he was very successful at one particular job - which consisted in polishing up old passports".
Gunther might have had grounds to complain about the amenities on this trip, the best that could be arranged was passage in steerage posing as a Swiss locksmith. But it was a busy time for those arranging clandestine transit to Germany. Pluschow at one point shared a secret smile with a brother officer of his who was posing as a Dutch First Class passenger.
Illness, vermin and sea sickness plagued the voyage but Pluschow had high hopes. Until an unscheduled stop at Gibralter.
British officials lined up anyone claiming to be a neutral citizen. Of the half dozen or so "Swiss" Pluschow was the only one actually carrying a passport! It all seemed to be going well for him until a civilian employee of the shipping line, who doubled as a counter espionage agent, protested that there were certainly Germans among the purported Swiss, and insisted on a close examination.
Clothing labels were scrutinized. Baggage was turned inside out. Pluschow was still doing well. Finally as a last resort a genuine Swiss citizen from First Class was summoned and an intense interrogation in Swiss dialect was carried out. This was too high a bar for Gunther to attain.
Along with several others with dodgy stories - some of whom indeed were Germans trying to pass - Gunther Pluschow was marched into captivity in the fortress of Gibralter. Further protests and demands to see "his" Swiss Counsel began to sound a little weak once he was searched and noted to have some items a poor locksmith would not have....several gold coins and a loaded revolver.
Soon he was on a ship to England, bound for a POW camp. For him the jig was up, because in the entirety of two World Wars nobody ever escaped from a camp in England and made it back to "der Vaterland".
Nobody that is, other than Gunther Pluschow....
(To be continued)