Monday, 13 February 2012

The first Englishman to sail across Europe?

Those of you who read my blog of Nov 2110 – Isabel and the Sea may remember that its author George Millar was a recognized WW2 war hero who after the war sailed his boat across France and into the Mediterranean.
I mention this only because Merlin Minshall the subject of this present blog seems to share some of the same characteristics as Millar. They both for example set off on their voyages from Southampton,both had exciting and adventurous war careers and above all they were both ,that very rare thing today ,larger than life characters with a strong sense of individualism and self reliance.
Apart from his epic voyage across Europe Merlin Minshall’s chief claim to fame and the one by which he his more popularly remembered is that he was the inspiration for the character of James Bond the fictional spy created by the author Ian Fleming.

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Merlin Minshalls autobiography. 1st Edition published in 1975.
The son of a wealthy newspaper owner and educated at Charterhouse and Oxford University, Minshall soon tired of his initial career as a trainee architect and in 1932 after reading a magazine article about ‘Water Gipsies’, decided to buy a boat and explore the waterways of Europe. Sperwer was a small motorised Tjalk Boeier,10 tons and 27ft on the waterline and with her 1000sq ft of sailing gear still intact when the author found her.  So together with his first wife Minshall set off on what was to become a legendary and unique voyage in more ways than one.
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Minshall intended to take his boat right across Europe by  way of the Seine,Marne Rhine Canal,R Rhine, Ludwig's Canal (still just navigable at this time) and then to voyage the whole length of the Danube to the Black Sea. This trip had been accomplished many years before in an English boat with an American crew and the results published in book form as  Across Europe in a Motor Boat by Henry C Rowland.Across Europe in a Motor Boat 1907
Title page of Across Europe in a Motor Boat. 1st Ed 1907.
Rowland’s boat the Beaver had been built especially for the trip which followed almost exactly the route to be taken 30 years later by Minshall with the Sperwer. They had intended a round trip of over 7,000 miles returning from the Black Sea via the Mediterranean and the Canal du Midi across France but a storm in the Black Sea wrecked the boat and put paid to that idea.
Literary accounts of travel down the Danube are in fact quite common and for some unaccountable reason the authors are usually Americans.Longer trips across Europe are much more rarely described.Negley Farson (another American) did one such trip in 1926 His book Sailing Across Europe describes a journey with a departure point in Holland. The accolade for pioneering trips by Englishmen must surely go to Donald Maxwell who took his boat Walrus from a Dutch port to the Black Sea in 1906 the voyage was published in book form as A Cruise Across Europe.Sailing Across Europe 1926First Ed 1926 A Cruise Across Europe 1906
English Author Donald Maxwell's book of 1906.
Merlin Minshall’s journey of over 4,000 miles on Sperwer in fact took 2 years to accomplish and the result was published in the National Geographic Magazine in May 1937. At a time of rising tensions in Europe and the 2nd World War imminent, the journey was naturally and to say the least very adventurous. It is an almost unbelievable account of meetings with the top Nazi Goering, of seduction by a glamorous German Counter Intelligence spy and his subsequent entrapment in a  Nazi spy ring. Interestingly the 16 page article in the National Geographic omits all the above excitement and just deals with a factual account of the voyage .This article is, as, as you would expect for the N G magazine profusely illustrated with photos of the voyage.

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 Two photographs from the National Geographic Mag showing Sperwer in the Ludwigs Canal. One of the smallest Continental canals.Guilt Edged 1 Ed092
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Map inside cover of ‘Guilt Edged’  1975
Minshall’s accounts of his exploits with women including the glamorous German spy would lead one to believe that he was the possessor of a huge ego and that he was almost certainly guilty of exaggerating events that had occurred during his life especially in retrospect and in preparation for his autobiography Guilt Edged  published in 1975.
Subsequently he became a member of the Royal Navy’s Intelligence Division and during WW2 ran Operation Shamrock which monitored German U Boat traffic in the Gironde estuary and later fought with Tito’s partisans in Yugoslavia as a member of the Allied Naval Mission.
Ian Fleming the creator of James Bond had Minshall taken on by British Naval Intelligence who promptly sent him back to the Danube to investigate the possibilities of blocking this route for German Oil Barges. Later he was said to be the first secret agent to be sent to France by submarine. He was closely involved with both the Bismarck and Graf Spee actions and the Japanese whilst he was with the Royal New Zealand Navy. With al this glamorous and exciting clandestine activity it is little wonder that Fleming based his James Bond character on Merlin Minshall.
Guilt Edged is an unusual book full of daring do as is Isobel and the Sea. For me the latter book has the edge being a factual and sober account of a journey by boat across a Europe ravaged by war. However if glamour and excitement is your thing then Minshall may be your man. Both books are available inexpensively as paperbacks but if you want a first edition of Guilt Edged be prepared for a quite expensive purchase as Minshall’s connection with Fleming and his identification as the real James Bond has meant that his autobiography is well sought after by collectors of Ian Fleming and James Bond artefacts,books and ephemera.
Incidentally the 100 year old Sperwer finally found a home in the Dutch National Maritime museum at Einkhouzen in 1975.
If you missed my blog on George Millar's book Isabel and the Sea I am republishing it to follow this present blog.

1 comment:

Peter Minshall said...

Thank you for writing this blog about my father in such a balanced way. Peter Minshall