In every fictional character there is a kernel of truth that helps make the narrative and the person believable; something tangible with which the author can relate to the reader. Ian Fleming’s James Bond is no different. His career as a Naval Intelligence officer probably influenced the narratives he constructed for agent 007, who would go on to save the world almost countless times, with feats and exploits that appear to defy credulity. The question is: did the fictional story influence real events, or did real outcomes shape the fiction? The strange fact of the matter is that with Fleming, it was a two-way street in which the lines between fact and fiction become very blurred.

    This year marks the 60th anniversary of Dr. No, the evergreen spy’s first movie, which presented to the world the man from MI6, generally amenable to vodka martinis, vintage champagne, fast cars, luxury watches, and a rosary of sexual conquests. Commander James Bond, formerly of the Royal Naval Reserve, an agent for the Secret Intelligence Service, may now be labelled as an anachronistic relic from a bygone age, but the books and the movies keep selling. There is still enough magic in the escapism and daring do of the gentleman spy to capture audiences of all ages across the globe.

    Sean Connery and Ian Fleming on the set of From Russia with Love, 1963

    In modern parlance, one would say James Bond is a misogynistic functioning alcoholic, who tended to gamble and take far too many risks… all of them attributes that reflect his creator. Ian Lancaster Fleming was born into a wealthy family in London in 1908. He attended Eton College. Although not academically inclined, he was a sporting hero, the Victor Ludorum of the school, but was persuaded to leave early by his housemaster on account of, among other things, attitude, hair oil, ownership of a car, and relations with women. He was enrolled in a crammer course to gain entry to the Royal Military College, Sandhurst, but the taste for excesses continued, and in a career that spanned a number of false starts from the military to the foreign office, from journalism to stockbroking, Fleming arguably excelled at only two things: being a spy master in World War II and creating the world’s most famous fictional secret agent.

    At the onset of war, in May 1939, having failed as a stockbroker in the City of London, he was inexplicably appointed as personal assistant to Rear Admiral John Godfrey, Director of Naval Intelligence of the Royal Navy. In the role, Fleming was arguably to become the spymaster he was destined to be, with ideas and memorandums that contained an eclectic mix of war time campaign strategy and story book narratives, which allowed him to imagine and plan some of the most daring missions that helped the Allies in the conflict. He was given the rank of Lieutenant-Commander, the codename “17F”, and he worked out of Room 39 at the Admiralty. Irrespective of how it was offered or what exactly it involved, his role gave Fleming access to most of the War Office’s set of secret departments. Godfrey was, by all accounts, not a well-liked character among the high-ranking officers, so he used Fleming as a liaison with other sections of the government’s wartime administration, such as the Secret Intelligence Service, the Political Warfare Executive, the Special Operations Executive (SOE), the Joint Intelligence Committee and the Prime Minister’s staff.

    Ian Fleming in Room 39 at the Admiralty. He was given the rank of Lieutenant-Commander and the codename “17F”.

    Fleming’s influence and abilities were swiftly engaged by the war time administration. In September 1939, Godfrey circulated the Fleming authored “Trout Memo”, in which deception of the enemy was compared to fly fishing. The memo contained several schemes to be considered to lure U-boats and German surface ships towards minefields. It also contained the idea that was used before the Allied invasion of Italy from North Africa, called “Operation Mincemeat” in which a corpse was used to deliver false documents in what appeared an inopportune twist of fate. In the memo, Fleming noted: “A suggestion is used in a book by Basil Thomson: a corpse dressed as an airman, with despatches in his pockets, could be dropped on the coast, supposedly from a parachute that has failed.”

    Another idea that followed a year later was a fictional narrative aptly named “Operation Ruthless”. As the campaign to break the German Navy’s Enigma machine became paramount, Fleming devised a plan to obtain the necessary device with the initiation codes. The idea was to “obtain” a Nazi bomber, man it with a German-speaking crew dressed in Luftwaffe uniforms and crash it into the English Channel. The crew would then attack their German rescuers and bring their boat and Enigma machine back to England. The idea found favour with Alan Turing at Bletchley Park, but much to his annoyance, the mission was never carried out.

    As war became more complex, in the same way that planting false information became the proverbial Trojan Horse, obtaining the correct plans from the enemy was equally a priority. In 1942, Fleming formed a group of commandos, known as 30 Assault Unit (30AU), which was composed of specialist intelligence troops, and who he referred to as his “Red Indians”. The same commando unit, with the same name, would appear in Casino Royale. It was 30AU’s job to be near the front line of an advance, or even in front of it, to seize enemy documents from previously targeted headquarters. Although Fleming did not part fighting in the field, he directed operations, selecting targets and the composition of the unit to undertake the mission; although for “Operation Overlord”, he oversaw events offshore from HMS Fernie.

    Towards the end of the war, Fleming formed another special unit for military intelligence called T-Force, or Target Force. Once again, Fleming sat on the committee that selected the targets and listed them in the “Black Books” that were issued to the command officers. T-Force was responsible for securing targets of interest for the British military, including nuclear laboratories, gas research centres and individual rocket scientists. The unit’s most notable discoveries came during the advance on the German port of Kiel, in the discovery of the research centre for German engines used in the V-2 rocket, Messerschmitt ME163 fighters, and high-speed U-boats.

    Fleming was demobilised in May 1945 but remained in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve (RNVR) for several years after. While at Naval Intelligence, he had admitted to a friend that he would write the spy story to end all spy stories and after the war, Fleming returned to writing as a journalist with The Sunday Times. He started authoring Casino Royale in 1952 to take his mind of the impending nuptials to his pregnant girlfriend, Ann Charteris (formerly Viscountess Rothermere) who had a long-standing affair with Fleming through two previous marriages.

    On her Majesty’s Secret Service, Diana Rigg plays Countess Teressa (Tracy) di Vicenzo, who marries James Bond (played by George Lazenby). The character was based on Fleming’s own wife, the former Viscountess Rothermere.

    Most of the central plots of the Bond novels contain elements of all Fleming learned or had experienced about the international balance of power when privy to the corridors of war secrecy at Naval Intelligence. Casino Royale and Live and Let Die both concern the Cold War and the subterfuge actions and operations of SMERSH (an arm of the Soviet secret service) in undermining western governments. The From Russia with Love plot could have been lifted from the Trout Memo as it concerns a plan by SMERSH to assassinate and discredit Bond, using bait in the form of a cipher clerk and Spektor (the Soviet decoding machine). The narrative for Moonraker was derived directly from Fleming’s time as part of T-Force and the discovery of the research units for the V2 rockets. Piz Gloria, Blofeld’s lair in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, was based on Schloss Mittersill, which the Nazi’s used as a think-tank concerning the Asiatic races and that was uncovered by the 30AU.

    James Bond was an amalgam of all this. Every heroic or daring escapade encountered was written into Fleming’s mind from his past. He admitted, “Bond is a compound of all the secret agents and commando types I met during the war”. The secret agent’s lifestyle was an extension of his own, from Fleming’s jaunts to Casino du Palais in Le Touquet-Paris-Plage, to Bond’s meeting with his future wife Countess Tracy di Vicenzo on the road from Calais to the fictional Royale-les-Eaux. The lines between fact and fiction become most definitely blurred.

    Ian Fleming at the wheel of a 1930 ‘Blower’ Bentley for Life Magazine, October 1966.

    Bond playing golf, even down to the same handicap, came from Fleming enjoying the sport. The brand of toiletries, the influence and role of various women, and his love of gambling were a portrayal of personal experience. The motoring duel between Bond and Drax in Moonraker derived from Fleming’s attending the 1930 Le Mans, where Birkin’s green British “Blower” Bentley kept pace with and outwitted the might of Caracciola’s silver white German supercharged Mercedes. Fleming wore a Rolex Explorer, as did his fictional counterpart.

    Truth is, at times, stranger than fiction. The randomness or luck of life work in your favour to overcome the odds. Seemingly the more incredulous something is, the more amenable it is to succeed at times. That the outlandish ideas might work appeal to individual fears and insecurities. Fleming’s narratives, whether for war or the loyal reader, played on that.

    Whatever you may think of the Bond movies over time, where the narrative and characters have been changed to meet the expectations or trends of 007 fans over the decades, the basic stories are captured in the real-life heroics of Fleming’s ideas and creations. The moral of the story is that fiction can win wars, can turn the tide, or simply be too remote to even be contemplated as made up by the enemy. In conflict, when there is a heightened sense of confusion, fiction can be as believable as the truth. James Bond did exist in Fleming’s war time actions, and still does, in every unseen act of heroism that has helped maintain and preserve the balance of power in the world as we perceive it.

    Words: Dr Andrew Hildreth

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