With the latest James Bond blockbuster out next year, MHM assistant editor Calum Henderson explores the life of the man who created him: Ian Fleming, whose wartime adventures rivalled those of 007 himself.
In the summer of 1940, British codebreakers at Bletchley Park had a problem. They had enjoyed great success in deciphering the messages of the German air force, army, and intelligence services. But the vital naval codes continued to elude them.
A plan was devised by the Naval Intelligence Department (NID) of the Admiralty. British agents disguised as German airmen would intentionally ditch a captured Heinkel bomber in the North Sea, near where the Nazis were running a rescue service for their own crews.
Once ‘rescued’, these agents would commandeer the German ship, and obtain what the Admiralty was convinced were on board: the Enigma codebooks that could change the course of the war.
But Operation Ruthless, as it was called, was laden with flaws. The well-trained agents were still extremely likely to be caught, while the Heinkel itself had to be redesigned so it would not instantly sink when ditched. Worst of all, the NID struggled to locate the necessary German ships in the Channel.
Ultimately, Ruthless was called off, to the relief of almost everyone involved, although Alan Turing was said to have been annoyed at being denied ‘his pinch’.
If the plan sounds like the plot of a far-fetched espionage thriller, it is probably because it was the brainchild of Ian Fleming, a senior figure in Britain’s naval intelligence operation, and author of the novels that launched James Bond into the public imagination.
Yet Ruthless was one of the more frivolous of Fleming’s schemes. In fact, his career was remarkably dynamic and innovative – and is where the origins of his literary and later cinematic hero are to be found.
The Chocolate Sailor
Fleming was born in 1908 into a family that had made its name and wealth with the Robert Fleming & Co merchant bank. After his father Valentine, MP for Henley, was killed in the First World War, it fell to Ian’s socialite mother Evelyn to rear him and his three siblings.
Evelyn was a remarkable woman, ambitious for herself and her children. But while his older brother Peter excelled academically, Ian floundered. He underperformed at Eton and later at the Royal Military Academy. Spells at foreign universities in Munich and Geneva taught him fluent German, but little else.
Yet Evelyn continued to push him, first into the civil service, and when that failed, into the City, where in the 1930s he drifted for six years as what his biographer Andrew Lycett called ‘the world’s worst stockbroker’.
As such, Fleming was one of the few people for whom the outbreak of the Second World War was a blessing. With the help of one last heave from Evelyn, his file was put under the nose of Rear Admiral John Godfrey, the Director of Naval Intelligence (DNI) of the Royal Navy, who was in search of a personal assistant.
Godfrey clearly saw something in him, as Fleming was quickly appointed his right-hand man, with the official title of Lieutenant (special branch) of the Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve. Working out of Room 39 of the Admiralty, Fleming later described his role as that of ‘a convenient channel of confidential matters connected with subversive organisations’.
Fleming’s charming if slightly aloof nature made him the perfect ‘channel’ for the fractious world of Whitehall. And it was not long before his manner had earned him the nickname ‘The Chocolate Sailor’ – one he hated.
But he was more than just a suave assistant. Fleming was also an ideas man charged with devising intelligence-gathering and sabotage operations. It was a job he often pursued with a bit too much enthusiasm: he carried around a fountain pen out of which tear gas could be ejected, in case he came across a German spy crossing Trafalgar Square.
At last, Fleming had found his calling. It was not just that he got on with Godfrey, for whom he would work gruelling hours. He also seemed extremely comfortable in the atmosphere of the Phoney War, when it was still believed that the nightmare of the trenches could be skipped, and that Hitler would be defeated instead by gadgets and special ops. In Fleming’s mind, it was a delusion that took a long time to pop.
For instance, in his first year in the job, he had devised a plan to sink the ‘iron gates’, a man-made barrage on the Danube, thereby hindering German access to vital Romanian oil.
But Merlin Minshall, the hapless spy he had dispatched for the task, not only got himself arrested but compounded the problem by declaring his identity to the pro-Nazi authorities. Yet in Fleming biographies Minshall is often touted as an ‘inspiration’ for James Bond.
Other ideas varied between pointless and ridiculous. Always happy to do a favour for his pals, Fleming sent his friend, aerial photographer Sidney Cotton, to snap the entire coast of southern Ireland from 2,000 feet in a hunt for suspected enemy naval bases (there were none).
And when a German really did land on British soil in 1941, Fleming suggested that the notorious black magician Aleister Crowley should assist the interrogation of newly imprisoned Rudolf Hess, given the two men’s shared enthusiasm for the occult.
‘They were just plain crazy,’ said Admiral Norman Denning, a colleague in Whitehall, of Fleming’s schemes. ‘But a lot of his far-fetched ideas had just that glimmer of possibility in them that made you think twice before you threw them in the wastepaper basket.’
The Chocolate Sailor himself later dismissed most of these projects as ‘nonsense’. True though that was, the fantasies about aerial reconnaissance, subversive interrogations, and ambitious sabotage were already shelving themselves at the back of his mind.
Home and away
As the war grew in seriousness in spring 1940, so too did Fleming’s role. Initially, he was despatched to besieged France to take care of some delicate issues on behalf of the Admiralty. This mostly involved ensuring equipment, weapons, and other supplies were safely returned to Britain.
But one incident stands out. In June, at Port Verdon on the Mediterranean coast, he came across a scene of chaos, as thousands of refugees – mostly rich British ex-pats – were left stranded at the shore.
From accounts of the extraordinary incident, Fleming single-handedly took control of the scene, demanding that the crowds evacuate onto some neutral vessels, whose crews stared dumbfounded at the mayhem.
Fleming ordered them to leave all but essential items, meaning that the Rolls-Royces and Bentleys that had got them there had to stay. ‘If anyone felt like arguing,’ wrote Fleming’s biographer John Pearson, ‘he made them stand aside.’
After several hours and with the port safely evacuated, Fleming himself left the country from Arcachon aboard the HMS Arethusa, just as France capitulated.
A great fear of the British was that a similar invasion would take place in Spain. Were Franco’s nominally neutral country to be overrun, Gibraltar – a vital base for operations in the Mediterranean – would be in grave danger.
Fleming was involved in devising a contingency plan for such an invasion. Codenamed Operation Goldeneye, it would ensure offices in Gibraltar could keep in touch with London and that agents there could continue to carry out sabotage operations against their Nazi conquerors.
In the event, the plan was unnecessary. But it was an idea of his that was not instantly sent whirling to the bottom of the trash can. That itself was an achievement.
After all, these forays are a reminder that Fleming was more of a civil servant than a spy. Unlike his literary alter-ego, you could not be both well-informed and an agent in the field. As Admiral Godfrey had said, the fact that Fleming was ‘privy to everything’ meant that he ‘simply could not fall into enemy hands’.
Accounts differ as to whether this frustrated Fleming. According to Peter Smithers, his friend at the NID (and another ‘inspiration’ for Bond), Fleming ‘longed to be personally engaged in the excitement’. Yet Godfrey’s secretary, Edward Merrett, said that ‘if he was secretly longing for action, I never saw any sign of it. Ian’s war had plenty of sweat and toil and tears but no real blood.’
In truth, it seems Fleming did want to fight the enemy, but on his own terms. Nowhere was this better evinced than in Lisbon in 1941, where he came face to face with several Nazis across a casino table at the city’s Estoril Hotel.
Here he had the idea of ‘striking a blow’ at the enemy by winning a fortune from them in a game of baccarat. Instead, however, it was the Germans that cleaned him out. This tale, albeit a more favourable version, became the centrepiece of his first Bond novel, Casino Royale, in 1953.
The visit to Lisbon was part of a stopover on a trip with Godfrey to the United States, part of an effort by the British to encourage their Allies to develop a central intelligence service, which, although hard to believe, was then only just coming together.
The birth of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), as it would be named, was helped along by Godfrey, who pushed to get his preferred choice of William J Donovan – whose many roles in life included senior partner at J P Morgan – into the role of its head.
Fleming played his own part, advising Donovan in a dossier on various specifics, from ‘how agents could run in the field’ to ‘how liaison could be established with other governments’. For this Donovan gifted him with a .38 Police Positive Colt revolver, which Fleming often brandished as evidence of his role in developing what was soon renamed the Central Intelligence Agency.
Back at home, the continuing hardship of the war brought out a less endearing side of Fleming’s nature. The loss of Singapore in 1942, he announced to a friend, was because ‘we no longer shoot deserters from the army’. On other occasions he was known to have complained at the declining quality of the Martinis at the Savoy Hotel and to have been shocked to discover that Londoners used the Tube not just to travel, but also to shelter.
But the dangers of the Blitz never personally concerned Fleming. In any case, he seems to have had a certain indestructibility about him. He survived three extremely near misses, one in which a plush hotel bedroom collapsed around him.
But this luck did not run in the family. In October 1940, Fleming’s younger brother Michael was captured, tortured, and later killed while attempting to flee Normandy. Ian simply kept calm and carried on.
Triumph and tragedy
But despite an often peripheral and faintly ludicrous role in the war, Fleming made one solid, unquestionable contribution to it during his time in naval intelligence. And it was his wit and ingenuity that brought it about.
In the summer of 1941, Fleming had taken an interest in the activities of SS-Obersturmbannführer (Lieutenant-Colonel) Otto Skorzeny during the German invasion of Crete. Skorzeny had commanded a special taskforce assigned to penetrate British headquarters at Maleme and Heraklion and obtain documents and codebooks before their enemy could destroy them.
Fleming decided that the Allies also needed such a taskforce, and soon the No.30 Assault Unit was born. Nicknamed ‘the Red Indians’ and with the motto ‘Attain by Surprise’, it soon became – in the words of Pearson – ‘one of the most remarkable private armies of the last war’.
That said, it had a shaky start. 30 AU did not even get ashore during the disastrous Dieppe Raid of August 1942, while Fleming looked on in dismay. Its activities during Operation Torch, the Allied invasion of North Africa later the same year, may also have ended in failure had it not been for the sense of initiative he had instilled in them.
Landing west of Algiers on 8 November, 30 AU lost contact with their superiors, and found themselves stranded on the coast. But they quickly commandeered vehicles and headed for the Italian headquarters outside the city, where they came across a vast tranche of Axis codebooks, maps, and other documents.
Within hours, the treasure trove of information was on its way to the Admiralty and was said to have been of great use during the Sicily campaign. Fleming’s imagination was finally paying off.
Yet in other ways this was an unsettling time for him. His beloved boss Admiral John Godfrey was suddenly stood down from his role as Director of Naval Intelligence, having been made a scapegoat for other operational failures. Fleming retained his role under Godfrey’s successor, Vice-Admiral Edmund Rushbrooke, but no longer was the day job so thrilling.
More acutely painful for Fleming was the sudden death of his girlfriend, Muriel Wright. Not a brick of her house had been scathed during the fateful air raid of March 1944, but a piece of masonry from a neighbouring building flew in through her window and struck her on the head.
Fleming was a conspicuous womaniser, moving from one affair to another as casually as he smoked his Morland Specials. He saw women of all different ages and backgrounds, and often had several on the go at once. Yet he maintained they were ‘not worth getting emotional about’.
But Muriel’s death severely shook him. He was summoned to identify her, and to his friends appeared genuinely distressed. ‘The trouble with Ian,’ one later said, ‘is that you have to get yourself killed before he feels anything.’
It is possible that this tragedy contributed to the increasing weariness Fleming felt for the war by the time of the Normandy landings. This was despite the fact 30 AU was enjoying success after success. They were one of the first units to enter Paris in August 1944, where they discovered another vast trove of invaluable information in Admiral Karl Dönitz’s abandoned headquarters.
With Nazi Germany rapidly contracting, 30 Assault Unit uncovered an array of German military inventions, such as at Kiel, where they stumbled across jet-driven hydrofoils and an amphibious device designed to explode beach defences.
Fleming was particularly thrilled at their discovery of a prototype one-man submarine, as Admiral Bertram Ramsay (under whose control the unit came after D-Day) was sceptical about the existence of such a contraption.
Examining the device at Ostend in Belgium, Ramsay stared down the periscope, through which the eyes of a dead German, bloated and decomposing, started back at him. It was a story Fleming enjoyed telling for many years to come.
In his role in naval intelligence, Fleming attended many Anglo-American conferences in Jamaica. Though he found the meetings dreary, he fell in love with the country, and decided that this was where he would settle following the war to fulfil his dream, as he outlined to a friend, of writing ‘the spy story to end all spy stories’.
In fact, far from ending a genre that Fleming had loved since boyhood, his first James Bond novel, 1953’s Casino Royale, utterly transformed it. From Goldeneye, his newly built Jamaican home, Fleming wrote a further ten books and two collections of short stories in the following decade. With them came global celebrity.
James Bond is undoubtedly a Cold War hero, but his existence without Fleming’s wartime experiences is unthinkable. The superficial inspiration is obvious – the gadgets, the special operations, and the discreet world of espionage.
But Fleming’s novels also capture something more profound, chiefly that of the huge anxiety felt by Britain in the post-1945 world. Bankrupt and with its empire gone, the books maintained a fantasy in which the country outsmarted both the new superpowers and continued to put the world to rights. And all this through a charming and deadly agent who nonetheless deeply resented his job.
So too would the glamour, excitement, and sheer escapism of the Bond novels have appealed to the readers of the 1950s and early ’60s, times of continuing hardship even though the war had ended.
It was inevitable that Bond would soon make it onto the big screen. After much wrangling with various producers, Fleming’s third novel, Dr No, was made into a film in 1962, starring a then-unknown Sean Connery as agent 007. It is from the film series that people today know of Bond, and the man behind him.
But Fleming barely had the chance to savour the success of the films he had long hoped to see made. The lifestyle of copious smoking and drinking took its toll, and he died of a heart attack aged 56 on 12 August 1964. He never saw Goldfinger, released just months later: the film with which James Bond truly became a cinematic phenomenon.
In the opening scene, Bond breaks into a secure factory, and lays and detonates a bomb, before changing into a tuxedo and returning to a hotel to make love to a beautiful woman. Unlike Operation Ruthless, the special operations of Fleming’s fantasy world could go off without a hitch.