How WWII created James Bond

How WWII created James Bond

To create an immortal character (and global brand) like James Bond is a rare achievement for a writer. It's to join a literary pantheon alongside the dreamer-up of Don Quijote de la Mancha and the man who invented Sherlock Holmes.

Where do these iconic characters come from? Never from a vacuum. Miguel de Cervantes, creator of Don Quixote, was an old soldier who had survived battle, injury and capture by Barbary pirates, then tramped the roads of Spain as an itinerant tax collector. A witness of the stark gap between the grand rhetoric of Philip II's Spain and its grimy reality, the bookish Cervantes realised that escapist literature did not match the lives of ordinary readers. What comic possibilities, then, in a man like Don Quixote, driven mad by such books?

Similarly, you don't have to peer far into Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's biography to find the roots of Holmes in his Edinburgh medical training and the figure of one of his professors, Dr Joseph Bell, famed for his close observation of patients. The Holmes stories themselves are all "cases", problems brought to a private "consulting" detective in Baker Street (which runs close to Harley Street).

Both Quixote and Holmes require a straight man. Being supremely intellectual (whether deluded or deductive) these geniuses need an earthier character to anchor them, whether in one case the demotic Sancho Panza, or in the other the dufferish Dr Watson.

The fictional James Bond has a kind of anchor too: "M", his boss in the secret intelligence service, the admiral whom "he loved, honoured and obeyed". This means Bond is not an independent maverick, but a servant of the state, with darker duties than ordinary bureaucrats. The arch-villain Ernst Stavro Blofeld sees it another way, Bond is just "a blunt instrument wielded by dolts in high places".

The origins of Ian Fleming's most famous fictional character are not hard to find in the author's curriculum vitae. Admiral John Godfrey, who was then director of naval intelligence in the Admiralty, the Royal Navy's HQ, first hired the 32-year-old stockbroker his personal assistant in May 1939. Fleming stayed in that crucial job till 1945. Admiral Godfrey is generally seen as the model for James Bond's superior M, and one clue is that both the real Godfrey and the fictional M had the battleship HMS Repulse as their last sea-going command.

A "very interesting war"

We should not underestimate the importance of the Senior Service both to Ian Fleming and his creation James Bond. To look at the photo of Commander Ian Fleming RNVR standing in his navy blue uniform with the three gold stripes (which he later got tobacconists Morland to put as bands on the special cigarettes they made for him) is to see a very proud and patriotic man. Hence Bond is Commander James Bond RNVR: he is from the Royal Navy, not the British Army or the Royal Air Force.

Unlike many people whose experience of the Second World War was mostly "boredom punctuated by hysteria", Fleming had what he described as "a very interesting war". He was at the heart of the secret world and knew most details of the workings of what he called "the intelligence machine". It was Fleming's duty to liaise on behalf of his boss with C, the chief of the secret service, as well as with MI5, the security service, and SOE, the organisers of subversion and sabotage in enemy-occupied countries. He went regularly to the war-station of the Government Code and Cypher School at Bletchley Park in Buckinghamshire where the great breakthroughs in signals intelligence were being made, and where Alan Turing and his brilliant ilk were wrestling with German Navy ciphers.

In his Historical Dictionary of Ian Fleming's World of Intelligence, the espionage historian Nigel West states that Fleming was not privy to ULTRA, the security codename for secret signals intelligence. That is not correct: Lieutenant Fleming's name appears on a Top Secret list, dated 8th April 1940, of the two dozen Army, Navy and Air Force people granted access to Huts 1 and 6 at Bletchley Park, where the German Enigma codes were deciphered.

How does this relate to James Bond? Take From Russia with Love, which Fleming himself considered his best novel. The plot revolves around Bond, on behalf of British Intelligence, obtaining a Soviet encoding machine called the Spektor, which looks like a typewriter in a metal japanned case. It is very like the real-life German Enigma machine, which looked like a typewriter in a wooden case.

30 Commando

Early in the war, Fleming knew that Bletchley Park was desperate to find out how such coding machines worked and that they needed "pinches" of enemy equipment in order to reverse-engineer a decoder. In 1942, he had the brainwave that is at the heart of my book. He created within the Naval Intelligence Division a commando force – which he called an "Intelligence Assault Unit" – precisely to get hold of such secret material (documents, technology, weapons and so on) from the enemy.

This body of men, sometimes called 30 Commando and sometimes 30 Assault Unit, was never more than a few hundred strong. Its troops were a mixture of scientifically trained, technically minded RNVR officers, protected and propelled by Royal Marine Commandos – a combination of brains and brawn. In the field they broke up into small, self-contained parties who went in jeeps and trucks to forage for information in the front line, sending it back to HQ by air, sea or land.

In Algeria they came across Decima Flottiglia MAS, the Italian sub-aqua forces which helped mine and torpedo Allied shipping. Fleming knew all about the Olterra, a ship moored at Algeciras from which Italian frogmen emerged via an underwater hatch to attack the vessels at Gibraltar, and refers to the case in the later Bond novel Thunderball. Its villain is an Italian called Emilio Largo and the nuclear blackmail plot involves underwater escapades with 'human torpedo' submersibles.  

30 Assault Unit came into its own with the liberation of France after D-Day in June 1944. In Normandy, Brittany and Paris they captured radar equipment, new torpedoes, miniature submarines and remote-controlled tankettes. When the Allies advanced into Nazi Germany, Ian Fleming's commandos swarmed into factories and shipyards. One of the top technicians they captured was Dr Helmuth Walter, who designed super-fast, quiet submarines for the Kriegsmarine, and helped Werner von Braun to develop rocket engines and jets. It is no accident that in the Bond novel Moonraker that the chief German scientist for the villainous Hugo Drax's rocket project is called Walter.

Just as people used to come up with notions of where the 'real' Treasure Island lay, there are lots of claims as to who might be the 'real' James Bond. But no such one person exists, except in the imaginative heart of the writer. Cervantes and Conan Doyle pillaged different parts of themselves (the idealistic soldier, the observant doctor) for their great creations, and so did Ian Fleming, formerly of Naval Intelligence.

After the war, he fantasised the sort of adventures he wished he could have had while he was sitting behind an Admiralty desk. Some of them, like Octopussy, were plausibly exploits of his commando force, 30AU. Fleming went on to write a Bond novel a year, smoking and drinking and dreaming at his home on the north coast of Jamaica.
Ian Fleming's Commandos: The Story of 30 Assault Unit in WWII by Nicholas Rankin is published by Faber on 6th October.