- Oops!Something went wrong.Please try again later.
Before writing the James Bond books, Ian Fleming worked behind-the-scenes in naval intelligence. But Fleming was, according to a new biography, “desperate to be part of the action” in the Second World War. It’s little wonder that, after the publication of Casino Royale in 1953, Fleming lived vicariously through Bond.
The character is said to be based on various real-life heroes, such as Fleming’s own brother Peter and the intelligence officer Patrick Dalzel-Job (though Dalzel-Job disagreed – “I have never read a Bond book or seen a Bond movie. They are not my style,” Dalzel-Job said. “I only ever loved one woman, and I’m not a drinking man.”)
But Fleming gave Bond many of his own traits and indulgences – “His love for women, cars, food, drink, and exotic locations,” says Edward Abel Smith, author of the new book on Fleming. He also made Bond an action hero who was unhampered by Fleming's own physical limitations, brought on by rampant booze and smoking habits.
“Fleming wanted to create a character who enjoyed life like he did – smoking 70-80 cigarettes a day, drinking a bottle of gin, not doing any exercise – but still be fighting fit,” says Abel Smith. “That was the hero Fleming created.”
Abel Smith's book, Ian Fleming's Inspiration, documents how, as well as inspiring the character himself, Fleming's experiences – particularly those in naval intelligence – inspired the action across his 12 Bond novels and numerous short stories. Telling Fleming's life story, the book documents the events, places, and people that shaped the Bond character and adventures.
Born in 1908, Fleming was a Reuters journalist, banker, and stockbroker before being enlisted into the Naval Intelligence Division in 1939. He was commissioned into the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve and quickly promoted to lieutenant commander.
As right-hand man to Admiral John Henry Godfrey – one of the real-life inspirations for "M" – Fleming liaised between NID and the Special Operations Executive (SOE), and worked with the Joint Intelligence Committee. He was also responsible for concocting intelligence operation plans, and worked on the “Trout Memo” – a list of 50-plus ideas to confuse and deceive the enemy.
Among those ideas was Operation Mincemeat, which was put into action during the 1943 invasion of Sicily. A dead body was dropped off the coast of Spain, carrying papers which described a false plan to invade Greece. It succeeded in fooling the Germans, who moved reinforcements to Greece and Sardinia.
But it wasn’t just Fleming's poor health that stopped him from joining the action. As remembered in Abel Smith's book, Admiral Godfrey said: “Ian was someone who simply could not fall into enemy hands because he was privy to everything.”
Here are the stories behind five of Fleming's Bond stories.
From A View To A Kill (1960)
The book: Bond is sent to investigate the murder of a dispatch rider in northern France, where he discovers three assassins in an underground lair. From the short story collection, For Your Eyes Only.
The inspiration: Though not as ridiculous as the movie version (which has wrinkled Roger Moore fighting on top of the Golden Gate Bridge, the Eiffel Tower, and Grace Jones), the story was, according to Abel Smith, too far-fetched for some readers.
“But for me, it’s the closest to the truth,” he says. “If anything, the Bond version is dumbed down. I was blown away by the reality of this bizarre and crazy mission that Fleming was planning.”
With Allied fears that Gibraltar might fall to the Nazis, Fleming helped devise the multi-layered Operation Goldeneye (that sounds familiar), which included Operation Tracer – a plan to hide six men inside the Rock of Gibraltar, where they could spy on ships passing across the Mediterranean and Gibraltar Strait.
Six men were selected for the mission and a bunker was built inside the Rock. Plans were made for provisions, power (via pedal-generators), and the psychological effects of being trapped together.
The men practiced spying on the Thames Estuary for two months and were posted to Gibraltar, on standby for an invasion.
“It was a pretty cutthroat plan,” says Abel Smith. “They had a year’s worth of supplies. But Fleming knew if Gibraltar was to fall, the Allies were unlikely to take it back within a year. He was condemning those men to death. But Hitler changed his focus and went into the Soviet Union, so the mission never happened.”
From Russia, with Love (1957)
The book: In the fifth Bond novel, SMERSH plans to assassinate Bond (and smear his reputation, as if death isn’t bad enough) by tempting him with a bogus Soviet defector, the beautiful Tatiana Romanova, and a Spektor cryptography machine.
The inspiration: “Fleming’s knowledge of what a cipher machine looked like and how it worked, is the whole basis of From Russia, With Love,” says Abel Smith. “Fleming spent a lot of his wartime career working with the likes of Alan Turing at Bletchley Park to try and capture these machines – not specifically the Enigma machine, but the naval equivalent.”
Fleming planned Operation Ruthless, an elaborate scheme to capture a German Naval vessel and cipher machine.
The plan wasn't exactly simple: disguise British men as German pilots; fly a captured Luftwaffe aeroplane and intentionally crash it into the English Channel; get rescued by a nearby German boat and kill the crew; steal the vessel and the cipher machine onboard. A plot so ridiculous (“Audacious and potentially flawed,” writes Abel Smith) that even Bond himself would have to think twice.
“What Fleming was devising amounted to a sophisticated form of piracy,” writes Abel Smith. When the plan was relocated from the English Channel to off Portsmouth, due to weather conditions, Turing mistakenly thought the operation was cancelled. A naval rep wrote to Fleming saying that Turing and fellow codebreaker Peter Twinn looked "like undertakers cheated of a nice corpse".
Turing would get his hands on the machines, of course, but not through Operation Ruthless, which was called off “Ultimately, the overriding issue that caused the ambitious operation to be cancelled was purely the lack of suitable prey in the English Channel,” writes Abel Smith.
The book: Not to be confused with the events of the film version (Roger goes to space) the third novel has Bond meet Sir Hugo Drax, benefactor of the “Moonraker” missile programme – an upgraded V-2 rocket designed to defend Britain against the Soviets. But Drax is really an old school Nazi, and his missile set to destroy London.
The inspiration: As Abel Smith's book details, investigating Drax marks Bond's first real foray into going undercover as a double agent. Fleming himself had played a very small role in the exploits of a real double agent – the professional criminal and spy Edward Chapman, aka Agent Zigzag.
Chapman was in a Jersey prison when the Nazis invaded and offered his services as a spy to the Abwehr (German intelligence). But he defected back to the Allies, and operated under the XX Committee (AKA Double Cross or Twenty Committee).
When the Germans began launching the near 30ft, winged, jet engine-powered V-1 missiles at London (also known as buzz bombs and doodlebugs, because of the sound they made) Chapman reported back to his German handlers on the damage and accuracy of the V1s. He gave false information, ensuring most of the V-1s hit the suburbs and countryside instead of central London.
Abel Smith likens this to how Bond saves London in Moonraker, when he changes the coordinates on the Moonraker missile.
At the end of the war, 30AU and T-Force captured the German rocket engineer Dr Hellmuth Walter. A “Dr Walter” appears in Moonraker – one those Nazi scientists, perhaps, claimed by the Americans or British after the war.
Fleming knew full well the destructive power of the V-1s. His girlfriend, Muriel Wright, was killed in an air raid – the inspiration, perhaps, for the death of Bond's wife Tracy. “[Fleming's] grief was only ever really put into words when he wrote On Her Majesty’s Secret Service,” writes Abel Smith.
The book: Bond travels to the Bahamas to find stolen atomic weapons, which are stashed on a boat belonging to SPECTRE second-in-command Emilio Largo. Bond leads a crack team in an underwater battle.
The inspiration: Though actually a novelisation of a co-written, unproduced screenplay (which led to years of legal wrangling over the story with co-writer Kevin McClory, and the unofficial Bond film Never Say Never Again), Thunderball drew from Fleming’s personal experiences.
In 1942, Fleming put together a team of commandos, 30 Assault Unit, the objective of which was to move ahead of Allied advances and retrieve enemy intelligence – described by the 30AU website as "equipment, documents, or codes, or enemy personnel" – before the enemy could destroy any evidence.
30AU took part in Operation Torch in November 1942, the invasion of French North Africa, and Operation Husky in July 1943, the invasion of Sicily – aided by the distraction of Fleming's Operation Mincemeat – and later Operation Overlord.
“There’s lots of underwater combat in Thunderball,” says Abel Smith. “Fleming sent his commandos to spend time training in underwater combat. The Italians were known for their underwater technology – the boat in Thunderball was inspired by an Italian Naval boat – so Fleming felt they should be trained accordingly in case they needed to do any diving or attack ports by night.”
Thunderball also marks the first appearance of Bond's arch nemesis Blofeld – an example of Fleming’s penchant for inserting people he knew into his stories.
“He would put his friends in the books – or people he didn’t like,” says Abel Smith. “The father of Henry Blofeld, the cricket commentator, was at school with Fleming, and famously Fleming didn’t get on with him.”
Another friend who made it into the books was Noel Coward. Fleming used Coward as the basis for Dr No and wrote to Coward asking him to play the role in the movie.
“Noel Coward replied saying, 'The answer to Dr No is no, no, no, no, no,'" says Abel Smith. "He didn’t want to wear the metal hands!”
You Only Live Twice (1964)
The book: Bond travels to Japan, where he discovers Blofeld holed up in a “Castle of Death”. Bond crosses a river and scales a 200ft wall to storm the castle. He’s captured (naturally) but eventually strangles his arch-nemesis.
The inspiration: Abel Smith compares Bond’s plot to raid the castle to Operation Postmaster, a plan Fleming masterminded in January 1942 to capture three ships anchored on the Island of Fernando Po – a West African Spanish territory. One of which was commanded by Captain Specht, who was reportedly feeding back information on Allied shipping movements.
Led by Major Gus March-Phillipps (codename Agent W.01 – W for West Africa, 01 meaning “licensed and trained to kill”), a unit of 12 men called Maid Honor Force – named after their Brixham trawler, Maid Honor – made the voyage from Poole.
Fleming persuaded the head of SOE, Major General Sir Colin McVean Gubbins – actually known as "M" – to green-light the operation and was, according to the book, “pulling the strings” back in London.
On 14 Jan 1942, the crews of the targeted ships were lured away to a decoy party and plied with drink, while March-Phillipps’ team – bolstered by Nigerian men – came into the dock with two tugs, boarded the ships and towed them away. The raid took just 35 minutes.
Outraged, Specht drunkenly stormed over to the British consulate. As detailed by Abel Smith, Specht hit Vice-Consul Godden, who responded with a punch of his own – so hard that Specht collapsed, splitting his trousers and soiling himself.
Ian Fleming's Inspiration: The Truth Behind the Books is published by Pen & Sword History, RRP £19.99