The man behind James Bond

Ian Fleming was the intelligence insider who, in turning his hand to fiction, created popular culture's most enduring spy. Nicholas Rankin reveals the man who brought 007 to life

British spy writer Ian Fleming at his home, Goldeneye, in Jamaica. (Photo by Harry Benson/Express Newspapers/Getty Images)

In early one billion people across the planet watched the opening ceremony of the London 2012 Olympic Games on television. Among that dream-pageant and mix-tape of British creativity, the huge audience was astonished to see the imaginary James Bond and the very real Queen Elizabeth II apparently parachuting into the Olympic stadium from a helicopter. It was a coup de théâtre that brought together two icons of British patriotism: the world’s most famous spy protecting the world’s best-known monarch.

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James Bond made his first appearance in Ian Fleming’s first novel, Casino Royale, published in the Queen’s coronation year, 1953. Back then, the author had no idea what he had started. The dozen novels and nine short stories that Ian Fleming wrote about his secret agent 007 between 1952 and 1964 have now mushroomed into some 26 James Bond movies, and eight different actors have portrayed the ‘bang-bang kiss-kiss’ hero. Nine more authors (including Kingsley Amis and William Boyd) have written Bond sequel or prequel novels, while there are also countless parodies and imitations. Ian Fleming’s creature James Bond has become immortal, like Sherlock Holmes.

The poet John Betjeman picked up this parallel in the fan letter he wrote to Fleming in December 1963, having just watched From Russia With Love: “The Bond world is as full of fear & mystery as Conan Doyle’s Norwood and Surrey and Baker Street… This is real art & the proof of it is in the reading & the filming… I look up to you, old boy, as I look up to Uncle Tom Eliot & Wodehouse and H Moore & I suppose Evelyn [Waugh]… Write on. Fight on. Let not popularity worry you and evildoers stop you writing as it does yours ever, John B.”

Fleming’s invented super-spy has even dented modern reality. In June 2015, Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service placed a full-page advertisement in a major newspaper, seeking to recruit new intelligence officers. The smooth copy – “At MI6, emotional intelligence counts for as much as IQ” – had to include a line to restrain the delusional from applying: “This is not the world of Homeland’s Carrie Mathison or Jack Bauer in 24 and it definitely isn’t Bond.”

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The historian (and wartime secret intelligence officer) Hugh Trevor-Roper made the same point years ago in his essay on Wilhelm Canaris, the real-life head of Nazi Germany’s military intelligence organisation, the Amt Ausland/Abwehr. Spy novels, wrote Trevor-Roper, create a picture of secret services as mysterious “systems animated by powerful and adventurous personalities who penetrate the darkest recesses and emerge with breathtaking scoops. But educated people know that… apparently miraculous achievements are the result… of efficient routine. They know that the head of an intelligence service is not a super-spy, but a bureaucrat.”

James Bond originally sprang from the Walter Mittyesque day dreams of just such a desk-bound bureaucrat. In May 1939, four days before his 31st birthday, Ian Fleming was recruited – over lunch at the Carlton Grill in central London – to Section 17 of the Naval Intelligence Division (NID) at the Admiralty. He started work in Room 39, in a smoky office crowded with desks and filing cabinets; the room’s fireplace faced three tall windows looking across to the back garden of No 10 Downing Street. His job was PA to DNI, personal assistant to the director of naval intelligence, handling paperwork and writing memos which he signed ‘17F’.

Fleming put some of this into ‘Secret Paper-Work’, the opening chapter of his 1955 James Bond novel, Moonraker. After his Monday morning pistol practice in the basement of the Secret Service HQ, Bond goes up to his office on the eighth floor, “a drab Ministry-of-Works-green corridor”, a “bustling world of girls carrying files, doors opening and shutting, and muted telephone bells” for a routine day at HQ: “Mondays were hell. Two days of dockets and files to plough through.”

The Naval Intelligence Division was not, in fact, one of Britain’s nine wartime secret services. Its naval attachés abroad served openly at embassies and its officers at home wore uniform. Ian Fleming was soon inducted into the Special Branch of the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve and became Lieutenant IL Fleming RNVR (Sp Br). His character James Bond shares that service attachment: he is Commander Bond of the Royal Navy. And he serves an admiral. In the original Bond books, the head of the secret service – who writes in green ink and is known as ‘M’ – is Admiral Sir Miles Messervy KCMG, a brusque old sailor whose last seagoing command was the battlecruiser HMS Repulse. Fleming has combined two strands of his experience here. The real chief of the Secret Service was customarily called ‘C’ (after Mansfield Cumming-Smith, its first head) and always signed in green ink; the DNI that Fleming initially worked for was the irascible Admiral John Godfrey, whose last seagoing command was, indeed, HMS Repulse.

Ian Fleming sat outside the green baize door that led to Admiral Godfrey’s office, Room 38. Being his personal assistant meant he was the DNI’s representative, his enabler and his scribe. Fleming had worked for Reuters news agency and wrote clear, crisp English. His self-confidence, forged when he was a schoolboy at Eton, allowed him to exercise ruthlessness and charm within the bureaucracy. “Ian could fix anyone or anything,” recalled Admiral Norman Denning. John Godfrey’s own end-of-term report on Fleming in December 1942 was appreciative: “His zeal, ability and judgment are altogether exceptional and have contributed very largely to the development and organisation of the Naval Intelligence Division during the war.”

Since Section 17 was the centre of intelligence co-ordination, Fleming’s particular job gave him privileged access to many wartime secrets, liaison with other services and operational planning. The chronicler of NID, Donald McLachlan, records his regular visits to the Special Operations Executive, the Political Warfare Executive and ‘C’ himself. Fleming was ‘indoctrinated’ into ULTRA – the British breaking of Germany’s most secret codes – early in 1940. He was a regular visitor to Bletchley Park, the war station of the Government Code and Cipher School, where Alan Turing was working to crack the German naval messages encrypted by the electro-mechanical Enigma machines. When, in September 1940, the Hut 8 codebreakers expressed a need for more of the wired wheels from inside the German machines, Ian Fleming set out to organise what Bletchley Park called a “pinch”. Operation RUTHLESS (which was never carried out in the end) was pure Bond. A German-speaking British air-crew in German uniforms would send out an SOS and then crash their captured Heinkel He-111 bomber into the English Channel. When a fast German E-boat arrived to rescue them, the airmen would overpower its crew and steal the encryption kit.

‘‘Bond didn’t know much about cryptography,” Ian Fleming wrote in the 1957 novel he thought his best, From Russia With Love, “and, for security’s sake, in case he was ever captured, wished to know as little as possible about its secrets.” But Fleming’s own knowledge of the covert world informed this and all the other Bond books. The Cold War plot of this adventure hinges on capturing “a grey japanned metal case with three rows of squat keys, rather like a typewriter”. It was the Spektor, “the machine that would allow them to decipher the Top Secret traffic of all”. Likewise, Fleming’s knowledge of Italian sub-aqua expertise in the Second World War led to Emilio Largo’s submarine skulduggery in the 1961 adventure, Thunderball.

Some books and TV programmes have sought to portray Ian Fleming as a wartime action hero in real life, who passed out top in the secret-agent course at Camp X in Canada in 1942, but failed to kill in the ultimate test. This is just fantasy. Ian Fleming did create an effective commando force, 30 Assault Unit, to seize intelligence material for the Royal Navy. But he was the planner and organiser, never a direct participant (although he did witness their failure to get ashore in their first outing at Dieppe in northern France in August 1942). James Bond was not Ian Fleming himself, but was, the author confessed, “a compound of all the secret agents and commando types I met during the war. It was all the things that I heard and learned about secret operations that finally led me to write about them in a disguised way and with James Bond as the central character.”

After the war, Fleming stayed linked to the secret world. Trying to get out of his fortnight of statutory naval training in November 1951, Fleming wrote to Captain Vladimir Wolfson, the former naval attaché he had dealt with in wartime Turkey: “In fact as foreign manager of the Sunday Times and Kemsley newspapers I am engaged throughout the year in running a world-wide intelligence organisation and there could not be better training for the duties I would have to carry out for the DNI in the event of war. As you know, I also carry out a number of tasks on behalf of a department of the Foreign Office and this department would, I believe, be happy to give details of these activities to the DNI.”

In May 2008, the journalist Phillip Knightley named six foreign correspondents working for Fleming in the 1950s who were also linked to MI6 or had been using press credentials as cover for espionage activities. “All of this could have been considered just a bit of James Bondish fun,” wrote Knightley indignantly, “but for the fact that it entitles every foreign security service to believe that all British journalists working abroad must be spies.”

In the books, James Bond smokes and drinks too much, as did his melancholy creator, who died of heart failure in August 1964, aged 56. His wife and her coterie liked to despise the books that paid for their lifestyle, and by then a new breed of more realist spy writer, including Len Deighton and John Le Carré, was challenging his oeuvre and values. But Ian Fleming had the satisfaction of seeing 007 elevated to the big screen, where James Bond could enter the dream-life of the whole world.

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This article first appeared in BBC History Magazine’s ‘Spies & Espionage’ bookazine