The Early Days of Ian Fleming » a 007 Editorial

Ian Fleming, the creator of James Bond (a fictional MI-6 agent), managed to spawn an entire universe of masterfully crafted spy stories, replacing the bleak reality of the Cold War-era into a world of super-villains, charming spooks and even more charming femme fatales.

However, could the author really breathe life into his most famous character, without his own history in British intelligence?

The answer would be “No”, as some of 007’s exploits were indeed inspired by real-life people and events that, in some form or the other, actually took place during WWII.  

The influence of Ian Fleming’s father: Valentine Fleming

Fleming first got involved in intelligence by using his father’s contacts. Ian’s father, Valentine was an esteemed Parliament member and a close friend of Winston Churchill. He died in France in 1917, serving as a major in the British Army, when Ian was just 9 years old.

Growing up in his father’s image, Ian was destined for Her Majesty’s service. After a troublesome period at Eton, he was sent to Switzerland in 1927, to attend a prestigious private school, known for its developed relations with the British Foreign Office.  During his youth, Fleming was known nurtured an image of a womanizer ― which was a character trait that deeply influenced his alter-ego, codenamed 007.  

Ian Fleming: the journalist

As for his own spy career, Fleming first came under the mentorship of Ernan Forbes Dennis, a retired MI-6 operative and the headmaster of the Tennerhof diplomatic school in Kitzbuhel. Dennis’ closely followed the development of his pupils, selecting them for further training in the service of the Crown.

It was there that Fleming discovered his passion for learning languages, attending lessons on French and German. After his formal education, however, Fleming failed to land a job the Foreign Office due to poor results on his entrance exams.

Following this mishap, he moved to Munich where he started learning Russian. Upon his return to England, the future novelist got a job at the Reuters office, and would soon become the only English journalist present at the Moscow trials of British employees who were accused of espionage by the Soviet Union in 1933.  

While in Moscow on an assignment, he caught the attention of the Soviet secret police, as he was a rare breed at the time ― an Englishman who spoke Russian. In addition to this, he was following a highly controversial case, which was threatening to worsen the already disrupted relations between Great Britain and USSR.

On this occasion, he almost landed an interview with Joseph Stalin himself, but it was canceled in the last minute. Some might find odd that Stalin sent Fleming a note, personally apologizing for not being able to provide him with the interview he promised.

Soon after this adventure in Soviet Russia, Fleming resigned from Reuters and tried his luck on the stock market.

World War II

Ian Lancaster Fleming - creator of James Bond, 007As the threat of yet another world war was closing in, the British Government was interested in refreshing its intelligence cadre, especially with people who mastered different languages. Fleming appeared as the ideal candidate ― he was young, intelligent, well-traveled, and well-versed in Russian, German and French.

In 1939 he joined the Naval Intelligence Service as an assistant to Rear Admiral John Godfrey. Godfrey held the Director of Naval Intelligence (D.N.I.) position throughout WWII, and was a respectable figure in the clandestine world of British secret service. As Godfrey’s protégé, Ian Fleming was in the position to build his own influence in the intelligence circles.

He was codenamed 17F and worked at the Admiralty. His employer, Godfrey ― a well-known lover of intrigue  ―  had a reputation of making enemies with other service branches. He used eloquent young Fleming as a liaison between the government’s wartime administration with sections like the Secret Intelligence Service, the Political Warfare Executive, the Special Operations Executive (SOE), the Joint Intelligence Committee and the Prime Minister’s staff.

He was also suspected by historians to be the true author of the 1939 Trout Memo, which introduced a new doctrine into British intelligence. The doctrine suggested treating the espionage warfare against the Germans as fly fishing ― using baits to lure out the enemy and then attack him on their turns.

The Memorandum is officially attributed to Godfry, however, according to historian Brian Mcintyre, it  “bore all the hallmarks of … Lieutenant Commander Ian Fleming”.

Ian Fleming and the 30 Au

In September 1942, Ian Fleming founded the 30 Assault Unit (30 Au, abbreviated), tasked with operating behind enemy lines with in order to collect intel about the German nuclear program. They operated with a great amount of independence from other departments as their mission was seen as a matter of utmost importance.

Besides from its primary mission, the 30 Au was also tasked with retrieving all documents found on the frontline. Fleming was a known admirer of Otto Skorzeny who revolutionized the asymmetric warfare in his use of intelligence and guerilla tactics, combining them with criminal practices, like blackmail, kidnapping, and extortion. The infamous German officer would later serve as inspiration for the character of Hugo Drax, the supervillain from Moonraker. 

On the other hand, this admiration led to some copycat tactics with Fleming’s commando unit under often utilizing false flag operations, disinformation and behind-enemy-lines covert missions.

Although he made a name for himself as a rigid strategic planner in the Admiralty, the unit disliked Fleming, who often referred to the unit as “His Red Indians”, downplaying the risk and stress through which the men had to go through. Regardless, Fleming was very proud of his unit as he knew how their effort affected the turnout of the war.

The Unit served in North Africa, Corsica, Norway, Greece, Normandy and later Germany, collecting information about German scientists who were working on classified secret weapons programs. Many of these scientists defected to the Allied side with the help of Ian Fleming and his “Red Indians”.  The 30 Au was also involved in the Dieppe Raid in 1942 in France, where their role was to seize the infamous Enigma machine, making a turning point for the wartime intelligence effort.

Operation GoldenEye

Ian Lancaster Fleming - creator of James Bond, 007Among other things, Fleming was put in charge of Operation GoldenEye ― a backup plan of organizing a spy network in Spain in case Hitler decided to occupy the then-neutral country.

Later on it became known that he was involved in Operation Mincemeat. Mincemeat was a pivotal false flag operation which consisted of planting a dead body with documents implying a non-existent  Allied plan on the invasion of Crete in 1943. The operation was conducted to the Germans on a false trail, while  the invasion of Sicily was being planned in secrecy.

It is believed that the disinformation campaign greatly contributed to the success of the invasion and the small death toll of Allied soldiers who embarked on Italian soil.  

In  December 1944, following a string of successful operations in Europe, Fleming was sent to the Far East as a Naval Liaison Officer.

His actual role was preparing the grounds for the arrival of the 30 Au group to the Pacific Theatre. They were to take part in operations against the Japanese in South-East Asia, however, the war ended before they were able to perform any missions.

However, while the war was soon over, Fleming’s intelligence career was at its peak.

Tracking Nazi Gold

Immediately after the ceasefire took hold, the British master of espionage was tasked with tracking the Nazi gold back in Europe.

In January 1945, all of Her Majesty’s secret services were very keen on getting hold of Nazi finances.

Little is known about the operation to this day, however, it was revealed that Fleming had a key role in tracing the enormous stashes of gold looted by the Nazis during their reign and conquest that were safely placed in disclosed accounts in Switzerland.

Ian Fleming smokingOperation JB

This operation was also the first time that Fleming has used the name that will become synonymous with his work in the future. It was titled Operation JB, short for James Bond.

Ian Fleming had actually borrowed the name from an existing writer and ornithologist, James Bond, who was an author of the book “A Field Guide to the Birds of the West Indies”.

A bird spotter himself, Fleming read the book and decided to use the author’s name during this operation and afterward for the name of his famous protagonist. 

In his own words, he thought “that this brief, unromantic, Anglo-Saxon and yet very masculine name was just what I (Fleming) needed, and so a second James Bond was born.”

Although he was never part of the MI-6 ― the British foreign intelligence service ― Fleming came across these men a lot during his service for Queen and Country. He was also well aware of how the intelligence works and with a bit of imagination was able to create one of the most vivid spy characters in film and literature. He was demobilized in May 1945, and soon after had a house built in Jamaica.

He called the estate The Goldeneye ― as both a reference to the operation he was a part of and the Carson McCullers’ 1941 novel Reflections in a Golden Eye, which described the use of British naval bases in the Caribbean by the American navy.

The house became his final retreat and a small creative oasis in which he was able to write all 17 of his James Bond novels.

Ian Fleming at GoldenEye

… about the author …

Nikola Budanovic is a freelance journalist who has worked for various media outlets such as Vice, War History Online, The Vintage News, Taste of Cinema, etc. He mostly deals with subjects such as military history and history in general, literature and film.