In early 1939, as another World War loomed over the horizon, Rear-Admiral John Godfrey became the Director of Naval Intelligence after thirty years serving His Majesty’s Royal Navy. He needed an assistant that could adjust to any peril foisted in front of the British.
It would be Ian Fleming, most famous for his James Bond novels, who would be recommended due to his journalist skills and charismatic nature. Although he lacked experience in the high seas, he was given clearance from his superior in all aspects of naval intelligence.
Fleming would oversee one of the oddest but most successful tricks played against the Germans in Operation MINCEMEAT, while also developing Anglo-American relations before the US entered the war.
His experience during the Second World War would inspire Ian Fleming to write about the famous British spy, James Bond.
Rising Journalist Star
A privileged son of the Fleming family, Ian Lancaster was a typical example of Britain’s upper class in the early-twentieth century. He entered Eton College and Sandhurst Military College, both failed attempts to quell the rebellious Ian.
For a couple of years, Ian would go to Switzerland and Germany to develop his language skills and to ski in the high Alps mountains. Since he was an astute linguist in school, he debated on becoming a linguist or diplomat as the Great Depression loomed over Britain. His fascination with Switzerland directly inspired the James Bond novel On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, where Fleming gave Bond a Swiss mother.
Amidst his love affairs and wanderlust, Fleming would try to pass the British Foreign Office exams in the summer of 1931. He would fail his first try, coming in at 25th out of a 62 strong pool. Soon, he joined Reuters as a journalist and by 1933, would report on the Soviet Union, at the height of Stalin’s rule. Read More: Remains of Five B-24 Bombers Found in the Sea
Fleming’s first assignment as a Reuters journalist was to detail six British engineers charged with espionage during the Metropolitan-Vickers trial. While writing on the trial, he attempted to arrange an interview with Premier Joseph Stalin, but to no avail. Despite this, his experience in Moscow would be useful in his future career in Naval Intelligence during World War II.
Fleming also worked with banking in London when not out in the field in Moscow. On the other hand, his banking know-how was not the best, with one colleague noting how: “as a stockbroker old Ian really must have been among the world’s worst.”
By 1939, Fleming was writing again in Soviet Russia but was rudely interrupted in May of that year when he was called to duty by Naval Intelligence.
In Naval Intelligence
Rear-Admiral John Godfrey, a veteran of the high seas for thirty years, was thrusted into a new role as the Director of Naval Intelligence, a field he had little knowledge of. Despite this, he knew that he needed a charismatic and intellectual man that could work with the different branches of intelligence; Godfrey was notoriously a rough and abrasive man.
Fleming’s name was recommended because of his writing from Moscow. Codenamed 17F, Ian Fleming began in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserves as a lieutenant before his promotion as a lieutenant commander in the summer and fall of 1939. Similar to U.S. spy Edward Lansdale, who was in the Air Force and didn’t fly, Ian Fleming had no naval experience.
Alongside Godfrey, until 1942 when he was removed, Ian Fleming helped to develop relationships with the fledgling American intelligence field in the summer of 1941.
One of the men that Fleming interacted with frequently was William “Wild Bill” Donovan who had set up the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the forefather of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). While giving ideas to develop an American intelligence apparatus, Donovan was impressed and future CIA director Allen Dulles took Fleming’s concepts into his directorship.
Fleming would oversee the famous “Trout memo”, a famous memorandum that called for the office of Naval Intelligence to develop operations to trick and compromise German intelligence during the war effort.
Allegedly, this was a Fleming idea but placed under Rear-Admiral Godfrey’s call. Although many of Fleming’s bizarre suggestions never saw the light of day, many fellows that worked in Room 39 at the Admiralty Building in London noted that while his ideas were fantastical, he was a great chap to work with.
Yet, one of Fleming’s harebrained schemes was accepted, and would be carried out against the Germans in Operation MINCEMEAT in 1943.
Fleming proposed that Naval Intelligence could trick German intelligence by convincing them the Allied forces were planning to invade Sardinia and Greece, which would leave Sicily wide open to a surprise attack. But how could this be achieved? By tossing the corpse of a poor Welsh labourer that accidentally ate rat poison into the sea off the Spanish coast, of course.
First the body of 34 year old Welshman Glyndwr Michael was picked up from London and given a new identity. His new name was William Martin, a Royal Marine. Immediately, agents Charles Cholmondeley and Ewen Montagu began to create the fake William Martin by developing fake identification papers, letters from loved ones, and intelligence papers that the Spanish government, who were sympathetic to the Axis powers, would almost certainly forward German intelligence agency Abwehr.
Once the body was ready, the deceased William Martin was tossed overboard at the Spanish coast, where fishermen found him and his papers in April 1943. While this operation seemed far-fetched it actually worked, for the Germans subsequently placed forces in Sardinia and Greece.
As the history books have noted, the invasion of Sicily was a success. Agent Ewen Montagu famously quipped that “The only worthwhile thing that he ever did, he did after his death” when talking about Glyndwr Michael. As for William Martin or Glyndwr Michael? He was buried in Huelva, the site where the fishermen found his corpse, and received full military honours from the British.
Later War Period
During 1942, Fleming developed the 30 Assault Unit, or “30AU”. This was a private army made up of a mixture of Royal Marines and Navy recruits that would attack covertly to collect enemy intelligence files. Originally a thirty-manned group, the unit would blossom to 100 men. Yet, in the same year, he was removed from the DNI, and had no leadership abilities in the 30AU.
He would create the Target Force, or “T-Force” that had a similar agenda to the 30AU, and would oversee the collection of intel from enemy headquarters and laboratories. This would continue until the end of World War II, when Ian Fleming was demobilized in May, but continued to serve in the RNVS until 1952. Enriched by his intelligence experience, he would craft on paper the character many would know as James Bond.
After the War: James Bond
With the war over, Fleming went to work in Kemsley News as a Foreign Manager where he, according to the Ian Fleming website, “[ran] a network of overseas correspondents, a role he was perfectly suited to after his experience in Room 39.” Given a 2 month break to enjoy the Jamaican sun, it was in his private home ‘Goldeneye’ that he would first pen James Bond.
Fleming’s experiences during World War II greatly added to the mystique of 007, a spy that has excited millions of readers and filmgoers since the 1950s. In 1941, in a visit to Portugal with Rear-Admiral Godfrey in the Casino Estoril, Fleming told Godfrey of an idea he had in which secret agents attacked another agent who had won a game of cards. This basic premise would become the catalyst for the first James Bond novel Casino Royale, published in 1953.
Many of the characters that Bond interacted with in the MI6 field, specifically M, were inspired by real men that Fleming interacted with. M was inspired by Godfrey, although the Rear-Admiral was not flattered with the inspiration.
Fleming sourced many of his storylines from pieces of intelligence gathered or what he heard during his time in the Navy. For instance, in Moonraker, Bond had to stop German scientists from creating a deadly bomb.
Other ideas that inspired Fleming included British spy Sidney Reilly and his escapades during World War I as Fleming had access to his archives at Naval Intelligence. It was here that he stumbled upon the German code 0070, a possible influence that inspired 007. He also learned about dozens of high-tech gadgets and interacted with Charles Fraser-Smith, a possible source of inspiration for Q. Ironically, Fraser-Smith’s gadgets were more subtle than Q’s explosive Aston Martins or remote controlled cars.
Legacy and Read More
Ian Fleming would write many intriguing and fantastical James Bond stories until his death in 1964 from a heart attack, on account of his cigarette addiction. When he died, James Bond had not only become a successful book series, but a film mega franchise starring Scottish actor Sean Connery. To read more on Ian Fleming’s life story, there is a timeline on his website from childhood to his later years. A more in-depth analysis on Fleming’s experience with Naval Intelligence can be found at the National World War II Museum in New Orleans.