The Background for Bond: Ian Fleming, James Bond and the British wartime Secret Service

Our resident blogger, Miles Clayton, takes us through Ian Fleming’s inspiration for James Bond.

There are very few people who are unaware of who James Bond is, but even fewer are aware of Bond’s true origins. Unbeknown to many, the world-renowned author Ian Fleming, who penned many of the Bond stories, had an important military career that would inspire his literary works later in life. Fleming’s experiences in Britain’s wartime Naval Intelligence branch would serve as the catalyst for the drinking, womanizing secret agent who has entertained many of us in print and screen over the decades.

Ian Fleming worked for the British foreign office prior to the Second World War, where he was sent to Russia in the guise of a reporter for The Times in early 1939. Fleming’s task was to assess Russia’s military strength in the build-up to a seemingly inevitable war. In the July, the recently appointed Director of Naval Intelligence – Rear-Admiral John Godfrey – was in need of an assistant to grow and strengthen his department in the looming shadow of war.

The name of Ian Fleming was put forward to Rear-Admiral Godfrey, who soon after hired him. The official role appointed to Fleming was as a Lieutenant in the Special Branch of the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve. This rank assigned to Fleming at the dawn of the Second World War was the exact same role the fictional 007 would be given in the James Bond stories.

Rear-Admiral John Godfrey (left) and Lieutenant Ian Fleming (right) in his Naval uniform.

Within his role in the Naval Intelligence department, Fleming would serve as the Admiralty’s liaison officer with the Special Operations Executive (SOE). Officially, the SOE did not exist, and neither did its agents or missions. The agents were even paid in cash to avoid any detection of their bank slips, such was the secrecy of the SOE and its operations. The top-secret nature of SOE missions meant that almost anything was possible, and this was no different for Bond.

Brigadier (later Major-General) Colin Gubbins – the original ‘M’?

Fleming’s point of contact within the SOE was its Operations and Training Director, Brigadier Colin Gubbins, who’s agents knew him simply as ‘M’. In the Bond stories, ‘M’ is the head of MI6 and 007’s superior, and it is commonly speculated that Gubbins, but also Rear-Admiral Godfrey, formed the basis of Bond’s boss, both in character and name.

It was in August 1941 that Fleming was conversing with Gubbins, and this was in preparation for a top secret SOE mission codenamed ‘Operation Postmaster’. This mission was led by Captain Gus March-Phillips – a veteran of the evacuation of Dunkirk over a year earlier – and he was leading his men on a task never seen before. March-Phillips was commanding Britain’s first deniable operation of the Second World War.

A group of British secret agents working for the SOE were sailing on the Maid Honour, a small Brixham trawler that was anything but ordinary and innocent. Although the ship was concealed to look like a pleasure craft, beneath her decks lay expertly hidden 40mm Vickers Cannons, twin Lewis machine guns and Blacker Bombard spigot mortars. This ship was not built for a few mates to go fishing, but with deception and subterfuge in mind.

March-Phillips and his agents were tasked with capturing three German and Italian ships – the Duchessa d’Aosta, the Likomba and a pleasure yacht – docked at Santa Isabel harbour in the Gulf of Guinea. These ships posed a threat to the British on the West African coast, but Britain could not openly act in a hostile manner towards the supposedly neutral Spanish, even though they were obviously sympathizing with the Axis powers.

This was the purpose of Operation Postmaster: capture the three ships, take them into the open sea and claim that the German and Italian crews had mutinied. The three vessels were then to be ‘intercepted’ at a predetermined rendezvous by the British ship, HMS Violet, who would escort them the nearest British port. Through conducting the operation in this way, Britain’s violation of neutral Spain and international law would remain unknown.

In January 1942, Operation Postmaster was successfully completed despite some initial complications. The SOE had proved that they were able to effectively execute deceptive and secretive missions, as Britain was not blamed for the capture of the Axis vessels. The resounding success of Postmaster led to more subterfuge missions for the SOE and its agents under March-Phillips.

Several of the SOE’s leading agents were key to the success of Postmaster and their subsequent operations. The most notable agents were Gus March-Phillips, Geoffrey Appleyard and Graham Hayes. However, the most committed, effective and charismatic of the SOE agents was Anders Lassen, a descendant of the Danish aristocracy fighting for Britain.

Major Anders Lassen VC, MC and Two Bars. Major Lassen is commonly thought to have provided a significant part of Fleming’s inspiration for the daring 007.
(Source: Wikipedia)

Lassen was commonly known as the ‘bloodthirsty Danish Viking’ because of his ruthlessness, bravery and clinical precision in combat, which gave Fleming the ideal basis on which to build his lead character. James Bond is thought to possess elements from all of the SOE’s top agents like March-Phillips, Appleyard and Hayes, but the similarity of many characteristics we associate with 007 would align with those of Anders Lassen.

From Bond’s rank and characteristics, to the codename of his boss ‘M’, Fleming’s role in the wartime secret service proved to be a vital element in his post-war literary career. Without his experiences in the Naval Intelligence department, and the consequent association with the SOE, Ian Fleming would not have had the same inspiration for the 007 we know today.

By Miles Clayton

Miles is our resident blogger here at History Indoors. He is an a Final Year student studying Modern History at the University of Essex and researches the positive experiences of British children on the Home Front during the Second World War, with oral histories sitting at the heart of the research. If there are any questions you have on this topic that you would like to see answered, please post them in the comments section below and we will be happy to answer them!