Here's What You Need to Know: The adventures of a British Intelligence officer during World War II fueled the creation of the mythical spy James Bond.
Some accounts of Ian Fleming’s life make it seem that only at the age of 44, as an antidote to the shock of finally agreeing to get married, did he suddenly commit himself to the unplanned task of creating his James Bond novels. In actuality, he had declared his interest in writing thriller-type books as early as the age of 20, when he confided to his friend Ivar Bryce that this was his lifetime goal. Even that early he had begun collecting incidents and experiences that he could later weave into his 13-book saga of James Bond.
Most particularly, Fleming relied on his richly varied participation in World War II as source material for Bond’s exploits. Rather than tie his hero to history, though, he made Bond current by involving him in the Allies’ Cold War struggle against the Soviet Union.
Early Experiences in Switzerland
Ian grew up in the shadow of his talented older brother, Peter. Both were mere boys when their father was killed in World War I. As the oldest of four brothers, Peter felt the need to become the male head of the family. His sense of responsibility drove him to excel as a student at Eton and Oxford. Soon he began turning out best-selling books on his travels to far places. Also, he married the beautiful actress Celia Johnson. He made himself a very hard act to follow.
In response, Ian appeared not even to try. He became a rebel against standard paths of achievement. His mother, Eve, considered him her problem child. Attending Eton, he made his mark in sports rather than academics. Concerned by his mediocre grades and his misadventures, Eve had him placed in Eton’s Army Class. Then, because of an escapade with a local girl, he left without graduating, and, at Eve’s insistence, signed up for military officer training at Sandhurst. There, too, he rebelled against the routines and left, under a cloud because of another amorous infraction, without a commission. It was the same when Eve tried to get him into the Foreign Office. He did study for the essential entrance exam and did reasonably well but did not rank high enough to win a job as a diplomat.
It was only when he got out from under his mother’s watchful eye and away from the intimidating example of his brother that Ian came into his own. This happened when Eve, giving up on any other course, sent him to Kitzbühel, Switzerland, to study under an English couple there. Ernan Forbes-Dennis and his wife, who wrote novels under her maiden name of Phyllis Bottome, were running an idealistic school that sought to straighten out troubled adolescents. They realized Ian’s potential and took a special interest in him. As a result, he found himself discovering a great facility for languages as well as a love of reading. In Kitzbühel, under the Forbes-Dennis duo, he acquired the equivalent of a university education.
Young Ian also entered into his first serious romance, with a beautiful Swiss girl. When that attachment ended, incurring hard feelings on both sides, Ian declared that he was “going to be quite bloody-minded about women from now on” and would take what he wanted “without any scruples at all.” Aside from his enduring love for Ann O’Neill Rothermere, his new attitude led to innumerable affairs over many years. He endowed Bond with that same low opinion of women as anything other than temporary bedmates.
Fighting the war in the Naval Intelligence Division
Now confident of his own abilities, Fleming secured a job as a reporter for the Reuters news agency. He did well enough that, after a year, he was sent to Moscow to cover the trial of six British engineers arrested on trumped-up charges by the Soviet secret services. The stories he wrote helped raise an uproar of anger in Britain that induced the Soviet leaders to back down and release the engineers. His reporting also brought offers from other journals.
But the terms of his father’s will left Ian unable to live in the style he enjoyed, and journalism was unlikely to provide the income necessary to sustain that lifestyle. With the war clouds gathering, he turned down the writing prospects and took a position in banking. Although the financial life soon bored him, it was a fortuitous move because the banking background helped him win his World War II assignment.
In early 1939, Rear Admiral John Godfrey had received the opportunity to top his distinguished Royal Navy career by becoming the head of the Naval Intelligence Division (NID) of the Admiralty. Needing a strong personal assistant, he sought the advice of his NID predecessor, Sir Reginald “Blinker” Hall. Hall had relied on a personal assistant with a banking background. So advised, Godfrey selected Ian out of a list of promising comers with financial experience.
When, at the age of 31, Fleming joined the NID, he was described as a “striking young man,” with charm, vitality, a sense of adventure, enthusiasm, and “a certain confidence and authority.” He came aboard NID as a lieutenant but, with Godfrey’s approval, quickly advanced to the rank of commander. For the first time, Ian really loved his work, devoured it, and did such unimaginable things as arriving at his desk at 6 am every day.
From his desk at NID’s headquarters in Room 39 of the Admiralty, Fleming gained an insider’s view of the war’s events. He was soon taking full advantage of it. In June 1940, on the eve of the French surrender to the Germans, he became the point man in trying to persuade French Admiral Jean François Darlan not to allow the French fleet to fall into German hands. Fleming traveled to France with a radio operator in a vain effort to catch up with Darlan.
Instead, Fleming received NID orders to help British officials and other refugees to escape through Bordeaux, virtually their last opportunity to get out of France ahead of the advancing Germans. He was also able to prevent the Germans from capturing a store of airplane engines and spare parts. He succeeded in getting the large crates aboard a ship that took them to Britain.
Fleming then turned his attention to the masses of refugees seeking a way out of France. Out in the estuary were seven merchant ships at anchor. He borrowed a motorboat, traveled among the ships, and told their captains, “If you don’t take these people on board and transport them to England, I can promise you that if the Germans don’t sink you the Royal Navy will.” The captains complied. One of the refugees so rescued was King Zog of Albania. Realizing there was nothing more he could do about Darlan and the French warships, Ian joined the exodus.
An Ambitious Planner
Back home, Fleming tackled a serious problem posed by the British codebreakers at Bletchley Park. Alan Turing and his colleagues had conquered the Enigma code machines used by the German Army and the Luftwaffe, but the Navy’s adaptation of the Enigma was defying them. They badly needed to capture one of the German naval Enigma machines. Fleming came up with a daring idea. To pick up Luftwaffe pilots downed in the English Channel, the Germans relied on an Enigma-equipped rescue boat. Fleming proposed using a captured German bomber, manned by an English flight crew in German uniforms, to join a flight of German bombers returning from a raid. Over the Channel, their bomber would begin to emit fake smoke. The crew would send out an SOS, ditch the plane, and float in a rubber dinghy until the rescue boat arrived. “Once aboard,” his plan stated, “shoot German crew, dump overboard, bring back boat to English port.”
The plan would require a “word-perfect German speaker.” Fleming saw himself assuming that role, but Godfrey turned him down. Fleming knew too many secrets to be allowed the possibility of German capture. Even though the arrangements had been made, the project was abandoned, much to the disappointment of all involved, when the right situation never turned up.
Building the OSS
When the United States entered the war, Godfrey and his team were dismayed to realize the fractured state of American intelligence. Each service, plus the U.S. State Department and the FBI, had its own intelligence organization, with each zealously guarding its own turf. What was needed, the British saw, was an overall integrated organization such as the one that Godfrey directed. They even knew whom they wanted to be the head of the new organization, lawyer William J. “Wild Bill” Donovan, whose background included intelligence work for his client, the banker J.P. Morgan. In May, Godfrey and Fleming traveled to the United States to see what could be done.
Their first stop was in New York City to consult with William S. Stephenson, head of British Passport Control, which was, in actuality, Britain’s intelligence center in the United States. Stephenson, they found, already had the program for creating Donovan’s operation well advanced. What was needed was a final push to persuade President Franklin D. Roosevelt to endorse it. Godfrey succeeded in inducing Eleanor Roosevelt to invite him to a White House dinner with the president. Roosevelt listened to Godfrey’s request and, shortly afterward, established what became the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) under Donovan, whom he made a major general. The OSS proved to be the forerunner of the modern Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).