The Real James Bond: Ian Fleming’s Commandos Reviewed

A new book relates the remarkable story of Ian Fleming’s daring commando group during World War Two and how they inspired the story of the greatest spy ever: James Bond.

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I only met Ian Fleming once, at a party given by my father’s friend the director Carol Reed, at his house at 211 King’s Road, Chelsea, the garden of which he shared with Peter Ustinov. The party, given in honor of the American actor Sonny Tufts of all people, was star-studded and noisy, the noise level increased by the fact that one whole wall of the Reeds’ drawing room consisted of a floor to ceiling aviary full of angrily squawking, chattering and screeching exotic birds, cockatoos and parrots, outraged at this invasion of their privacy. This was well before Ian Fleming became a household name as the author of the James Bond books, probably in 1951, shortly after I had joined the Royal Air Force, and I was conspicuous only by my youth and my uniform. I was undergoing training at the time for radio (or, as we call it in the U. K., “wireless”) intelligence work involving a knowledge of Russian, about which I was forbidden to speak. The press of famous people shouting “Dahling!” at each other at the top of their voice forced us together briefly by accident, and I introduced myself shyly. He raised an eyebrow at the presumption of an Aircraftman Second Class introducing himself, and mumbled his name. The only part of it I heard was “Fleming,” and I was thrilled. Peter Fleming was a famous English traveler, explorer and adventurer, whose non-fiction books were hugely successful. My father owned signed copies of all of them—he and Peter Fleming had become acquainted over some detail of set design at the Korda film studio in Shepperton—and I had read each of them with breathless adolescent excitement. He was immensely glamorous, a tall, handsome old Etonian who won a First at Oxford and married the beautiful actress Celia Johnson (Brief Encounter), one of those Englishmen who had traveled everywhere, however dangerous and remote, and wrote about it all in neat, epigrammatic prose: “São Palo is like Reading, only much further away.” He and T. E. Lawrence were then my favorite writers and role models (it was because of Lawrence that I had joined the R. A. F. in the first place), and much as I aspired (in vain) to emulate Lawrence of Arabia, I also longed to travel in Peter Fleming’s footsteps over the Hindu Kush, or up the Amazon in pursuit of the legendary Colonel Fawcett. “I loved Brazilian Adventure,” I said. “I read it three times.”

He looked at me coldly, and blew a cloud of cigarette smoke from his nostrils towards me (I was still trying to do that without sneezing or coughing). His cigarette, I could tell, was something special, not a brand you could buy from the corner tobacconist. “Did you now?” he asked, in an unmistakable, clipped Old Etonian accent. Without being in any way “gay,” au contraire, one could see how attractive he must be to women, he reminded me a bit of a tougher version Noel Coward: the cool, fishy, challenging stare, the elegant way of smoking a cigarette, held nonchalantly between the index finger and forefinger of the right hand, the sleek hair, the faultless clothes, the sense he gave of being not so much upper-class as beyond class. “That,” he said, “was written by my older brother. I am Ian Fleming. I would not have guessed that my brother’s books were so popular among other ranks in the air force.” With that, he turned on his heel and left me to stare at the bird life.

“Other ranks” was of course a put-down, the British equivalent of “enlisted men” in the U. S., and whatever else he was Ian Fleming was definitely of the officer class. “Air force” was also a put-down since the correct way to refer to my service was “the R. A. F.” but then Ian Fleming had been a Commander in the Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve during the war, and the Royal Navy is “The Senior Service,” whose members look down with undisguised contempt on those who wear khaki or R. A. F. blue. Ian Fleming, as I soon learned, had been famous in the war as a member of secret naval intelligence, had been a founder of the Commandoes, was involved in everything from code-breaking to gun-running, and knew virtually everybody who was worth knowing in society, politics, journalism and academia, and was said to be profoundly jealous of his brother Peter’s literary success. I had “dropped,” as we used to say in the R. A. F. in those days, “a tremendous clanger.”

By the time I left the R. A. F. Casino Royale had transformed Ian Fleming into a far more famous figure than his brother, and a rich man as well, and as I read his novels I soon came to appreciate that James Bond was not a literary invention, like John Buchan’s Richard Hannay, but a magnified reflection of what Ian Fleming was as well as what he would like to have been, mixing his slightly snobbish and fastidious taste for perfection and his amazing gift for detail with his admiration for swashbuckling, gun- and dagger-carrying types and his schoolboy taste for lurid intelligence schemes, part practical jokes, part murderous. Singlehandedly he changed the image of the Englishman from a seedy and sedate type with bad teeth to a glamorous combination of trained thug and sexual adventurer, approaching both casual violence and sex with a slightly mocking air, an elegantly raised eyebrow and a lit cigarette nonchalantly poised. For a brief moment Ian Fleming made being an Englishman seem sexy, even to the French. He should have been awarded a knighthood, even possibly the Garter.

For those of the right age who remember the James Bond novels, and his earliest film incarnation Sean Connery, with fondness, this book, Nicholas Rankin’s Ian Fleming’s Commandos, to borrow a friend’s famous comment on Jacqueline Susann’s Valley of the Dolls which compared reading the novel “to masturbating while eating M&Ms,” will be the equivalent for those who like their war history on the rare side, instead of being cooked up into a story filled with appealing and heroic Allied characters fighting monstrous buffoons and sadists in jackboots. It is, first of all, chock-a-block full of wonderful stories and odd characters, and secondly awash in wonderful, arcane knowledge of the seamy and secret side of World War Two (this is not the war that Band of Brothers or The Great Generation told you about), in addition to its being a combination of three separate books, suavely blended, like one of Bond’s Martinis: first, a brilliant portrait of Ian Fleming, then a history of British secret intelligence in World War Two and the part he played in it, and finally a kind of war diary of his brainchild, the ubiquitous 30 Assault Group, some of it told in the voice of an official war history, much of it in the much funnier voice of Evelyn Waugh in his fictional war trilogy Officers and Gentlemen, part of which was based on Waugh’s own experience with the commandoes.

When I tell you that one of the first of Fleming’s bright ideas for breaking Germany’s war codes was to borrow from the R. A. F. a downed and repaired Heinkel He111 bomber, fit a British aircrew out in German flying kit, build into the aircraft a smoke-making machine, then have the crew perform a fake crash-landing of the smoking bomber in the North Sea, where they would hopefully be picked up by a German high-speed rescue launch, upon boarding which they would overcome and kill the boat’s crew, dump them over the side, and bring it back to England with its Enigma code machine and code books intact, this will give you some idea of the bold inventiveness of his mind, and also of the link between James Bond’s fictional exploits and Fleming’s own extraordinary war-time plans and operations. It neatly combines a gift for melodrama, a taste for dirty tricks, a powerful imagination and an important objective. Fleming was a great salesman of such far-fetched schemes—in this case, he actually succeeded in getting the R. A. F. to provide the aircraft and the crew, and was ready to go until somebody pointed out that there was no way to guarantee that a German motor torpedo boat would be around to pick up the crew when they crash-landed the aircraft in the sea. It did not hurt that Fleming knew admirals, generals, and senior statesmen by their first names, and had the same unbreakable self-confidence as his older brother Peter, who returned from the failed British expedition to Norway in 1940 with important information, found that he had missed the last train to London from Inverness, in Scotland, and although he was only wearing the three “pips” of an Army captain, simply told the station-master to get him a special train, like a man ordering a taxi from the doorman at Claridge’s late at night, got it, and turned up early the next morning to report to the Admiralty in London, only to be waylaid by the then First Lord, Winston Churchill, smoking a pre-breakfast cigar in his silk pajamas. About to light his pipe, Peter Fleming asked Churchill if he minded, who replied, “Yes, I bloody well do.”

Rankin has a good ear for the class differences of England, as well as an eye for the idiosyncrasies of the English (and Scottish) upper class. Peter Fleming’s authoritative and superbly self-confident style was very much what his brother Ian Fleming aspired to, and achieved. Rankin is wonderful at all the details of the clubby world of the rival secret services: we learn that Ian Fleming was working as a stockbroker and flâneur-around-town, looking very much like “somebody out of a Wodehouse novel,” according to Cyril Connolly, when no less a mandarin than Sir Montagu Norman, Governor of the Bank of England, recommended him as a likely assistant to the new Director of Naval Intelligence, Admiral Sir John Godfrey. Godfrey invited Ian Fleming to lunch at the Carton Hotel Grill [Where else?], where Godfrey and another admiral “liked the cut of his jib,” and brought him on board to learn the deepest of Britain’s secrets, and to act on them. He was the proverbially smooth young man looking to get ahead, and he did. In return, Fleming would immortalize Admiral Godfrey as “M” in his Bond novels—one letter IDs were de rigeur in the intelligence game: “C” was the ailing head of the Secret Intelligence Service, or MI-6, and the question was who would inherit his role, Stewart (“Jock”) Menzies, or Claude Dancey, “fifteen years older. . . more of a rough diamond (‘an utter shit; corrupt, incompetent, but with a certain low cunning,’ according to Hugh Trevor-Roper [the Oxford historian, wartime intelligence officer and future Lord Dacre], who ran the covert Z network of agents and. . . used Alexander Korda’s film company as a front.” Thanks to Rankin, I now know that coveted bottle of green ink was by tradition the sole prerogative of “C”, and that Menzies was expected to get it, and so he did, although many people thought he was only the window dressing for Dancey. As a boy I actually met some of these people, who were friends of my Uncle Alex’s, like Graham Greene, who was for a time “Our Man in Monrovia” for MI-6, and Trevor-Roper, whose lectures I attended at Oxford, and numerous louches, polyglot European film makers, still photographers, and screen writers, who slipped seamlessly into intelligence work in Britain.

Nicholas Rankin is terrific at this kind of thing, his brief sketches of the intelligence chiefs are wonderful, and he can do it for page after page, one anecdote after another, without pausing for breath, as he can about clandestine warfare, whether it’s the story about the melons filled with high explosive, or the tragic Dieppe raid in 1942, which was at once the coming of age of the commandoes and the vital, if costly learning process about amphibious landings without which TORCH (North Africa) and OVERLORD (Normandy) might have failed. He describes combat very well indeed, but he is also very skilled at boiling down the whole story of Bletchley and the breaking of the German Enigma code system (the crown jewel of British intelligence in World War Two) into manageable form, about which whole vast books have been written, and also good at explaining inventions like the proximity fuse, or airborne radar. He would have been a terrific person to have around SIS, or DNI, in World War Two himself, very good at fulfilling Winston Churchill’s constant demand to explain even the most complicated things “on one piece of paper only.”

He manages to make 30 Assault Unit sound like a good place to have spent the war, a bit dangerous perhaps, but never boring! Thanks partly to Ian Fleming’s influence, officers were hand-picked volunteers, adventurers, tough young former public school boys, often recruited at the bar of London’s better clubs, who then got to go and search out their own NCOs and men, choosing interesting rogues, misfits, and hard cases (but not professional criminals, whose courage, it was believed would break in combat), and everybody from the top down was steeped in aggressive spirit to a degree rare in the history of warfare. You can actually see how Fleming distilled not only his own character and habits, but the skills of many of the commandoes, officers and men, to create James Bond, the ultimate smooth tough guy.

Rankin has taken wonderful material, and made it into a compellingly readable book, one which Ian Fleming himself would have read with sardonic pleasure, lighting another Morland’s Special cigarette (he gave Bond a taste for Gauloises instead) and screwing up his eyes as the pungent smoke rose. I recommend it to everyone interested in the history of World War Two, and to all those who suppose, despite appearances today, that “there’ll always be an England.” I am looking forward to reading it again in finished form, with maps and photographs, but even in galleys, I couldn’t put it down.