In the social round, Ian met Ann Charteris, a friend of Somerset Maugham and Evelyn Waugh. Her marriage to Lord O’Neill had broken down and she was having an affair with Esmond Harmsworth, son of the newspaper proprietor Lord Rothermere. Her friends called Fleming “Glamour Boy”, but Ann found his moody good looks appealing and soon went to bed with him.
He declined an offer to take a trip around the Balkans with her in May 1939. Instead, he intended to return to Moscow; with war looming, he wanted to get more involved in intelligence work. Already his brother Peter was working part-time for Military Intelligence. With Peter’s help, he was taken on by The Times to cover a British trade mission to the Soviet Union, where he bedded a young lady from Odessa. He brought back Russian condoms made from artificial latex so that industrial analysts could judge the state of Soviet manufacturing. Otherwise, an article he wrote on the state of the Soviet Union’s armed forces was rejected by The Times. Instead, he sent it to a friend at the Foreign Office. They called him in. Soon after, Fleming made another trip to the Continent, where he had a one-night stand with the actress Diana Napier in a wagon-lit, a scene revisited in From Russia With Love.
This freelance spying had done him no harm. Back in London, he was taken to lunch in the Carlton Grill by Admiral John Godfrey, director of Naval Intelligence. After a brief trial, Fleming was taken on as Godfrey’s deputy and given a commission in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve. He appeared for dinner at the O’Neills' in his naval uniform on 4 September, the first day of the war, only to be teased by his friends. However, for once in his life, what he was doing was deadly serious. At Room 39 in the Admiralty and in Operational Intelligence Centre deep below Whitehall, he worked plotting German shipping movements from the intercepted signals being decoded at Bletchley Park. Fleming’s Section 17 formulated strategy and briefed Winston Churchill, initially when he was First Lord of the Admiralty and, later, as prime minister. Commander Fleming occupied a desk outside Admiral Godfrey’s green baize door and liaised with the other secret services, often via meetings at White’s. It seems that Fleming had, at last, found his métier. He worked long hours, starting at six in the morning – two and a half hours before his boss – and stretching long into the night. Part of his job was to liaise with the heavily censored press. As a result he got to know Lord Kemsley, owner of the Sunday Times.
He also got to know the Australian pilot Sydney Cotton who undertook photo-reconnaissance work for the department. Cotton was an amateur inventor who came up with novel solutions for technical problems, along the lines of Q. Together they encouraged the use of radar, then in its infancy.
Peter Fleming was now working for Military Intelligence’s dirty tricks department MI(R). With his old journalist colleague Sefton Delmer, Ian began dreaming up dirty tricks too – producing Reichsmark coins with propaganda on the rear, forging German banknotes to sabotage the currency, making black propaganda broadcasts, spreading morale-sapping rumours and devising a plot to entrap German secret agents after two SIS – Secret Intelligence Service – men had been grabbed in the Netherlands. Fleming also set a up scheme to buy up German shipping docked in Spanish ports so that it could not be used by the enemy. And he oversaw a plan to scuttle barges full of cement at the narrowest point of the Danube to deny Germany petrol from the Romanian oilfields. The plan went wrong, but the department’s agent Merlin Minshall escaped, in true James Bond style, on a high-speed Air Sea Rescue launch, then over the border to Trieste. However, the botched operation delivered the Nazis a propaganda coup and the Foreign Office was furious.
If Minshall was a prototype Bond, there were others who could have served as a model too. The rugged Michael Mason, an accomplished boxer, was also involved in the Danube barge affair. When two Nazi agents were sent to assassinate him he killed them both. Then there was Commander Alexander “Sandy” Glen, an alumnus of Fettes like Bond who, while naval attaché in Belgrade, seduced the wife of a Belgian diplomat; and Commander Wilfred “Biffy” Dunderdale, the immaculately dressed SIS station chief in Paris. Wearing Cartier cuff-links and handmade suits, he drove a bulletproof Rolls-Royce. Dunderdale had pulled off the biggest intelligence coups of the war. He had learnt of the Polish progress towards breaking the German Enigma code and sent plans of the “bombe” used to decipher the code and two Polish copies of the Enigma machine to London.
Meanwhile, Fleming’s brother Peter made his first foray into light fiction with The Flying Visit, which concerns Hitler’s unplanned arrival in England after his plane had been shot down while the Führer was observing a bombing raid. When Hitler’s deputy Rudolf Hess mysteriously turned up in Scotland in May 1941, Peter appeared chillingly prescient. Peter had also seen action in Norway – even reported killed in action at one point – before taking a post parallel to Ian’s as assistant to the director of Military Intelligence. Together they spent Whitsun weekend in Southend after intelligence had been received that the Germans were planning a raid.
Ian then became a field agent himself. When SIS pulled out of Paris, he flew in, sustaining his two-week secondment with cash that SIS kept in the offices of Rolls-Royce in Paris. It was here that Fleming made his first contact with the Deuxième Bureau, which features regularly in the Bond novels. As the Germans closed in on Paris, Fleming headed to Tours, temporary home to the French Ministry of Marine. His mission was to find out from Navy Minister François Darlan what would happen to the French Navy in the event of an armistice.
Next Fleming went to Bordeaux, where he arranged shipping to carry fleeing Britons and other refugees to England. While SIS agents and British diplomatic staff headed home, Fleming moved on to Lisbon. From there, he was to fly to Madrid to liaise with the British naval attaché. However, the only airline flying that route was Lufthansa, and they refused to take him. Fleming insisted. As a commercial airline, they were obliged to take him anywhere they flew to, provided he could pay for the ticket.
Fleming returned to Room 39 with his reputation enhanced. But now that German U-boats were sailing from ports along the west coast of France, Naval Intelligence had no more time for dirty tricks. However, Fleming would keep in touch with clandestine operations as liaison officer with the newly formed Special Operations Executive, whose job, Churchill said, was to “set Europe ablaze”. He also liaised with Robert Bruce Lockhart, who later headed the Political Warfare Executive; Fitzroy Maclean, who fought alongside Tito in Yugoslavia; the Free French and the Norwegians who sent agents via the “Shetland bus” service across the North Sea into Scandinavia.
Fleming also took an interest in gadgets. With gunsmith Robert Churchill, he developed a gas pistol disguised as a fountain pen. Bomb-maker and dirty-tricks expert Lord Suffolk taught him how to kill a man by biting the back of his neck, and Charles Fraser-Smith at the Ministry of Supply showed him shoelaces that acted as saws, shaving brushes with secret compartments and hollowed-out golf balls. These would make their appearance in Diamonds Are Forever, where they are used to carry uncut stones. Fraser-Smith was the model for Major Boothroyd, the departmental armourer in Dr No, a character that was developed into Q in the films. Fleming also liaised with William “Wild Bill” Donovan – the World War I Medal-of-Honor winner who was to set up the US Office of Strategic Services, which later became the CIA – when he made a fact-finding trip to England.
Friends were found jobs at Bletchley Park, the Operational Intelligence Centre, where enemy submarines were tracked, or the “secret navy” that landed agents in occupied Europe. But although Bletchley Park had cracked the codes used by the German army, air force and intelligence service – the Abwehr – it had not broken those used by the German Navy, or Kriegsmarine. So Fleming devised Operation Ruthless. A captured Heinkel would be ditched in the Channel. When its crew were picked up by a German vessel, they would kill the boat’s crew and steal its code books. Fleming pencilled in his own name as one of the German-speaking Heinkel crew, but he was not allowed to go on the mission. Naval Intelligence could not risk his capture – he knew too much. Ian assembled the team in Dover but, in the end, the operation was cancelled either because there were no suitable German vessels plying the Channel or because the crew would probably have drowned before they could get out of the ditched plane.
Disappointed, Ian continued his social round in London, bedding women and dining out with friends who now included Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands and Martha Huysmans, the daughter of the Belgian prime minister. On three occasions he was lucky to escape death during the Blitz when the place he was dining was hit by a bomb. Fleming and his set rarely retreated to the air-raid shelter. Then came the news that his younger brother Michael was missing in action, then a PoW though wounded, then dead.
Ian was sent back to Lisbon and Madrid on Operation Golden Eye, a sabotage operation to prevent the Germans from entering Spain and threatening Gibraltar. “Wild Bill” Donovan was making a trip around British facilities in the Mediterranean at the time and it was vital to convince him that Britain would not capitulate.
In May 1941, Ian and Admiral Godfrey flew to the US to see Donovan again and co-ordinate intelligence matters between the two countries. On the way, they stopped at Bermuda where Ian lost money to some Portuguese businessmen at the tables. As he was leaving the casino, he turned to Godfrey and said: “What if those men had been German secret service agents, and suppose we had cleaned them out of their money. Now that would have been exciting.”
The scene would be recalled in Casino Royale. However, there may have been some other origins for the tale. Ralph Izzard, another member of Naval Intelligence, told Ian about the time he played roulette with expatriate Nazis in Lisbon while en route to South America on a wartime mission. Then there was Dusko Popov, the Yugoslav playboy and MI5 double agent in the Abwehr that many people think James Bond is based on, who passed messages by the numbers he bet on in the Casino in Estoril. Once Popov was gambling in Lisbon when he was annoyed by a Lithuanian who would call “Banque ouverte” every time he held the bank, indicating there was no upper limit. Popov pulled out $30,000, which belonged to MI5. The Lithuanian blanched and declined the bet. Popov put the money back in his pocket and walked away. This incident became part of the Popov legend. Fleming would have known about it and it was possibly the inspiration behind some of Bond’s gambling antics. Popov was also a legendary womanizer. His disinformation operation was called “Tricycle” because of his fondness for taking two women to bed at the same time and he had a celebrated affair with French actress Simone Simon. In August 1941, Popov discovered that the Japanese were preparing to attack Pearl Harbor. He informed the FBI. But bureau chief J. Edgar Hoover discovered that Popov had taken a woman with him from New York to Florida and threatened to have him arrested under the Mann Act if he did not leave the US immediately.
When asked whether he was the inspiration for James Bond, Popov was dismissive. “I doubt whether a flesh-and-blood Bond would last forty-eight hours as a spy,” he said.
In Washington, Fleming and Godfrey were given a curt tour of the FBI facilities – and the brush-off by Hoover, who was notoriously anti-British. Moving on to New York, they met William Stephenson whose British Security Coordination Office in Rockefeller Center ran all British intelligence in the western hemisphere. A decorated fighter-pilot in World War I and European lightweight amateur boxing champion, Stephenson was a millionaire by the time he was thirty, having invented a way to transmit photographs by radio. Fleming was fascinated by Stephenson’s operation in New York and his secret Station M in Canada which produced technical gadgets and forged documents.
Fleming joined Stephenson on a mission. The Japanese Consulate was on the floor below Stephenson’s office and a cipher clerk there was sending coded messages back to Tokyo by shortwave radio. His movements were studied by Stephenson, who had duplicate keys prepared. At three in the morning, they broke into the consulate, microfilmed the code books and returned them to the safe. In Casino Royale, Bond said that he earned his double-O number after killing a cipher expert in the Rockefeller Center.
Stephenson lent another element to the mix. According to Fleming, Stephenson mixed the largest dry martinis in America and served them in quart glasses. He was undoubtedly an influence. In a letter to the Sunday Times in 1962, Fleming said: “James Bond is a highly romanticized version of a true spy. The real thing is … William Stephenson.”
Stephenson even had a plan to get his hands on three million dollars in gold, which belonged to the Vichy government and was held on the Caribbean island of Martinique, and this may have helped inspire Goldfinger. The plan never came to fruition.
Godfrey dined with President Roosevelt, presenting the final arguments that the Americans set up a centralized intelligence agency under Donovan. His job done, he left Ian in Washington to help draw up proposals for this new agency. To express his gratitude, Donovan gave Fleming a .38 Police Positive Colt, inscribed: “For Special Services.”
On his way back to England, Fleming stopped off in Tangiers, where he and the local Golden Eye representative got drunk and broke into a bullring where they marked out a twenty-foot V for victory.
Ian then attempted to get himself posted to Moscow, but was blocked by the head of the Military Mission there. Instead, he began working with the Political Warfare Executive (PWE). He made broadcasts in German, telling the Kriegsmarine their U-boats leaked. He also supplied debriefs of captured U-boat crew to Sefton Delmer, now head of PWE, who used details in his black propaganda broadcasts put out on bogus German radio stations the PWE had set up. Also on the staff were Robert Harling, who Fleming knew from publishing circles before the war, and the thriller-writer Dennis Wheatley. Ever the gentleman, Ian also took captured German naval officers out for drinks in the hope of pumping them for information.
Fleming and his various girlfriends made the best of the privations of the war. Although he complained that the Savoy was now making martinis out of bathtub gin and sherry, he could still get his Morland Specials – with three bands to denote his rank as commander – upping his order to four hundred a week. He went to great lengths to obtain other luxuries. His mistress, Ann O’Neill, said that Ian could stand anything except discomfort.
Fleming had thought the war was as good as over when the United States entered in December 1941. He became rapidly disillusioned. When Singapore fell two months later, he blamed it on the fact that the British Army no longer shot deserters. Then he began to complain about Donovan – and even Stephenson. Fleming wanted more action. He had noticed that during the German invasion of Crete a special intelligence unit had gone in with the frontline troops to seize documents before the defenders could destroy them. He asked divisional directors in the Admiralty what materials they would have wanted in such circumstances. Soon he had a shopping list. A unit of what Fleming called “Red Indians” was set up, operating out of Room 30 at the Admiralty. Unfortunately, the first action it took part in was the disastrous raid on Dieppe in August 1942. Fleming was allowed to go along as an observer, though he was not allowed to land. Again, he was considered too valuable to risk capture. He took delight in seeing the casino on the front being destroyed by naval shell fire. His ship was also hit by a shell and was forced to return to England. Ian wrote up the raid for the department’s Weekly Intelligence Report, putting as favourable gloss on it as possible under the circumstances.
Ian and Godfrey headed off to the US to liaise with the now full-fledged OSS, though on the eve of their departure Godfrey was sacked as director of Naval Intelligence. In New York, Ian was introduced to Walter Winchell, king of gossip journalists, before moving on to Jamaica for an Anglo-American naval conference. He travelled by train to Miami, along the line taken by James Bond with Solitaire in Live and Let Die. In Jamaica, Fleming lodged with his old school friend Ivar Bryce in a house where Ian’s hero Lord Nelson had stayed as a young man. On his flight back to Washington, Ian announced: “When we have won this blasted war, I am going to live in Jamaica … and swim in the sea and write books.”
Back in London, Fleming heard from his Golden Eye operation that miniature submarines had tried to attack British aircraft carriers in the harbour at Gibraltar. They had been delivered to Algeciras Bay by a tanker and deployed through a trapdoor in the bottom: the idea would be used in Thunderball.
Back in England, Fleming oversaw the training of his new intelligence force, now known as 30 Advanced Unit, which accompanied the Anglo-American landings in Algeria and Morocco that November. During the operation, Admiral Darlan was murdered. He had been set up by the SIS.
Fleming was involved in Operation Mincemeat – the inspiration behind the book and film The Man Who Never Was – where a body was washed up on the shores of Spain carrying documents indicating that the next Allied landings would be in Greece and Sardinia, rather than Sicily where they actually took place. He also maintained his contacts in the City and crossed the Atlantic twice more, to attend summits between Churchill and Roosevelt. On one occasion he met his brother Peter, who had been posted to India and was making a pitch to run all deception operations in the Pacific.
During the Quebec Conference of August 1943, Fleming visit Stephenson’s Camp X in Canada, where SOE and OSS agents were taught the rudiments of their craft. It seems that Ian was not allowed to participate, but Camp X seems to be where James Bond learnt his stuff.
Next Fleming went to the Churchill–Roosevelt conference in Cairo. On the flight, he travelled with Joan Bright, a woman he had got a job for at SIS; he had been seeing for about a year, and amused her with his stories.
In the run-up to D-Day, Fleming liaised with Lieutenant Alan Schneider of US Naval Intelligence. Schneider was also drafted in to help when Ian got more involved than he intended with an attractive captain in the US Women’s Army Corps. Ian explained: “Women are like pets, like dogs; men are the only real human beings you could be friends with.” However, when a long-term girlfriend he had treated abominably was killed in an air raid, Ian was visibly shaken and carried her bracelet on his key ring.
At the time, Fleming was running a special committee channelling information from Bletchley Park to the naval side of Operation Overlord, the D-Day landings. He also went to visit 30AU in North Africa and took a shooting trip to the Atlas Mountains with the British minister Duff Cooper. Fleming’s “Red Indians” had now swelled to three hundred men. There was a core of trained intelligence officers with a large force of Royal Marines to protect them. When they were returned to England in preparation for the Normandy landings, Fleming spent his time compiling lists of German equipment to be captured. Then a week before D-Day, he held a dinner at the Gargoyle club for the unit’s officers and their wives and girlfriends.
In Normandy, the now-renamed 30 Assault Unit fought hard and produced results. However, they had a bad reputation when it came to drink and women, prompting Admiral Cunningham to dub them 30 Indecent Assault Unit. They did not take it too kindly when their well-tailored commander crossed the Channel to tell them off and deliberately put Fleming in the way of German fire. Nor was Fleming popular with General Patton, who was in overall command of that sector. He did not like sailors. After Patton had inspected the vast V-2 installations the Allies had uncovered, Fleming was invited to have lunch him. He ducked out. Instead he went for a picnic with Robert Harling, who asked him what he was going to do after the war. Ian’s reply was that he would write “the spy story to end all spy stories”.
After the liberation of Paris, 30AU returned to England for further training, ready for the invasion of Germany. Ian was visiting Ann at the home of her other lover Esmond Harmsworth, now Lord Rothermere, when a telegram arrived telling her that her husband, Lord O’Neill had been killed in Italy. Ian was sympathetic and thoughtfully handled the practicalities concerning the children.
Fleming volunteered to review the intelligence infrastructure of the newly created Pacific Fleet. He headed for Cairo, then Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). In Colombo, he met a Wren named Clare Blanshard and told her that he never intended to spend another winter in England. He then travelled on to Australia, and returned to England by way of Pearl Harbor.
By this time, 30AU were entering Germany and Fleming was drawing up lists of new German inventions the unit was to capture. These included a jet-powered hydrofoil and “Cleopatra”, an amphibious device that exploded beach defences. Another item on the list was a one-man submarine. Admiral Ramsay, now in overall command, doubted that such a thing existed. When one was found beached near Ostend Ramsay was still sceptical, so the midget submarine was put on a tank transporter and sent round to him.
“The thing’s a toy,” said Ramsay. But when he looked down the periscope, he could see the eye of a dead German who had been drowned when the mini-sub had foundered.
The men of 30AU captured not only a boat designed to run on hydrogen peroxide, but the torpedo experimental station at Eckernforder and the entire German Navy’s Warfare Science Department. Fleming went personally to seize the German naval archives dating back to 1870 and stopped them being torched. He had them shipped back to London, along with an elderly admiral to edit them. Fleming's final signal to his unit was: “Find immediately the twelve top German naval commanders and make each one write ten thousand words on why Germany lost the war.”
At a party celebrating the closing down of Sefton Delmer’s black-propaganda radio stations, Ian was spotted doodling on Admiralty blotting paper. Asked what he was doing, he said he was designing the house he would live in on Jamaica. It was now common knowledge that he intended to write a book. It would be just like making salad dressing, he said. All you needed were the right ingredients in the right quantities.
Indeed, some of the essential ingredients were already in place. One evening in a pub in Westminster in 1943, C.H. Forster from the Ministry of Aircraft Production had been introduced to Lieutenant-Commander Fleming. During their discussion Forster said that Fleming had asked him what his call-up number was. Forster replied that he had been a “Bevin Boy”, conscripted to work in the mines, and had been given DMZ 7 – his lucky number – by the Ministry of Labour.
“This caused Fleming some thought,” said Forster. “Another gentleman nearby agreed that it could not be a War Department number. That would have had eight digits, such as 10,000,007, which a telephone operation would describe as one treble oh treble oh double oh seven.”