The story of Ian Fleming's 30 Commando/Assault Unit has been a long time in the telling. There have been books from members of the elite force, such as From Arctic Snow to Dust of Normandy, by Patrick Dalzel-Job, and The Hazard Mesh, by J A C 'Tony' Hugill, but these have been personal narratives, rather than broader dispassionate histories. Recently, we have had Craig Cabell's History of the 30 Assault Unit, which, though a welcome attempt to tell the story of the unit, incorporating interviews with survivors and information from documents that had remained secret, lacked depth and was marred by excessive typographic errors. Then there was the film, Age of Heroes, starring Sean Bean. The film had its moments, but contained too many plot holes or rather great chunks of script torn from the pages of the screenplay to accommodate the shoestring budget.
So with the publication of Nicholas Rankin's, Ian Fleming's Commandos: the story of the 30 Assault Unit in WWII, the 30AU and Ian Fleming's role in it finally has a definitive account. What separates this book from those before it is the author's complete self-assurance at placing the inception and function of the unit in context. The book spends pages and pages away from the unit to explain the work of the Bletchley Park code-breakers, or German rocket technology or the events leading up and during the war in the Mediterranean and D-Day. Consequently, the importance and success of the work of 30AU – particularly with regard to Enigma and German naval intelligence – is made more significant.
The book also details aspects of the war that normally fall between the cracks of official histories. Rankin describes the petty jealousies among officers and leaders, devastating friendly-fire incidences caused by poor communication and human error, and the mental anguish and physical horrors suffered by soldiers in the face of the carnage of Dieppe and D-Day. But above all, there is the bravery, comradeship, humour and incredible heroism among the men who served in 30AU.
Ian Fleming's achievements were as an organiser, fixer, and administrator. Very early in the war, he recognised the valuable contribution that elite units could make to intelligence gathering. This was irregular warfare of which not everyone approved. But Fleming was adept at persuading people to his way of thinking, and before long his commandos were up and running. Then on, he made sure that his men had everything they needed to carry out their work, even if that meant ruffling the feathers of the top brass.
But although Fleming was respected by his men, but he was not universally liked. Tony Hugill thought him 'one of those superior professorial type RNVRs', although he modified his opinion after being name-checked in The Man With The Golden Gun.
The 30AU and the world of wartime intelligence had a lasting impact on Fleming, and their legacy is apparent in the James Bond books he wrote 10-20 years after the end of the Second World War. Of James Bond, Fleming said that he was a 'compound of secret agent and commando types'. Rankin highlights other connections. For example, M is popularly thought to have been based on Fleming's chief in the Naval Intelligence Division, Admiral John Godfrey, but he also writes in a green ink like Colonel Claude Dansey, a top SIS officer (a Major Dansey is also mentioned as Kerim Bey's predecessor in From Russia, with Love). Rankin wonders whether the name Dr No was influenced by a certain Dr Noton, who had complained about 30AU. And in Thunderball, Largo's men steal the two nuclear weapons from the RAF bomber using a two-man midget submarine employed in the war by the Italian navy (also a 30AU target) usually to plant limpet mines.
The stories that rely most heavily on the work and the targets of the 30AU are, of course, Moonraker and 'Octopussy'. The former is steeped in the events of the end of the Second World War and the start of the Cold War. For instance, and most obviously, it has as its backdrop Britain's attempt to develop an independent nuclear capability and keep up with the Americans and Soviets. Fleming refers to the race in the months before and after the war ended to capture German missile experts and technology. Drax's missile system is fuelled by hydrogen peroxide, a fuel developed by the Germans for submarines (and whose secrets were pinched by 30AU) but superseded soon after the war by nuclear power. Krebs, Drax's main henchman, served in the war as a 'Werewolf'', a member of a Nazi youth guerrilla organisation.
The short story 'Octopussy' concerns the actions of Major Dexter Smythe, an officer in the Miscellaneous Objectives Bureau, whose mission is to clear out German hide-outs. Clearly 30AU provides a model for the fictional MOB force. The gold that Smythe kills for (and the reason why Bond tracks him down) is taken from the massive hoards of gold stolen and melted down on an industrial scale by the Nazis throughout the war.
Nicholas Rankin's book contains many other links between Fleming's war and James Bond, and is an essential read for anyone interested in the origins of Bond and his adventures.