Monday, 17 December 2012

James Bond's SOE origins

There have been many claims to the true inspiration for James Bond. Largely seeing action in the Second World War, these have included 30 Assault Unit's Robert Harling, commando Patrick Dalzel-Job, and Colonel D T 'Bill' Hudson, a Secret Operations Executive (SOE) agent, who inspired Ian Fleming, according to Hudson's 1995 obituary in the Times, because he was 'tall and handsome, enjoyed an active social life and charmed the women of many nations', a description which could equally have applied to Fleming!

The latest hat, or rather hats, to be thrown into the ring, are those of some of the commandos who served in SOE. In his book, Ian Fleming and SOE's Operation Postmaster (2012, Pen and Sword) Brian Lett puts forward a number of individuals who took part in a daring mission to hijack two Axis ships harboured in Fernando Po, a Spanish island off the coast of West Africa. But for Brian Lett, SOE inspired more than Fleming's literary hero; it formed the basis for the secret service for which Bond worked, provided that service with its chief, and gave Bond his gadgets, among other claims. In short, the Bond books were Fleming's heavily disguised tribute to SOE. This post isn't the place to discuss all the claims in detail, but it is worth reviewing some of Lett's more plausible, as well as his less convincing, assertions.

Lett makes the reasonable suggestion that Fleming looked to SOE when locating the headquarters of the secret service. Fleming described Bond's office as 'a gloomy building overlooking Regent's Park'. The Secret Intelligence Service has never been based in that part of London, and so Fleming's location seems puzzling. However, when we consider that the headquarters of SOE was at 64 Baker Street, a stone's throw from Regent's Park, then Fleming's description could be regarded as a deliberate mistake. After all,  until 1994, SIS/MI6 didn't officially exist (whereas SOE had been disbanded in 1946), and Fleming had to be careful about what information he divulged.

A similar argument could be made for Fleming naming Bond's chief as M, rather than C, the head of SIS. Presumably Fleming wasn't permitted to acknowledge the head of SIS as C, and so may have taken M, the code name of SOE's head of operations and training, as a plausible alternative. Ignoring other possibilities – M may have been a nod to Somerset Maugham's fictional spy chief R, a reference to Fleming's mother, or simply a representation of the character's name, Sir Miles Messervy, following MI5 chief Maxwell Knight's habit of signing documents 'M' and Fleming's similar use of the letter 'F'  – Lett further suggests that the character of M was based on the first M of SOE, Major General Sir Colin Gubbins. While Fleming was certainly acquainted with Colin Gubbins and was aware of his role in SOE, Fleming's own chief, Admiral John Godfrey, still seems a more likely model for M.

Station codes were another aspect of SOE that Fleming may have adopted. In the Bond novels, codes such as A for Austria or Australia, C for Canada or the Caribbean and S for the Soviet Union appear to have been Fleming's invention, as conventionally SIS applied a two-digit number to identify countries (Germany was 12, for example). However, as Brian Lett points out, Fleming's codes more closely resemble SOE country codes; F Section identified non-Gaullist France, X Section was Germany, T Section was Belgium and Luxembourg, and N Section was the Netherlands.

West Africa, the location of Operation Postmaster, was identified as section W, and the code was also used for the codes of individual agents. Commandos were given code names beginning W0 (thus, Captain Gus March-Phillipps, the operation leader, as W01, and his second-in-command, Lieutenant Geoffrey Appleyard was W02). For other, non-commando agents, the zero was dropped; for example, Major Dismore, based in SOE's Lagos office, was W39. Lett suggests that the W0 code, identified agents as 'licensed to kill', and inspired Fleming to create his own zero-based agent codes. It doesn't take much imagination, Lett argues, to turn W07 into 007. I am less convinced by this suggestion. Lett makes much of Postmaster's agents having a 'licence to kill', but in reality, didn't all commandos and other military personnel by definition have such licence? They were fighting a war, after all. In any case, there is no strong ground for doubting Ian Fleming's own explanation that the double-0 prefix was used on the Admiralty's top-secret signals during the Second World War, and he simply lifted this for his books.

As for the identity of the real James Bond, Brian Lett has no doubt that the individual is to be found among the commandos of Operation Postmaster, in particular agents Gus March-Phillips, Geoffrey Appleyard, Graham Hayes and Anders Lassen. Again, as Fleming was certainly aware of the operation and possibly of the men that took part in it, the idea cannot be dismissed entirely. But Fleming ran his own band of commandos, 30 Assault Unit, which doubtless too was filled with very brave and heroic men. It is unlikely that we'd be able to identify a single individual, or even a small group of individuals, as the 'real James Bond'. That is not to deny that Bond had commando origins; as Fleming acknowledged, Bond was 'a compound of secret agent and commando types' he had met during the war. And, of course, Fleming himself is part of that magical compound.

Brian Lett's book is a well-written and exciting page-turner about a daring coastal operation that succeeded against the odds. The story of the brave and resourceful individuals who took part in it deserves to be told. Fleming had his own small role in that operation, and the book is a must-read for Fleming aficionados for that reason. Fleming's SOE connection gives rise to potential links between Bond and SOE, but while some of these are intriguing and even plausible, others are very speculative and in need of further evidence. The search for Bond's origins (if indeed we need to search for them) continues.

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