Intelligence failures: A Second World War perspective: Operation Barbarossa, June 1941

I recently recorded a lecture for a third-year university class on British intelligence and security during the Second World War. What struck me as I finished this lecture was the question that I posed to the class at its start: critically assess the view did Britain win the secret war? Now the conclusion that hopefully, the students would come to is that yes Britain was highly successful in conducting intelligence operations during the Second World War. However, the nation did suffer some major and embarrassing intelligence failures. This idea of intelligence failure will be the focus for the next series of posts through an examination of some cases from the Second World War.

Intelligence failure is an important and crucial area of intelligence studies and a number of academics since the 1960s have spent their careers researching and reviewing this area. Dr Thomas E. Copeland defines intelligence failures ‘as the failures to anticipate important information and events’. Copeland noted there are a number of different reasons for intelligence failures and ‘they can include organizational obstacles, psychological and analytical challenges, problems with warning information, and failures of political leadership’.[1] Intelligence failings can be placed in a number of different categories: overestimations, underestimations, overconfidence, complacency, ignorance and inability to make connections.   The phrase ‘failure of intelligence’ is not uncommon in the current climate of international terrorism and attacks such as 9/11, 7/7 and the Manchester bombing of 2017 have all been labelled as intelligence failures as such actions were totally unexpected and a surprise to the intelligence officers who were supposed to be working to protect the citizens of their nations.

A classic example of intelligence failure due to underestimation and failure of political leadership was during the Second World War when the Soviet Union was surprised by Nazi Germany invasion, codenamed Operation Barbarossa, in June 1941. This was surprising as all the signs of an impending invasion were clear to be seen. Hitler was amassing 3 million troops along a front that stretched from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea, and there had been a significant increase in aerial recognizance flights Hitler was sending over Russia and even a Soviet spy rings operating in London, Berlin, Paris, Bucharest, Tokyo and Switzerland had all provided intelligence about significant Nazi military build-up along the western border of the Soviet Union. Also, Britain had even provided intelligence about the impending attack, and this information had been gained from the interception and deciphering of German wireless communication. This information was passed on Joseph Stalin, but the Soviet leader refused to believe the warnings about a coming Nazi strike. He views the idea of German attack as impossible and plots by the British to deceive him possibly into attacking Germany. Importantly, he underestimated the threat posed by Hitler in the summer of 1941. Afterall at this time, he was allied with Hitler following the August 1939 non-aggression Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and he was in close communication with Hitler. The Germans had informed him and his army commanders that the build-up of forces used the excuse that the presence of approximately 140 divisions in the region was due to keeping them out of range of British bombers prior to the invasion of Britain. Hitler also stated that the build-up of forces was to porrect the recent German conquests in Poland and part of the strengthening of the borders of the Nazi Empire. Also, within the Soviet military leader, there was a culture of secrecy and fear brought on by the vast purges enacted by Stalin during the 1930s that had witnessed hundreds of senior and respected army commander being arrested being enemies of the state and many ended up being executed or imprisoned in Gulags in Siberia. A major target for these purges had been officials who had questioned Stalin’s orders and while there was intelligence that presented the view of potential invasion many officers who were willing to review these reports and possible take action felt it was more prudent to support Stalin’s interpretation of no immediate threat from the Nazis due to fear of potential arrest.  

So, what can be learned from the intelligence failure of Operation Barbarossa? Firstly, there was no failure to anticipate the important event of Nazi invasion – spies working for Moscow had reportedly provided intelligence that showed an attack was imminent and officers may have wanted to review the intelligence, but Stalin’s view of the no-imminent threat from Berlin ruled supreme within the military of the Soviet Union. When Soviet forces would have been preparing their defences for a coming invasion, they were instructed not to do so. While the German misdirection campaign that covered the intentions for Operation Barbarossa was very efficient, the surprise of the attack that caught the Soviets total by surprise could not have been achieved without Stalin’s inactivity. This meant that between June and August 1941, some German forces were able to penetrate 400 miles into the Soviet Union. Stalin was in disbelief at the attack and raged about the lack of pre-warning even though the signs were there beforehand. This case shows that intelligence failings can take many forms and here while intelligence had provided forewarning Stalin’s underestimation of the Nazi threat and failure of providing adequate political leadership contributed to the Soviet defeat in the summer of 1941.

[1] Thomas E. Copeland, Fool Me Twice: Intelligence Failure and Mass Casualty Terrorism, 2007.

The names Fleming, Ian Fleming

Another 'JB'? Ian Fleming's alternative hero – The James Bond International  Fan Club

The recent posts of this blog have been directed towards identifying individuals who could have inspired Ian Fleming when he came to James Bond. So far, we have looked at Forest Yeo-Thomas the heroic SOE agent captured and interrogated by the Nazis, Patrick Dalzel-Job the courage British naval commando who served in 30 Assault Unit which led by Fleming, Duŝan ‘Duŝko’ Popov the charismatic double agent and William Stephenson the British spymaster who was based in New York City. Beyond these individuals, a further character also had a profound impact on the development of 007 and that was Fleming himself.  Soon after the release of the Bond novels comparisons between Fleming and his fictional character were made but Fleming was quick to disagree with such a view. In 1963 he stated that he ‘didn’t have his [Bond’s] guts’ and he was totally unlike Bond.[1] However, Fleming’s biographer, John Pearson, noted that Fleming did have many similarities with Bond.[2] Both were heavy drinkers, womanisers and frequent gamblers and the physical description of Bond, detailed in From Russia with love was very similar to Fleming’s physical appearance.[3] William Plomer, who was one of Fleming’s oldest friends, stated in 1965 that ‘there may be something Flemingish about Bond’.[4]

Beyond these characteristics and physical similarities there was also the concept that through the creation of Bond Fleming was able to live a fictional lifestyle and in turn, was fictionalising his narrative of his wartime experiences. Godfrey admitted that in the course of the war Fleming frequently requested to be sent on missions with 30 Assault Unit or have more field intelligence experiences but such requests were rejected as ‘he was always too valuable to be spared’.[5] After interviewing Anne Fleming about the creation of Bond, John Pearson, Fleming’s biographer,  noted ‘what is so interesting about Bond is that the character of the secret serviceman gives Fleming a chance to turn his life he had been leading in an acceptable myth…in other words he [Bond] should be Fleming’. In essence, the world of Bond was a dreamlike world which Fleming wished he could have experienced and the Bond ‘books were his dreams. Pure Walter Mitty’.[6] Another good acquaintance of Fleming, Robert Harling, stated that ‘Bond was a Fleming alter-ego’ and he recounted a conversation with Fleming about how the fictional character was essential Fleming. Harling also asked if Bond was a manifestation of Fleming’s wartime dreams of ‘grandeur and glory’ and Fleming responded by stating that ‘there’s probably a grain of truth in that’.[7] The biographer Andrew Lycett has noted that James Bond was the man of action that he [Fleming] would have liked to have been’ and through Bond, Fleming was living out the secret service life he wished he had experienced in the war.[8] This is particularly evident in the publicity photo shoots in which Fleming posed as if he was 007 with his licence to kill. It can be said that Bond was in effect a combination of several different secret agents, special operators and Fleming’s desires and as such the result of this amalgamation was the creation of a unique fictional hero which create a legacy for both author and fictional hero. These distinctive qualities of Bond as the mythical secret agent and man of action was only achievable due to Fleming’s interactions with the special operations side of British intelligence.

See the source image

1‘Ian Fleming’, BBC Home Service, 5 Aug. 1963.

2 Pearson, The life of Ian Fleming, p. 114, 235‒7, 256‒9.

3 Macintyre, For your eyes only, pp 50‒1; Fleming, From Russia with love, pp 43‒5.

4 Plomer, ‘Ian Fleming remembered’ in Encounter, Jan. 1965, pp 64‒5.

5 Notes on interview with John Godfrey, 3 March 1965 (Pearson papers, Godfrey, Lilly Library, Indiana University).

6 Notes on interview with Anne Fleming, 16, 24, 25 Feb. 1965 (Pearson papers, Fleming, Anne, Lilly Library, Indiana University).

7 Harling, Ian Fleming, pp 323‒4.

8 Lycett, Ian Fleming, p. 223.

The real Bond – William Stephenson

Sorry for not posting in recent months this was due to technical difficulties. Continuing on from the previous posts on the theme of individuals from the Second World War who can be viewed as real life inspirations for James Bond you have to also look at William Stephenson who oversaw British intelligence operations in the Americas during the war. Stephenson was a Canadian businessman who, in June 1940, was authorised by Winston Churchill to form the British Security Co-ordination (BSC). The headquarters of the BSC was on the 34th Floor of the Rockefeller Centre in New York and was the base which dealt with all matters in relation to SIS, MI5 and SOE, including covert operations and the dissemination of pro-British propaganda, in North and South America. [1] Ian Fleming, the creator of Bond had personal contact with Stephenson in December 1941 when he accompanied Admiral Godfrey, the Director of Naval Intelligence, on a mission to North America to liaise with American secret services. [2] Reportedly, Stephenson informed Fleming that on the floor above the headquarters of the BSC in the Rockefeller Centre was the Japanese Consulate. Apparently one evening Stephenson, with the help of Fleming, clandestinely infiltrated the consulate office and stole the Japanese ciphers to make a copy of them. [3] A fictionalised reference to this incident appeared in the first Bond novel Casino Royale where it was noted that Bond had achieved his 00 status after killing a Japanese cypher clerk in the Japanese Consulate in the Rockefeller Centre in New York.[4] Fleming was very taken with Stevenson and his operations, especially his use of advanced equipment and special spy gadgetry. Also, both men shared a ‘passion for sophisticated weaponry’ and they remained in contact with each other after the war.[5] Stephenson can be described as a larger than life individual and in 1976 he produced a detailed account of espionage work that made significant revelations about his activities in the war. [6] However, a number of histories and biographies on Stephenson and the BSC have revealed that some of his exploits were exaggerated and yet he has still achieved a near mythical status within the British intelligence community during the war. [7] This legendary status of Stephenson clearly made an impression Fleming and he admitted in October 1962 that Bond is a ‘highly romanticised version of a true spy’ and that ‘the real thing is…William Stephenson’.[8]
1: Jeffery, MI6, pp 440‒1; British security coordination, pp xxvi‒xxviii.
2: Pearson, The life of Ian Fleming, pp 133-4.
3: Ibid, p. 134.
4: Fleming, Casino Royale, pp 64, 141‒2.
5: Conant, The irregulars, pp 84‒5.
6: Stephenson, A man called intrepid.
7: Hyde, The quiet Canadian; Macdonald, The true intrepid; Stafford, ‘Intrepid, pp 303‒17; Naftali, ‘Intrepid’s last deception’, pp 72‒99.
8: Sunday Times, 21 Oct. 1962.


Real life James Bond’s in the Second World War: Dušan ‘Duško’ Popov



The previous posts on the real-life inspirations for James Bond have focused on men of action who were active in the Second World War. In this post I am going to focus on another other secret service agent, Dušan ‘Duško’ Popov, who in the war lived a playboy lifestyle which was not dissimilar to that of Bond. He was a Yugoslavian international businessman who was recruited to be an MI5 double agent in 1940. He was recruited as a German agent through Johnny Jebsen, a German intelligence officer, who he befriended while studying law at the University of Freiburg in the 1930s, while working in Belgrade. After being recruited Popov who held great aversion to Nazism, after he been arrested by the Gestapo while at the University of Freiburg as the German secret police believed he was a communist, immediately offered his services to the British as well and was recruited as a double agent. He moved to London to establish a new import-export business with connections to Portugal. The Germans felt this was ideal as it gave them an agent within Britain to gather intelligence. Through his business Popov was able to travel between London and Lisbon, Portugal where he meet with German intelligence officers However, instead of passing on accurate intelligence Popov provided the Germans with information supplied by the British which was either out date, false or of very limited importance while at the same time he provided the British with a wealth information of the German secret services and their intentions.[1]
Ben Macintyre stated that he is often ‘citied as a proto-Bond’ and he shared many similarities with Fleming’s fictional character such as a taste for ‘casinos, women, fast cars, expensive clothes and strong drink’. [2] Popov lived a promiscuous lifestyle and had two or three girlfriends and lovers in every city he visited. One woman that he slept with was the famous French actress Simone Simon. A summary on Popov by one of his MI5 case officers noted that ‘he knows what he wants and it will not be his fault if he does not get it…he is fond of the society of attractive women…his amorous exploits would provide good material for Maurice Dekobra [French erotic thriller writer]’. [3] Popov was aware of the fact that he could have inspired the fictional 007 and in his post war memoir, Spy counter-spy, he noted that he was aware that Fleming ‘based his character of James Bond to some degree on me and my experiences’. [4]


While Popov was a MI5 agent, he was well respected within the British intelligence community and he was known within MI6, SOE and other intelligence services including Naval intelligence Division in which Fleming served. It is also known that Fleming and Popov interacted with each other in Lisbon in May 1941 when Popov was in possession of $40,000 which he had gained from German intelligence. He was supposed to deliver this money to MI5 but as he was a frequent gambler and had a strong fondness for casinos he was kept under surveillance by British intelligence in Lisbon before his departure to London. At his time Fleming and his superior Sir John Godfrey, the head of British Naval Intelligence Division, were in Lisbon and Fleming was assigned to monitor Popov. One evening he followed Popov into the Casino Estoril in Lisbon and during a game of baccarat Fleming observed Popov placing an extravagant bid of $50,000, of which $40,000 was in fact MI5’s money to make a fellow gambler fold. [5] This interaction may have inspired the famous baccarat gambling scene in Casino Royale between Bond and the villain Le Chiffe during which Bond attempted to bankrupt Le Chiffe by placing an exorbitant bet. [6] Popov with his love of beautiful women, gambling, casinos, strong drink and adventure can be viewed as a major influence on the creation of Bond and also demonstrates that the individuals who inspired the creation of Bond were more than just men of action who had license to kill.


1 For more on Popov and his role as a double agent see: Popov, Spy/counterspy; Miller, Codename Tricycle; Loftis, Into the lion’s mouth: the true store of Duško Popov
2 Macintyre, For your eyes only, p. 57.
3 Skoot [Popov], 23 Feb. 1941 (KV 2/845, The National Archives).
4 Popov, Spy counter-spy, p. 150; Loftis, Into the lion’s mouth, pp 81‒7, 265, 280‒4.
5 Loftis, Into the lion’s mouth, pp 78‒85.
6 Fleming, Casino Royale, pp 81‒3.

Real life James Bond’s in the Second World War: Patrick Dalzel-Job

The previous post detailed how Forest Yeo-Thomas, one of the most famous agents of the Special Operations Executive (SOE), may have inspired Ian Fleming when he came to create his fictional hero James Bond. In this post I am going to explore another individual who influenced the creation of Bond as a man of action Patrick Dalzel-Job. In the Second World War he served in 30 Assault Unit (30AU) from 1944 until the end of the war. 30 AU was a special NID intelligence commando unit tasked with gathering naval intelligence and for much of the war was over seen by Fleming himself. Consequently, the creator of James Bond had personal knowledge of Dalzel-Job who was described as being ‘one of the most enterprising, plucky and resourceful’ special operators who worked for the British secret services in the war. [1] He was a qualified parachute jumper, marksman, skier and deep-water diver, and was fluent in Norwegian, and well versed in French and German. In 1944 Dalzel-Job was recruited into 30 AU and in the months leading up to Operation Overlord, the Allied invasion of Normandy in June 1944, Dalzel-Job and other 30 AU commando were being trained in preparation for the coming offensive. [2] Dalzel-Job landed in Normandy at Utah Beach four days after the initial invasion. Throughout June and into July 1944 he secretly operated forward of the frontlines during the pitched battle for Normandy. Coming face to face with the enemy on numerous occasions and witnessing the horrors of the ‘bocage’ in Normandy Dalzel-Job continued to carry out his duties with sturdy professionalism. [3] At great personal risk Dalzel-Job and his men penetrated enemy lines in attempts to collect valuable intelligence. One such coup was the locating and capturing of a launch site used by V-1 rockets and the collecting of German documents which were stated to be ‘of local security value’. [4] Dalzel-Job remained on the front line of the Allied advance across Western Europe often working well in front of the Allied armies to secure valuable intelligence. In Cologne in March 1945 he gained access to a wealth of research papers on German rocket, missile and jet research programmes. [5] While a month later in April, again working ahead of the Allied advance, he led a recognisance unit into the German city of Bremen and personally accepted the surrender of the city. He also secured a German destroyer which was docked at the port of Bremerhaven before it could be scuttled by its crew. [6] In his memoir Dalzel-Job did comment that Fleming scrutinised his reports with great detail, and after the war he was aware that his exploits were a possible inspiration for Bond. He recorded that ‘someone said that I gave him the germ of the idea of James Bond’ and later he did admit that Fleming had informed him that Bond was to an extent modelled on himself. [7]


1 Macintyre, For your eyes only, p. 53.
2 Cabell, Ian Fleming’s secret war, p. 74‒5.
3 Bocage referred to thick hedgerows which separated fields and roads in the Normandy countryside. These high hedgerows were almost impassable to anything but heavy armour and were a natural defence used by the Germans. Beevor, D-Day, pp 151, 252‒7.
4 Dalzel-Job, Artic snow to dust of Normandy, pp 125‒6; History of 30 AU, 21 April 1948 (ADM 223/214, The National Archives).
5 Rankin, Ian Fleming’s commandos, pp 277‒8.
6 History of 30 Assault Unit, 21 April 1948 (ADM 223/214, The National Archives).
7 Macintyre, For your eyes only, p. 54.


Members of 30 AU on a training exercise

The real life James Bond’s in the Second World War: Forest Yeo-Thomas

As the previous post has stated Bond was inspired by a number of special operators and secret agents who Ian Fleming came in contact with while working in Naval Intelligence Division (NID) in the course of the Second World War. One such individual was Forest Yeo-Thomas, one of the most famous agents of the Special Operations Executive (SOE) during the war. [1] SOE had been formed in the summer of 1940 and was tasked with conducting sabotage and subversion and also to assist and work alongside resistance groups in Axis occupied Europe. Being fluent in French Yeo-Thomas was an ideal recruit for operations in occupied France. On two occasions in 1943 he was parachuted into France and tasked with establishing contacts with French resistance groups. He established himself as a major member of the SOE RF section and provided detailed reports about the situation in France. [2] During his time in France he was an effective and ruthless agent whose tactics echoed those used by Bond. He was known frequently to carry a concealed gun and on one occasion personally eliminated an enemy agent who has infiltrated a resistance network. In February 1944 he was again parachuted into France for a third time but while in Paris he was betrayed by a collaborator and captured by the Gestapo. [3] He was subjected to severe torture and was, on six occasions, stripped naked, immersed in an ice-cold bath while chained by his arms and legs, and held under water until he almost drowned. [4] He was also whipped and repeatedly beaten ‘on his head, arms, legs, body and testicles’ by the German guards. [5] At one point he was suspended him by his wrists above the floor for eight hours and this resulted in the dislocation of Yeo-Thomas’s shoulder and he almost had to have his left arm amputated after he developed a blood infection when his handcuffs bit into the bones of his wrist. [6] Throughout all of the torture Yeo-Thomas refused to give away any information and an SOE report on him stated that ‘throughout these months of almost continuous torture…Yeo-Thomas displayed supreme self-confidence and devotion to duty in refusing to talk’. [7]

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Among the NID records it was noted that ‘Yeo-Thomas is known in the NID as one of SOE’s most reliable and gallant agents’. [8] Further handwritten notes by NID officers record their ‘admiration of [Yeo-Thomas’s] …outstanding gallantry’ and stated that they were ‘speechless with admiration for such sublime bravery’. [9] Fleming was aware of Yeo-Thomas and this is corroborated by correspondence from May 1945 which reveals that Fleming was interested in hearing more about him. Fleming specifically requested a copy of the letter written by Yeo-Thomas to his sister which was dated September 1944 but had only reached SOE in May 1945. [10] This interest in Yeo-Thomas’s career showed that Fleming was aware of important heroic special operators during the war, and Yeo-Thomas and his patriotic heroism may have come to Fleming’s mind when he created Bond as the man of action, secret agent. For example, at the end of Casino Royale, the first Bond novel which was published in 1953, Bond was captured by the villain of the novel, Le Chiffe, and subjected to brutal torture including beatings and humiliation. However, Bond did not break under this extreme torture, and when writing this scene Fleming can be viewed as recalling the torture of Yeo-Thomas which was contained in graphic detail in the letter which Fleming had read in May 1945. [11]

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1 Three histories of him exist: Jackson, Churchill’s white rabbit; Seaman, Bravest of the brave; Marshall, The white rabbit.
2 Information given by F/Lt Yeo-Thomas. 22 April 1943; Talk by Yeo-Thomas on his experiences in the hands of the Gestapo, 15 Feb. 1945 (HS 9/1458, TNA).
3 Seaman, Bravest of the brave, pp 104‒7, 135.
4 Forest Yeo-Thomas to Daisy ’Dizzy’ Yeo-Thomas, 14 Sep. 1944 (HS 9/1458, TNA).
5 Seaman, Bravest of the brave, pp 136‒53; Marshall, The white rabbit, pp 109‒41.
6 Forest Yeo-Thomas to Daisy ’Dizzy’ Yeo-Thomas, 14 Sep. 1944 (ADM 223/481, TNA); Seaman, Bravest of the brave, pp 145‒6.
7 Squadron leader Forest Frederick Yeo-Thomas, undated [Sep. 1945] (HS 9/1458, TNA).
8 Minute by Director of NID, 12 May 1945 (ADM 223/481, TNA).
9 Notes on Yeo-Thomas’s letter, 13,14 May 1945 (ADM 223/481, TNA).
10 Forest Yeo-Thomas to Daisy ’Dizzy’ Yeo-Thomas, 14 Sep. 1944 (ADM 223/481, TNA).
11 Fleming, Casino Royale, pp 118‒27; Forest Yeo-Thomas to Daisy ‘Dizzy’ Yeo-Thomas, 14 Sep. 1944 (ADM 223/481, TNA).

Ian Fleming and the Second World War origins of James Bond


In 1984 literary and spy critic John Atkins stated that one of the shadows which all modern spy authors work under was that of the fictional secret agent James Bond who was created by spy novelist Ian Fleming. [1]Bond is widely regarded as the most famous fictional spy ever created and in the second half of the twentieth century had become regarded as a symbol of Britishness. [2] Through these popular novels Fleming introduced into the spy genre the concept of spies as men of action, and the concept of secret agents with licenses to kill, using violence to achieve result; this concept became a defining feature of the British spy thriller. This Bond formula which was appealing to readers and therefore commercially successful inspired future novelists who would go on to adopt this Bond formula throughout the rest of the twentieth century. [3] George Grella stated that Fleming ‘revived popular interest in the spy novel…he created more than novels of action and adventure, sex and violence – he created a phenomenon’. [4] The appearance of the Bond novels revolutionized the spy genre and as Christopher Lindner argued ‘it was really with the publication of Fleming’s 007 series beginning in the early 1950s that secret agents first hijacked the popular imagination’. [5] For the next series of posts I will explore the second world war origins of James Bond starting first with Ian Fleming and his service as an intelligence officer in the Naval Intelligence Division (NID).

Fleming was recruited by NID director, Admiral John Godfrey, in May 1939 to be his personal assistant. In 1965 Godfrey told Fleming’s biographer, John Pearson, that he had selected Fleming as he wanted someone to ‘have contacts in the city, be a bit of a man of the world, get on with people and have imagination’. [6] Fleming’s wartime work also brought him into contact with a variety of British intelligence services, such as Britain’s foreign intelligence service Secret Intelligence Service (SIS – more commonly known as MI6) and the Special Operations Executive (SOE) the clandestine service which had bene established in June 1940 and tasked with conducting sabotage and subversion in Axis occupied Europe. [7] Though this contact Fleming became aware of many clandestine operations being conducted by British intelligence services as well as the audacious and dangerous missions of British secrets agents abroad. Fleming was also involved in the creation of a special NID intelligence commando unit which was known as 30 Assault Unit (30AU) and tasked with gathering naval intelligence. [8] 30 AU recruits had advanced training in hand to hand combat, small arms, parachuting, and also in intelligence gathering, sabotage and safe breaking. [9] 30 AU saw service in number of different theaters during the war such as conducting intelligence gathering raids on the French and Norwegian coasts. They were also involved in major allied amphibious operations such as the Allied landing in North Africa (November 1942, the invasion of Sicily (July 1943) and Operation Overlord, the Allied invasion of Normandy (June 1944). After the invasion of France 30 AU served in the Allied advance across Western Europe and were involved in the capture of Cherbourg, the Liberation of Paris, the capture of the German naval base at Bremen in May 1945 and the capturing of the German naval archives at Tambach Castle, Bavaria in the last days of the war. [10]
Fleming’s senior position within NID and connections with the special operations side of the British intelligence community meant that he was aware of other special operators and secret agents who could have inspired the depiction of Bond as a spy and man of action with a license to kill. Joan Saunders, the wife of one of Fleming’s NID colleagues, stated that ‘Ian did know an awful lot of what was going on in NID’. [11] The special operators, who Fleming was aware of, were ruthless in combat and trained to kill the enemy and effectively had a license to kill. Initially, when he came to create his fiction Fleming claimed that all the characters, including Bond, were entirely fictional creations. A note on the manuscript of Casino Royale, written by Fleming in 1952 when he was writing the manuscript, stated that ‘the characters are not based on people’. [12] It is now known, however, that Bond was based on individuals who Fleming had contact with during his time at NID. In an interview with Roy Plomley from 1963 Fleming stated that ‘he [Bond] is a mixture of commando and secret service agents that I met during the war’. [13] This quote by Fleming is important because it shows that while Bond was based on real life secret service personnel Fleming cherry-picked aspects of these individuals to form a fictional concoction from which Bond emerged. A significant result of this was that Bond assumed a near mythical persona – a super spy.

Ian Fleming at his desk at Goldeneye, Jamaica

1 Atkins, The British spy novel, p. 123.
2 Chapman, ‘Bond and Britishness’, pp 129‒43.
3 Some of these authors who employed this Bond formula include Adam Diment, Stephen Coulter, James Mayo, James Gardner, James Munro and Peter O’Donnell. For more on Fleming’s successors see Ripley, Kiss kiss, bang bang, pp 150‒75.
4 Grella, ‘Ian Fleming’, pp 571‒3.
5 Lindner, ‘Criminal vision and the ideology of detection in Flemings 007 series’, p. 77.
6 Notes on interview with John Godfrey, 3 March 1965 (Pearson papers, Godfrey, Lilly Library, Indiana University).
7 Rankin, Ian Fleming’s commandos, p.106.
8 It was known as 30 Commando Unit. For more on Fleming’s wartime experiences see: Cabell, Ian Fleming’s secret war; Pearson, The life of Ian Fleming, pp 101‒61; Lycett, Fleming, pp 101‒58
9 Progress of Special Engineers Unit, 12 Oct. 1942 (ADM 223/500, The National Archives [TNA]).
10 History of Sigint operations undertaken by 30 Commando/30AU, [undated] (ADM 223/213, TNA); History of 30 Assault Unit, 21 April 1948 (ADM 223/214, TNA).
11 Notes on interview with Joan Saunders, 24 March 1965 (Pearson papers, Saunders, Lilly Library, Indiana University).
12 Casino Royale manuscript (Fleming papers, Lilly Library, Indiana University). I am intended to Ian Fleming Publications Ltd for allowing me to access the original Fleming manuscripts.
13 Ian Fleming’, BBC Home Service, 5 Aug. 1963.


William le Queux: spy novelist and a spy?


Le Queux was labelled the master of mystery and this title was very fitting for him as his life was extremely mysterious and secret. One of the main ambiguities around Le Queux was the concept that he was a spy for the British state in the years prior to 1914. This concept was fashioned by both Le Queux as well as his biographer, Douglas Sladen.[1] According to them Le Queux’s spy fiction was influenced and shaped through his access to secret reports as well as the experiences and connections that Le Queux had while working as a British spy. In the introduction of many of his spy novels Le Queux wrote that through some unspecified connections he had gained knowledge of some aspect of secret service work or foreign espionage threat in Britain which he used to produce his fiction.[2] For example, in the introduction to his 1909 bestseller Spies of the Kaiser Le Queux wrote ‘I have before me a file of amazing documents, which plainly show the feverish activity with which this advanced guard of our enemy is working to secure for their employers the most detailed information’. [3] This resulted in some of his readers gaining the impression that Le Queux was well informed about the secret world of intelligence and through his fiction and public speeches he was offering an insight into the world of British clandestine operations. Le Queux’s heroic spying exploits for Britain were also praised by Sir Robert Gower, a Conservative MP, who stated that Le Queux ‘risked his life in countless exploits for the country’s benefit – exploits far exceeding in their daring the most colourful adventures of his bravest heroes’. [4] Thus it would appear that Le Queux was bridging the gap between the fictional world of intelligence in his spy novels and the real world of British secret service activities. The problem with these claims of Le Queux’s secret work is the lack of evidence to support them. These accounts were always vague. For example, when describing his supposed secret service work, he never provided dates, locations or names of individuals he interacted with and he was often extremely vague about what he had done. Once he simply said ‘I had kept my eyes and ears open’ when detailing his secret work in Germany on an unspecified date prior to 1914.[5] Moreover, among the available historical evidence there is no proof to support the claims that Le Queux was a spy. Rather it can be viewed as an attempt to create an air of authenticity to his stories and as a very effective publicity tool to increase his readership. Additionally, a report from 1914 produced by the London Metropolitan Police on Le Queux in reaction to Le Queux’s frequent claims that he was about to be assassinated by German spies due to his supposed secret service work noted that he ‘is not a person to be taken seriously and his ways are somewhat tortuous’.[6] Thus, it can be seen that Le Queux was fuelling his own fantasies about his supposed secret service work and in doing so blurring the lines between spy fact and spy fiction.

[1] Le Queux, Things I know, pp 78‒9; Sladen, The real Le Queux, pp vii, 117‒8.
[2] Le Queux, The German spy, pp 1‒3; Le Queux, Bolo, the super spy, pp 9‒11.
[3] Le Queux, Spies of the Kaiser, p. xxxiii
[4] Sladen, The real Le Queux, p. xv.
[5] Le Queux, German spies in Britain, pp 12, 20.
[6] Report re. Mr. Le Queux, 2 March 1915 (The National Archives, MEPO 3/243).

William Le Queux and the origins of the British secret service

In addition to being a popular spy novelist William Le Queux also considered himself an amateur spy catcher. In many of his novels he referred to his own hunts for enemy spies, particular those from Germany, who he believed were operating across Britain in the years before the Great War. This concern about potential German spies in Britain was also expressed by many within the British public, especially in the years 1907 and 1908. For example, in May 1907 the Morning Post published a letter from an alarmed citizen who claimed that there was supposedly some 90,000 German reservist soldiers and spies in Britain and there were weapons stored in nearly every city. [1] By 1909 the ideas of German spies operating Britain became increasingly common and it was decided by the British government that the question of enemy espionage in Britain and potential responses needed to be addressed and a sub-committee of Imperial Defence was formed. Among the military and intelligence officers called to present evidence at this committee was James Edmonds, the director of MO5, Britain’s military counter-intelligence service. Edmonds presented the committee with, what he believed to be, evidence of 76 cases of German espionage in Britain from 1907 until March 1909 and he concluded that a great number of Germans living in Britain were German spies. Among these 76 cases were five cases which originated from ‘a well-known author’ who was Le Queux. [2] The reason for is that in addition to being a senior counter-intelligence officer Edmonds was also a good friend of Le Queux’s and an avid reader of his spy novels. In the years just prior to the creation this sub-committee of Imperial Defence Le Queux’s spy novels had become focused on the theme of enemy spies from Germany being active in Britain. In novels such as The invasion of 1910 and The spies of the Kaiser these agents, wearing elaborate disguises, were employed as landlords, clerks, barbers, musicians and waiters and were working to gain access to sensitive British military and defence secrets which would allow for successful German invasion of Britain once war commenced between the two countries. For example, in The spies of the Kaiser Le Queux’s readers learnt about a German spy posing as a waiter while spying on British naval defences at Rosyth in Scotland, and also how a group of German spies, based at Southsea, were spying on the British navy in Portsmouth. [3] The five cases provided by Le Queux and presented by Edmonds to the committee referred to suspicious individuals who are either identified as being German or suspected of being German in or around the Portsmouth area. The evidence of supposed German espionage in these cases was highly circumstantial; for example, one of the cases mentioned two German barbers, one of whom wore a wig, and took an interest in naval gossip, while another case described an occasion when the well-known author accidentally ran into a foreign cyclist who swore in German and was seen with his companions exploring the area around Portsmouth and making sketches.[4] These cases could easily have been taken from one of Le Queux’s spy novels and can be viewed as pure fiction but they were presented by Edmonds as evidence of factual German espionage in Britain. Le Queux’s evidence, coupled with the other evidence provided by Edmonds, much of which was also highly circumstantial, played a role in informing the sub-committee which came to the conclusion ‘that a great deal of German espionage was being undertaken in Great Britain’. The committee recommended that a department be established to counter this security threat and this led to the formation of the Secret Service Bureau (SSB) the organisation that the modern intelligence and security service Secret Intelligence Service (SIS/MI6) and Security Service (MI5) both trace their origins to. [5] Thus, it can be said that a spy novelist and his fictional ideas of German spies played an active role in the creation of the modern British secret service at the start of the twentieth century.

[1] Morning Post, 7 May 1907.
[2] Cases of alleged German espionage, 13 April 1909 (The National Archives CAB 16/8).
[3] Le Queux, Spies of the Kasier, pp 11, 15-16, 34-8.
[4] Cases of alleged German espionage, 13 April 1909 (The National Archives CAB 16/8).
[5] The question of foreign espionage in Britain: third meeting, 12 July 1909 (The National Archives CAB 16/8).


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The great war in England in 1897 the embryonic spy novel

It can be said that the British spy fiction genre emerged at the turn of the twentieth century. There are many authors who can lay claim to authoring the first British spy novel, Erskine Childers, Joseph Conrad or John Buchan but there is also William le Queux or as he was known to his readers the master of mystery. Unlike Childers, Conrad or Buchan Le Queux’s fiction did not last the test of time and he has been largely forgotten. However, Le Queux was an extremely prolific author and in a career which lasted from 1891 to 1931 Le Queux published over 150 novels and short stories of which forty can be described as spy novels. These spy stories were published particularly in the years before and during the First World War. Intelligence historian Wesley Wark has pointed out that in Britain the spy novel emerged from a ‘generic soup’ of different types of popular fiction of the nineteenth century. [1]
One of the most important ancestors of the spy genre was the popular invasion literature genre which appeared in the years after 1871 and depicted Britain being invaded by a variety of foreign nations and Le Queux was among the first authors to combine the invasion literature with stories about spies and secret agents. He did this with his 1894 novel The great war in England in 1897 . This novel focused on the fictional invasion of Britain by a joint Franco-Russian alliance aided by the actions of a Russian spy, Count von Beiltein who gathered intelligence on Britain’s defences as well as information on a secret treaty between Britain and Germany. This novel was actively reflecting the contemporary context of Britain’s relationship with France and Russia in the 1890s. Through the early 1890s France and Russia had become increasingly friendly and there was a growing fear within Britain that these two imperial powers would unite to challenge British global dominance. These two nations would eventually sign a military alliance, on 4 January 1894. In 1909 Sir Edward Grey, the then British Foreign Secretary, remarked that ‘before 1904 we had been constantly on the brink of war with Russia and France’. [2] The great war in England in 1897 can thus, be interpreted as an attempt by Le Queux to depict the worst-case scenario to the British public if France and Russia decided to conspire against Britain. David Trotter pointed out that ‘bestselling literature often sells because it addresses the anxieties aroused by real events’ and thus these fears of invasion and enemy spies active within Britain became a dominate theme in future spy novels which Le Queux would go onto author in the years leading up to the First World War. [3]
The great war in England in 1897 was well received by the British public and was the break though that Le Queux required to become a full-time writer. Before this he had been employed as writer for a number of newspapers based in London such as the Globe and The Times. The great war in England in 1897 has been described by David Stafford as ‘a spy novel in embryo’ and can be regarded as the point from which the modern spy genre in Britain originated from. [4]
[1] Wesley Wark, ‘Fictions of history’, p. 1.
[2] Nigel Bailey ‘Anglo-French rivalry over Siam and Treaties of April 1904’, p. 56.
[3] David Trotter, ‘The politics of adventure in the early British spy novel’, p. 33.
[4] David Stafford, The silent game, p. 15.