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.


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Jonathan Best

I historian of modern British history. In particular my research has focused on the activities of British secret services during the twentieth century, particularly during the two world wars and the early decades of the Cold War. In addition to this my current research has also examined the history of British spy fiction with a particular focus on the British spy novel between the late Victorian era and the 1960s. This interest is fueled by my personal passion for the secret world of espionage, intelligence, clandestine operations both fictional and factual.

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