Sunday, October 14, 2012

Ian Fleming's Commandos

"Everything I Write has a Precedent in Truth" Ian Fleming

Ben Macintyre writes, "Bond is, in part, Fleming.  The exploits of 007 grow directly out of Fleming's knowledge of wartime intelligence and espionage; they shared similar tastes and even attitudes towards women; they even look similar...But Bond is also, in part, what Fleming was not.  He was the fantasy of what Fleming would like to have been -- indeed, what every Englishman raised on Bulldog Drummond and wartime derring-do would like to have been.  Bond is a grown up romantic fairy tale, a promise that Britain, having triumphed in the World War, was still a force to be reckoned with in the dull chill of the Cold War.  In the grim austerity of postwar Britain, here was a man dining on champagne and caviar, enjoying guiltless sex, glamorous foreign travel, and an apparently unlimited expense account."  For Your Eyes Only: Ian Fleming + James Bond, Ben Macintyre, 2008 (

Nicholas Rankin has written a fascinating book Ian Fleming's Commandos: The Story of 30 Assault Unit in World War II ( which explores exactly how Ian Fleming's experience of wartime intelligence shaped his creation of James Bond.  Years before he wrote the James Bond novels, Lieutenant Commander Ian Fleming served in World War II as the personal assistant to the Director of Naval Intelligence.  Vice Admiral John Godfey was the Director of Naval Intelligence who hired Fleming and became the model for the "M" character of the Bond novels and films.

Naval Intelligence is, as Rankin tells us, "any information that gave advantage to His Majesty's Royal Navy in operational security and effectiveness."

Lieutenant Commander Ian Fleming RNVR,  1908 - 1964

Ian Fleming (see earlier posts Commander Bond's London 2/23/12 and Commander Bond in Thailand 9/22/12), was charged with heading up up the 30 Assault Unit of Commandos whose mission was to actively seek out and capture any intelligence that could be of assistance in naval warfare.  He referred to them as his "band of red Indians".  Fleming visited Bletchley Park (see earlier posts Bletchley Park and the Judgement of History 4/22/12 and Bletchley Park and Stalin 2/17/12) many times in the course of the war.  He was interested in code breaking and seizing copies of the German enigma machines and code books.  Fleming was on board the destroyer HMS Fernie off the coast of France on August 19 1942 observing the disastrous Dieppe raid in which members of 30 Assault Unit participated.  Fleming's knowledge of Bletchley park and other secrets prevented him from being allowed to go ashore with the 30 Assault landing party himself.

In 1943, Fleming assisted in engineering disinformation projects such as Operation Mincemeat ( that planted the corpse of a fake naval officer with phony plans for an invasion of Greece that helped divert Axis forces from the real target -- Sicily.

Fleming once said, "Everything I write has a precedent in truth."  In Rankin's book you see how Fleming real life experience helped to inform  and shape his later fiction.

30 Assault Unit's greatest coup of the war was the discovery of the German naval archive based in Tambach castle that housed naval records for two world wars.  This "library contained the complete operational logs, war diaries, technical reports and administrative minutes of all German navy business" dating back all the way to 1870.  This data was not merely of immense historical interest.  German "snorkel" submarine technology and experiment with hydrogen peroxide propulsion systems were the most advanced in the world at this time.  This treasury trove of intelligence would help guide the direction of the Royal Navy in the post-war era.

Rankin's book is loaded with interesting Bond-like anecdotes (see earlier post "Hemingway Liberates the Ritz Bar Paris, 10/10/12) such as this: "Training certainly paid off for Norwegian SOE agent Knut Haugland.  On 1 April 1944 a hundred Germans trapped him in the Oslo hospital where he was operating a secret radio hidden in a chimney.  When eight Germans came pounding up the stairs, Haugland crouched in a dark corner and then made a dash for it,  Two other Germans emerged, whom he shot and killed.  He made his way down to the cellars where he encountered four more Germans; one he killed, another he fired at, and tow others fled.  A fifth appeared and Lt. Haugland shot him at 30 yards with the last shots in his magazine.  he put int a fresh magazine as he emerged from the cellar down into the grounds.  He was fired on as he did so, but was not hit; he scaled a 9-foot barbed wire fence and dropped 15 feet into a quiet roadway from the rocks.  He took off his overalls, washed his face in the snow and walked leisurely about the streets while the Gestapo prosecuted a search of the whole neighborhood.  His look-out came through the controls in a car, picked him up and they drove quietly away.  The place from which Lt. Haugland transmitted in the chimney was not discovered, and the W/T set was recovered several weeks later."

Italian Covert Operation: Olterra

Another fascinating insight is Rankin's take on Italy's often overlooked naval efforts in the Second World War and their impact on the Bond series of novels and films.  Rankin writes, "Italy's most original contribution the technology of the Second World War was sub-aqua, pioneering midget submarines and producing many daring frogmen who rode the two-man machines known as 'human torpedoes'.  It was Italians who, planted the underwater mines that blew a hole in the British flagship HMS Queen Elizabeth and her sister battleship HMS Valiant in Alexandria harbor in December 1941, and also waged a three-year submarine guerrilla war against Gibraltar, sinking or damaging fourteen Allied ships.  One story about the Italian frogmen in Gibraltar made a great impression on Ian Fleming when he heard it from Alan Hillgarth.  The Decima Flottiglia MAS men were hiding inside a derelict Italian tanker, the 4,900 ton Olterra, moored within the breakwater at Algericas.  The Italian 'care and maintenacne' crew on board were discrete, and fat envelopes kept the Spanish police off their backs.  Crates of apparent 'spares' that arrived actually contained disassembled 'Maiale' ("pig" Commander Kelly) two-man human torpedoes with their limpet mines , and the Italians cut a hatch five foot by eight foot, below Olterra's waterline, so the mini-subs could slip out from a flooded bow compartment, wreak the sabotage and destruction in Gibraltar, and return undetected.  In chapter 13 of Ian Fleming's novel Thunderball (, James Bond tells Felix Leiter of the CIA that the failure to spot what was going on in the Olterra was "one of the blackest marks against Intelligence during the whole war'.  The Italian 'gentlemen crook' in the novel, Emilio Largo, has a treasure-hunting hydrofoil motor yacht in the Bahamas that conceals miniature submersibles ('a two-man underwater chariot identical with those used by the Italians during the war') used to steal two British nuclear weapons from an RAF V-bomber sunk and camouflaged on the seabed."

Emilio Largo's "Underwater Chariot"
Can you beleive it?  An Italian model for James Bond?  "Bondini, Giacomo Bondini" or "Commandante Bondo" don't have quite the same ring!

Rankin later mentions how Bill Donovan of the OSS managed to "pinch" Italian Admiral Minsini and other Italian engineers and technicians who worked on the Italian submarine programme.  Rankin writes, "Minisini and his Italian submarine engineers all ended up at the American Naval Torpedo Station at Goat Island, Newport Bay, Rhode Island, working on improving American underwater weaponry".

Rankin omits to mention my own personal pet theory about the transformation of World War II history into Bond fiction.  My thesis holds that the Pussy Galore's all woman Flying Circus from Goldfinger ( was inspired the the real life Night Witches ("Nacthexen") of the Soviet Red Air force (see earlier post, Night Witches of World War II, 6/28/12).

Commander Kelly says, "If you enjoy tales of World War II espionage and would like to learn more about how Ian Fleming transmogrified these into the fictional world of James Bond, then you will love Ian Fleming's Commandos: The Story of 30 Assault Unit in World War II (

Skyfall premieres in the UK, October 26 2012

You can now purchase Commander Kelly's first book, America Invades or on

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