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Ian Fleming, 007 - James Bond by Sefton Delmer

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Ian Fleming, wartime assistant to the Director of Naval Intelligence and author of the James Bond novels.
Ian Fleming, wartime assistant to
the Director of Naval Intelligence &
author of the James Bond novels.

The two immigration officers in the departure lounge at London airport were chatting together as I laid my passport on their desk.

"That was James Bond that last one, Sean Connery, I suppose he's flying to Paris," one said to the other.

I grinned at them. "You are wrong there, you know. Ian Fleming was James Bond. Sean Connery is only the actor who plays James Bond".

The senior official looked up at me to compare my face with the passport photograph. "Ian Fleming is dead" he said and handed back my passport.

Of course, I reflected, as I sat down to wait for my plane to be called, I could not expect an immigration officer or any other ordinary member of the public to know how much of his personal background Ian Fleming had woven into this fantastic secret agent alias James Bond whose adventures in paper backs and in films had made him a fortune.

It was different for me. I had known Ian for twenty-five years, had worked with him on some of his secret operations during the war and had received his help with my own. He was the godfather of my son. "Call him Felix" he had said. "There are too few Felix's in this world! And he had followed his own advice by creating an American partner for James Bond whom he called Felix Leiter.

Even our very first meeting had a James Bondish touch. At any rate as far as the locale was concerned. We met in a compartment of the Warsaw-Moscow express when we were travelling to Moscow together in March 1939 to report the Kremlin negotiations of Robert Hudson, Britain's Minister of Overseas Trade. Under cover of trade negotiations Hudson was trying - unsuccessfully, as it turned out to persuade Stalin to join the anti-Hitler alliance. Fleming was reporting for The Times, I for the Express and we were the only reporters accompanying the delegation.

Ian Fleming, a tall, slimly built young man whose profile reminded me of the piper in the ancient Etruscan wall paintings at Tarquinia, spent the best part of two days with me on that train to Moscow. By the time that we arrived we were firm friends, so much so that we decided to share a suite at the National, the antique Intourist hotel just opposite the red brick Kremlin citadel.

I learned quite a bit of Ian's history during the week we spent together on that assignment. From Eton where, as I discovered later, though not from him, he had been the champion all-round athlete, the so-called Victor Ludorum he had gone on to the Royal Military College at Sandhurst with the intention of becoming a cavalry officer. But at the very moment that he had passed out and was due to join his regiment, the War Office decided to mechanise the cavalry. He did not want to be a glorified garage hand, as he put it, so he resigned and travelled first to Munich then to Geneva to study German and French. For now he wanted to join the Diplomatic Service. But he came seventh in the examination in a year when the Foreign Office had only six vacancies. So he joined Reuters instead and became a news agency reporter. That was the time when he learned the art of writing concisely, accurately and with an eye for vivid telling detail. (Ernest Hemingway had served the same apprenticeship with William Randolph Hearst's Universal Press Agency.)

Reuters sent him to Moscow, and he had been there in 1932 and 1933 covering the show-trial of a group of British engineers from Metropolitan Vickers who were accused of having sabotaged the Dnjepostroj Dam their firm was building for the Soviet government. After leaving Reuters Ian had joined a firm of city stockbrokers, he had a considerable family fortune behind him, and that was his main occupation now, he said. This trip to Moscow was by way of an interesting holiday and a favour to the editor of The Times who was an old friend.

I had never been to Moscow before myself. But Ian knew his way around and very generously gave me the benefit of his experiences. He introduced me to some very enjoyable characters, many of whom I now realise would fit nicely into a James Bond thriller.

There was, for instance, the melodramatically security-conscious American charge d affaires. He drew shut the curtains of his long drawing room and disconnected the telephones before he sat down to talk with us. His tailcoated butler the only tailcoated butler in the whole of Moscow, our host boasted was a character in his own right. He came in with a silver tray loaded with deliciously strong ice-cold Vodka Martinis, a drink to which Bond was later to reveal his addiction. As he offered them to us the butler hissed like a snake. "Psss, Psss, Psss, Psss? Psss?" When he had left the room our host explained: "OeIgnatieff pretends to be deaf and dumb. In fact he hears and speaks quite perfectly, not only Russian but Czech, Polish, Serbo-Croat, English, French, German, Swedish, Spanish and Italian!"

One noteworthy incident in which we were both concerned took place while we were still on our way to Moscow. It could have torpedoed Robert Hudson's negotiations before ever he had got to Moscow.

When we had crossed the then Soviet Polish frontier at Negoreloje and installed ourselves in the Russian sleeper, Hudson invited Ian and myself to join his party in the sumptuous Pullman car which Foreign Minister Maxim Litivinov had sent to the frontier to carry him to Moscow. It was the Foreign Minister's personal Pullman and it was equipped with everything our Soviet hosts could think of in the way of hospitality, from sugary Soviet champagne and Soviet cigars, to hidden microphones and hidden recording apparatus installed in order that none of their guests' precious words should be missed. Along with the Pullman Litivinov had thoughtfully sent not only his English-speaking secretary Comrade Gutman 'he spoke a most attractive Brooklynese' but also his personal chef de cuisine.

After dinner, Ian and I, fortified by Crimean champagne and Georgian brandy, called on the chef to congratulate him on the meal. We found him in the kitchen, a delightful ancien regime figure in a spotless white jacket and apron, a starched chef's hat on his round, good-natured and completely hairless head. The chef was greatly pleased and flattered by our praise. Especially when I began to expatiate on my entirely sincere admiration for Russian cooking.

"Which Russian dish is it that you admire the most?" he asked us through Comrade Gutman who was doing the interpreting.

"Ah" said Ian with the sigh of a lovelorn poet, with me sighing in unison, "for us there is nothing in the world equal to a real Russian Blinyi. Tell me where in Moscow shall we be able to eat some genuine old-fashioned Blinyis?"

"You shall not wait until you reach Moscow, gospodin redactor. You shall have Blinyi on this train. I myself will make them. You shall have them tomorrow for breakfast."

It never occurred to either of us that Litivinov's wonder chef might take it into his head to make Blinyis for the entire party. For Blinyis are not every Briton's idea of paradise, especially not for breakfast. They are small pancakes made of buckwheat flour covered with melted butter, smoked salmon, caviar and sour smetana cream. Ian and I envisaged a modest little dish of Blinyis being served as a special treat for just the two of us.

But when we strolled in for breakfast the following morning and saw the pale apprehensive faces of the delegates and their two girl secretaries I guessed at once what had happened. And I guessed right. There on a special hot table were the Blinyis, a mountain of them, Blinyis for all.

The steward was already offering them around with the chef watching proudly from the door, dreamlike Blinyis, stacked one on top of the other in a delicious pagoda of oozing Slavonic perfection.

Now the steward approached Mrs Hudson with a plate of Blinyis. Hannah Hudson, an attractive and vivacious American, shuddered and declined. Hudson, across the table from her, flushed in fury. In his mind's eye he saw a report 'insulting British rejection of Soviet national dish' being flashed to Stalin himself, wrecking his chances of persuading the Russians to join us against Hitler.

He leaned across the table. "You've got to eat it!" he hissed. "Hannah, you must! You can't let me down like this. Eat it!"

Brave Hannah Hudson. She was in the first stages of flu and had been feeling queasy even before she had sat down to breakfast. The sight of the Blinyi in its pool of hot melted butter and with globules of caviar swimming around in it was enough to send her temperature up to 104. But gallantly and dutifully she mustered herself and picked up the tiniest possible portion. In the interests of Anglo-Soviet goodwill she toyed with it for a few seconds. And then she rushed from the Pullman.

Hudson did his best to cover up by helping himself to three layers of blinyi at once, - a truly Slav-size portion, as Comrade Gutman commented admiringly. He smacked his lips and praised the Blinyis before he had even tasted them. But even Hudson, a strong and powerful six-footer who had rowed for Oxford, blenched when he swallowed his first mouthful of this splendid new breakfast dish. Ian handed him a large glass of Vodka.

"I never touch spirits before sundown, Ian" said Hudson, with his eye on me, thinking possibly of the non-conformist and teetotal readers of my dispatches and their votes.

"This is medicine, Bob," said Ian who knew Hudson well. "Truly. Quite indispensable with Blinyis, especially at breakfast." Hudson swallowed the Vodka and I could see he felt better at once. Ashton-Gwatkin, diplomatic adviser to Hudson, manfully overcame whatever repugnance he may have felt. And so did the others. All except one of the pretty secretaries, a Miss Enid Knight.

"I'll have my pancake with a little strawberry jam, if I may" she said demurely. "I prefer them that way."

As for Ian and myself we got through such a gargantuan stack that the chef baked up another series. This time even Hudson declined.

When on our return journey we arrived once more at Negoreloje, something happened which makes me wonder, when I look back today, whether the Russians had begun to suspect a little secret of Ian's to which I myself only became privy several weeks after Hitler's war had broken out. I had already noticed that when we went out together in Moscow we were consistently tailed. But that, said Ian, was normal form for all foreign visitors. Once when the motor car in which our tail was following us burst its tyre and had to stop for repairs we sportingly stopped too until they were ready to go on again. Then the young embassy secretary driving us gave his car the gun and the GRU men the slip. That, I was told, was also part of the normal way of Moscow life. Now, however, at Negoreloje something happened which, though it could have been normal, nevertheless looked a bit mysterious.

The white-gloved customs officials hardly glanced at my luggage or the notes I carried in my brief case. They passed them at once. But when it came to Ian's turn they took everything out of his bags, examined the valises themselves for double bottoms, held everything up to the light, and finally asked him to step into a cabin. There he was made to undress so that they could submit him to a body search. Only when he had successfully passed that ordeal did they let him proceed.

Was it just that Ian Fleming was a routine suspect because he had been in Russia before, while this was my first visit? Or was it that the Russians had got an inkling of what Ian Fleming's new job was to be?

I only learned of it myself weeks after the war had begun when I got back to London after escaping from Poland into Rumania with my car, most fortunately for me it had one of those Dutch R-numbers.

Ian came to lunch at my flat in Lincoln's Inn wearing the uniform of an R.N.V.R. (Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve) lieutenant. I was dumbfounded.

"Hell, I thought you'd been to Sandhurst. What are you doing in the navy?"

"Oh, I've been given a special desk job at the Admiralty."

Over the coffee and brandy he announced that his boss would like to see me and hear about what I had observed of the war in Poland.

"But I did not see any of the naval war just some bombing and air fighting and a lot of retreating and bumping off of alleged fifth columnists. Nothing at all that could interest the navy"

"Never you worry your head about that. Just do as I tell you."

Well, the next day I called at the Admiralty and in due course I was ushered into an office looking out on Horseguards Parade the now famous 'Room 39'. And there, after I had passed through what looked like the back room of some Tangiers broker, except that the nine men at the desks were not clerks but section chiefs of Britain's naval intelligence and the papers on which they were working were not ledgers but secret reports, Ian opened a glass door and ushered me into the inner sanctum. A silverhaired admiral with a pair of the kindliest and shrewdest eyes I have ever looked into bade me a smiling welcome: Admiral John Godfrey, the Director of Naval Intelligence. Had I possessed second sight I would have realised that I was shaking hands with the man who many years later would serve as the model for 'M', the mysterious boss of '007', James Bond.

Around Admiral John Godfrey a number of naval captains and commanders were gathered as well as army and air force officers. They all asked me a lot of questions. But I fear it was exactly as I had warned Ian it would be: I was able to tell them nothing of interest. For me however the meeting was supremely interesting. For I had now discovered what an important man in the underworld of the Secret Service my young friend from the Warsaw-Moscow express had become, nothing less than the personal assistant to the intelligence chief of the Senior Service.

How long he had held this position I can only guess. Ian would never tell me. But it would not surprise me if he was not already occupying it, or at least preparing for it, when we travelled to Moscow. You can bet the Russians assume that today whether it was so or not.

What had happened was this. When he was appointed D.N.I. early in 1939 Admiral Godfrey remembered that his World War I predecessor, Admiral Sir Reginald Hall, had been extremely well served by Claud Serocold, a stockbroker, whom he had appointed his personal assistant.

So he had asked Sir Montagu Norman, the governor of the Bank of England, and Sir Edward Peacock of the famous bankers Baring Brothers to find him a young City man who could be his personal assistant. They put their heads together and recommended Ian for the job.

In room 39, Ian had a desk just outside the glass door to Admiral Godfrey's sanctum. It was his job as personal assistant to be the channel of communications between Godfrey and the outer world: not only the outer world of the other departments in the Admiralty, but of the Secret Service, S.O.E. (the experts in assassination, sabotage, and resistance), my little psychological warfare 'Directorate of Special Operations', the Chiefs of Staff, and the Foreign Office as well. Ian had what one calls 'a very full plate'.

He never himself lived the kind of life or had adventures of the kind he later invented for James Bond. He never killed or spied, or infiltrated into enemy occupied territory. But together with his chief he was in constant touch with those who organised and managed these things and also those who carried them out.

Nor did he interrogate. But he did make some typically ingenious and ruthless suggestions on methods and ruses to be adopted in interrogation. It was Ian's imaginative and highly realistic idea to soften up one valuable but hitherto uncommunicative German naval officer by appealing to his snob instincts. At Ian's suggestion the interrogator, a man of disarming charm, was introduced to the German as the Marquis of this and that, son of the Duke of so and so. The stratagem was completely successful. The 'Marquis' talked shooting and fishing with his victim, invited him to come and shoot over the family grouse moors after the war, and in no time at all the Herr Kapitan-leutnant was clay in his hands. It was Ian too who suggested that an officer disguised as a priest should hear confession from a U-boat captain in order to gain intelligence from him in that guise that would save the lives of British merchant seamen.

And it was Ian Fleming too who responded to my request that my unit in its relations with the Admiralty should not work through the Press section but with N.I.D direct, an association that was the original basis of such war- time successes as my little party achieved. Not only did he come down to my secret headquarters in the country and spend occasional weekends there, sometimes together with his admiral, he even joined my wife and two other friends on our occasional leaves in North Cornwall. And he was always full of bright new ideas and suggestions for us.

One I remember was that we should issue an order to the Germans in the name of their own authorities telling them that they must carefully collect all the bits of shrapnel littering the streets after an air raid and put them in the letter boxes in order that the Ministry of Armaments could study the fragmentation of their anti-aircraft shells. "You can just see those lovely blue letter boxes bursting under the weight! And you might add that, if they cannot get them into the letter boxes because they're full up, they should deliver the fragments to the nearest military depot. That'll teach em."

But I sometimes wonder whether he did not pick up something for his thriller writing from our 'black' propaganda technique in return. For our first clandestine radio 'Gustav Siegfried Eins' and later our counterfeit German soldiers radio 'Soldatensender Calais' we used the most meticulous minutiae, taking care to get them exactly right , street numbers, technical terms, nicknnames, and what have you, so that the deception itself would gain acceptance through their accuracy.

That was precisely the technique Ian adopted for the James Bond fantasies. He tells for instance of a Soviet secret police organisation called Smersh whose job it is to carry out assassinations. You have never heard of Smersh, but it sounds intriguing and plausible. You look into it and you find that Smersh actually does exist and for precisely the purpose Fleming has ascribed to it. After that you accept as plausible the most monstrous of his inventions.

Ian readily admitted that he had borrowed some of his own tastes and habits for James Bond. For these were tastes and habits he knew and could therefore describe most convincingly. He gave Bond his own elastic-sided naval pull-on boots which he went on wearing after he had returned to civilian life as Foreign manager to the Kemsley Group of newspapers. He gave Bond his own specially blended Turkish cigarettes with the double gold band, the brand of whisky he drank himself, the same three and half minute eggs. (Just after the war Ian asked me to supply him with eggs from my farm. They had to be brown eggs laid by a special breed of hens Marans!)

The prefix 00 as the code identification of a special grade of British secret agent licensed to kill he chose because in the early months of the war 00 was the prefix number for top secret cipher signals and the 00 had appealed to his sense of the mysterious and dramatic. James Bond he turned into a champion golfer and a skilled card-player because he himself was both. And he staged that lurid golf match with Goldfinger at a club whose captain he was to have become had he lived a few more months. Boodles, his London club where I had often dined with him, appears in the James Bond novel as Blades. He even includes his friends in his stories under their true names. In one he mentions me. I forget which. [Ed. It's Diamonds are Forever]

Was there any adventure of James Bond which I recognised as being modelled on Ian's own experiences? One most certainly. The gambling scene with Le Chiffre in Casino Royale, Ian's first novel. John Godfrey and Ian Fleming were on their way to Washington for a secret conference in 1941 and had to stop over in Lisbon on the way.

Ian paid a visit to the gambling casino at Estoril and while there recognised some German agents. He thought it would be fun to play chemin de fer against them in the hope, as he put it when he told me the story, of "reducing the German Abwehr's funds!" But all he had to play with were £50 worth of expense money. This he quickly lost. In Casino Royale, however, James Bond wins his revenge by defeating Le Chiffre in most impressive and dramatic style.

As for the girls with whose hearts James Bond plays such havoc, if Ian was doing the same he certainly kept it hidden from me. In the twenty-five years I knew him I only discovered serious affairs, although undoubtedly he was attracted to women and they to him. The first girl friend of his whom I met volunteered as an Admiralty motorcycle dispatch rider in order to be near him. She was killed in a London air raid. The other he married.

Just to complete this picture of this most gifted and brilliant of all my friends let me tell you just two things more about him.

First: he designed and built for himself a beautiful house called Goldeneye set in a tropical garden on the North East coast of Jamaica. Here he wrote his novels and went skin-diving and under-water fishing just as he made James Bond do.

Second: he was one of Britain's greatest and most original book collectors. He collected first editions of books which, as he put it when he showed me his collection in his Ebury Street house shortly before the war, "signalise a right angle turn in the world's thought on any particular subject since approximately 1800." He had more than two thousand such books when he last spoke of them to me, books varying from Karl Marx's Das Kapital to Ely Cuthbertson's first book on contract bridge.

The idea behind that collection is typical of the incisive, imaginative and original mind of this man who never pretended to be a great artist, or intellectual, but nevertheless was both.



 

 

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