In his first column, author and journalist Michael Smith reveals how much truth there is to 007 James Bond and the inspiration for the legendary secret agent
James Bond is undoubtedly the world’s most famous spy. The 14 Bond books, written by Ian Fleming between 1953 and his death in 1964 ‒ and an astonishing 27 films ‒ have created a lasting legend.
MI6 always insists that 007 is nothing like a real secret agent, or more precisely an “intelligence officer”, the official job title for our spies. There are no “Double O” agents here, they say. No-one with a “licence to kill”. But they do admit that Bond “created a powerful brand for MI6”. Sir Alex Younger, a former C, the real-life equivalent of Fleming’s “M”, has admitted that many of the British secret service’s global counterparts “envy the sheer global recognition of our acronym”.
Despite the denials, a remarkable new biography of Fleming himself demonstrates that an awful lot of the stuff that 007 gets up to did happen during the period that inspired the Bond books and Fleming was better placed than most to know how MI6 operated.
Academics have long been a bit sniffy about Fleming’s wartime career in naval intelligence, but as more and more files have emerged from the archives it has become very clear how central he was. As the key lieutenant to Admiral John Godfrey, the director of naval intelligence, Fleming was his main liaison with MI6, in frequent contact with the then “C”, Stewart Menzies, with the codebreakers at Bletchley Park and with the Special Operations Executive, which operated behind enemy lines and was very much “licensed to kill”.
As someone who has written extensively on both MI6 and Bletchley Park, one of the closest links between Fleming’s wartime work and Bond’s adventures comes in From Russia With Love when Bond is tasked to track down a Russian Spektor cipher machine. His frequent trips to Bletchley Park during the war, where Alan Turing was initially struggling to break the German naval Enigma machine, led Fleming to devise a daring plan to seize one from on board a German warship in the Channel. Operation Ruthless was to be led by a ‘tough bachelor, able to swim’, with Fleming writing his own name alongside that role.
The many fascinating examples of storylines in the Bond books based on Fleming’s personal experience working with MI6 are far too numerous to fit into a small article like this. It would take an entire book to do them justice. Fortunately, we now have one. Ian Fleming: The Complete Man by Nicholas Shakespeare is a fascinating book and a pretty good last-minute Christmas present.
Michael Smith’s latest book The Real Special Relationship: The True Story of How the British and US Secret Services Work Together is out now in paperback.