The creator of James Bond continues to fascinate to this day, and I have found him cropping up in several books I’ve been reading recently. He has, for example a walk-on role in Artemis Cooper’s biography of Patrick Leigh Fermor (Paddy, whose book The Traveller’s Tree was used extensively by Fleming in Live and Let Die, dropped in on him in Jamaica while he was busy writing Casino Royale).
As was the case with Paddy and many others of his generation, Fleming’s life was very much defined by what he did in the Second World War. Indeed, the war came as a release for Ian Fleming, who by 1939 was an ex-public schoolboy who’d flunked Sandhurst, had a go at journalism and ended up in an undemanding desk-job at a stockbroker’s in the City – in contrast to his elder brother Peter who had made a name for himself as a travel-writer. An interview with Rear-Admiral John Godfrey, the Director of Naval Intelligence, changed all that and Fleming was finally able to find his role in life as a naval intelligence officer – a role in which he excelled.
Fleming’s war work is covered by Ian Fleming’s Commandos: The Story of 30 Assault Unit in WWII by Nicholas Rankin which was published last year. If, like me, you like war adventures such as Fitzroy Maclean’s Eastern Approaches and more recent fare like Agent Zigzag, and find the whole Bletchley Park story to be fascinating, I suspect you will find it hard not to be drawn to a book about a commando unit formed by the creator of the world’s most famous fictional spy with the aim of capturing intelligence data intact.
These men, who Fleming rather unflatteringly referred to as his ‘Red Indians’, all volunteered for commando work from the regular forces (this being a naval intelligence unit, they were mostly Royal Marines with a few naval officers). After being highly trained in the ways of sabotage and silent killing at places like Achnacarry they were blooded at Dieppe before being given the unenviable task of going in with the first wave of troops who went ashore at places like Salerno and the Normandy beaches, with orders to find and capture the Germans’ code books, radar equipment and Enigma machines before they had a chance to destroy them. Fleming, who knew too much to be allowed into the field (much to his own frustration), chose their targets and later used their experiences as the basis of the Bond novels.
I enjoyed this book. It’s well-paced, providing a thorough context in terms of intelligence work and the use of irregular forces before turning the focus on the commandos themselves (as befits a man who was always the brains behind the operation and rarely in the thick of the action, Fleming himself becomes a background figure who occasionally interacts with the commando officers but rarely with the NCOs and men – most of whom had no idea of the wider context of what they were doing at the time). There’s humour and pathos amid the firefights and destruction, and Rankin never stoops to glorify the war. Towards the end of the war, 30 Assault Unit came into its own, capturing a mass of material ranging from weapons blueprints to scientists to submarines to admirals and the entire archive of the German navy going back to the nineteenth century. For obvious reasons that’s not a story that was widely told at the time (and the men of 30 Assault Unit aren’t alone in that; for example, the codebreaking achievements of Bletchley Park weren’t made public until the 1970s), and it’s good that we can finally hear the stories of a very brave group of men.
Rankin has also included a lot of tie-ins with quotes from Bond novels, which is understandable as James Bond is the reason why most people have heard of Ian Fleming (which in turn is why his name features prominently on the title of Rankin’s book) and it’s actually very interesting to see how parts of his books tie in with his war work. A lot of the character names are the names of people who Fleming worked with (rather amusingly, one officer was very disparaging of Fleming at the time but later changed his mind after he ‘became’ a character in one of the books), but there are quite a few plotlines which relate directly to the war. To give three examples: From Russia with Love is all about MI6 trying to get its hands on a top-secret decoding machine; the villain of Moonraker is an ex-Nazi who changed his identity in the chaos surrounding the war’s end (a chaos in which 30 Assault Unit was uncovering all sorts of secrets); and finally, you’ll certainly have a new perspective on the short story Octopussy after reading this.
Ian Fleming also makes an appearance in Op. JB: The Last Great Secret of the Second World War by Christopher Creighton, a supposedly factual account where he accompanies the author on a top-secret mission to Berlin at the end of the war to extract Martin Bormann under the cover-name of ‘James Bond’ (which is what the ‘JB’ stands for). Surprisingly, the publishers of this story didn't market it as fiction, and it comes with an oft-repeated caveat that all official records relating to the events described have been destroyed (some of them by the author!). I don’t believe this. It’s too far-fetched, there are too many cameos by famous people – over the course of the book, the author/narrator meets with Churchill, the King, Eisenhower, Rommel and even Hitler himself – and the overall effect is that of an attempt at a war-story along the lines of The Eagle has Landed. The blurb on the cover boldly proclaimed: ‘Fact or fiction – decide for yourself’. After reading it, I decided that it’s fiction, and rather low-grade fiction at that. Don't bother with this one.