Fighting the tyrants

James Bond may be a fictional character, but the nemesis of evil-doers owes much to his creator Ian Fleming's real-life wartime experiences.

An exhibition at the Imperial War Museum in London, celebrating the centenary of Fleming's birth, demonstrates how Fleming based Bond on his own wartime experiences. The character of 'M' (Head of the Secret Service) was in part modelled on Admiral Arthur Godfrey, director of naval intelligence, Fleming's boss during the war. Grumpy, demanding, yet "a real winner", Fleming represented Godfrey at many Whitehall meetings. According to Terry Charman, senior historian at the Imperial War Museum, "Fleming's role during the war at the Admiralty meant he went to different departmental meetings in Whitehall and came across weaponry used in the secret war against the Nazis."


In the fight against the Nazis, a key task of the Naval Intelligence Department (NID) was to collect and analyse information about German U-boats. Much of this information came from German radio communications encrypted by Enigma machines, which appear in Fleming's novels in the guise of the Russian 'Spektor' coding machine in 'From Russia With Love' (1952).

While at the NID, Fleming created a special force to seize German documents and record evidence of German technological developments. The unit grew to around 150 men. They were trained in unarmed combat, safe-cracking, and code-breaking. NID also helped run agents and double agents.

Among the fictional episodes based on real life events is the scene in Live and Let Die (1954) when Bond swims underwater to Mr Big's boat, on which he then plants a Limpet mine. This was inspired by the 10th Light Flotilla, elite Italian frogmen who sank Allied shipping off Gibraltar.

Fleming's vivid imagination was well in evidence even during his war years. In September 1940, he devised a scheme to seize a German naval codebook. The Germans had been operating a rescue boat in the English Channel to pick up their downed pilots. So Fleming proposed that a British crew, disguised as German Lutwaffe fliers, should land a captured Heinkel bomber in the Channel and lure a German rescue vessel to the scene. Then, "once aboard the rescue boat, shoot the German crew, dump them overboard, bring rescue boat back to British port". Fleming suggested that the pilot be a "tough bachelor, able to swim", and that the crew include a "word-perfect German speaker". Fleming, who spoke German himself, requested permission to go on the mission personally. German uniforms, and a Heinkel were obtained, but the plan was never put into effect. Among the objections was that the Heinkel, if landed in the Channel, might sink so fast that all would drown.

Though Bond shares many personal characteristics with his creator (including the same colour eyes and hair, the love of luxury, high living and womanising) Bond is a composite portrait. "He was a compound of all the secret agents and commando types I met during the war," Fleming said.

Life-saving gadgets

Like Fleming's Bond novels, George Orwell's 'Nineteen Eighty-Four' also draws on its author's wartime experiences. The Ministry of Truth, for example, is based on the BBC's role during the Second World War. For Orwell, technology is an instrument of oppression: for example, the telescreens, which observe the populace. Fleming, in contrast, had an optimism over technology and gadgets.

At the Imperial War Museum exhibition a range of gadgets is shown, such as a CIA tape recorder from the 1960s, and a KGB buttonhole camera. Subminature cameras were extensively used by real-life intelligence services during the Cold War.

Also on display is 'Little Nellie', the autogyro used in the film 'You Only Live Twice' (1967). 'Little Nellie' was built and flown for the film's battle scenes by Wing Commander Ken Wallis. Autogyros were actually used in the war by the Royal Air Force, and by German and Japanese forces, to provide aerial reconnaissance.

In the Bond novels and films, Bond is issued with his gadgets by 'Q'. Fleming based Q on Charles Fraser Smith, a real-life engineer of gadgets for secret agents, saboteurs and escaping servicemen. Fraser Smith supplied a wide range of items, such as hairbrushes, pipes and chessmen with secret compartments, and 'flash' paper impregnated with a magnesium compound. Fraser-Smith was critical of the golf balls used to conceal diamonds in the film Diamonds Are Forever, which could hardly have been struck very far down a fairway. The golf balls Fraser-Smith himself supplied concealed a compass or forger's ink, and could be used exactly like an everyday ball.

Recent articles

Info Message

Our sites use cookies to support some functionality, and to collect anonymous user data.

Learn more about IET cookies and how to control them