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Ian Fleming: The man behind James Bond

01-May-2008 • Literary

When the war was finally over, Ian Fleming told a friend shortly after the Normandy invasion, he was going to write "the spy story to end all spy stories." Less than 10 years later, he made good on the pledge with Casino Royale, an adventure tale featuring a motley cast from the espionage underworld and introducing a swashbuckling superspy by the name of Bond — James Bond, reports US News.

A dozen novels and 20 films later, Agent 007's exploits have obscured Fleming's own remarkable career. Bond's creator may never have served in Her Majesty's secret service or toted a golden gun, but his stint as special assistant to Britain's director of naval intelligence during World War II supplied him with more than enough material for his books.

In 1939, Fleming was a newly minted, 31-year-old lieutenant in Britain's Naval Intelligence Division, assigned to collect information on enemy shipping. But when war arrived, writes Andrew Lycett, author of Ian Fleming: The Man Behind James Bond, his group was brought into "covert activities outside its normal province." And Fleming—himself a gin-drinking bon vivant who just months earlier had been known primarily as a failed stockbroker—suddenly found himself coordinating clandestine operations against Romanian oil refineries, sending operatives to sabotage barges on the Danube, and brainstorming ways to cut off the supply of Swedish iron ore to Germany.

"War," writes Lycett, "proved his making," as Fleming demonstrated a knack for dreaming up imaginative schemes. Only a year into the job, he surprised and impressed his superiors with a plan to acquire one of the German Navy's code books. A captured bomber, Fleming figured, could be crashed into the English Channel near a German minesweeper. A crew of commandos on board would take to their life raft dressed as Germans, assault the enemy boat when it approached, and grab the code books. The plan was abandoned when no German ships appeared. But Fleming's flair for the dramatic was a hit with Britain's intelligence brass, according to John Cork, author of James Bond: The Legacy. They soon gave him free rein to conjure up clever new ways "to confuse, survey, and enrage the Germans."

Fleming's most enduring wartime legacy was an outfit called Assault Unit 30, a commando unit that specialized in capturing enemy documents, equipment, and ciphers in forward areas before they could be destroyed. Fleming's "Red Indians," as he called them, were responsible for several extraordinary missions, including capturing an entire German radar station in 1944—with its 300-man garrison. Some say the group served as the basis for the novel and movie The Dirty Dozen.

Through it all, Fleming served with panache. On a trip to Spain during the war, he was delayed in Portugal when he learned that only one airline, Lufthansa, had flights to Madrid. The company's German pilots at first refused to allow an enemy on board. But Fleming, through a Bond-like combination of audacity and charm, managed to persuade them that they had an obligation, as a commercial carrier, to fly him where he wanted to go. After the Bond novels appeared, the line between fact and fiction in Fleming's own career began to blur. He has been credited with an ever increasing number of wartime accomplishments—including meeting with Admiral Canaris, head of the German Abwehr, and conning Rudolf Hess, one of Hitler's deputies, into flying to Scotland in 1941. Most of the stories, however, remain unsubstantiated.

Truth be told, Fleming was deskbound for most of the war. But it was this very distance from the action that many believe allowed the creation of Bond. From his perch at naval intelligence, Fleming observed hundreds of spies, and 007 was their composite. "Bond," writes Lycett, "gave at least fictional form to Ian's frustrated urge to have been...a full-time secret agent, rather than a competent staff officer sitting, office-politicking and dreaming in Room 39 of the Admiralty."

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