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The Fleming Files

It’s become popular in recent years for authors to write stories with the high concept of, “What if James Bond creator Ian Fleming had real-life James Bond adventures?” There have been several books published by several different authors using this as a premise, and two made-for-television movies (the most recent one airing on Sky in the UK and BBCA in the United States in February 2014). Certainly Fleming’s biography lends itself to such supposition. He was, after all, a notorious womanizer and drinker, a gadabout of the first degree from a well-heeled family that circulated in the rarefied airs of British society. And it’s true that he was a member of British Naval Intelligence during the Second World War and rightly earned a reputation for cunning and original planning (but no cunning plans as cunning as a fox that’s just been made professor of cunning at Oxford University).

But how much of Fleming’s career in intelligence was planning and desk work (a very important part of intelligence work, even if it lacks the adventurous glamor of clandestine operations) and how much was field work, parachuting behind enemy lines, gunning down Nazis, and bedding fiery female members of the French Resistance? I suppose some people know the answer. I’m not among them. There were many British celebrities who dabbled to some degree or other in intelligence work during the war: Fleming, of course, but also entertainer Noel Coward (a close friend of Fleming’s), occult fiction author Dennis Wheatley, even notorious Ordo Templi Orientis leader Aleister Crowley were counted (or counted themselves) among the ranks of British intelligence agents during the Second World War. It can be difficult, given the protected nature of verifiable documentation in this regard, to ascertain how much each of these men was actually involved versus how much of it was self-aggrandizement. Whatever the case, the world needs a story where those four secret agents are assigned the task of combatting Heinrich Himmler and his mystical Vril Society.

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Coward, Wheatley, Crowley, and Fleming: My Espionage Dream Team

Commander Fleming & His
Howling Commandos

Of the bunch, Fleming’ career in intelligence work is the most well-known and documented — and while he was doubtless a vital asset, there’s no public record of which I know of him leading the charge in the field. Despite having “no obvious qualifications” for the job, and perhaps after his well-respected and well-connected mother dropped some suggestions in the appropriate ears, Fleming was recruited into Naval Intelligence in May 1939 to work as personal assistant to the notoriously abrasive Rear Admiral John Godfrey. Fleming displayed a knack for organization and original thinking, and his first major contribution to wartime intelligence efforts was the “Trout Memo” — a missive that compared sparring with the Axis Powers to fly fishing and listed a number of “dirty tricks” that might be employed in the effort to confound the Nazis.

What Fleming (code name: 17F) brought to the table, and what was embodied by the Trout Memo, was a lack of experience with military thinking and, instead, a wealth of imagination and fantastic scenarios — many of which were in fact employed in the war effort and remain standard tricks of the trade. In 1942, Fleming put together a commando group — the 30 Assault Unit — that was charged with invading enemy locations to obtain secret documents before they could be transferred or destroyed. It was with 30AU that Fleming found himself most often out of the London office and on the battlefront, even as far as Germany itself.

He was even dispatched to Asia to identify potential targets for the coming war in the Pacific as the war in Europe ground to a close. The surrender of Japan after the dropping of two American atomic bombs, however, curtailed 30AU action in Asia. Despite the success of the group, Fleming was reportedly not well-liked by his commandos, who chafed at his insistence on referring to them as “my Red Indians.” A more thorough account of Fleming and 30AU can be found in Nicholas Rankin’s nonfiction book, Ian Fleming’s Commandos:The Story of the Legendary 30 Assault Unit.

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Semi-Fictional Fleming

Whether embellished or not, and if so what degree, there’s no denying that Fleming’s life did reflect, at least in part, the life of his most famous creation: Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. No wait. Make that James Bond. Bond’s taste for the fancier things in life, most of his personal habits and predilections, came from Ian Fleming. And Fleming certainly lived an adventurous life, regardless of whether or not he might have ever repelled down the wall of a Nazi castle to toss a stick of dynamite through a window. The first work of fiction to apply the adventures of James Bond to the real life of Ian Fleming was the made-for-television movie Spymaker: The Secret Life of Ian Fleming, released in 1990 and cheekily casting Sean Connery’s son, Jason, as Ian Fleming. As you might expect from a TV movie made in 1990, Spymaker is a bit on the cheeseball side on occasion, but it’s also surprisingly good.

Beginning with his days as a Eton student (Bond was also an Eton man, but unlike Ian Fleming, Bond wasn’t expelled), covering the sundry failures and humiliations of his youth (academic, professional, and military) as well as his early triumphs (mostly as a bon vivant and cad), Spymaker is, as you would expect from a TV movie, sort of a “life of Ian Fleming” highlights reel. It settles down a little once it gets into Fleming’s career as an intelligence officer, depicting many of his unconventional plans — like employing Eastern European prostitutes in the service of information gathering. Overall it’s really quite entertaining and deserves to be rescued from the dustbin of history (it’s available now through the Warner Archive). Oh yes, the icing on the cake: casting the son (Jason Connery) of the most famous of all James Bond film actors (Sean Connery) as Ian Fleming, the creator of James Bond. Someone must have laughed themselves silly at the cleverness of that.

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Jason Connery, who’s good as the dashing (and much friendlier) version of Ian Fleming, also starred in two after-the-fact Harry Palmer movies alongside Michael Caine; The first of the Harry Palmer films, 1965′s The IPCRESS File, was conceived by Bond producer Harry Saltzman as sort of the anti-Bond movie. There were two additional feature films, 1966′s Funeral in Berlin and 1967′s Billion Dollar Brain. The series was revived for two made-for-Canadian-TV movies in 1995 and 1996, Bullet to Beijing and Midnight in St. Petersburg, with Caine returning to the role (now a private investigator) accompanied by Jason Connery.

It was quite some time before anyone would think of fictionalizing the life of Ian Fleming, but the massive revival in interest in all things Bond that was ushered in by the Daniel Craig films and the 50th anniversary of Bond meant that it wouldn’t be long before Fleming himself would once again become a figure of fascination for writers and film makers. The first out of the gate were two books by Quinn Fawcett: 2008′s Death to Spies, and in 2010, its sequel, Honor Among Spies. Both books were works of pure fiction — positing an alternate reality where Ian Fleming spent the Cold War still very much involved in espionage adventures.

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The Ian Fleming Files

In 2013, author Damian Stevenson celebrated the 50th anniversary of James Bond by returning to the subject matter of the TV movie The Secret Life of Ian Fleming, taking the true facts of Ian Fleming’s war-time service and turning them into an espionage thriller. The first of these two e-books, The Ian Fleming Files: Operation Armada, establishes the personal life of Fleming, his stormy relationship with his eventual wife, Ann O’Neill, then sends him on a mission to secure the renegade French Navy for the services of England. When France fell to the Germans, her Navy remained afloat, and the allegiances of her admiral as fluid as the ocean upon which his ships sailed. In Operation Armada, it’s up to young intelligence agent Ian Fleming to sneak into occupied France and meet with the cantankerous French admiral, either buying the French navy for England or verifying that the admiral intends to pledge support to Hitler, in which case the British navy and air force will attempt to destroy the fleet.

Operation Armada is awkwardly written at times, and much has been made about the author’s tendency to obsess over very specific weapons and tools of war which, it turns out, were not in use or even existence at the time during which the book is set. I’m not up on my history of armaments, so anachronisms such as these flow right over me, though even I noticed the Kalashnikov on the front cover was out-of-place — though I don’t blame the author for that and noticed that the cover has since been replaced with a new one. Overall, despite some rough patches, Operation Armada is a brisk, entertaining read. If this tale of Ian Fleming isn’t up to the quality of an Ian Fleming tale, it’s still quite passable as a pulpy potboiler with all the expected smoking, drinking, womanizing, Nazi shooting, improbable escapes, and villains who capture the hero and keep him around when they should just kill him. I liked it substantially more than some of the John Gardner books — and those are official literary Bond canon!

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Days after Operation Armada was made available, Stevenson released a second book, Operation Parsifal. This time around, Fleming is involved in collecting intelligence on, and of course eventually foiling, one of the many German plots to assassinate Hitler — the thinking among certain competent German officers being that Hitler’s mental imbalance was a detriment to the war effort, and Germany was only losing because Hitler was making terrible decisions. German officers wanted him dead, so that a more competent man could be put in charge, and Allied forces wanted Hitler alive, because they agreed that he was screwing up the war for Germany.

Despite obviously being written at the same time as Operation Armada, Operation Parsifal is a step backward. The plot often doesn’t make much sense. Whole sections read like Stevenson included his character background notes, and other swathes of writing — perhaps in an attempt to mimic Fleming’s fondness for cramming esoteric lectures about some obscure topic into his books — might as well be cut-and-paste jobs from Wikipedia. Although the book has its moments — Fleming’s largely pointless digression to Egypt managed to be exciting — for the most part it is tedious and preposterous even by the standards of spy thrillers. By the time we get to the usual “villain captures James B…err, Ian Fleming and devises some elaborate test of skills rather than just killing him” finale, I was long past having patience with the book. In it’s defense, though — the finale of Operation Parsifal, and the unwillingness of the villain to just kill Fleming, is still substantially less far-fetched than some of what we get from John Gardner‘s Bond novels.

At the end of 2013, a fifth “adventures of Ian Fleming” book was released, the unruly-titled SHAKEN, NOT STIRRED (The Secret Files of I__ F______, Code Designate 17F) by Aaron Cooley. And in early 2014, there was the aforementioned Sky mini-series, Fleming, starring Dominic Cooper (who plays Howard Stark, Tony Stark’s father, in the Captain America movies) as wartime Ian Fleming. We’ll get to each of these in time, as well as Quinn Fawcett’s two books. In regards to Damian Stevenson’s two contributions to Ian Fleming — and James Bond — mythology, Operation Armada is worth giving a go, while the terrible Operation Parsifal is worth giving a miss.

4 thoughts on “The Fleming Files”

  1. This is all actually news to me, I:d never heard of any of it. So thank-you for putting it on my scope, I’ll definitely check it out.

    viz: Aleistair Crowley and Intelligence. As with anything else about the guy, trying to separate fact from bullshit…erm, sorry, magick, is impossible, but the the fact is that Crowley did know a lot (of real stuff) about the Middle East and knew a lot of shady characters there. Were his mystical researches just occult loopiness, or was he setting up a network of agents ? And on who’s side?

    Fact is, when there is a massive war raging throughout North Africa, and Crowley makes very public statements about how he’s been in Egypt, receiving secret messages from unspeakable entities than only he can interpret, and also that he’s been obtaining documents full of ancient secrets from mysterious foreigners, whose identities he dare not reveal, well, he’s going to make a blip on intelligence radar, isn’t he?

    When you write your story, the only thing I demand is that you include a part about how a 900-year-old Abdul Al-Hazred is working for the Ahnenerbe. And of course, a fez-wearing assassin who carries a short curved sword (an ancient, bejewelled one, of course) under his tight evening suit.

  2. Oh, and I didn’t know that Noel Coward and Fleming were friends, although I should have guessed, because if you’ve seen Fleming’s set of Cecil Beaton portraits, he’s obviously copying Coward’s style right there.

    I didn’t know that Fleming called his commandos “Red Indians” either, but that explains the line in “Casino Royale” where Le Chiffre mocks Bond for “playing Red Indians and getting involved in the games that adults play”.

    And in the second photo, that’s definitely a Swaine and Aidney briefcase he’s carrying. I know because I was looking covetously at one last weekend. Now, if I can only identify the airport, and figure out whether it’s a DC-8 or a 707 he’s disembarking from, I can put my anorak away and stop wasting everyone’s time.

    And I am still envious of men who can look good in bow ties.

  3. The cover of OPERATION ARMADA reminds me automatically of those novelty mud flaps. And of course I mean that as a compliment to it.

  4. In regards to Coward, and given the temperaments of both men, friends could probably be “friends.” They were also neighbors in Jamaica. Noel was rather unimpressed with Golden Eye

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