IAN FLEMING: A man made by war

By Patrick McCallister
For Veteran Voice

Ian Lancaster Fleming was a ne’er-do-well.

He left college early, washed out of military academy without a commission, failed the foreign office test, got an underpaid job at Reuters, and was inept at finance — the thing that made his family wealthy.

Like so many middle children from well-to-do British families, Fleming filled the holes failure left in him with heavy drinking, heavy smoking, and womanizing. He filled his mind with motorsports as his life wrecked before it got to the first turn. 

But then Fleming got his lucky break. World War II. War fired Fleming’s imagination more than women and fast cars. He thought of dozens of ways to fool the enemy. Thanks to his family connections, he had a chance to do more than impotently imagine how one could go about espionage.

Paris, 1940

In June 1940, a 32-year-old from the Office of the Admiralty and Marine Affairs codenamed “17F” was in Paris as Nazi forces closed in on the City of Lights. His job was to collect Secret Intelligence Service papers and cash from their hiding place at Rolls Royce’s French office.

With the German military closing in fast, 17F headed to the British Consulate to destroy documents to keep them from Nazi eyes. He slipped south in the night to Bordeaux, then into Spain and Portugal to make good his escape back to British soil.

17F got to London in time for the Luftwaffe bombers, the Blitz, the Battle of Britain. As Hurricanes and Spitfires fought off the bombers above, 17F set to work figuring out small but consequential ways to send the war back to German soil. Others would fight the Nazis with guns and bombs. 17F would fight them with deceit and misdirection, guile and even guilt when needed.

17F was a natural predator who lacked the great white shark’s raw power. No, 17F was built for and thrived at the Wobbegong shark’s patient subterfuge. He’d fit perfectly in a 007 story as a minor character — if only 17F wasn’t the man who’d written the first 12 novels and two books of short stories featuring Bond, James Bond.

London, 1908

Fleming was born in 1908 in upscale London to a banking and finance family. His grandfather founded Robert Fleming & Co. He was the second of four children born to Valentine and Evelyn Fleming. The brothers would gain a maternal half-sister in the 1920s.

War crashed into Fleming’s life around the age people start forming consistent memories — 6. It was 1914. The Great War exploded in Europe. Fleming’s father, a Member of Parliament, joined the Queen’s Own Oxfordshire Hussars and headed to Belgium and France for the Great War. He didn’t return home. He died in battle when Fleming was 8.

Winston Churchill wrote the senior Fleming’s obituary.

Fleming’s mother stepped into the role of being both parents. His elder brother, Peter, too, set out to be a good influence to Michael, Richard and, of course, Ian. To little avail it was for the rebellious Fleming. His mother sent him to preparatory school to make lifelong contacts to propel his business success. That only got Fleming bullying and misery.

Eton College, 1921

In 1921 Fleming headed to Eton College where he was a lackluster student, but a good athlete. He worked as an editor on the school’s magazine, The Wyvern. Fleming started reading Bulldog Drummond novels and short stories. Herman Cyril “H.C.” McNeile created the fictional gentleman adventurer who’d appear in print, stage, radio plays, television and films. Bulldog Drummond inspired Fleming to write a short story, “The Ordeal of Caryl St. George,” for The Wyvern. By all accounts it was a good bit of writing with a dull story to tell. 

Eton officials talked Fleming’s mother into pulling him out early and sending the irreverent misfit to the Royal Military College, so he could gain a commission in the armed forces and maybe make something of himself. Fleming washed out in a year. His mother sent Fleming to Austria to a school run by a former British spy and his novelist wife to get the lad ready for the Foreign Office exam.

Fleming would go on to fail the government exam. Fleming found his own job at Reuters. The pay was low, but he got to go to Moscow to witness Stalinism first-hand. But, the pay was low. His family didn’t approve. His mother used her connections to get Fleming a much better paying job at a financial company. He failed at it.

She used her connections again to get her second, and disappointing, son a job as Rear Adm. John Godfrey’s assistant. In 1939 Fleming went to work for the director of naval intelligence and eventually given the handle 17F. The Admiralty would soon become one of the most exciting places on the planet to work. On Sept. 1, 1939, Germany invaded Poland. World War II was on in full cry.

Room 39 at The Admiralty, World War II 

Before Adolf Hitler betrayed his uneasy peace pact with the Soviet Union and Japan foolishly drew the United States into war, Britain could only barely hold onto survival. As German bombs fell on a scared and desperate Britain, Godfrey produced the “Trout Memo,” a series of espionage schemes for Churchill and others to consider.

It was full of outlandish ideas that threw out decency. For example, it said the British military could use recently deceased Brits camouflaged as military and intelligence officials with planted misinformation to trick the German military intelligence into opening vulnerabilities to exploit. The idea went against every shred of decency, it dishonored the dead — and it’d become Operation Mincemeat.

In 1943 the Allies tricked the Abwehr into believing it had a drowned British naval intelligence officer carrying plans to invade Greece and stage a simultaneous deception attack on Sicily. The trout were biting. The Axis, acting on the misdirection, left the Allies’ real goals lightly defended. 

There’s a lot of evidence Fleming authored the “Trout Memo” and came up with most of the espionage ideas in it. He’s almost certainly the conceptual father of Operation Mincemeat.

During the war years, Fleming rubbed shoulders with spies and spy bosses from all over the world. He formed the 30 Assault Unit, 30AU, to focus on seizing Nazi documents for Allied intelligence to decipher and exploit.  

Fleming reportedly told friends that after World War II was over, he was going to write a great spy novel.

Goldeneye, 1952

As the war wrapped up Fleming returned to Jamaica, where he’d attended Allied intelligence meetings. He bought some land to build a retreat house. He named it Goldeneye after one of the operations he was involved in during the war. Bond found work back in journalism. This time it was at the much more prestigious, and better paying, position of foreign manager at the company which owned The Sunday Times.

A couple months a year Fleming went to Goldeneye to listen to the ocean lap the shores. An old flame, Ann Charteris, started spending time with him there. The only downside to their relationship in a Caribbean paradise was the whole she-was-married thing. She divorced in 1951, and soon thereafter Fleming and she planned to marry.

To take his mind off the pressures of marrying at 43, Fleming started writing a spy novel, “Casino Royale.” Everybody who read it … thought it kind of sucked. Even Fleming. Since his older brother was a money-making book writer for Jonathan Cape, the publisher agreed to a small run of the book about a fictional jet-setting master spy named after a real ornithologist.