Inside the real-world Double-O section of Her Majesty's Secret Service
Commander Bond's previous career as it would be today
Bond on Film Thanks to the books and films we all know a lot about James Bond 007. We also know a little about the group he supposedly belongs to, the "Double-O agents" of "Her Majesty's Secret Service" - the only British secret agents with a licence to kill. But just how realistic is the idea? Does anything like the Double-O section really exist in the secret bureaucracies of the British government? If it does, how would you get a job in it?
The answers might seem at first to be a resounding "not very", "no", and "you can't". Of course it's nowadays no secret  that Blighty has a secret service - in fact its official title is the Secret Intelligence Service, SIS ("MI6" was never more than a cover name). Its head is known by the initial "C", not "M" as Ian Fleming would have it, but he is also referred to in official circles as "CSS" - Chief of the Secret Service. And indeed, before it became SIS the organisation was known as the Foreign Section of the Secret Service Bureau among other titles, and was at times known even to insiders simply as "the Secret Service".
So yes, Her Majesty does indeed have a Secret Service. And the Secret Service does have "agents" - but these people don't have a desk at the Vauxhall Cross HQ or in any other government building. An agent is, usually, a human-intelligence source: somebody who gives information to SIS. Given the nature of the information SIS is interested in, agents are typically foreign nationals - anyone from hotel receptionists to businessmen to cabinet ministers - and they are seen as traitors or moles by their own governments.
The SIS spies who handle agents and receive their information are called "intelligence officers". They too bear little resemblance to James Bond. Most of the time when they operate overseas they do so as accredited diplomats assigned to a British embassy or consulate under false identities, largely because this means that they therefore have diplomatic immunity from arrest or prosecution. As it is their job to commit the crime of espionage and incite local citizens to do so, this is very useful to them on occasion. (Of course British intelligence officers have sometimes been agents in their own right - but, sadly, they have tended to be agents of foreign opposition services such as the one-time KGB.)
So far from pistols, chop-socky or irresistible sexual magnetism, a normal SIS officer's primary tools for motivating foreigners to do what he wants are bribery, bullshit and in certain circumstances blackmail. The only Bond-like quality a normal SIS officer will be required to show is the ability to drink heavily and remain functional, as any diplomat must on the embassy cocktail circuit.
One man, one flag, many paths: Daniel Craig as Bond in Skyfall, Credit: Sony/Eon/MGM
And indeed, service overseas in an SIS "station" inside an embassy will make up only a minority of a normal SIS officer's career. A "station" will often be just one officer, or perhaps three in a capital of some importance to the UK, say Jakarta. Only in a major espionage centre like Vienna or Hong Kong will the station really be worthy of the title, with a big team of spies. For every SIS officer abroad under diplomatic cover there will be two or more back in London pushing paper at Vauxhall Cross.
That's the reality of life in the Secret Service, then. A mainly deskbound career in London, with occasional forays overseas which may amount to little more than a spell as bagman delivering bribe money to corrupt locals (some of whom may well be making up their information, and not even because they have been doubled by local counterintelligence - simply to get more cash from the silly British spies). Indeed, it's rumoured that on various occasions SIS officers have invented fake agents, fabricated bogus reports and simply pocketed the bribe money themselves.
Even in a more serious station located in a hostile country possessing a dangerous counter-intelligence service, if something goes wrong nothing very terrible will happen to the British spy. He will simply display his diplomatic passport and walk away, perhaps to be expelled by the local government later. His career will probably be in trouble if this happens, but unlike James Bond he runs no physical risks and does not live a life of excitement and danger. He is certainly not required to kill anyone, and never carries a weapon.
So it would seem that James Bond is just a myth, and the Double-O section doesn't exist?
No, in fact. If you should finish your education and join the SIS straight away or after an ordinary job of some kind, yes, you will never be James Bond or anything like him - the life as described above of desks, duplicity and fake diplomacy will be yours. (Assuming you even become an intelligence officer: most SIS employees are actually in support roles such as admin, IT, translation and "artworker ".)
But James Bond, as we all know, has an armed-services background before he joined the secret service. In his case he is an ex-Commander, a former naval officer, and in the books we read of another Double-O with previous service in the Royal Marine Commandos. In fact, everyone in the armed forces is really a Double-O in a way: every serviceman is not just licenced but required to kill people if his or her mission demands it.
Service skills beyond the ordinary
Ordinary servicemen don't generally acquire Bond's skills, however: particularly the iconic one of being a deadly pistol shot. A pistol is not a commonly-issued weapon in the mainstream armed services, and when a handgun is carried by a uniformed serviceman it is typically because that person is not expected to have to shoot anyone, so it doesn't matter that he or she has been given such an inadequate weapon. For someone wearing a military uniform, the concealability of a pistol is pointless and the only reason it is carried is in case of an unforeseen emergency, most usually as a backup in case one's real weapon - a strike aircraft, maybe - is unavailable.
Other Bond-style skills - unarmed combat, scuba diving, free-fall parachuting, demolitions, evasive and pursuit driving in civilian cars - are also rare in the armed services just as they are in the SIS.
But there is a group in the armed forces where such skills become quite common, namely the Special Forces. One SF formation, the relatively obscure Special Reconnaissance Regiment, is particularly Bond-like in the skills it teaches its operatives: SRR soldiers learn to drive like lunatics, often in cars loaded with Q-Branch-style gadgetry1. They are also intensively trained in fighting with concealable weapons and as such are probably the best combat pistol shots in Britain - and second to none worldwide2. They are also taught to operate undercover in plain clothes, and in various other Bond-like skills such as unobtrusive breaking and entering, the photographing of documents and dirty fighting with bare hands or improvised weapons.
An SRR recruit normally joins the unit from the regular forces, but some are on secondment tours from the other "Tier One"3 special-forces units, the Special Air Service and Special Boat Service. Such men - the SAS and SBS don't recruit women, though the SRR does - may also have acquired most of the rest of James Bond's skill set: explosives expert, frogman, skydiver and so on.
The Special Forces, of course, work for the Ministry of Defence - not the Foreign Office like the SIS. But in fact there is an overlap.
Such things are absolutely not discussed publicly. The SIS, SAS, SBS and SRR are grudgingly acknowledged to exist, but details are not forthcoming and the idea that they have anything to do with each other on a routine basis - that in fact there really is something a bit like a Double-O section - is not discussed.
But we know about it nonetheless, in part from the interesting memoirs of ex-SIS spook Richard Tomlinson, a book titled The Big Breach . SIS spent a long time trying to suppress this, but of course it can easily be downloaded from the internet.
From Tomlinson we learn that while SIS' main task is indeed the running of agents in order to glean secret intelligence, it is also required to be able to mount "Special Operations of a quasi-military nature". SIS' role in these operations is to set the objective and get political clearance to proceed. The Foreign Secretary would be the one who actually had to sign a piece of paper in this case, but actually in reality it would be a rare Secretary who didn't get the Prime Minister involved for any SIS operation which seemed likely to involve British operatives killing people - outside an acknowledged warzone, anyway.
This, then, is James Bond Double-O stuff: quasi-military secret, potentially lethal work on behalf of the Secret Service. And as one might expect, it is not the deskbound mainstream SIS officers who handle such tasks.
Of course we have a Counter-Terrorism organisation for here at home ... what do you mean, 'what sort of organisation do we have for abroad'?
Rather, Tomlinson tells us, special sub-units exist drawn from the ranks of both the SAS and the SBS whose job is to handle special taskings from SIS. The SAS secret-service outfit was known to Tomlinson as the Revolutionary Warfare Wing - as opposed to the much better-known Counter Revolutionary Warfare Wing, part of the Special Projects counter-terrorist outfit. The CRW and Special Projects operate on the side of governments to suppress terrorism, as in the case of the Princes Gate embassy assault of 1980: the never-avowed RWW operates against governments, helping insurgents or rebels or freedom fighters ... or, as their opponents might dub them, terrorists.
The RWW and the small SBS team of secret-service frogmen were known to Tomlinson collectively as "the Increment". According to him many Increment members will also have trained and served with the SRR or its precursor unit (14 Int/the Dets, which operated undercover in Northern Ireland) and thus will have a full Bond-style panoply of skills, especially once supplemented by still more special training. Reports in the press in more recent times - Tomlinson was expelled from the SIS in 1995 - suggest that the Increment is nowadays more commonly known as E Squadron, and that it still draws personnel and skillsets from all three secret regiments.
So an E-Squadron/Increment operator can expect to go overseas under a fake cover identity (or perhaps multiple identities) without diplomatic immunity, wearing plain clothes and armed with concealed weapons - and thus he or she certainly has a "licence to kill" if the operation requires it, though military types are more likely to use terms such as "rules of engagement" and "escalation of force" to describe the rules governing their use of lethal methods.
That's surely getting pretty close to a real live Double-O section, though the great majority of E-squadron operators will be gritty non-commissioned sergeants rather than suave members of the officer/diplomatic class as Fleming and Bond producer Cubby Broccoli have depicted the Double-Os.
Commander Bond RN in uniform ... wearing Army SAS jump wings
Tomlinson also tells us of a perhaps still-shadowier organisation which he called UKN, whose members are part-timers paid as freelancers rather than government employees - and whose SIS handlers are themselves using false cover identity when dealing with them. An E-squadron serviceman, while seldom possessing any diplomatic immunity on an operation, might still expect that the British government would try to get him (maybe her) released in the event of capture. A UKN member - a secret agent in the SIS sense of the word - might well be simply abandoned. Tomlinson suggests that UKN people in his time had various Bond-style attributes such as being expert light-aircraft pilots and yacht captains.
The reality still, in all likelihood, falls a little short of the movies. In particular, James Bond 007 the solo all-rounder operative would in real life probably be a team, most likely one or two SIS officers accompanied by a few E-Squadron secret soldiers as minders - the kind of group whose mission to establish liaison with the Libyan rebels famously went wrong recently. We hear of similar operations elsewhere in the world from Tomlinson and other sources.
Between them such a team would be able to do everything James Bond can do - the SIS types would have some local contacts, be capable of drinking a lot of cocktails without passing out and would also perhaps be able to trade on a bit of Oxbridge/public-school/Sandhurst/Foreign Office snobbery. The E-Squadron types would be crack shots, lunatic drivers, skydivers and/or frogmen as required, dab hands with a lump of plastic explosive and deadly even when unarmed.
That said, members of subcultures like the E-Squadron/SIS/UKN nexus do tend to move about and transfer between the various organisations. Reports have it that E-Squadron/the Increment is much bigger now than it used to be in Tomlinson's pre-9/11 days, and that some SIS officers may now be recruited from it or directly from the special-ops formations. Even in Tomlinson's day there was a special-forces major always on secondment to SIS headquarters.
An agent for all seasons
So it's quite possible to imagine a career path which would wind up creating an individual with all Bond's many unusual skills and finish up with him working for the secret service itself (as opposed to E Squadron), often enough finding himself abroad carrying a false passport and a gun under his jacket - and thus with a licence to kill if necessary. It's even just possible that he would be an ex-Commander, maybe a former naval aviator or frogman who had later acquired relatively high rank behind a military desk at some point4, though he'd be far more likely to have started off in the Army or Royal Marines5.
As an example, in the film Tomorrow Never Dies we see Bond in uniform at one stage. Naturally it is the uniform of a Royal Navy commander (Fleming specified the wavy-striped Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve, in which he himself had served during World War II, but this disappeared in 1958). Bond also wears the sleeve wings of a naval pilot, suggesting that he must have started out in the Fleet Air Arm. Certainly this might explain his ability to fly jets and helicopters as seen in various other films.
Rather unusually he appears then to have applied for special-forces Selection and wound up in the Army SAS, as he also wears flat-topped "Sabre" shoulder parachute wings, a badge only ever displayed by the SAS. It might seem more likely for a naval officer to join the maritime-focused Special Boat Service, but in fact a successful Selection candidate could go either way - and indeed some former Royal Marines are known to choose the SAS as this avoids the need to get through an arduous boating and diving course on top of the rigours of Selection.
Plainly a modern Bond must, having served with the direct-action special forces long enough to become a frogman, skydiver and all-around hard case, then have done a secondment to the SRR and become an expert driver, burglar and pistolero too. A spell with E Squadron might follow. Some military desk work or a return to the regular forces would then be more or less essential to swiftly achieve the rank of Commander, though there are a handful of jobs at this relatively senior level in the special-ops units. Finally our man might then transfer to the SIS itself, acquiring any lacking languages and diplomatic polish in the process.
And there we are: Commander Bond, at your (secret) service.
As for the overpowering sexual magnetism, the comfortable private fortune needed for the suits, cocktails and personal Aston Martin - not to mention the possibly-related luck and skill at the card table... well, he'd just have to have been born with those. ®
1Souped-up engines and brakes, bulletproof armour, flash-crash stun grenade dispensers, a concealed arsenal of weaponry up to and including machine guns, and a dazzling array of secret communications and sensor gear have all been routinely deployed. Sadly SRR vehicles are chosen to be unobtrusive, so the prestige marques preferred by Bond in the movies are seldom if ever to be had.
2In a case of life imitating art, SRR operatives have at times carried Walther PPK pistols: so we can say it is likely that E-Squadron/Increment people have too. As the little PPK is - to the military mind at least - seriously lacking in punch and ammo capacity, this would normally be as a backup/hideout weapon - perhaps in an ankle holster in addition to a larger pistol or small submachinegun worn in a waist or shoulder holster. However a few female operatives, physically too small to easily handle a full size 9mm pistol or conceal one about their person, are known to have carried PPKs as their main handgun like James Bond.
3There is also such a thing as a Tier Two special-forces unit: in Britain's case this mainly refers to the Special Forces Support Group. This unit is composed of picked elite troops, mostly from the Parachute Regiment and Royal Marine Commandos, who have some extra training and selection but not to the same degree as the Tier One outfits. They are meant to operate in larger groups than the Tier One super-elite, which could mean taking on such jobs as mob-handed assaults against large bunker complexes etc - or against supervillain lairs, in a Bond scenario - or it could more prosaically mean getting lumbered with guard duties at SF forward bases.
4Perhaps at the Directorate of Special Forces HQ at Regents Park Barracks in London, sometimes referred to by its low-profile postal address "MoD A Block", in the same fashion that the Security Service ("MI5", the homeland-security spooks, hated rivals of SIS) was once known as "Box 500".
5Probably not the RAF either. A few of the Tier Two SFSG come from the RAF Regiment, the airforce base-security troops, and some RAF people are known to have made it into the SAS and SRR, but as with the navy the kind of people who could or would endure the very outdoorsy and physical special-forces selection procedures are comparatively rare in the airforce. The main RAF contribution to the secret paramilitary units comes with the provision of special aircraft and crews assigned in support of SIS, known to Tomlinson as the "S&D Flight". He tells us that the secret spook aviators are mostly drawn from crews already previously assigned in support of special forces and number "around ten pilots" although in his time they only had two aircraft: a C-130 Hercules transport and a specially modified Puma helicopter. However they are/were also trained to fly many other military types and commercially licenced on various civilian aircraft also. (In this context it's quite interesting to note that the "Station Flight" at RAF Northolt just outside London admits to having no fewer than eight pilots on strength, and only a couple of one-pilot Islanders for them to fly. The Northolt Islanders are fairly well-known to be used as surveillance platforms in support of the secret UK-based counter-terrorism empire, but it might just be that the flight has another name in secret circles and that its oddly numerous pilots also spend time flying SIS aircraft and keeping their commercial licences current.)