Bond - Fleming expo opens at Imperial War Museum
Worth a look if you like drink, cigs or gadgets
In just over a week it will be exactly a hundred years since the birth of Ian Fleming, wartime intelligence officer and creator of cultural icon James Bond 007.
To mark the occasion, the Imperial War Museum in London has opened a special Fleming'n'Bond themed exhibit, For Your Eyes Only, which will run until May '09. Aware of the fact that many Reg readers have some interest in 007 lore, spooks, crypto, gambling, gadgetry, heavy drinking, hot babes in bikinis, flying cars* or indeed all of the above, the Chief Vulture despatched your correspondent to the exhibit.
The IWM is always a good day out for a death-tech or military history spotter, and the FYEO exhibit is well up to the mark - especially for those interested in the creator as well as Bond trivia itself.
Fleming was a fairly standard pre-war toff by background. His father died fighting in World War One, and after Eton young Ian was supposed to follow him into the army. He got into Sandhurst, the army officer academy, but - as the IWM delicately put it - "left under a cloud". (If you believe Channel Four, the young Ian had contracted a dose of Cupid's Measles from lady of negotiable affection.) A failed attempt to get into the diplomatic service followed, and then a further step down in the world as Fleming became a hack with the Reuters news service.
As everyone knows, journos aren't paid enough to live the kind of glamorous playboy life that Fleming favoured. He left Reuters to become a stockbroker and then a banker, but didn't do very well at either - though his accomplishments in the fields of drinking, smoking, gambling and womanising were apparently notable.
At the outbreak of World War Two, however, Fleming landed on his feet - and this is where the IWM curators start to take a serious interest. Commissioned into the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve**, Fleming was appointed as personal assistant to Admiral John Godfrey, Director of the Naval Intelligence Division (NID) of the Admiralty.
As Godfrey recalled, Fleming was "the only officer with a finger in every pie", who liaised with most of the British spook services as well as those of America. The FYEO exhibit has some good stuff on NID's successes during the war. Many of these were based on the use of ULTRA intelligence - the codeword for info gleaned by decrypting German naval signals traffic protected by the Enigma system.
NID also directed more active capers, such as Operation MINCEMEAT - in which it was arranged for the dead body of a supposed British courier to wash up on the Spanish coast, in an area where a German agent was known to be active. The faked plans carried by the imaginary "Major Martin" led Germany to divert troops away from the Allied landing zones in Sicily.
NID had its own commando outfit as well, 30 Assault Unit, which was intended to seize important German documents, technology and records before they could be destroyed to prevent advancing Allied armies getting hold of them. Like Fleming, James Bond rose to be a Commander RNVR in the war, and was supposed to have seen action in the Ardennes - which could have occurred as a 30AU officer, though no details are given.
Fleming himself was almost entirely a Whitehall warrior, though he did accompany the disastrous Dieppe raid of 1942 aboard the destroyer HMS Fernie. The ship came under fire, but Fleming didn't participate in the bloody massacre ashore, which saw two-thirds of the assault troops killed, wounded or captured.
After the war, the IWM show moves on to focus on James Bond more than his creator. It has a fascinating letter from Geoffrey Boothroyd, a British gun nut who advised Fleming on Bond's weapons and appears in the books as Major Boothroyd, Secret Service armourer and firearms expert.
Boothroyd advises Fleming that Bond's original gun - a Beretta .25 - is "a ladies' gun... and not for very nice ladies, at that". He advises Fleming that Bond should pack a revolver, and another bigger one in his car - recommending the .38 Smith & Wesson Airweight Centennial worn in a Berns-Martin spring holster, and a "man-stopper" .357 magnum for car use. Fleming duly re-equipped Bond with an Airweight, later supplanted by a Walther PPK.
There are lots of other things on show to please the gadget fancier, many of them from the movies. In particular, the Bell hydrogen-peroxide jetpack used by Sean Connery's 007 in Thunderball can be seen, along with the "Little Nellie" autogyro from You Only Live Twice. Scaramanga's snap-together Golden Gun is also there, though the curators note that in the book it was a mildly more conventional weapon - a gold-plated single action .45 Colt revolver, supposedly firing "gold cored slugs, jacketed with silver and cross-cut at the tip on the dum-dum principle for maximum wounding effect".
Further fodder for argument as to the exact nature of Bond's armed-forces career is provided in the form of the uniform jacket worn by Pierce Brosnan in Tomorrow Never Dies. Not only is Bond no longer an RNVR officer (reasonably enough, the RNVR having disappeared in 1958), he wears pilot's wings - and also, flat-topped "Sabre" parachute wings, usually displayed only by "badged" members of the army SAS. (The comparatively unremarkable jacket worn by Fleming to Dieppe is also there.)
The special For Your Eyes Only exhibit costs £8, though entry to the museum is free. If you don't fancy stumping up, there's plenty of other stuff at the IWM to interest those who like their spooks and gadgetry - and plenty of real-life items that could have figured in a Bond novel.
There's a German "Biber" one-man submarine, for instance, and an Italian "Siluro a Lenta Corsa" SLC human torpedo. According to the FYEO info, Fleming based Bond's limpet-mining swim against Mr Big's boat in Live and Let Die on wartime Italian frogman raids, many of which employed SLCs. The contemporary British "Charioteers" used similar minisub/torpedoes. And there's a whole section on "Secret War", full of exhibits on the real spooks and spies and special forces.
It seems that Fleming's painstaking research was finally his undoing - in particular his Bond-like insistence on heavy smoking and drinking. Apparently the novelist was already polishing off a bottle of gin and 70 specially-made cigarettes every day at the end of the war, and in 1961 he suffered a serious heart attack. He finally expired in 1964 at the age of 56. ®
*Fleming also departed from the kiss-kiss-bang-bang genre to write Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.
**The so-called "wavy navy", from the wriggly rank stripes worn by its officers to distinguish them from the former merchant seamen of the Royal Naval Reserve and the lordly pre-war regulars of the RN itself. RNVR and RNR officers, though looked down upon by the regulars, mostly saw more wartime action than the RN - though not in Fleming's case.