Words by Jack Lugo
In 1940 Ian Fleming, then a Lt. Commander in British Naval Intelligence, designed a secret operation, which if successful might have helped the Allies crack the German naval enigma codes. Famous cryptanalyst Alan Turing had been among the codebreakers working at Government Code and Cypher School (GC&CS) at Bletchley Park.
While there is no evidence that Fleming and Turing ever met there’s no doubt that if Operation Ruthless proved to be successful it would have been of vital importance to breaking Enigma. Fleming, who served as the personal assistant to Naval Intelligence Director Rear Admiral John Godfrey, wrote up a memo detailing an elaborate plot that would have given the Allies a decisive advantage in the war. Many years later while Fleming was in the midst of writing his 9th James Bond book, Thunderball, it is entirely possible that Operation Ruthless may have inspired a key sequence in the book.
The idea seems almost fantastical as if Fleming had dreamed it up for one of his 007 spy novels. In 1940, however, James Bond was 12 years away from emerging from his creator’s mind. This operation would in fact be very real, and Fleming himself had very much desired to take an active part in the mission itself. Since the beginning of the war, Turing and his colleagues at Bletchley Park had been hard at work decrypting enemy transmissions, but the German naval transmissions proved to be a seemingly insurmountable obstacle.
The Germans used a much more complex Enigma ciphering method for their naval transmissions, which meant that only a codebook taken from a German ship could assist Turing and other cryptanalysts at Bletchley Park. The Allies greatly desired to obtain this key advantage that might perhaps change the course of the war and save many lives in the process.
With the goal of capturing a German Enigma codebook in mind, Fleming wrote up this memo in September 1940 to his superior, Rear Admiral John Godfrey ( who would serve as the inspiration for M. in the Bond novels):
To: Director Naval Intelligence
From: Ian Fleming
I suggest we obtain the loot by the following means:
- Obtain from Air Ministry an air-worthy German bomber.
- Pick a tough crew of five, including a pilot, W/T operator and word-perfect German speaker. Dress them in German Air Force Uniform, add blood and bandages to suit.
- Crash Plane in the Channel after making SOS to rescue service.
- Once aboard rescue boat, shoot German crew, dump overboard, bring rescue boat back to English port.
In order to increase the chances of capturing an R or M (Räumboot – a small minesweeper; Minensuchboot – a large minesweeper) with its richer booty, the crash might be staged in mid-Channel. The Germans would presumably employ one of this type for the longer and more hazardous journey.
- Since attackers will be wearing enemy uniform, they will be liable to be shot as franc-tireurs if captured, and incident might be fruitful field for propaganda. Attackers’ story will therefore be that it was done for a lark by a group of young hot-heads who thought the war was too tame and wanted to have a go at the Germans. They had stolen the plane and equipment and had expected to get into trouble when they got back. This will prevent suspicions that party was after more valuable booty than a rescue boat.”
According to some sources, this plan was approved as high up as Prime Minister Winston Churchill. Fleming, who had never had any experience in the field during the war, had wanted to be a part of the mission himself disguised as a German Air Force pilot, but Fleming with his knowledge of British Naval Intelligence Operations as well as some of the efforts being done at Bletchley Park was deemed too valuable to risk being captured by the Germans.
Operation Ruthless would ultimately be cancelled. The British struggled to find an opportune moment when a German rescue vessel would be close enough for this to work, and additionally, the “fake” German bomber to be used in the operation would actually float instead of sink if they crashed it in the ocean as they were planning, which would put the disguised crew at high risk of being detected prior to boarding the German rescue ship. Alan Turing was reportedly among those who were disappointed that this scheme was abandoned. Turing colleague, Frank Birch, wrote in a letter in October 1940:
“Turing and [Peter] Twinn came to me like undertakers cheated of a nice corpse two days ago, all in a stew about the cancellation of Operation Ruthless. The burden of their song was the importance of a pinch. Did the authorities realise that … there was very little hope, if any, of their deciphering current, or even approximately current, Enigma … at all.”
Turing would eventually break an even more difficult German Navy 4 rotor Enigma a couple years later, which many now credit for accelerating the end of the war, but Ian Fleming, as we all know, went on to become the writer of the fictional James Bond novels. While Fleming always maintained a certain level of fantasy in his stories so as not to fully give away Intelligence secrets from his prior career, he relied heavily on his background experience in Naval Intelligence fictionalizing it to suit his iconic literary British spy.
One of the key sequences in the Thunderball novel involves the stealing of 2 atomic bombs by N.A.T.O. pilot Giuseppe Petacchi, who had agreed to become an accomplice to the villain Emilio Largo. Petacchi accomplishes this by poisoning the crew keeping himself alive by oxygen mask while proceeding to crash land the plane near the Bahamas carrying the two atomic missiles into the open water where the crew from Largo’s ship would rendezvous with him taking possession of the bombs, which would then be used to hold the United States and Great Britain at ransom. Petacchi, however, gets double crossed and stabbed in the back by one of Largo’s men while Largo takes possession of the bombs anyway.
While one can only speculate if Operation Ruthless was on his mind as he wrote the following passage when Petacchi lands the plane, it’s hard not to imagine Fleming somehow putting himself into a fantasy of being the pilot of the German Bomber he had planned to crash.
Now No. 1’s beacon was coming in loud and clear. Soon he would see the red flashing light. And there it was, perhaps five miles dead ahead. Petacchi inched the great nose of the plane down. Any moment now! It was going to be easy! His fingers played with the controls as delicately as if they were the erotic trigger points on a woman. Five hundred feet, four hundred, three, two . . . there was the pale shape of the yacht, lights dowsed. He was dead on line with the red flash of the beacon. Would he hit it? Never mind. Inch her down, down, down. Be ready to switch off at once. The belly of the plane gave a jolt. Up with the nose! Crash! A leap in the air and then . . . Crash again!
Petacchi unhinged his cramped fingers from the controls, and gazed numbly out of the window at the foam and small waves. By God he had done it! He, Giuseppe Petacchi, had done it!
Now for the applause! Now for the rewards!
Reading that passage it’s easy to imagine that perhaps Fleming put himself in the shoes of the imagined Operation Ruthless pilot crash landing the German bomber onto the surface of the water experiencing both the intense focus and the exhilaration once the task of landing the plane had been completed.
Ian Fleming would continue to draw inspiration from his wartime post in Naval Intelligence for his novels infusing them with contemporary news stories of his time. While Operation Ruthless never came to fruition, the knowledge of its very existence gives us a fascinating insight into Intelligence Operations during World War II.
I’ve always been interested in the grey area between fact and fiction. That area where both fantasy and real history intertwines, when harnessed by a talented writer, can yield greatly rewarding results for readers and I should hope for writers as well. Although we will probably never know with any certainty whether or not Operation Ruthless was on the forefront of Fleming’s mind as he wrote that key sequence in Thunderball, I’d like to imagine that it was.
As I continue my journey reading the classic Fleming cannon and making these fascinating historical connections, I can only hope that one day I might be able to tap into my own wellspring of knowledge and past experiences in my own fiction writing. I may not have the intriguing wartime Intelligence background of Ian Fleming, but I’d like to think that I have an interesting story or 2 in me to tell in my own way.
- Fleming, Ian Jonathan Cape, 1961
- Ian Fleming’s original Memo from September 1940