We are delighted to welcome the esteemed author, historian and QC Mr. Brian Lett to interview him about the parallels between the real life heroes from the SOE and Ian Fleming’s fictional heroes and plots, most notably M and Moonraker.
1. With so many potential inspirations for ‘M’ from Ian Fleming’s life and career, what drew you to SOE chief Major General Sir Colin Gubbins as your primary candidate for ‘M’?
I did not begin my research into Operation Postmaster with the expectation of encountering either Ian Fleming or “M”. However, I knew that the Special Operations Executive [SOE], who ran Operation Postmaster, was a war time British Secret Service. When I discovered that Colin Gubbins (right), the Director of Operations and Training of SOE, was known by the code name “M”, I realised that, unknown to most, there actually had been a boss of a British Secret Service with the code name M.
I then discovered that Ian Fleming had worked closely with Gubbins [M] on Operation Postmaster and other SOE projects, and become quite close to the real M, writing to him after the war as “My Dear Colin”. Ian Fleming begged Colin Gubbins to publish the true story of SOE and its secret agents, but Gubbins was not allowed, for security reasons, to do so. It seems to me to be the obvious inference that Ian Fleming decided to model his fictional James Bond on SOE, and he created a fictional M to be its boss, in tribute to Colin Gubbins. There are, as my book points out, many similarities between Bond’s British Secret Service and SOE.
2. Why do you think Operation Postmaster, led by the Maid Honour Force, was so secret for so many years?
In the desperate early years of World War 2, SOE were authorised to break all the normal rules of war. The Operation Postmaster raid on Fernando Po was contrary to international law – Fernando Po belonged to the Spanish, who were a neutral nation, and Britain sent an armed force into their waters to steal two enemy ships who were sheltering there. Anthony Eden (left), who was then Foreign Secretary, publicly denied that Britain had been responsible – telling “the big lie”.
The Spanish Dictator, Generalissimo Franco, unfortunately for Britain, remained in power for many years after the war, whilst Anthony Eden, who had told “the big lie”, rose to become British Prime Minister in the mid 1950s. For those reasons, the initial embargo on telling the truth as to what had happened remained in force for many years. In any event, many of the methods used by SOE remained confidential until the “Iron Curtain” came down, and some still remain secret today.
3. You draw an interesting parallel with Anthony Eden’s role in Operation Postmaster, at the ending of Moonraker, when M talks to Bond about the cover up about to be put in place for the Moonraker Operation. Do you think this was a private joke by Fleming to his friend Eden?
Yes, I do. Fleming often sailed close to the wind when writing his Bond stories, as he himself admitted. He had a reliable instinct as to just how far he could go without being prosecuted under the Official Secrets Act. I believe that here he was teasing Eden with the fact that he knew that Eden [Prime Minister at the time that Moonraker was written] had told a big lie on the public stage. After all, it is said that Fleming enjoyed inflicting pain. Eden remained his friend despite the jibe.
4. Bond famously carried a Beretta in the early books; one possible inspiration for this was Maid Honor Force’s hunter/killer Anders Lassen. Did Fleming know him well?
It is difficult to say how well Fleming knew Anders Lassen VC, but he certainly did know him. He visited all of Maid Honor Force in Poole in May 1941, and was undoubtedly a guest at the celebration party when they returned after Operation Postmaster. There is no guest list for that party, it remained highly confidential, and only those already in the know [like Fleming] were asked.
Fleming was, of course, a naval man, and after the dissolution of the Small Scale Raiding Force in 1943, Lassen fought with the Special Boat Squadron [SBS]. Lassen was killed winning the VC in April 1945, close to the end of the war. He was, in fact, the only member of Special Forces in World War 2 to win that award. He had already won an MC and two bars. Lassen was a very sociable man, who loved the ladies, and it is likely that he and Fleming kept in touch until his death.
5. Could you tell us the significance of Maid Honour Force founder Gus March Phillips’ Ace High novel, as possible inspiration for Ian Fleming’s own writings?
Gus March Phillipps was the driving force behind the creation of Maid Honor Force, and the Small Scale Raiding Force. He commanded both. Before the war, Fleming had written no novels, but March-Phillipps had written three. The last of them, Ace High, published shortly before war broke out, featured an all action hero called John Sprake [JS rather than JB, but punchy single syllable names], whose attitude to women seems identical to that of James Bond.I have no doubt that had Gus March Phillipps survived the war, he would have written further novels featuring his action hero – and of course he would have had experience of the real world of secret agents. March Phillipps was killed in September 1942, and Ian Fleming, who had worked with him, survived…and wrote the James Bond books. There is no evidence to prove that this is more than a co-incidence…but I wonder?
Brian Lett is a criminal barrister who won his first jury acquittal at the Old Bailey when only twenty-two years of age, and has practiced continually at the criminal bar ever since.
Brian is also an historian and a published author. His specialises in the history of the Second World War. His published books are: “SAS in Tuscany 1943-5” [Pen and Sword 2011]; “Ian Fleming and SOE’s Operation Postmaster” [Pen and Sword 2012], the Small Scale Raiding Force” [Pen and Sword 2013], and “An Extraordinary Italian Imprisonment” to be published on 30 October 2014 by Pen and Sword.”
“SOE’s Mastermind – an authorised biography of Major General Sir Colin Gubbins” will be published in May 2016 by Pen and Sword. The book explains how he came to be an expert on covert activities, agents and resistance. He served throughout World War 1 on the Western Front; in Northern Russia thereafter fighting the Bolsheviks; in Ireland where he learned a lot from the IRA; in India, and eventually in Poland and Norway in World War 2 before running the British Resistance and then SOE.
James Bond and his Secret Dorset Past (Dorset Magazine)