Exclusive Interview with Michael Smith, Espionage Writer

We are thrilled to bring intelligence expert and award-winning author Michael Smith, in from the cold. Michael worked in intelligence for 10 years and gave us a unique insight into Ian Fleming’s involvement in World War 2.

Ian Fleming was described as ‘oiling the wheels’ between The Admiralty and SOE but what sort of role did Fleming play?

cover_9781849547406Fleming’s role was essentially as John Godfrey’s man in charge of dealing with all the other secret bodies, so SOE, MI6 and Bletchley Park. It was very much a liaison role and he clearly enjoyed himself and played the part with a great deal of enthusiasm. He also drafted all of Godfrey’s memos on MI6 and Bletchley Park and on intelligence generally including a look at the post-war future of intelligence, a large chunk of which was cut out of the document when it was released to the National Archives in 2008 because it was still deemed too much of a security risk. I included a number of these documents in The Secret Agent’s Bedside Reader.

Many brave women fought for SOE, particularly in Station F (French Section) including Violette Szabo, Noor Inyat Kahn, Denise Bloch and Christine Granville. Did Fleming know any of these women well or at least to have been given inspiration for some of his female characters?

Violette_Szabo_IWM_photoIt’s certainly true that the use of women as spies was frowned on until the Second World War when women like Szabo (right) and Granville did amazing things showing themselves more than capable of taking on the role of the secret agent. So it would be odd if they didn’t inspire the female characters in the Bond novels. I have no idea whether he ever met any of them but he was a renowned ladies’ man so I suspect he would have gone out of his way to grab any opportunities that came up.

We know that Fleming had cause to visit Bletchley Park and that he encountered Alan Turing a few times. Can you elucidate any more on this?

The Bletchley Park CodebreakersFleming was very determined to help the Bletchley Park naval section break the German Naval Enigma cipher. The Kriegsmarine, the German Navy, was very much more security conscious than the German army or the Luftwaffe so the navy Enigma was more difficult to crack. Fleming devised a plan, Operation Ruthless, to land a captured German bomber in the sea near France as if it was just returning from a raid over England and had run out of fuel.

When a German ship came to rescue them they would overpower the crew and take its Enigma machines and the instructions and take them back to England back to help Turing break the naval system. He included a role for ‘a word-perfect German speaker’ who should be ‘tough, a bachelor, able to swim’. Fleming pencilled his own name in above that role. One of the key targets for Fleming’s 30 Assault Unit of course was also capturing German cipher machines and Bond has his own encounter of course with a complex cipher machine that the British codebreakers want in From Russia with Love.

Ruthless 1

[Image: National Archives]

SOE’s famous headquarters were at 64 Baker Street but Orchard Court played an important role for briefing sessions, particularly for Station F. Was there a close relationship between the City and the Intelligence services in procuring these premises, something that Ian Fleming would have been adept at given his background?

cover_9781849540957_-_reprint_coverI’m sure Fleming’s connections with the City helped naval intelligence in all sorts of ways. Many of the SOE sites originally belonged Section D of MI6, which was one of the key elements which combined to form the SOE. Once it was formed, it purchased a lot of its own, but it had plenty of businessmen working for it, so it is more likely that they were involved than Fleming, who was working for Godfrey and naval intelligence, not SOE. Interestingly enough, it is easy to tell the difference between the sites inherited from Section D of MI6 because these were all numbered with Roman numerals. (Bletchley Park, where SOE had an explosives lab before the codebreakers arrived what designated Station X. The X was not a sign of mystery. Bletchley was simply the tenth site bought by MI6.) The sites bought after SOE was formed are all numbered in Arabic numerals.

Finally, do you think Fleming was secretly referring to SOE when mentioning the ‘Secret Service’ in his Bond novels, as only they truly had a ‘licence to kill’?

cover_45_originalNo. I think he was truly referring to MI6. I know MI6 always say oh we never kill anybody but remember in the years before the war, the organisation which became MI6 (back then it was known as MI1c) had been involved in assassination. It was involved in the murder of Rasputin and one of the senior British secret service officers in Bolshevik Russia later claimed he had been sacked because he refused to kill Stalin, before Stalin became Soviet leader but when it was already clear he was a very dangerous man. I cover this in more detail in Six: The Real James Bonds. During the First and Second World War, British secret service officers did have to kill people, certainly in self defence as Bond has to, so there is no reason why he should not have been referring to MI6.

You have to remember that Bond’s father figure Hannes Oberhauser who taught him to ski at Kitzbühel before the war, and appears in I think Octopussy, had a very real counterpart in Ernan Forbes Dennis, a former British secret service officer who taught Fleming to ski at Kitzbühel before the war and did take on the father figure role for both Ian and Peter Fleming, who had lost their father in the First World War. They went to Kitzbühel at a time when Ian in particular was in danger of going off the rails. A lot of the material that appears in the Bond books reflected real life. MI6 officers in the period between 1909 and 1945 often did use the rank of Lieutenant-Commander Royal Naval Reserve as cover, just as Bond did in the early Bond novels. C, the real head of MI6, did send his letters on blue paper, signed in green ink, just as Bond’s boss M does in the early Bond books.

C Blue Paper Letter

It’s interesting to note that both the two pre-war ‘Chiefs’ of MI6 (known simply as C) Mansfield Cumming and Hugh Sinclair, were naval officers. When Sinclair died in November 1939 and was replaced by an army officer Stewart Menzies, the Royal Navy was up in arms and Godfrey suggested to Admiral Sir Dudley Pound, the First Sea Lord, that the navy should set up its own independent secret service. Pound sent a memo backing this to Winston Churchill, who was then the Navy Minister, or First Lord of the Admiralty as it was known. In this memo and you can see that Churchill, writing in red and signing himself WSC, said he would talk to Menzies.


[Photo: National Archives]

When he did, he told Pound that he had found the new C very reasonable and didn’t think there was any need to be concerned but when Godfrey continued to lobby for a naval secret service Fleming advised him that it was better to infiltrate his own officers into MI6 and ensure he got what he wanted that way. He told Godfrey that he should get C to accept a young staff officer as his key adviser. Since this was precisely the role Fleming played for Godfrey, it is tempting to imagine that he was angling for the job himself and that this was when the idea of James Bond was born. Certainly Fleming’s intervention prevented the navy setting up their own secret service and ensured that James Bond became an MI6 officer.


[Photo: National Archives]

Incidental Intelligence

Michael-Smith2Michael Smith is an award-winning journalist and number one bestselling author. Smith served ten years with the British Army’s Intelligence Corps before joining the BBC. He has since worked as a reporter for both the Daily Telegraph and the Sunday Times, covering the wars in the Balkans, Iraq and Afghanistan. His many journalistic scoops include the publication of the Downing Street Memos, which exposed the way in which intelligence was ‘fixed’ in Washington DC in order to justify the war in Iraq.

Smith’s latest book is called The Debs of Bletchley Park and Other Stories and recounts the lives of the women who worked at Britain’s Second World War codebreaking centre. He is currently writing a detective novel set in Nazi Germany. He lives near Henley-on-Thames in Oxfordshire.


Discover Michael’s books at Biteback Publishing

Operation Ruthless: Ian Fleming’s Plan to Capture Enigma Codebooks

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