It can be argued that Sefton Delmer is the Godfather of what we commonly refer to as ‘fake news’. In old money, this was propaganda. Delmer’s “Black Propaganda,” was a disinformation war waged over the airwaves and mixed real news culled from intelligence sources and fake items.
He even he produced a German-language newspaper called Nachrichten für die Truppe (News for the Troops), which was air-dropped to soldiers on the Western front.
Delmer had an extraordinary ability to empathise and understand the German
mind. He had been born in Berlin son of an Australian Professor in English at Berlin University and spent his early schooldays during The Great War as a student of the Friedrichs Werdersche Gymnasium. In 1917 his family were repatriated to England. Later after a degree at Oxford, he returned to Berlin to become Berlin correspondent for the Daily Express.
Delmer had known Fleming as a journalist before the war. As young reporters, Delmer and Fleming met for the first time in Moscow in the 1930s and became life-long friends. Delmer recalled in his memoir Black Boomerang.
‘Even our very first meeting had a James Bondish touch. At any rate as far as the locale was concerned. We met in a compartment of the Warsaw-Moscow express when we were travelling to Moscow together in March 1939 to report the Kremlin negotiations of Robert Hudson, Britain’s Minister of Overseas Trade. […] By the time that we arrived we were firm friends, so much so that we decided to share a suite at the National, the antique Intourist hotel just opposite the red-brick Kremlin citadel.’
In September 1940, Delmer was recruited by the Political Warfare Executive (PWE) and it was here where he re-connected with Ian Fleming, who was working for Naval Intelligence and Fleming was a regular visitor to Delmer’s base of operations in Milton Bryan, Bedfordshire at the Duke of Bedford’s Woburn Estate.
Back at the Admiralty in room 39, it was Fleming’s job as personal assistant to be the channel of communications between his boss Admiral Godfrey and the outer world: not only the outer world of the other departments in the Admiralty, but of the Secret Service, the SOE, Delmer’s PWE, the Chiefs of Staff, and the Foreign Office as well. Delmer said in his memoir:
‘He never himself lived the kind of life or had adventures of the kind he later invented for James Bond. He never killed or spied, or infiltrated into enemy-occupied territory. But together with his chief, he was in constant touch with those who organised and managed these things and also those who carried them out.
The prefix 00 as the code identification of a special grade of British secret agent licensed to kill he chose because in the early months of the war 00 was the prefix number for top-secret cipher signals and the 00 had appealed to his sense of the mysterious and dramatic.’
However, on 10 October 1940, they were both nearly killed in a bombing raid by the Germans at Lincoln’s Inn in London. Delmer was entertaining a small party including Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands, Ian Fleming and the daughter of the then Belgian Prime Minister Hubert Pierlot. Delmer recalls in his autobiography that despite being covered in dust they carried on with their party until they were asked to leave the building by an ARP warden. [source: The Honourable Society of Lincoln’s Inn]
Delmer and Fleming left indelible marks on each other, Delmer recalling:
‘I had known Ian for twenty-five years, had worked with him on some of his secret operations during the war and had received his help with my own. He was the godfather of my son. “Call him Felix” he had said. “There are too few Felix’s in this world! And he had followed his own advice by creating an American partner for James Bond whom he called Felix Leiter.’
Delmer himself would appear in Diamonds Are Forever, as the boyfriend of James Bond’s secretary Lil. The country and Ian Fleming owed Sefton Delmer much.