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Wartime James Bond

October 11, 2017

The James Bond film series has always tried to move with the times, not just by embracing new styles of film-making but also by updating the political context. As such, the films have long since abandoned the idea that Bond was a Cold-War warrior. The espionage conflict between East and West was, to varying degrees, the backdrop to every Bond film from Dr No (1962) to Licence to Kill (1989). The first film of the series I saw in the cinema, Goldeneye (1995), at least acknowledged Bond was a Cold War veteran adjusting to the new threats the world was facing. But since then, the Cold War has faded from the consciousness of the recent Bond films and their younger viewers.

It should be noted that the Cold War setting of the early films was a direct consequence of a much hotter conflict – the Second World War. It’s striking how many of the key players of the early Bond series were veterans of the conflict. Fleming, like his fictional counterpart, was a Commander in the Royal Navy during the war and Bond was a composite of several RN Commandos who were in his charge. Fleming formed his band of ‘Red Indians’, 30 Assault Unit who performed daredevil missions during the conflict, although the future author saw little, if any, combat himself. Terence Young, who directed three of the first four James Bond films, was a tank commander who saw action in Operation Market Garden. Legendary art director Ken Adam, who gave the Bond sets their unique and epic look, was a German-born RAF fighter pilot. In his memoirs, Roger Moore recalled witnessing a V1 Doodlebug land on the streets of London.

The Second World War was always a lurking presence in Fleming’s Cold War thrillers. In this post, I am going to connect some moments from the Bond film and literary series to events from the war. Let’s start with Fleming’s debut novel Casino Royale (1953). In it, Bond plays a high stakes baccaret game against the villainous Le Chiffe. Fleming claimed to have based the showdown on an incident from the war where Fleming played baccaret against German agents at a casino in Lisbon, although, in his biography of Fleming, Andrew Lycett claims it is more likely Fleming got the idea from a number of wartime incidents involving other allied agents:

Ian and (John) Godfrey took the usual roundabout air-route from Britain – KLM to Lisbon and then Pan Am to New York via the Azores and Bermuda. They stayed a couple of nights in the big Palacio Hotel on the Tagus estuary at Estoril, where one of the more heavily embellished incidents in Ian’s wartime career took place. After dinner the second night, Ian wanted to play at the casino, a favourite pre-war pursuit which he had recently been denied. It was a sombre and uneventful evening in a dim-lit building. His fellow gamblers were Portugese businessmen in suits. The stakes were not particularly high, and Ian lost. As he was leaving the gaming tables, he turned to Godfrey and, with a touch of imaginative genius, tried to invest the drab proceedings with some spurious glamour: “What if those men had been German secret service agents and suppose we had cleaned them out of their money; now that would have been exciting.” […] But others have also claimed responsibility for this incident, or something like it. One was Dusko Popov, the Yugoslav double agent who worked for the British while pretending to spy for the Germans. Popov gave the British secret service an opportunity to “play back” some of the false information it wanted the Nazis to hear. Another was Ralph Iard, a fellow member of NID, who played roulette with a group of expatriate Nazis in Lisbon while he was en route to South America on a wartime mission. Iard later recalled how Ian had been very interested in his story.

And here is the climax of the card game, brilliantly dramatised in the 2006 film adaptation of Casino Royale (Baccaret was switched to Texas Holdem in the film):

The Soviet spy agency Smersh features prominently in a number of Fleming’s novels. They are portrayed as Bond’s counterparts and nemesis in Russian Intelligence, leading the fight against the decadent West. In reality, Smersh was founded by the Russians during the Second World War. After Nazi Germany launched Operation Barbarossa, a massive land invasion of the Soviet Union, the initial success of their campaign led to widespread desertion and surrender in the Russian military. Smersh was formed as an umbrella organisation of the existing Soviet Intelligence services to subvert German attempts to infiltrate the Red Army on the Eastern Front. In an article for the Journal of Contemporary History, the historian Robert Stephan suggests that the name Smersh came from Stalin himself:

According to a Soviet history of the Special Departments, there were several suggestions at a meeting with Stalin of names for the new organization. One of the suggestions was Smernesh, or Smert’ nemetskim shpionam (‘Death to German Spies’). Stalin replied: ‘And why as a matter of fact should we be speaking only of German spies? Aren’t other intelligence services working against our country? Let’s call it Smert’ Shpionam.’ Hence the name ‘Death to Spies’.

After Germany’s surrender in 1945, the duties of Smersh were transferred back to NKGB the following year and the organisation essentially ceased to exist, but Fleming found their brutal counter-intelligence methods memorable enough to make them a major Cold War presence in his fiction. In Casino Royale, Le Chiffre is the paymaster of a Smersh controlled trade union, and a Smersh agent engraves a Cyrillic mark into Bond’s hand so that other Smersh agents will recognise him as a spy. Smersh would continue to feature in Fleming novels such as From Russia With Love (1957) and Goldfinger (1959), but in the film series they feature less prominently as the colourful SPECTRE (SPecial Executive for Counter-Intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion), which featured in all but one of the Sean Connery Bond films, seemed more suited to the outlandishness of the Swinging Sixties. Smersh still plays a major role in the film adaptation of From Russia With Love (1963), and more elliptically in 1987’s The Living Daylights, one of the strongest entries in the series and the last to be truly about the Cold War, where two MI6 agents are murdered with the message Smert’ Shpionam left by their corpse.

My final example is a bit more debatable in terms of the influence of World War Two. Author Jeremy Duns has claimed the pre-credits sequence of Goldfinger (1964) was inspired by an Allied Intelligence mission in which a Dutch spy was smuggled into Nazi-occupied Netherlands. The scene in the film is set in an unnamed South American country, Bond is first seen emerging from the water in a wet-suit wearing a fake duck on his head before covertly entering a drugs laboratory and planting some explosives set to a timer. He slips out of the wet-suit, revealing he’s wearing a perfect white tuxedo beneath and makes his way to a nearby tavern in which nearly all of the occupants clear out of in a panic when they hear the nearby laboratory erupting in flames. Bond stays to seduce a dancer, but they’re steamy encounter is interrupted by a local heavy who tries to knock out Bond with a cosh. After a fight between the two, Bond finishes the villain off by shoving him in a bath and throwing an electric light in the water. ‘Shocking’, Bond quips before leaving to catch his flight to Miami where the main plot of the film begins.

Stirring stuff, but what has it possibly got in common with the grim realities of a World War Two spy mission? Well Duns makes a convincing case that the scene was based on the ‘Scheveningen’ mission in which Peter Tazelaar was tasked by the Dutch Government-in-exile to covertly land ashore at Scheveningen in his then occupied home-country, and find and extract two Dutch agents and bring them back to safety in Britain:

Their plan was simple but audacious – approach Scheveningen in darkness by boat, and take Mr Tazelaar into the surf by dinghy, from where he could scramble ashore. Once there, he would strip off his wetsuit, to reveal his evening clothes underneath, to enable him to pose as a partygoer and slip past the sentries.

The operation began fairly well. Tazelaar disembarked from a British Motor Gun Boat into a small dinghy. Once ashore, he slipped out of a specially designed wet-suit under which he was wearing immaculate party clothes, and staggered, feigning drunkenness, past two unsuspecting German sentries nearby. On a later date though he was picked up on the same beach by the Gestapo and taken in for questioning but, cool under pressure, managed to bluff his way out by claiming to be a drunken reveller. The mission was ultimately blown, and while Tazelaar managed to escape he was unable to bring back the two agents.

Whether the opening scene of Goldfinger was based on the exploits of Tazelaar it is hard to say. The scene is a creative reworking of the first chapter of the novel which begins with Bond nursing a double bourbon at the departure lounge of Miami airport, and feeling somewhat grubby after being forced to kill a Capungo, Mexican bandit, who was a part of the opium smuggling ring Bond had been assigned to smash. The scene is a typically strong opening to a Bond novel, and incidentally was cited by Roger Moore as a major influence in his portrayal of the character, but it has more to do with Fleming’s lifelong fascination with the process of smuggling than his or anyone else’s experiences during wartime. There is no wet-suit hiding an impeccable tux in the book; however, Duns argues that so many of the key players in the production of Goldfinger had Intelligence experience during wartime that a knowledge of the Scheveningen mission could have easily slipped into the script. The screenplay to Goldfinger was co-written by Paul Dehn who had been a Special Operations Executive officer during the war, and the film was directed by Guy Hamilton who had served in the Royal Navy’s 15th Motor Gunboat Flotilla and had been involved in missions landing MI6 agents on the coastlines of occupied Europe.

Whether or not it was directly based on the Scheveningen mission, the opening to Goldfinger is a great scene which did much to set the formula of the pre-credits sequence being a mini-movie in itself, and the influence of the Second World War on the Bond novel and film series should not be underestimated or ignored.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. October 12, 2017 9:48 am

    The “Scheveningen” mission of November 1941 involved three Dutch agents working for SIS in London. Peter Tazelaar was indeed wearing white tie and tails(!) underneath his rubber frogman’s suit, the object being, were he discovered on an restricted beach, to pose as a drunken reveller staggering back from a party at the nearby Palace Hotel. The agent tasked with getting him ashore from a British Motor Torpedo Boat was Erik Hazelhoff Roelfzema, who tells the story in his autobiography “Soldier of Orange”, a book which was filmed (starring Rutger Hauer) and in 2014 turned into an open-air theatre pageant in Holland. I first heard the story from Ysabele Deighton, wife of Len Deighton, who was Erik’s niece.After the war Peter Tazelaar worked for US Air Force Intelligence in Hungary but had to flee Budapest when discovered by the NKVD. He retired to the South of France and died in 1978.

    • October 12, 2017 1:01 pm

      Thanks Mike, some fascinating details. Always wanted to see ‘Soldier of Orange’, especially as I’m a big Paul Verhoeven fan. Tazelaar was a fascinating character, a real-life James Bond. He also served in Ceylon during the war and then the Dutch East Indies.

  2. shay simmons permalink
    October 15, 2017 3:31 am

    He didn’t play cards with them, but Marines cherish a story told about OSS agent/Marine Capt Peter Ortiz, who held up a bar full of Germans in occupied France and made them sing the Marines’ Hymn before making his escape.

    • October 15, 2017 9:24 am

      Shay, thanks so much for this. I had never heard of Peter Ortiz but reading his bio – what a hero. That’s a fascinating story, straight out of a Hollywood film, except it really happened. How appropriate Ortiz ended up in Hollywood after the war. I doubt there were any films starts who could match his experiences though.

  3. May 26, 2019 8:47 am

    Fascinating stuff, sir. It has also been argued, very persuasively, that Dennis Wheatley’s saturnine wartime secret agent, Gregory Sallust, was a major influence on Fleming.

    • May 26, 2019 11:03 am

      Thanks. Need to read more of Wheatley. I suppose I was put off by his fascination with the occult but Sallust sounds great.

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