With the trailer for Skyfall released today, a look at how the bravery of a covert wartime unit inspired the world’s most famous secret agent...
Has there ever been a greater plan in military history than the one to topple Cuba by shaving off Fidel Castro’s beard? You may not find word of it in historical tome or released archive papers but in March of 1960 it’s allegedly the one that James Bond creator Ian Fleming put, in earnest, to U.S. president JFK.
What’s even more bizarre than the conspiratorial whisper passed from Fleming to Kennedy across the dinner table is that then CIA chief, Allen Welsh Dulles, apparently considered it. Ultimately of course, Castro’s beard remained intact, and grew, along with the very real threat of nuclear warfare. Looking back, perhaps a covert ‘scissors for hire’ style operative could very well have averted such an apocalyptic state of affairs. Perhaps now, as you read this, Toni – from Toni & Guy fame – is on standby, a sleeper ready to pounce should things get tasty with a bearded agitator once more.
It’s best to be clear from the outset; this wasn’t mere plotline for a future Bond best-seller. Something perhaps unknown to all but hardened Fleming fans is that the former Reuter’s journalist was actually in a position of military authority during the Second World War, had the ear of high ranking officials and was heavily involved in Naval Intelligence. In a 1964 Playboy interview released shortly after his death he revealed: “My job got me right into the inside of everything, including all the most secret affairs. I couldn’t possibly have had a more exciting or interesting War. Of course, it’s my experience in Naval Intelligence, and what I learned about secret operations of one sort or another, that finally led me to write about them – in a highly bowdlerised way – with James Bond as the central figure.”
Ultimately the Castro affair, and an equally ambitious ruse to capture Rudolph Hess with the help of British occultist Aleister Crowley, failed to materialise. However, it was schemes such as this that proved the inspiration behind the world’s greatest secret agent, and in particular his involvement with the covert military group known as 30/AU, a unit that remained a well-kept government secret for over 50 years.
As a result of such secrecy, information is thin on the ground. You’re unlikely to unearth too many books on the subject, the Internet yields even less. Many operatives refuse to speak of their time during the hostilities and much of their successes are still governed by the Official Secrets Act. As a result, the true-life tales of ordinary men who took part in exceedingly daring missions have been lost to a generation.
The first thing you need to know is that this was no frontline fighting force. Their objectives lay in something even greater than the struggle for territory; something that was hoped could result in a swift climax to one of the bloodiest conflicts ever known to man; information.
These men would be experts in their field, skilled in techniques such as hand-to-hand combat, glider training, explosives, escape tactics and safe-cracking. It’s rumoured that Britain’s top safe breaker was released from jail just to work with them.
30/AU (30 being the room in admiralty headquarters they operated from and AU meaning assault unit) was set up in a response to the German intelligence gathering teams known as ‘Abwehrkommando,’ and their success seizing vital documents from the abandoned British headquarters in Athens; it soon became quite clear that, as the German war machine rumbled across mainland Europe, securing such information would prove vital.
In September of 1942 the Director of Naval Intelligence, Rear Admiral John Godfrey authorised an idea for a Special Royal Navy Intelligence Unit. Consisting mainly of Royal Marines, with Naval, Army and RAF personnel all under a Royal marine commanding officer, their goal was quite simply to outfox the enemy and ‘attain by surprise’ (the unit’s credo) items such as codes, ciphers, equipment and instruction manuals which could be used against the axis of evil. These men would be experts in their field, skilled in techniques such as hand-to-hand combat, glider training, explosives, escape tactics and safe-cracking. It’s rumoured that Britain’s top safe breaker – who was doing a spot of porridge at the time – was released from jail just to work with them. They were designed to be ghosts behind enemy lines, working purely on a need-to-know basis. Fleming, in his role as personal assistant to the Director of Naval Intelligence, was behind many of their missions.
‘Fleming and other officials provided a black book of our targets that could be found at The [Admiralty] Citadel in London,’ says 87-year-old Reg Rush, a former Royal Marine Commando with the unit. ‘Once the orders were given, a section of 30/AU would move into position behind the front lines and as soon as a listed target was about to fall, we took it over before the enemy could destroy it.’
The unit was used in a multitude of covert ops during the four remaining years of the war, from their first real mission in Operation Torch and the British-American invasion of French North Africa, (‘A very small team of the nucleus of 30/AU took part in this unsuccessful operation and survived without any casualties,’ says Rush), to the invasion of Sicily and Operation Husky, to Operation Overlord and the D-Day Landings. The struggles in Normandy understandably provoke strong reaction, as well as a natural unwillingness to relive the experience, ‘It was the first, the longest, and the worst period of combat I ever experienced,’ Reg laments. ‘We were not supposed to be a frontline fighting force. From my point of view it’s best forgotten for the simple reason I never want to relive such a dreadful memory.’
A major coup came in their bid to capture enemy personnel and in particular the men who became known as ‘Hitler’s scientists’. Whilst little confirmed detail is available, what is known is that men such as Helmut Walter, who designed the Me163 Rocket plane and midget submarine, Herbert Wagner, the man behind the flying bomb Hs293, and Wernher von Braun, who eventually went on to become chief architect of NASA’s Saturn V launch vehicle, were all captured by virtue of a series of successful raids.
Not that 30/AU knew of their importance of course, or for that matter the influence of Fleming. ‘We didn’t truly realise at the time to be honest, and I can’t even remember where and when we were told our work both in the Mediterranean and on D-Day to Berlin had greatly assisted in shortening the war,’ shrugs Rush modestly. ‘I don’t ever remember coming into contact with Fleming, who was then just a relatively unknown Naval Officer. Some 30-odd years later we were told that he’d visited the unit sometime between D-Day and the capture of Cherbourg.’
Had the unit known Fleming, it’s a matter of some debate whether they would have actually got on. Here was a man who lived an incredibly privileged life – was schooled at Eton, Geneva and Munich, whilst his family mixed in the highest of social circles, his father’s obituary was even penned by Winston Churchill. Compare this to the ordinary men and women risking life and limb on a daily basis (Rush even refused promotion to remain, ‘One of the lads,’) and you have the basis for an uneasy cartel. In the Channel 5 UK documentary, Chasing Hitler’s Scientists the veteran BBC Correspondent and 30/AU interpreter and interrogator ,Captain Sir Charles Wheeler, revealed, ‘He [Fleming] was regarded by the Naval Officers, and I think by the Marines and those of 30/AU who knew him, as somebody who spent most of the war going to nightclubs and having expensive lunches and so on. Not really one of us and he was treated that way.’ Although he may have been viewed with suspicion, through 007 Fleming side-stepped red tape and official secrets to (in a roundabout way) record their achievements.
“I wanted my hero to be entirely an anonymous instrument,’ said Fleming in 1960. ‘I wanted to let the action of the book carry him along.”
He brought stirring tales straight from 30/AU to the masses, and indeed it’s said that the bravery of unit commanders such as Patrick Dalzel-Job and Jim Glanville were inspirations for the character of Bond himself. However it‘s perhaps testimony to the fact that he rarely knew them well enough to discover their real personalities, that the secret agent was created to be somewhat bland. His name was taken from a less than thrilling, albeit famous ornithological book, James Bond’s Birds of the West Indies and throughout his adventures, the plot was always intended to be the star, ‘I wanted my hero to be entirely an anonymous instrument,’ said Fleming in 1960. ‘I wanted to let the action of the book carry him along.’
The unit was disbanded in 1946, their job done; and whilst Fleming went on to find fame, fortune and better weather in Goldeneye, his writing hideaway in Jamaica, the unit melted back into Civvy Street. Through his years in Naval Intelligence Fleming found not only excitement, and of course Bond, but also some truly brave men. It’s unfortunate that their actual story seems strangely absent from history. A story, as Rush puts it of: ‘The bond that developed between men and women of totally different backgrounds, who would live and die if necessary, in support of their colleagues, and always without question.’ Surely that’s one particular tale that is long overdue.
Patrick Dlazel-Job - Widely touted as the man Bond was based upon and although he was no womaniser, he could ski backwards, pilot a mini submarine and was as brave as they come – once defying direct orders to cease evacuation of the Norwegian town of Narvik, saving 5,000 lives in the process.
Jim Glanville - Another possible for the inspiration behind 007, Glanville served in nearly every campaign of 30/AU, took the surrender of the Italians, German and Japanese Admirals, and above all earned the respect and admiration of all ranks for his courage, compassion, comradeship and cool common-sense.
Margaret Priestley - Thought to be the inspiration behind Miss Moneypenny, and was involved in the running of the unit from NID room 30 in the Admiralty Citadel. Ultimately the former university Don of Leeds shunned any recognition for the important part she played, both as Fleming’s inspiration and her work with 30/AU.
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