Review published on January 12, 2012. Reviewed by Simon Appleby
After the great success of Churchill’s Wizards, Nicholas Rankin returns to the same formula by finding an unusual angle for telling the story of a relatively obscure, though highly distinguished, military unit. 30 Assault Unit was an innovative formation – a specialist group of commandos whose job was to go in with frontline troops and capture enemy intelligence, especially technical information. As a Royal Navy unit, their focus was on naval material (radar, submarines, torpedos, and so on) and the man behind their formation was Commander Ian Fleming, RNVR, a senior assistant to the Admiralty’s Director of Naval Intelligence, and of course the man who went on to create the character of that legendary spy, James Bond.
Rankin seems to have two objectives with this book – to tell the story of 30 AU, which is notable in itself, and to explain how Fleming’s wartime experiences influenced his later writing career. In terms of the former: 30 AU were present on the botched Dieppe raid, served on North Africa, Sicily and Italy and went in with the troops on D-Day. Using the commando spirit of improvisation and daring they achieved some great ‘pinches’ (captures of intelligence), including vital contributions to efforts going on at Bletchley Park to crack the fiendish German Enigma code. That same commando spirit also got them in to trouble sometimes , and they were a thorn in the side of senior commanders on at least one occasion – however Rankin clearly feels it was a worthwhile endeavour, not least with the capture of the entire archive of the German Navy by a tiny squad of 30 AU members (you wouldn’t have wanted to play poker with any of these men, they often played a weak hand amazingly well).
As far as Ian Fleming is concerned, he features heavily in the first half of the book and, as 30 AU go in to action, takes something of a back seat in the second half. Rankin chronicles his position within the intelligence apparatus of the Admiralty, his role in the formation of the unit that became 30 AU and his role in tasking them and evaluating their intelligence ‘take’. He also identifies, throughout the book, experiences of Fleming and 30 AU that would later have parallels in Fleming’s Bond stories, both in terms of Fleming’s knowledge of intelligence procedures and in terms of his attitudes (for example the fascination with gold that led to the writing of Goldfinger and also led him to call his house in Jamaica Goldeneye, a name later co-opted for a Bond film). Fleming comes across as an aloof character, well-suited to the role in which he found himself, and while he may not have inspired a great deal of love in ‘his’ 30 AU (those in the ‘rear echelon’ seldom did), there is no doubt that he did everything he could to look out for their interests.
An enjoyable and intriguing mix of a unit history with a wartime biography and a canter through the importance of intelligence in the European theatre of the Second World War, Ian Fleming’s Commands is an an unusual and enjoyable book.
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