Undercover with Nicholas Rankin: Ian Fleming’s Commandos

Article published on October 25, 2011.

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In 1942, Lieutenant-Commander Ian Fleming was personal assistant to the Director of Naval Intelligence – the dynamic figure behind James Bond’s fictional chief, ‘M’. Here, Fleming had a brilliant idea: why not set up a unit of authorised looters, men who would go in hard with the front-line troops and steal enemy intelligence? Known as ’30 Assault Unit’, they took part in the major campaigns of the Second World War, landing on the Normandy beaches and helping to liberate Paris. 30AU’s final amazing coup was to seize the entire archives of the German Navy – thirty tons of documents. Ian Fleming flew out in person to get the loot back to Britain, where it was combed for evidence to use in the Nuremburg trials. In this gripping and highly enjoyable book, Nicholas Rankin, author of the best-selling Churchill’s Wizards, puts 30 Assault Unit’s fascinating story in a strategic and intelligence context. He also argues that Ian Fleming’s Second World War service was one of the most significant periods of his life – without this, the most popular spy fiction of the twentieth century would not have been written.


As you’d expect from any book by the author of Churchill’s Wizards and Telegram from Guernica, there’s no shortage of forensic historical detail and this, combined with Fleming’s ‘secret’ life and the well-known Fleming of the James Bond novels, means we get a riveting recreation of an intriguing period of British history, with added Boys Own adventure.

‘Packed with the eccentric characters you’d expect to find in the wartime spy world … This is a story as riveting as any spy tale Fleming subsequently sent his creation on; the characters the officer worked with and their deeds would pepper or provide the inspiration for Bond stories. Those stories have rather eclipsed the deeds of the men who served as his inspiration, but be in no doubt of 30 Assault Unit’s importance to history.’ Navy News

We asked Nicholas Rankin to tell us more…

What inspired you to write the book?

The late, great BBC reporter Charles Wheeler kick-started it, I think. He was a 21-year-old captain in the Royal Marines when he landed in France on D-Day as an Interrogator with Ian Fleming’s commando assault unit, 30AU. Charles told me about this in 2008 just before the press preview of the Imperial War Museum centenary exhibition For Your Eyes Only: Ian Fleming and James Bond. In a room there dedicated to Fleming’s wartime experience I talked to the son of one of his commandos as well as the eldest daughter of the Director of Naval Intelligence who hired Fleming as his personal assistant, Admiral John Godfrey, who became the basis of the fictional ‘M’, James Bond’s boss in the novels. There seemed to be a book waiting to be written around Fleming in World War II.

When researching the book Ian Fleming’s Commandos what was the most surprising story you uncovered and why?

We all know Ian Fleming as the author of the James Bond fantasy spy novels of the 1950s and early sixties. But what is striking is just how deeply involved he was in real war-time intelligence, as Commander Ian Fleming RNVR. He worked closely with Britain’s two Directors of Naval Intelligence throughout the Second World War from 1939 to 1945. ‘17 (F)’ – as he appears in the Naval Intelligence files and dockets – was a man who knew many secrets. He was Naval Intelligence’s liaison with ‘C’, the head of the Secret Intelligence Service, MI6, and also with the sabotage and resistance organisation, SOE, the Special Operations Executive. He knew the people who ran double agents and deceptions in the Security Service, MI5. He regularly visited Bletchley Park, the Government Code and Cypher School that cracked enemy secret messages, and he knew the American General Bill Donovan who founded the OSS, the Office of Strategic Services, the forerunner of the CIA.  So the Bond fictions are grounded in genuine reality.

What anecdote most resembles the exploits of the fictional character, James Bond?

Fleming set up 30 Assault Unit to ‘pinch’ enemy technical intelligence. The frogmen and miniature submarines of Thunderball owe a lot to 30AU’s WWII experiences dealing with Italian underwater daredevils, which are described in my book, the Spektor coding machine in From Russia With Love is inspired by the real-life German Enigma coding machines that were stolen for Bletchley Park, and the wicked rocket scientists in Moonraker were inspired by 30AU’s hunting down of VI and V2 rocket sites and German scientists, as described in my final chapters.

No single real-life person is the origin of Bond, but I think it’s important that he’s Commander Bond, not Wing-Commander or Lieutenant-Colonel Bond – by which I mean that people often forget Bond is a Royal Navy figure, out of what used to be called ‘the Senior Service’, like Ian Fleming.

Did you meet any of the surviving members of the 30 Assault Unit?

Yes indeed. The Royal Marines have outlived their officers because they’re fitter, I guess. Paul McGrath, for example, still plays golf regularly in his late eighties. He’s the only survivor of Fleming’s original unit, first tested in the Dieppe raid on 19th August 1942. He was also in the Torch landings, the invasion of Italy, D-Day in France and the conquest of Germany. And ‘Bon’ Royle, Dr A. G. Royle, another vigorous participant, still witty and sharp as a knife, was a fund of stories too. My book combines personal anecdotes with archival research to try and give a tactical and strategic view of this interesting unit and its characters. Robert Harling pungently described these Royal Marines as ‘merry, courageous, amoral, loyal, lying toughs.’

What was the crowning achievement of 30 Assault Unit?

They helped liberate Brittany and Paris in 1944, which must have felt good. But their apotheosis was probably in Nazi Germany in 1945 when they seized a great deal of advanced weaponry and new technology as well as the entire German naval archives from 1870 onwards, including both world wars. The Americans captured the rocket scientist Werner von Braun who later put a man on the moon, but 30AU captured Dr Helmuth Walter whose work helped Britain to develop new jets and submarines in the 1950s. An amazing coup.

Does the 30 Assault Unit still exist?

The original unit was disbanded in 1946, but the Royal Marines remustered 30 Commando Information Exploitation Group in December 2010 as the intelligence-gathering ‘information regiment’ inside 3 Commando Brigade. They’re currently in Afghanistan, I believe. If I told you anything more about them, I’d probably have to kill you. And then myself.

A new Faber Finds title, The Hazard Mesh by J. A. C. Hugill, will be published this year. I understand you wrote the introduction to the new edition of the book. Can you tell us more about it?

Tony Hugill was a scientifically trained technical officer in 30AU who wrote a vividly authentic account of his part in the D-Day landings and the liberation of France. I’ve gone back to his original pencilled diaries, which he wrote in the field, and compared them with the self-censored manuscript that he delivered in 1946. (They’re all in the Churchill Archives at Churchill College, Cambridge.) I’ve identified the real people and fill in the background to some of the incidents investigating German radar and weapons. Only 500 copies of The Hazard Mesh were printed then, but history buffs who order it from Faber Finds will see it is the real thing, and Hugill makes you feel you are there with him.

Your last book, Churchill’s Wizards, explores British ingenuity and inventiveness and Ian Fleming’s Commandos covers the story behind his Second World War unit. Are you writing a new book and what will this be about?

Ernest Hemingway (whose liberation of the Hotel Ritz in Paris in August 1944 I describe in Ian Fleming’s Commandos) often warned against ‘mouthing up’ a book too much. It’s true for historians too. When I separately asked Anthony Beevor and Ben Macintyre what they were currently writing they immediately clammed up and changed the subject. I can tell you that I have been reading about the Falklands/Malvinas War. But whether that’s a decoy answer or not, we’ll just have to wait and see.





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