Leeds: The real life secret agents who inspired Ian Fleming

Daniel Craig in a scene from Skyfall.
Daniel Craig in a scene from Skyfall.
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A fascinating new book says Ian Fleming’s famous 007 series was inspired by a daring wartime operation involving real life secret agents including two from near Leeds. Chris Bond spoke to the author Brian Lett.

JAMES Bond has been fighting villains on the big screen for the past 50 years and the latest instalment in this global franchise, Skyfall, is on course to become the highest grossing Bond movie of all time after racking up £60m at the UK box office in its first two weeks alone. Whether or not Ian Fleming would still recognise the very British hero he created in 1953 in Casino Royale is open to question, but there’s no doubting 007’s enduring appeal.

During the Second World War Fleming was personal assistant to the director of Naval Intelligence and when asked after the conflict was over what he intended to do he answered simply: “Write the spy story to end all spy stories”.

Exactly who inspired James Bond has long been discussed by historians and biographers alike, but now a fascinating new book – Ian Fleming and SOE’s Operation Postmaster: The Untold Top Secret Story – attempts to join the dots between a daring wartime raid by a Special Operation Executive (SOE) team and the creation of the world’s most famous secret agent. Drawing on National Archives files released after being under a secrecy embargo for decades, author Brian Lett makes a strong case that four of the secret agents, including two born and bred near Leeds, were the inspiration for Fleming’s Bond books.

The background to all this is intriguing. In late 1941 SOE chief, Brigadier Colin Gubbins, sent a small team led by Captain Gus March-Phillipps to sail to Sierra Leone. Their mission, codenamed Postmaster, was to steal three enemy ships from the port of Santa Isabel, on the neutral Spanish island of Fernando Po, which they did in January 1942.

Lett, a criminal barrister whose own father was a member of the SOE, came across the operation while researching his previous book, SAS in Tuscany. He discovered that all the members of the raid worked closely with Fleming and that Colin Gubbins used the wartime code ‘M’ – which later became the name of the fictional head of MI6 in the Bond stories.

He also argues that James Bond was based around four real-life secret agents, including two from Yorkshire, and another who was educated here. Both Geoffrey Appleyard and Graham Hayes came from Linton on Wharfe, near Wetherby, while Gus March-Phillipps was educated at Ampleforth College, near York. Only the fourth man, the Dane Anders Lassen had no Yorkshire connection.

Lett says he didn’t initially set out to try and uncover the origins of James Bond.

“I started to trace the history of this raid and then ‘M’ and Ian Fleming cropped up and it all started to come together,” he explains.

“In late 1941, Fleming’s job was to act as a liaison between the Royal Navy and SOE and to oil the machinery between the two of them.”

Fleming was based in England and he met and worked with the Operation Postmaster team before they headed to the west coast of Africa.

“Fleming met them during a training exercise on the south coast so he knew these men,” says Lett.

There are several other intriguing connections. The ship the team sailed on, the Maid Honor, was a Brixham trawler that had been turned into a ‘Q’ ship – a term dating back to the First World War used to describe an armed ship pretending to be a civilian trawler, and which Fleming later famously adopted as the name for his secret gadgets department.

Lett links the two together. “On Operation Postmaster they used a ‘Q’ ship and SOE had its own sophisticated secret gadgets department with its own catalogue, they had cigarette guns and a sleeve gun, which sounds like something straight out of a Bond film.

“Fleming said himself that 90 per cent of what he wrote was based on his experiences in naval intelligence during the war and that’s clearly the case because he leaves plenty of clues behind for historians to pick up on,” he says.

“I’m convinced there’s a connection because it all fits together – I have no doubt that this operation was what inspired Fleming. He actually wrote to Gubbins after the war saying he should write these stories and Gubbins was thinking about it but was told not to because it was still all top secret. But a few years later Fleming started his career as a fiction writer and he effectively picked up the baton and Bond became the goose that laid the golden egg for him.”

But what about Lett’s assertion that Bond was based around the four secret agents involved in Operation Postmaster? “Each one contributed something to the character that became Bond. Gus March-Phillipps was inspirational and courageous, Geoffrey Appleyard, who was second in command, was very handsome and sporty and a bit of a ladies man.

“Graham Hayes was a great underwater man and had been an international sailor before the war.” The fourth man was Anders Lassen. “He was a silent assassin who stalked and killed a deer while on an SOE training camp in Scotland.”

Lett says that put together they form the basis of Bond’s personality. In one of the chapters, The Man Who Would Have Written James Bond, he points out that Fleming and March-Phillipps had a lot in common. “Both men lost their fathers during the First World War and had been brought up by their mothers. Gus March-Phillipps wrote novels before the war and his last novel, Ace High, included a kind of prototype Bond character, John Sprake, who was a gung-ho gambler that chased women. My own view is that had he not been killed he may well have gone on to write James Bond-style stories himself because he had all the background details he needed.”

Lett believes that the ability of Bond to handle adversity under pressure ties in with the grit and determination of Appleyard and Hayes. “The idea that Bond was a Scotsman is something that came about following Fleming’s death. Two of the Bond films had come out before Fleming died and he strongly approved of Sean Connery in the role, but if you look back at the earlier books they make clear that Bond was an Englishman, it’s only later on that it’s suggested he was Scottish and in my view Bond was far more Yorkshire than anything else,” he says.

“There is no doubt in my mind that these men and Operation Postmaster were the inspiration behind the creation of James Bond.” He points out that even the name of the world’s most famous spy has a connection to them. “James Bond was the name of a West Indian ornithologist and all three Englishmen had an interest in ornithology, Graham Hayes even trained a crow to sit on his shoulder in the pub.”

But unlike James Bond, who always triumphs in the end, all four men were killed during the war.

Anders Lassen, who went on to become the Special Forces’ most decorated soldier winning the Military Cross and two Bars, as well as the Victoria Cross, was killed in action in 1945 just a month before the war in Europe ended.

The others fell earlier in the conflict.

“Appleyard was on a reconnaissance mission for the SAS when his plane was shot down in July 1943 and his body was never found. Graham Hayes was captured in the same raid in which Gus March-Phillipps was killed. He escaped and made his way to Spain where he was betrayed by a French double agent.

“He was taken to Paris and tortured by the Gestapo and then shot on the same day that his friend Geoffrey Appleyard died in Sicily.”

It was a tragic end but Lett believes their spirit lives on through James Bond. “What they did on Operation Postmaster was exactly the kind of thing that happens in a Bond film, they travelled to a volcanic island and took three ships from beneath the noses of a Spanish garrison. It was great action stuff and I think the best Bond story is the story of Operation Postmaster because it’s true.”