It was a key moment in the big-screen movie version of Ian Fleming’s famous novel. Auric Goldfinger, explaining his villainous career to James Bond, told 007: ‘This is gold, Mr. Bond. All my life I’ve been in love with its colour, its brilliance, its divine heaviness’.
In a sense, this comment could easily have summed up the views of Bond creator Ian Fleming himself.
As is well-known, Fleming had a deep interest in precious metals, such as gold and silver, and expensive minerals and jewels, such as diamonds. Indeed, the smuggling of gold and diamonds was at the heart of at least two of his 007 novels, and was alluded to in a number of the other James Bond stories. Moreover, in 1957, Fleming devoted one of his non-fiction books to the real world of illicit smuggling and trading in diamonds.
It is no exaggeration to say that Ian Fleming was especially beguiled by stories about hidden treasure. A recent edition of the popular UK history magazine All About History revisited this. It included some details on the 007 creator’s fascination with hidden Nazi gold, particularly a large amount that had been stolen by the German Afrika Korps in World War Two and possibly later hidden off the Corsican coast.
For His Eyes Only
When he was working as a Naval Intelligence officer at the Naval Intelligence Division (NID), many secret intelligence reports from a number of wings of the Allied war effort came across his Whitehall desk. Via such reports, Fleming had become very familiar with how high-ranking members of the shrinking Nazi regime, increasingly aware that the tide of war was turning strongly against them, were desperately trying to hide stolen art, treasures, and other precious material in secret locations across Europe and elsewhere, such as in deep mines, lakes or in sunken cargoes at sea.
Significantly, Fleming had also helped create a special commando unit in 1942, known as 30 Assault Unit (30AU), that undertook secret intelligence-gathering and ‘snatch’ operations in the field in North Africa, Sicily and Normandy. It became even more useful in 1945, as Nazi Germany collapsed, as 30AU would race ahead of the main Allied armies in Western Europe and often operated behind enemy lines. There was a real sense of urgency. The Unit was responsible for trying to retrieve, capture and save valuable enemy paperwork, precious metals, marine-engineering discoveries, midget-submarine prototypes, and any other items of advanced scientific or military technology before they were successfully hidden by the Germans or lost forever, or ‘liberated’ by the advancing Russians. Some of this knowledge was undoubtedly an influence on the plots for Fleming’s later James Bond novels after the war.
From a View to a Thrill
Ian Fleming, as a number of his biographers have noted – almost from the very beginning of his career as a thriller-writer – drew heavily from his own interests and hobbies for plot scenarios for his 007 adventures (golf, sea-diving, fast cars, gadgets and so on). The Bond creator had a big interest in treasure-hunting in the 1950s, which was combined with a deep fascination with modern technology and inventions of all kinds.
In fact, as early as 1947, in a short essay he wrote on Jamaica for Horizon magazine, Fleming had referred to ‘the caverns and sinkholes which abound in the limestone hills’ on the island that, he claimed, ‘were doubtless stuffed with pirate treasure including Sir Henry Morgan’s hoard’.
Fleming’s interest in treasure-hunting became even more apparent after the publication of his first 007 novel, Casino Royale. According to Edward Biddulph, who penned an article for an issue of British Archaeology magazine back in 2012, it was during this period that the Bond author used his position as both special representative and Foreign Manager of the famous Sunday Times newspaper to seek suggestions from readers for ‘well substantiated’ stories of buried treasure.
Interestingly, Fleming had already written the first draft of his second James Bond novel, Live and Let Die, by this time, the plot of which involved a hoard of 17th Century gold coins (in the story, gold coins have been turning up in Harlem and Florida, and ‘M’ suspects these are part of a large hoard of looted Spanish gold buried in Jamaica by the infamous pirate Sir Henry Morgan).
Biddulph also revealed that the 007 author’s interest in hidden treasure around this time received a big boost in the 1950s when he met the famous French diver and explorer Jacques Cousteau (1910-1997).
The two men became close friends and Cousteau invited Fleming down to the Mediterranean to observe his innovative exploratory work, to conduct some diving for himself, and explore various underwater archaeological sites, using Cousteau’s hi-tech ship the Calypso as a base for operations. Fleming’s first scuba experience came in 1953, when he dived with Cousteau.
Biographers have pointed out that this undoubtedly influenced Fleming’s vivid and detailed descriptions of underwater swimming in his 007 adventures. Importantly, the whole experience left a deep impression on Fleming and his spy fiction. Some of it possibly influenced the undersea equipment and maritime ideas described in Thunderball, and also the background elements of his novel On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. In OHMSS, for example, Marc-Ange Draco’s ‘Union Corse’ HQ was placed by Fleming in Marseilles’ old harbour, where the Calypso had regularly berthed after its daily operations.
Try Another Way
Tellingly, Fleming’s preoccupation with treasure-hunting and new gadgets led him to select Creake Abbey in the county of Norfolk, Eastern England, as a site to try out some early metal-detecting technology. The Bond author had discovered that the British Army was training some of its Royal Engineers to use sophisticated detecting apparatus to identify different types of buried metal.
Through the Sunday Times, Fleming was able to persuade the Army top-brass to allow him to select the Royal Engineers to help explore the grounds of the old Abbey. Nothing significant was found but, as Biddulph pointed out, ‘without realising it, Fleming was a pioneer of archaeological metal detecting’.
And high-value treasure and coins also found their way into Fleming’s Bond adventures in other interesting ways: in the 5th 007 novel From Russia With Love, Bond was equipped with 50 gold sovereigns hidden in his briefcase. There was evidently something about gold that especially appealed to Fleming’s creative imagination.
Live and Let Dive
The latest discussion of Fleming’s fascination with hidden treasure is a good reminder of the wartime roots of the Bond author’s interest in gold.
The article in All About History, entitled ‘Hunting Nazi Gold’, at one point notes that, similar to stories of 17th and 18th Century pirates who buried their treasure on desert islands until they could return to collect it, ‘tales abound of fleeing Nazis hiding their stolen loot at the end of the war. While many can be considered apocryphal and perhaps nothing more than contemporary myth and legend, the frequency with which some of these tales recur raises the eyebrows of eager treasure seekers’.
As the article noted, one of the most persistent and historically documented surrounds ‘Rommel’s Gold’, named after the German Afrika Korps boss General Erwin Rommel, who served as the Nazi commander on the African front. The gold was ruthlessly stolen from the Jewish community in Tunisia, which had been occupied by the Nazis, on the orders of by SS Colonel Walter Rauff (supposedly acting on behalf of General Rommel). The looted treasure was then transferred to Naples but, due to the intense bombing of Italy by the Allies, there was no time to send it on to Berlin, the German capital.
Instead, the Nazi officers involved hatched a devious plan to stash it off the Corsican coast. They recruited an experienced diver, named Peter Fleig, who was instructed to secure the crates of gold deep under water and to secretly mark their position with weighted buoys. However, things did not quite go to plan. When Fleig returned after the war to make several dives to retrieve the hidden loot, he could not find it!
Ian Fleming picked up intelligence information about the original Nazi plan to squirrel the gold to Berlin while working for NID in Whitehall. Towards the end of the war, 30AU had conducted a raid on Tambach Castle in Bavaria, Germany, organised by Commander Fleming. Among the paperwork captured and sent back to Fleming in London was some intriguing detail about the stolen ‘Rommel’ gold that was due to arrive in Berlin but never reached the capital. Fleming dug further into the story and, unsurprisingly, it later influenced passages in his 007 adventures Goldfinger, OHMSS and the short story Octopussy.
Fleming also apparently attempted to raise funds after the war to mount an expedition to try and recover the sunken gold off the Corsican coast, but the venture was unsuccessful. Some experts have speculated that the hidden gold may still be there, resting at the bottom of the sea somewhere even today. Anybody hearing the story for the first time today could be forgiven for thinking that this tale could come ‘straight out of the pages of a Bond novel’. No doubt Fleming’s ghost would be smiling.
Did You Know?
There were various rumours after the war that the Nazis had hidden gold bars at the bottom of lakes in Austria, a country where Fleming had spent many long skiing holidays in his younger days. Fleming became very intrigued by such possibilities. However, a number of attempts in the 1950s to hunt down the supposed sunken treasures failed to find any evidence of the loot. Yet, the idea of such illict gold remained in Fleming’s mind throughout his writing career. In the short story Octopussy, the wartime activities of the central character, Major Dexter Smythe, included him discovering a piece of paper that led him to two bars of Nazi gold, hidden under a cairn near Kitzbuhel in Austria.