With the latest 007 movie now in production and a new James Bond novel in the pipeline, interest in the the world of James Bond and Ian Fleming remains as popular as ever, especially in those individuals who perhaps inspired the spy author when he originally created his famous hero.
Although Fleming clearly put many of his own personal qualities and habits into the character of James Bond, numerous candidates have also been pointed to over the years as possible real-life role models for the fictional spying career and escapades of secret agent 007, as imagined by his creator.
One such man was Merlin Minshall (1906-1987). Although Minshall himself at first denied he was the direct inspiration for any of Fleming’s fiction, nevertheless over the years he reluctantly adopted a ‘if you can’t beat them, join them’ attitude, and began to claim that he had indeed been an influence on the Bond author; in fact, in the twilight years of his life, Minshall decided to take advantage of all the interest in his colourful career and pen an autobiographical account, written in a ‘thriller’ form.
This was eventually published in 1975 under the Bondian-sounding title Guilt-Edged. The book saw very healthy sales in both the UK and USA, with publishers fully exploiting the ‘Bond connection’, especially in the publicity and marketing campaigns.
The paperback Panther edition published in Britain in 1977, for example, contained a foreword by Minshall’s friend, the spy writer Len Deighton, and the cover design presented Minshall to readers as the ‘original 007’. Reviews in UK newspapers, such as the Sunday Times (for which Fleming himself had worked) also claimed Minshall was the ‘inspiration for James Bond’.
Minshall certainly played up to this image for all it was worth, deliberately cultivating an air of stereotypical English eccentricity, always wearing a red flower in his lapel in public and often sporting a monocle. He was undoubtedly a raconteur and also evidently had an eye for ‘the ladies’. All this engendered much valuable publicity for Minshall, who was invited on to radio and TV programmes on both sides of the Atlantic, and was photographed by the press in classic gun-across-the chest pose, surrounded by a bevy of beautiful women. A similar image appeared on the front cover of the American edition of his book.
Disentangling the myth from the reality of Minshall’s life was tricky back then, and this is still the case even today. While Minshall’s book was a rather unreliable account of precise historical events, and was written in a ‘Boy’s Own Adventure’ style, it remains a fascinating and entertaining read, and arguably contains some of the bare essence of what really happened in his long and glamorous career. And, in telling the world about his past, readers were able to gain some interesting insights into both Minshall’s espionage escapades and also Ian Fleming’s role at the Naval Intelligence Divsion (NID) during World War Two.
For His Eyes Only
In August, 1939, shortly before the War broke out, Ian Fleming was recruited into the Royal Navy’s Intelligence Division (NID), with the rank of a Lieutenant in the Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve (RNVR). He had been specially chosen to become personal assistant to the Director of Naval Intelligence (DNI), Rear-Admiral John Godfrey, who had a reputation as a rather steely and easily angered taskmaster (and who was possibly a role model for the MI6 boss ‘M’ of Fleming’s post-war 007 novels).
Not long after Fleming arrived at Room 39 to carry out his duties for NID, which was located at the British Admiralty’s main HQ in Whitehall in central London, the future Bond author began to gather together any unusual ideas that might be on offer by the various other new ‘civilians in uniform’, men who had also entered the same Intelligence department. Fleming, who wanted to think ‘outside the box’ and develop imaginative and unorthodox operational plans, also sought potential new ideas from the various useful contacts and friends he had encountered during his own pre-war years in ‘civvy’ street in the 1930s (Fleming had been a merchant banker, stockbroker and also a journalist).
Occasionally, civilians would contact the Admiralty, offering new ideas or suggestions to help the British war effort, some of them interesting, but others eccentric or unrealistic. It was partly Fleming’s job to ‘vet’ such people and their suggestions, and decide whether any of these proposals were viable.
And one of the first civilians to walk through the door in 1939 to offer his services was Merlin Minshall, who liked to describe himself as an ‘adventurer’.
From a View to a Thrill
In thirty-three short but enthralling chapters, Guilt-Edged set out the background to this life of adventure and the numerous escapades that beset Minshall during the interwar and wartime years. Although he was born into what has been called the elite circles of the British Establishment and into high privilege (his father owned a London newspaper and his mother, Theodora Wigham-Richardson, had been a British spy in World War One), Minshall was also cynical about all this highlife existence, and felt that it was ‘nothing more than a Maximum Security prison’ (chapter 4). He wrote: ‘Once you were in, it was damn hard to get out’.
According to his account, although Minshall went to Charterhouse public school and then studied history at Oxford University, and eventually trained to be an architect, he also had a very strong hankering for adventure and to ‘break free’ from the Establishment prison. Individualism, and being answerable to no-one but himself, became his governing philosophy in life. He thus decided to be an explorer. In the process, he travelled through the African Congo and also over the Sahara desert, and gained expertise in sailing, amateur motor-racing (he competed twice in the Monte Carlo Rally), karate and shooting.
More importantly, Minshall had recently sailed through the canals and waterways of Europe and had developed an intimate knowledge of the Danube river. This was because he had taken his boat Sperwer (a small Dutch sailing barge) and, starting from Le Havre, embarked on a quest to be the first Englishman to sail right across Europe to the Black Sea.
Furthermore, while sailing down the river Danube, he was apparently seduced by a glamorous German spy, who had been sent to find out whether Minshall was secretly charting the layout of the river and collecting information on riverside storage depots for British Intelligence (he was not, but the knowledge did indeed later become very useful for the British when the war broke out).
Role of Honour: Minshall and Fleming
When he dropped by the Admiralty and met Ian Fleming in October, 1939, Minshall wanted to suggest that the Danube could be used against the Germans, but he ended up talking about Lake Chad instead. Chapter 23 described this initial encounter with Fleming in detail, although to what extent Minshall’s recall was accurate is possibly open to doubt.
Minshall revealed that, at first, Fleming and another NID colleague of his appeared to be uninterested in Minshall’s life-story: ‘I got the impression that they thought I was a nut case’, and they asked him to just leave his contact address. However, Minshall persisted, returning back to the Admiralty and demanding to see a now clearly irritated Fleming: ‘Look Minshall’, said Fleming, ‘you simply must quit fussing. I’ll send for you when we’ve got something for you to do’.
Minshall, equally testy, reminded Fleming that he was an expert on the Danube, and it was at this point that Fleming really sat up and took notice. According to Minshall, Fleming became very interested and excited, as his department lacked experts on the Danube River and the Balkans generally (NID intelligence reports and surveys of the area were sketchy, to say the least). Minshall said that he knew the Danube like ‘the back of his hand’, and the upshot of this was that he was recruited as an officer in the RNVR and trained by Fleming’s Intelligence department for ‘special services’, including a major sabotage operation that was being planned to take place in Romania.
On His Majesty’s Special Service
Possibly as a result of a suggestion by Minshall, Ian Fleming had decided that it would be worth trying to scuttle about six cement barges in the Danube river at its most narrow point, the ‘Iron Gates’ (about 25 miles of dangerous narrows in the river), thus blocking the waterway for German ships carrying vital grain and oil supplies from Romania to Germany. In the end, this operation did not succeed, but Minshall showed extraordinary bravery in attempting to bring this high-risk operation to fruition.
After intense training in codes, self-defence, the art of disguise, and the use of explosive charges (given via a crash course held at a secret sabotage school, located in a Georgian mansion near Guildford in Surrey), Minshall was deemed ready for field duty. In January, 1940, Minshall was part of a three-man undercover team sent by Fleming to Bucharest, the capital city of Romania (which, at that point, under the rule of King Carol II, was still a neutral country, but was becoming increasingly sympathetic to Germany and the Axis powers). The busy city of Bucharest was something of a hive of spies, with rival Intelligence agents from different countries watching each other very closely in the main hotel bars and restaurants.
Minshall’s orders were to keep a low profile and help the other two men in the team, Alexander Glen, a dashing young RNVR officer, and Lt.-Commander Michael Mason, another intrepid British NID agent, to carry out the daring scheme. Minshall and Mason chartered the cement barges, which were then sailed up the Danube river (Europe’s largest river), each barge piloted by British naval ratings trained in demolition work, and each vessel containing an high-explosive scuttling charge, with Minshall following close behind in a high-speed Air Sea Rescue Launch secretly supplied by the Royal Navy.
But real-life fact can often be stranger than fiction in wartime, even in a neutral country. Unfortunately, at one point Minshall’s own launch and the six barges all began to run out of fuel! In Minshall’s version of events, the operation had been betrayed (possibly by Romanian informants back in port, who had tipped off German Intelligence), and Nazi agents had, at some stage earlier, secretly gone aboard the boats as they lay in Braila harbour and drained about half the fuel from each ship, ensuring that they would never reach the Iron Gates.
Moreover, according to Minshall’s account, local Romanian officials, together with a local Nazi officer, appeared on the scene, wanting to search the vessels. When they boarded the boats, they quickly found the explosive charges, and wanted to arrest Minshall. This forced Minshall to make a quick escape in the launch, while under gun-fire, in what he claimed later was a high-speed boat chase which lasted up to two hours. Minshall was pursued by search parties both on the water and, later, on land. Managing to throw off his pursuers, he then began to make his way over the border and, via Trieste, eventually back to Britain.
Minshall’s book converted the botched operation into a James Bond-style adventure, and some of the claims were probably more fiction than fact. It is also difficult to know whether the Danube plan was actually the brain-child of Minshall or Fleming (probably a bit of both). However, Minshall’s portrayal of the young and ambitious Fleming in his book rang true. In particular, Fleming always remained loyal to the people he personally selected, including the rather high-spirited Minshall.
The Danube operation certainly caused an international row. The Germans, especially Hitler’s propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels, fully exploited the propaganda value of the incident, accusing the UK of illegal interference in a neutral country. Even though the operation had probably been sanctioned at the highest internal levels of the British government (possibly even as high as the Cabinet), the public stance of the British Foreign Office, which had an Embassy in Bucharest, was one of outrage. They let it be known to the press that they were very angry that the British Admiralty had sanctioned such a secret operation in a neutral country, but Fleming confidently brazened out the storm and protected his men, including Minshall, from criticism.
According to Guilt-Edged, when Minshall eventually arrived back in London in April, 1940, and marched into Fleming’s office, Fleming ‘greeted me with a wide grin’.
However, it is perhaps worth noting that Michael Mason, who was also part of the attempted sabotage operation in the Danube (and has also been pointed to by some commentators as a possible model for James Bond!), was much less exuberant about the whole Danube espisode; he said many years later that, in his view, ‘Minshall was a disaster throughout’.
For Special Services
Whether Fleming agreed with Mason’s assessment or not is very difficult to say, but what is clear is that he made further use of Minshall’s talents. During 1940, new Prime Minister Winston Churchill had approved the creation of the ‘Special Operations Executive’ (SOE), and NID agents were increasingly co-operating with SOE on secret missions.
In late 1940, Fleming gave the go-ahead for ‘Operation Shamrock’, where Minshall led a small joint NID/SOE unit who were inserted by submarine into German-occupied France. The unit commandeered a fishing boat and used it to covertly monitor German U-boat submarine and other naval traffic in the Gironde estuary, in south-west France. It was a highly risky operation, but Minshall showed great bravery and leadership, and invaluable intelligence information was gathered.
Later in the war, in 1943, Minshall was also inserted into German-occupied Yugoslavia, where he acted as the Allied Naval Mission officer, a NID liaison role designed to develop links with Tito’s partisans, who were conducting guerrilla warfare against the Nazis.
Minshall appears to have remained attached to Fleming’s department for the rest of the War. He was married four times and died in September, 1987, aged 81. Still basking in all the publicity created by Guilt-Edged, in various newspaper and radio interviews he certainly made use of the ‘Bond connection’. In February, 1977, for example, he said of Ian Fleming: ‘He was ruthless, unsure of himself and a romantic. All the qualities that I had, he wished he had. That’s why he used me as his model for Bond’.
The truth is probably much more complex and opaque. As Ian Fleming himself said when he was interviewed in the early 1960s, Bond ‘was a compound of all the secret agents and commando types I met during the war’.
Did You Know?
Actor Sir Christopher Lee, who played deadly assassin Francisco Scaramanga in The Man With The Golden Gun (1974), and was also related to Ian Fleming, served as an agent in SOE during World War Two, conducting secret operations in North Africa and Italy. However, Sir Christopher has remained very tight-lipped about his war service in interviews, and only very recently admitted he had such a role.