Last month saw the publication of Operation Crossbow: The Untold Story of Photographic Intelligence and the Search for Hitler's V Weapons. The book, by Allan Williams, describes how a team of top photographic interpreters and intelligence officers uncovered the secrets of Germany's long-range ballistic missile programme from millions of aerial photographs, which had been taken in daring reconnaissance missions by Spitfire and Mosquito pilots. The discovery of an aircraft on a ramp at Peenemünde in northern Germany was the breakthrough that allowed the allies to plan countermeasures and seek and destroy rocket bases.
Readers of Nicholas Rankin's Ian Fleming's Commandos (2011) will be familiar with Fleming's peripheral involvement in the operation. Days after the Allied landing on the Normandy beaches on D-Day, commandos of Fleming's 30 Assault Unit (30AU) joined a heavily-armed unit to investigate a possible V-weapon launch site. The site was confirmed, and the resulting intelligence sent back to London (and presumably transferred to Medmenham in Buckinghamshire, where photographic interpreters were based). Rankin also describes a later episode when Fleming visited members of 30AU at Carteret in Normandy and discussed V-weapons with some of the men.
In his book, Ian Fleming's Secret War (2008), Craig Cabell goes much further, suggesting that Fleming was responsible for much of the intelligence fed to 30AU about the location and structure of V-weapon launch sites, and claiming that Fleming had gathered his information from resistance groups and after poring over aerial photographs. What's more, Fleming's novel, Moonraker (1955), holds the clues to his involvement in Operation Crossbow and the search for German rockets. It cannot be denied that the novel, featuring as it does Nazi scientists and a V2-like rocket, took inspiration from wartime events. But then again, so too did Hergé's Destination Moon (1953), which sent Tintin into space – anyone writing about rockets in the 1940s/early 1950s can hardly have failed to turn to images of German technology – and indeed, Cabell admits that his argument for Fleming's involvement in Crossbow lacks evidence.
In contrast, Allan Williams' account makes no mention of Ian Fleming's involvement (which perhaps tells us something), but Fleming does appear twice. Williams mentions in passing that Frederick Sidney Cotton, pioneer of wartime aerial photography and reconnaissance, was the inspiration for Fleming's fictional head of MI6 research and development, Q. Cotton thus joins Charles Fraser-Smith and others identified as the real Q, despite there being no such character in the books, although Fleming and Cotton certainly knew each other and, indeed, were friends. (Incidentally, Cotton has the rare distinction of also being identified as a model for James Bond; again this seems highly unlikely.)
Ian Fleming is mentioned again later in Williams' book in connection with a map Bond uses in The Man with the Golden Gun (1965). The map, supplied by Mary Goodnight, is a 1:50,000 Overseas Survey Map made by the Directorate of Overseas Surveys (DOS). Maps prepared by DOS proved critical in the search for V-weapons, and the deputy director of DOS, John Wright, was said to have been thrilled by the oblique reference to his work.
While Ian Fleming's 30AU had been involved in the search for German missile launch sites, and Fleming had been inspired by events and German technology when he came to write Moonraker, the latest research suggests that Fleming's part in Operation Crossbow, beyond facilitating the gathering and distribution of intelligence, had been somewhat peripheral.