Sunday, 14 December 2014

James Bond and the frogmen of World War Two

I've long resigned myself to the fact that the chances of finding a first-edition Fleming at a jumble (or rummage) sale are very remote indeed, certainly since the emergence of Amazon and ebay. But I still go to jumble sales in a hopeful frame of mind, and invariably manage to pick up other items that are of peripheral interest to the world of James Bond. Recently, for example, I acquired a paperback copy of The Frogmen: The Story of the Wartime Underwater Operators (Pan, 1950), by T J Waldron and James Gleeson. Ian Fleming drew on the exploits of wartime divers and frogmen when describing James Bond's exciting underwater episodes in Live and Let Die (1954) and Thunderball (1960), and so I bought the book to find out more.

In chapter 10 of Thunderball, Fleming tells us that SPECTRE used a “two-men underwater chariot identical with those used by the Italians during the war” to tow a sled to transport the captured atomic weapons from the submerged Vindicator aircraft. Later, in chapter 23, as he leads a unit of US submariners in an underwater battle against Largo's men, Bond encounters Largo sitting astride the chariot.

As The Frogmen reveals, the Italians were the pioneers of the chariot when engaging in underwater sabotage, and it was only when Italian 'charioteers' in 1941 successfully attacked the Denbydale and other British ships in the Mediterranean that Britain first became aware of this special means of warfare.

The Italian chariot, or human torpedo, was a 22 foot-long cigar-shaped craft that incorporated a detachable warhead containing 500lb of explosives. Two men sat astride the chariot, and, by means of a battery-powered propeller and compressed-air tanks to regulate depth, they moved slowly toward the target ship. Once there, the frogmen fixed lines across the ship's hull, tied the warhead to the lines, released the warhead and made their escape.

Realising the threat from the Italians, and not without a little grudging admiration, British naval chiefs turned to their technical divisions in early 1942 to create a similar craft and a range of other equipment, including rubber wetsuits and breathing apparatus. The British had managed to acquire Italian machines – 'Buster' Crabb was one of the first Britons to test out the Italian chariot – but they knew that if they were to stand any chance against the maritime threat and also conduct their own underwater operations, in colder waters, as well as in the relative warmth of the Mediterranean, they needed to research and develop, practically from scratch, their own capability.

By summer 1942, the British-built two-man chariot known as a jeep was ready for operations, along with other machines, such as 'X' craft, or four-man midget submarines, and single-seater underwater craft. (Incidentally, the smallest and least detectable of the single-seater craft was developed by a Quentin Reeves, known as Lieutenant-Colonel 'Q'.) At this time, a call went out for volunteers for 'special service', who, after a period of intense training, began their work.
British charioteers using a two-man torpedo

In Live and Let Die (chapters 18-19), Ian Fleming describes how Bond swims underwater to Mr Big's vessel, the Secatur, to plant a limpet mine. This was another weapon that saw much development during the Second World War; operatives became known as 'limpeteers'.

At one point during his swim, Bond is grabbed by an octopus and dragged towards its lair. Such a threat perhaps seems fanciful, but during the war, the risk to frogmen operating in the Far East from octopuses was considered serious enough by naval chiefs for guidance to be issued. This recommended that an operative grabbed by a tentacle stay absolutely motionless until the octopus become bored and let go. The guidelines added, not entirely seriously, that if the octopus became frightened, the operative should tickle the octopus underneath its armpits until it released its tentacles. Failing that, the frogman should jab it in the eye with a knife.

In his preparations for his underwater mission, James Bond orders cakes of shark repellent copper acetate and nigrosine dye, which had been developed by the US Naval Research Laboratory. Research by the Americans into anti-shark devices was active during the Second World War, and Waldron and Gleeson state that the products of that research – packets of black dye (the authors do not mention its ingredients) and containers of chemical crystals – were issued to British frogmen swimming through shark-infested waters.

Another of Bond's habits which alluded to wartime practices was his use of benzedrine tablets, which, in Live and Let Die, he takes ahead of his swim. Benzedrine is a form of amphetamine (colloquially known as speed), and during the Second World War its use was widespread, particularly by aircrews and frogmen on long, dangerous missions. Waldron and Gleeson describe how, for example, the crew of an 'X' craft engaged in a mission against a Japanese cruiser took benzedrine tablets to ward off sleep.

The Frogmen provided useful background information to episodes described in the Bond novels, but in reading it, I learned a lot about an extraordinary group of people, who undertook dangerous missions (such as clearing the waters off the northern French coast of mines before D-Day) using equipment that had been rushed into production with limited testing. I was certainly glad to have found a copy of the book in the jumble sale.


  1. Buster Crabb was involved in another operation which was the inspiration for the plot in Thunderball where Bond investigates the hull of the Disco Volante. Unlike Thunderball, the operation itself was a disaster and Crabb unfortunately met his end in mysterious circumstances while investigating the Soviet ship Ordzhonikidze during an official visit by the Soviet leader Khrushchev to Britain.

  2. Either that or he accidentally brutally cut his head and hands off while taking a dip... (A disaster waiting to happen; Crabb was unfit, overweight and gasping like a bellows - officially he met his end at the hands of Soviet clearance divers, but reports have him captured 'turned' and working as a Soviet frogman - this may be laughable until you see the laughable state of Soviet naval diving at the time; they quite literally had nothing at the end of the 2ndWW and the Crabb incident lit up the switchboards at the highest levels - if it was possible to stretcher him back to the USSR it just remains possible; especially if you watch watch happened to their dive gear and practices immediately afterwards... as for Pan?; my shelf groans with these beauties - you can't have grown up in the Seventies and not fall for these marvellously coloured, attractive covers. Don't tell the M.O.D., but a few of them contain slightly naughty secrets that wouldn't get past the censor today... as for benzedrine - (Benzedrine and champagne... never again!) I was, in another life, handed some white tablets by our M.O. before a two week exercise. I didn't sleep a wink for seven days - ending up wired, unable to relax and in a state of delusion - I seriously thought we were at war until I was able to 'decompress'. Scary things, those pills!.

  3. Not sure what happened to my grammar there...

    1. Thanks for your comments. It's good to hear of someone with first-hand experience of these things!


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