Journalists, historians and James Bond experts may have been arguing about the origins of James Bond for decades, but one thing is clear from the many interviews Ian Fleming gave: Bond was based on commandos Fleming had met during the Second World War. And naturally, since those interviews, the search has been on for individuals that may have inspired Fleming the most, individuals such as Patrick Dalzel-Job and Fitzroy Maclean.
Lately, though, I've begun to wonder whether this speculation is rather fruitless. Ian Fleming didn't, of course, mention any names, and, short of a long-lost document or interview containing the name, we can never be certain about any of our suggestions. What's more, Fleming's descriptions of Bond as a mixture of wartime commando types appear to date to the final two years of Fleming's life; before then, there is little hint of this origin. With this in mind, it could be argued that the commando inspiration was a narrative that Fleming gave to Bond retrospectively, a little like Bond's Scottish roots. Let's look at the evidence.
The interviews in which Fleming talks about the inspirations for Bond appear to date exclusively to 1963 and 1964. In an edition of the BBC's Desert Island Discs in 1963, Fleming told the presenter Roy Plomley that Bond was a 'mixture of commandos and secret service agents I met during the war.' Fleming confessed to CIA director Allen Dulles in 1964 that Bond 'is more a commando type' than a spy. In a Playboy interview dated 1964, Fleming regarded Bond as 'slightly more true to the type of modern hero, to the commandos of the last war' than to the heroes of ancient thrillers. Fleming told Daily Express journalist John Cruesemann in January 1964 that Bond was 'a compound of... commando types', and he said as much to Jack Fishman in an interview published in 1965.
Given Fleming's consistent explanation, it's curious that commandos are absent from earlier pieces. When Ian Fleming was in conversation with fellow writer Raymond Chandler for a BBC broadcast in 1958, he discussed the nature of literary heroes, his and Chandler's in particular, but didn't mention that Bond was inspired by the real heroism of wartime commandos. Fleming wrote of the work of the Secret Service, of frogman Buster Crabb, and secret tunnels in Berlin in a piece published in Broadsheet, the bulletin of World Books, in 1956 to illustrate how the fantastic events in his novels were not so unusual, but didn't include commandos in that list. In his piece, 'How to write a thriller', published in 1962, Fleming similarly described wartime secret service exploits, for example the Man who Never Was', and wrote in answer to the typical question of his readers, 'how do you manage to think of that?', that some incidences in Casino Royale were 'extracted' from his 'wartime memories of the Naval Intelligence Division'. But again, no commandos.
It's true that a commando dagger features on Richard Chopping's cover of The Spy who Loved Me (published in 1962), thus establishing a connection between commandos and Bond. Moreover, there are many aspects of the Bond books that are clearly drawn from the Second World War. It should also be noted that Fleming gave many more interviews in the final years of his life as Bond's popularity grew than he had done in the earlier stages in his career as a novelist. Faced with the demands of journalists, broadcasters and the like, Fleming may have introduced the commando explanation to add interest or to assuage complaints that his plots were implausible. And with each telling, the explanation become better established.
My trawl through the archives of Fleming's interviews is by no means exhaustive, and it is possible that there is some piece dating before 1963 that states that Bond was based on commando types that Fleming had met during the war. Judging from what I've assembled, however, the commando meme was a late development, and before then, the source of inspiration for Bond was more generally located in the Second World War and the Cold War (not to mention including a good dose of Fleming himself). Any search for 'the real James Bond', particularly from the pool of wartime commandos, is likely to be something of a wild goose chase.
I should add that I'm of course aware that Ian Fleming set up and ran a commando unit during the Second World War, and that the Bond books contain references to commandos and have Bond doing commando-like feats. My point, however, is this: Ian Fleming didn't write a series of commando adventures, and probably didn't even start out with a fully-formed character in mind, with all the memetic building blocks in place. Bond acquired commando-like traits, along with others (for example, the traits of the fictional American private eye), gradually over the course of the series. Casino Royale (1953) itself is different in many ways from the other books and draws most heavily on Ian Fleming's own experiences, and only obliquely, if at all, on the experiences of the commandos he directed.
In later years, Ian Fleming developed a coherent narrative to explain the origin of James Bond that doesn't quite reflect the somewhat unplanned evolution of the character. Why Fleming began to talk about commandos to such an extent in later interviews and articles is what I find particularly fascinating, and is what I'm chiefly commenting on in this post.
I dated the earliest use of the 'commando explanation' to 1963, but I've been informed that there is an earlier mention. I'm grateful to Jeremy Duns for alerting me to a 1959 edition of Books and Bookmen, in which Ian Fleming says that he 'wanted Bond to be... a composite figure made up of commando types and spies' he met during the war. I must also point out that Jeremy Duns has explored Bond's commando roots and the commando references in the books in his excellent piece, 'Commando Bond', published in the book, Diamonds in the Rough.