Thursday 18 December 2014

Christmas with the Flemings

The Engadine Valley (By Biovit (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)
A letter from Ann Fleming to the author Peter Quennell written on 30th December 1960 reveals that the Flemings spent Christmas that year in St Moritz, Switzerland. In the letter, reproduced in Mark Amory's edited volume of Ann's correspondence (Collins Harvill, 1985), Ann describes how she and Ian ('the Commander') lunched at the resort's Corviglia Club. Reading the letter now, one is struck by similarities with certain passages in On Her Majesty's Secret Service (1963), which Ian Fleming wrote while at Goldeneye the following winter (1961/2). It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that Ian drew on his time at St Moritz when he was writing the novel.

Ann Fleming mentions that she and Ian ate with Daphne and Whitney, whom Mark Amory identifies as Witney and Lady Daphne Straight. If these names are familiar to readers of On Her Majesty's Secret Service, it is because they were mentioned in the novel. In chapter 12, Irma Bunt points out to James Bond the “international set” enjoying lunch on the public terrace at Piz Gloria, having been lured away from Gstaad and St Moritz. Ursula Andress is among the notable people there, but so too are “Mr Witney and Lady Daphne Straight.”

Ann's description of the Corviglia Club (“a smart chalet” with a “sunny terrace” and “a helicopter landing ground”) also has a ring of familiarity. The club house of Piz Gloria is a “bogus-chalet type structure with a vast veranda”, and we know Piz Gloria has a helipad. Admittedly this is, as Fleming puts it, “a typical piece of high-Alpine architecture”, and probably describes every resort in the region (as St Moritz, Fleming's Piz Gloria is situated in the Engadine valley), but it is likely that Fleming was recalling St Moritz when he created Piz Gloria.

It is well known that Ian Fleming put many of his experiences, the places he visited, and the people he knew into the James Bond novels. On Her Majesty's Secret Service is no different, and in some of the passages set in Piz Gloria, Ann Fleming's letter suggests that we can find elements of the Flemings' Christmas spent at St Moritz in 1960.

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.

Thursday 4 December 2014

SPECTRE returns

So now we know the title of the 24th James Bond film: SPECTRE. This is a strong title that will capture the public’s – and cinema-goers’ – attention, which will be crucial as the film gears up to compete to some extent with another blockbuster in the making, Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

Judging by the press conference held on 4th December, SPECTRE is already shaping up to be the most Fleming-esque Bond film since Casino Royale (2006). There was no confirmation that Blofeld, who was last seen (allegedly) falling into a chimney in For Your Eyes Only, will be back, but his presence is implied by the title.

While I have my concerns about resurrecting the character – can audiences banish images of Dr Evil from their minds? – Blofeld as described by Fleming is certainly a worthy opponent for Bond, and the decision is likely to be popular.

As exciting is the possibility that Fleming’s short story, 'Octopussy', will form part of the plot. The octopus-like bullet hole in the title is obviously a reference to the symbol of SPECTRE, but I wonder if it is also a nod to the short story, whose use is hinted at with the introduction of Bond's skiing instructor and surrogate father, Hannes Oberhauser, played by Christoph Waltz. Press reports claimed that Oberhauser will be Hans’ son, Franz, but whatever the case, the character is a welcome addition.

SPECTRE promises to continue the run of spectacular and exciting Bond films. I for one cannot wait until 6th November 2015.