Wednesday 13 June 2018

Finding Bond in the Imperial War Museum's Secret War exhibition

During a recent visit to the Imperial War Museum in London, I made a bee-line for the fascinating Secret War exhibition, where I saw some of the gadgets, weapons and other tricks of the trade of covert operations, and read of the exploits of SOE agents, special forces, and Cold War spies.

Even in an exhibition of real-life agents, James Bond is never far away. Visitors entering the exhibition are met by a display that includes a poster of Casino Royale (2006), which is accompanied by the words, 'It's easy to mistake spy fiction for reality'. Turning the corner takes visitors to a short film, in which the real begins to be separated from the fictional; the video is soundtracked by music from the Bond films, and various images from the films appear on screen.
At the entrance to the Secret War exhibition
The exhibition displays gadgets – many designed for use in the Second World War – that are echoed in the Bond films and to a much lesser extent in the books (although the name of Q Branch may well owe something to the 'Q gadgets’ created for SOE agents by Charles Fraser-Smith). Ordinary items such as fountain pens, clothes brushes, razors, shoes and so on were used to conceal maps, secret messages, compasses, invisible ink, wire, tools and much more, and can be seen in the display cases.

Some of the everyday objects used for secret work in WW2

There is information too on Second World War agents who become famous for their remarkable wartime stories, among them Wing Commander Yeo-Thomas and Fitzroy Maclean, both of whom have been claimed as inspirations for James Bond.

There was one other aspect that had a vague Bond link. During the Cold War, agents resident in the USSR and elsewhere and preparing to spy for Britain were provided with recognition guides to the weapons, equipment and other strategic features of those territories. One handbook, for example, is called 'A pictorial guide to bridge recognition'. I was especially interested in two other handbooks on display. Both, in brown covers and ring-bound, are decorated with a silhouette of a gun. 

Looking at image on the handbook intended for agents in the Middle East, I was naturally reminded of the gun symbol that was used on the posters of the early Bond films and adapted for the Pan paperbacks published in 1962 and 1963.
Spy manual (left) and 007 logo from 1963

It seems highly unlikely that Joseph Caroff of United Artists, who had the idea for superimposing an image of a gun on the number 007, had seen the agents' handbooks, access to which was highly restricted. However, given that the handbooks were produced from the mid-1950s and into the 70s, it's not entirely impossible that the compilers of the handbooks were inspired by the posters. 

Whatever the case, the coincidence of practically the same device being used in relation to fictional and real-life spies is very pleasing.

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