James Bond and his secret Dorset past

Sean Connery as the first James Bond

Sean Connery as the first James Bond - Credit: PA Archive/Press Association Ima

The county can claim Ian Fleming’s secret agent as one of its own, according to two new book. The author, Brian Lett, exclusively reveals that the inspiration for Fleming’s famous spy character was Dorset-based World War II hero Major Gus March-Phillips

In June 1940, Great Britain experienced its darkest hours of World War II. Germany’s powerful military machine had flung the British Expeditionary Force from Dunkirk, and the British Empire stood alone against Adolf Hitler. Winston Churchill and his coalition government, desperate to find some way of striking back, set up the Special Operations Executive (SOE) in early July. It was this secret service that would provide Ian Fleming with the inspiration for his fictional secret agent, James Bond.

Gustavus March-Phillipps - Gus to his friends - was one of SOE’s leading secret agents during its early years. Gus had spent many of his early years in Dorset, he had hunted here, and sailed often from Poole. When in March 1941 Gus was appointed by SOE to command a maritime force of secret agents called Maid Honor Force, it was no surprise that he chose to bring his force to Dorset, and to base them in a remote corner of Poole Harbour. With this force, Gus was eventually to carry out a most dramatic and secret operation in West Africa in January 1942 – Operation Postmaster. Upon his return to Britain in February 1942, Gus established a new force, the Small Scale Raiding Force, and again brought them to Dorset. He commandeered (albeit with the consent of its owner Hugh Cholmondeley) Anderson Manor, a Grade 1 Jacobean country house about seven miles from Wareham. It became a haven of peace and tranquillity as Gus and his men mounted raid after raid across the channel against enemy positions on the French coast or in the Channel Islands.

Ian Fleming already had ties with Dorset, having attended Durnford preparatory school at Langton Matravers, but it was through his work as assistant to Admiral Godfrey, the Head of Naval Intelligence, that Fleming met Gus, and came to know the workings of SOE intimately. Ian Fleming and Gus had a lot in common, and yet were very different. They were close in age – Gus, born on 18 March 1908, was just two months older than Ian. Both had lost their fathers in 1917, and had grown up under their mothers’ influence. Both had been privately schooled, Gus at Ampleforth, Ian at Eton. But there the similarities ended. Ian had left Eton under a cloud, had dropped out of Sandhurst, spent much of his life in the shadow of his elder brother, Peter, and in reality had achieved little before the war.

Gus had been commissioned into the Royal Artillery in 1928 at the age of twenty, and had served in India until he became bored with garrison life, and resigned his commission in 1932. Returning to England and to Dorset, Gus hunted, sailed, and wrote. He published three well-received novels before the outbreak of war in 1939.

Gus fought with the British Expeditionary Force, was evacuated through Dunkirk in May and June 1940, and then joined the newly-established Commandos. From there, he was recruited into the Special Operations Executive in January 1941. SOE was the most secret of the wartime secret services.

Officially, it did not exist, and its headquarters in Baker Street used the code name of the Inter Services Research Bureau. The Director of Operations and Training was a soldier very experienced in irregular warfare, Brigadier (later Major General) Colin McVean Gubbins. Between 1940 and September 1943 Gubbins’ code name in SOE was “M”, chosen from the initial of his middle name, McVean. Thus from January 1941, Gus was working for a spy chief known as M. Since Ian Fleming also worked closely with Gubbins at this time, there can, in truth, be no doubt who the inspiration was for the spy chief Fleming named in his James Bond stories as M.

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SOE was given the brief by Churchill to ‘set Europe ablaze’, but its activities stretched to all parts of the world. Gus obtained permission from M to set up Maid Honor Force, a small team of commando secret agents, who were ‘licensed to kill’. Gus’s recruits included a young Dane, Anders Lassen, who was later to become the only member of the Special Air Service to win the VC in World War Two. Gus brought his men to Poole Harbour for training, where they were billeted on two houseboats moored in a remote spot.

Under M, SOE developed all types of guerrilla and ‘secret agent’ warfare. SOE set up a ‘special gadgets’ department, supplying its agents with a variety of items to assist them in their work behind the lines. There was even a catalogue for agents to inspect, from which they could choose the items that might assist them on their missions. SOE employed a huge variety of devices, from the very simple to the very sophisticated.

The very simple included stink bombs intended to be used in German officers’ cloakrooms in the winters of Northern Europe to impregnate their overcoats with such evil smelling fluids that they had to send them to be thoroughly cleaned, thereby creating a shortage of warm clothing. The sophisticated included short range single shot miniature pistols disguised as cigarettes, and sleeve guns, openly described in the catalogue as murder weapons, for the assassination of targets from close range.

Ian was well aware of all of this, and was later to use SOE’s special gadgets department as his model for the Q Department of his Bond stories. Indeed, on 1 June 1941, Ian travelled down to Poole to visit Gus and his Maid Honor Force as they trained in Poole Harbour aboard their Q ship, the Maid Honor. This was a specially adapted Brixham trawler, whose deck house could collapse in an instant to reveal a Vickers two pounder cannon. It is probably from the term Q ship (invented in the First World War) that Fleming got the name for his own gadgets department.

In August 1941, Gus and his team of twelve set off for British West Africa. Five of them, including Gus, sailed on the Maid Honor itself. The others travelled in civilian clothes by civilian ships, all carrying false passports issued to them by SOE. Once arrived in Freetown, Sierra Leone, Gus and his men were given codenames by SOE.

Each was preceded by the letter W, to indicate that they were operating in West Africa, and Gus became W.01. His second in command, Geoffrey Appleyard became W.02, and so on. Later, it was only a small step for Ian Fleming to convert the 01 and 02 to 001 and 002, with 007 for his James Bond.

Gus and his men planned a raid on neutral Spanish Fernando Po (now Equatorial Guinea), where a German and Italian ship were known to be sheltering. SOE placed secret agents on the island, and on the night of 14 January 1942, Gus and his team carried out a remarkable and totally successful raid – Operation Postmaster – making off with three enemy ships including a large liner, and leaving the Spanish with no clue as to who had done it, or how it had been done.

Ian Fleming’s role was to liaise between Naval Intelligence and SOE. Whenever SOE wished to travel, or attack, by sea, the Navy’s permission had to be obtained. Thus, he liaised regularly with M throughout 1941, and was given the task of preparing the cover story for Operation Postmaster.

This had, of course, to be false since Great Britain could not admit that it had carried out the raid in neutral territory, despite the fact that she ended up in possession of the three enemy ships. It was perhaps Fleming’s earliest piece of creative fiction. He was later described as knowing the early operations of SOE better than anyone else in the Navy.

Gus returned to London with Geoffrey Appleyard in February 1942. Within a few weeks, he had obtained permission to set up a new unit, the Small Scale Raiding Force (SSRF). This was to operate as a part of Lord Mountbatten’s Combined Operations, but M remained Gus’s direct boss. Into the SSRF Gus recruited a true cross-section of agents – both British and from the Occupied Countries. Under Gus’s leadership, men of such diverse views as Peter Kemp (a convinced anti-communist who had fought for General Franco in the Spanish Civil War), and Richard Lehniger (a Sudeten German and convinced communist who had fled to England from Nazi oppression) were moulded together as comrades in arms. The SSRF based themselves at Anderson Manor, and carried out a series of seaborne operations against selected targets.

Since they had left the Maid Honor behind in West Africa, the SSRF now used a specially adapted Motor Torpedo Boat, MTB 344. Anderson Manor became known as a Commando Camelot, and the SSRF would set out from there for each and every one of its raids, usually sailing from Portland. However, it remained a secret unit, using the code name 62 Commando.

Gus’s new force, the SSRF, was initially very successful. One of their early raids was on the Casquets Rock, near Alderney in the Channel Islands. One night they raided the small island and captured the entire German garrison of seven men, together with valuable radio codebooks and other intelligence material. They disappeared leaving no trace of who had raided or how the raid had been carried out.

By mid-September 1942, Gus had led first the Maid Honor Force and then the SSRF for seventeen months with conspicuous success, and without suffering a single casualty at enemy hands. He and his men had dared and had won.

Sadly, on the night of 12 and 13 September 1942, their fortune changed. A raid on the Normandy coast went badly wrong. MTB 344 could not locate the intended landing point, and finding themselves off an inviting beach, Gus asked his men: “What do you think chaps, shall we have a bash?” The morale of the SSRF was so high that all instantly agreed with their commander.

Unhappily, it turned out that the beach was a well-defended enemy stronghold, and all ten men of the SSRF who landed were either killed or captured.

Gus had married a fellow SOE secret agent, Marjorie Stewart, in April 1942, following a whirlwind romance. Unknown to him, Gus left behind both a widow and an unborn child, Henrietta, who was never to meet her father.

Despite the loss of Gus, one of Dorset’s greatest heroes of the Second World War, the SSRF reformed and carried on, continuing their raids into 1943 now under the command of Geoffrey Appleyard. Eventually, the SSRF was disbanded in the late Spring of 1943, as attention was turned to the planning of the D-Day landings.

After the war, Ian Fleming wrote to M and urged him to write the true and exciting story of those who had served in SOE. M was denied official permission to write that history, and a few years later, Fleming began to write his fictional accounts of James Bond, M and “the British Secret Service.”

An intriguing question is whether Gus March-Phillipps, an established novelist with an in depth knowledge of working as a secret agent licensed to kill, would not himself have written the James Bond stories, had he survived the war.

In his last novel, Ace High Gus had already created a hero called John Sprake, who fitted the James Bond mould. Describing John Sprake, Gus had written: “It was unusual for him to be moved by sentiment in others, for it was something he did not understand. In women he looked upon it as a necessary evil. In men he ignored it.”

Had Gus March-Phillipps survived the war, surely the James Bond that we know today would in fact have been John Sprake, and his author would have been Dorset’s Gus March-Phillipps.