Tribute: Real Gentleman Spies

July 9, 2019

There is still a great fascination for the fictitious character of the gentleman spy, often symbolised by characters such as James Bond, George Smiley and others. Yet they all had creators, real world inspirations and real world adventures.

So what can the everyday gentleman learn from the larger than life figures?


Ian Lancaster Fleming 

The creator of James Bond should need little introduction. For years after writing the Bond books, he always protested that Bond was his fantasy of who he wanted to be. Despite he and his creation sharing a middle name, golf handicap, taste in vodka, cards, cigarettes, food, women, military rank and family upbringing. 

Flemings life was a mix of privilege and personal tragedy. Having been brought up under the stern example of his grandfather Robert Fleming at the family stately home Joyce Grove in Oxfordshire, following the death of his father Valentine in World War One. This perhaps mirrors Bond's family situation we see in Skyfall, whilst not a Fleming story, the parallels are apparent. 

For much of his early life, Fleming was a wastrel. With cash and time to spare his family felt he would amount to little, with only a keen interest in athletics and reading. He found himself, prior to World War Two, working as a stock broker and was famous with his firm for only ever having one client. After losing said client and on the Britain on the brink of war his name started to be passed around amongst influential family friends. 


He later came to the attention of Admiral Godfrey, director of naval intelligence. He had also been on a watch list at MI5, his ability to speak German, travels to Bavaria, interviews with senior nazis for Reuters and the purchase of a house once belonging to Oswald Mosley, leader of the British Union of Fascists, all brought him under scrutiny as a potential nazi sympathiser. 


Recruited as a Lieutenant commander and serving as Godfrey's secretary Fleming was privy to all secrets and he thrived in his wartime roll. Here he had an outlet for his creative thinking, tasked with developing a plan to capture a german naval enigma machine, he placed on his bosses desk a plan codenamed GOLDENEYE. Later his house name in Jamaica. 


The GOLDENEYE plot involved dropping two British, German speaking agents at sea dressed as downed Luftwaffe pilots. Hopefully being picked up by German E-boats, they would then kill the crew and steal the enigma machine before sailing to a rendez-vous with a British submarine. All very Bond, also the plan wasn't approved. 

Fleming finally managed to settle after the war, residing mostly in Jamaica with his new wife Anne Charteris. Along with their neighbour Noel Coward, they spent much of their time pondering new works. She often referring to his books as Ian's Pornography. 


Duško Popov

Dušan Popov was a Serbian-born double agent who worked for MI6 during World War II. His life was very similar to that of many fictional spies and according to many, it was Popov who was the real-life inspiration for the most famous fictional spy, Bond.


Popov's father indulged his sons, building a spacious villa by the sea for their exclusive use where they could entertain their friends and host expensive parties. He was also insistent that they receive a quality education. Apart from his native Serbian, Popov was fluent in Italian, German and French by his teenage years. Between the ages of 12 and 16, he attended a lycée in Paris. In 1929, Popov's father enrolled him into Ewell Castle, a prestigious preparatory school in Surrey. Popov's stint at the school proved to be short lived.


After only four months, he was expelled following an altercation with a teacher. He had previously endured a caning at the teacher's hands after being caught smoking a cigarette. Another caning was adjudicated after Popov missed a detention, and so as to evade further corporal punishment, Popov grabbed the teacher's cane and snapped it in two before his classmates.


Popov adored his playboy lifestyle of cars, parties, women and daring missions, Popov is famous for warning the FBI about the Japanese attack on Peal Harbour as early as August 1941. However, his warning wasn’t forwarded because J.Edgar Hoover who was at the time the FBI Director didn’t trust him.


Ian Fleming's code number for James Bond was based on Popov's safety code; that every time he needed some advice he would call his uncle, Milivoj Popov, who lived at Miloša Velikog 46 in Belgrade(today Kneza Miloša 52), the phone number for his apartment being 26-007. Today this building is near the former Embassy of United States to Serbia and the number is still listed in the telephone directory. 


John le Carré

Born David John Moore Cornwell, who during the 1950s and 1960s, worked for both the Security Service (MI5) and the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6). His third novel, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963), became an international best-seller and remains one of his best-known works. Following the success of this novel, he left MI6 to become a full-time author. So remains one of the few to write about the secret world of espionage while still working for an Intelligence Service.


Unlike others in this article Le Carre's upbringing was not hallmarked by privilege and wealth. His father had been jailed for insurance fraud, was an associate of the Kray twins, and was continually in debt. Their relationship was difficult. His father, Ronnie, made and lost his fortune a number of times due to elaborate confidence tricks and schemes which landed him in prison on at least one occasion.


This was one of the factors that led to le Carré's fascination with secrets. The scheming con-man character, Rick Pym, Magnus Pym's father in A Perfect Spy, was based on his own father Ronnie. 


Taking a series of academic rolls ranging from Oxford lecturer, to prep school master he landed up teaching French and German at Eton College for two years, being recruited as an MI5 officer in 1958. Just as in his novels he ran agents, conducted interrogations, tapped telephone lines and effected break-ins. 


In 1960, still under his birth name of Cornwell, he transferred to MI6, the foreign division of the British intelligence service, and worked under the cover of Second Secretary at the British Embassy in Bonn; he later was transferred to Hamburg as a political consul. There, he wrote the detective story A Murder of Quality (1962) and The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963), as "John le Carré" (le Carré is French for "the square") a pseudonym required because Foreign Office officers were forbidden to publish in their own names.


In 1964, le Carré left the service to work full-time as a novelist, his intelligence-officer career at an end as the result of the betrayal of British agents' covers to the KGB by Kim Philby, the infamous British double agent (one of the Cambridge Five). With Cornwell's name being on a list of intelligence officers, he was no longer of any value to the Secret Service. Le Carré depicts and analyses Philby as the upper-class traitor, code-named "Gerald" by the KGB, the mole George Smiley hunts in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1974).


In an interview in the late 80's, he was asked "what happens to retired spies?" he replied " we give them a house, a car and a stack of money and we hope that they don't defect". He is obviously someone who has worked in the very heart of the true gritty and murky world of spying. 


Sidney Reilly 

Sidney Reilly, born Sigmund Georgievich Rosenblum in Russia in 1873, is said to have inspired numerous fictional characters. Nicknamed the “Ace of Spies”, Reilly is believed to have spied for as many as four nations; some at the same time. Just like his literary counterpart, Reilly was a womaniser (some also dubbed him as the “Gentleman Spy”) and lived an extravagant lifestyle. Enjoying being a member of every upper-class club from New York to Japan, living in an expensive 8 bed house in London, hosting weekly two day parties and having champagne for breakfast.


He was awarded both the Military Cross by Britain and the Iron Cross by Germany. He stole the German navy plans for their new destroyers and cruiser guns, incited a coupe to topple Lenin's communist government; attempting to make himself the Russian Premier into the bargain, gave the Japanese the minefield plans of the Russian fleet so it could be sunk at anchor and therefore sell Russia a new navy and many other adventures.




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