Long a source of mystery, the inspiration behind Ian Fleming’s James Bond character may have been a British spy who lived in Australia for 42 years.
Ever since Ian Fleming’s Casino Royale was first published in 1953, people have been asking whether he modelled his anti-hero, James Bond, on a real spy. Much of Bond is based on Fleming’s own foibles: the same golf handicap, those custom-made cigarettes, a fondness for scrambled eggs, the same brand of toiletries and a prodigious thirst for alcohol.
But Fleming also said he based his creation on people he met during his wartime service with Britain’s Naval Intelligence Division, and that he was a combination of all the secret agents and commando types he’d met during the war. Most famously, Bond’s fictional credentials were that he had served with the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) and was a commander in the Royal Naval Reserve with the secret service number 007.
Several real people have been fingered as sharing Bond traits, including Wilfred Dunderdale, a head of MI6 in Paris who had a penchant for fast cars and faster women, and was fastidious about his hand-made suits.
But now Australian military historian Lynette Silver believes she has uncovered another friend of Fleming’s who shares too many qualities with Bond to be coincidence: a mysterious former MI6 agent, Denis Emerson-Elliott, who spent his final years in Australia.
Silver first met Emerson-Elliott in Sydney in 1996. Because of her knowledge of secret wartime operations in Asia and Australia, she forged a close relationship with Emerson-Elliott. Though initially reluctant to discuss his times as a spy, Emerson-Elliott eventually confirmed details Silver had discovered through her research. “Some of the people who are supposed to be the primary inspiration for Bond can be dismissed,” says Silver. “They either weren’t involved in intelligence work before or after World War II, or had no close or personal connection to Fleming.
“Denis Emerson-Elliott, on the other hand, ticks all the boxes. Like Bond, he was an officer with the Royal Naval Reserve. Like Bond, he worked for MI6 – before, during and after the war. Like Bond, he spoke several languages fluently. Then there’s his friendship with Fleming. Both men were recruited by MI6 around the same time and trained together in Scotland. They were colleagues before, during and after the war.”
But Silver never had the opportunity of asking Emerson-Elliott about Fleming or Bond because it was only after Emerson-Elliott died in 1997 that she discovered what she thinks is the most important clue. “Like Bond, Denis had a British secret service number,” she says. “Like Bond, it was 007. Denis’s number was BB 007. BB stands for British Bureau, a prefix assigned to secret agents. I knew this because I had investigated two other British agents who had joined special operations in Australia. Their numbers were BB 187 and BB 233, which shows Denis had been recruited early.”
So who was Denis Emerson-Elliott? And what did he do as a spy? For a start, Denis Emerson-Elliott wasn’t his real name. “My father was born in London in 1905 as Leonard Emerson,” says his son, Derek, a retired Canberra barrister who is co-author (with Silver) of In the Mouth of the Tiger, a novel based on his father’s dramatic life, published this week. “Yet according to his British passport, he was born in Somerset three years later as Leslie Denis Elliott. That was the name he used when he went out to India and Malaya in the 1920s after he’d become involved with MI6. I presume it was changed for operational reasons. Around 1937 he added his real surname. Thereafter his passport listed him as Leslie Denis Emerson-Elliott.”
That was his name when he first arrived in Australia from Malaya, in 1942, after the fall of Singapore to the Japanese. He’d escaped – with his wife and two children (including Derek, then aged two) – on the Empire Star, one of the last ships to leave. For the rest of the war, Emerson-Elliott was personal assistant to the Australian director of naval intelligence, R.B.M. Long. Long was MI6 Head of Station in Australia, and Emerson-Elliott’s position was another MI6 appointment. That put him in regular contact again with Fleming, who had the same position in London.
In 1948, the family returned to Malaya, where Emerson-Elliott worked for MI6 during the Malayan Emergency. Eventually the family moved back to Australia, settling in Perth in 1955 before moving to Canberra in 1964. But son Derek had no idea his father had been a spy until the family was approached by another military historian, Barbara Poniewierski, whose book on Australian naval intelligence during World War II was published in 1990.
“Pop kept his intelligence work secret from the family,” says Derek, “but a few months before he died he did talk to me about how sad he was to have had to do ‘terrible things’. He left his papers with me, with strict instructions about what could and couldn’t be revealed.”
Did he ever talk about Fleming? Or Bond? “He didn’t tell us about Fleming’s intelligence role, only that he knew him as a friend. To me, Fleming was just another friend of my parents; he wasn’t famous then.
“After the war, we lived at Almer Manor in Dorset, which was part of the Drax estate. Admiral Reginald Drax had worked for Naval Intelligence and was a friend of both Fleming and my father. Fleming borrowed his name for the arch-villain Hugo Drax in Moonraker.”
Derek says his father was “ashamed he had to lie, deceive and betray on a daily basis, and was deeply saddened by some of the things he had done. One incident that troubled him badly was that he had to shoot a Japanese double agent, a Dutch-Eurasian, on an island to Australia’s north. Naval Intelligence were reading the Japanese naval code and became aware the man was working with the Japanese. My father was given the instruction to ‘bump him off quietly’. ” He did.
“My father also felt responsible for the death of an NKVD officer, Lieutenant Ivan Skripkin, who worked for Russian intelligence and tried to defect around 1947. Pop felt he had betrayed Skripkin, who was executed by the Russians.”
A secret agent with a conscience? Doesn’t sound much like Bond.
“Bond was fictional,” says Derek. “Nobody but a fictional character could possibly smile his way through the deceit, treachery and mayhem Bond encounters. In real life, it certainly affected my father.
“He ended his life loathing what he’d had to do, and grieving for the many people whom he’d had to harm in the course of his duty. At the very end, he hated the secret service with a passion.”