By Nicholas Rankin
On 15 May 1941, two Englishmen flew from London to Lisbon, at the start of a ten-day wartime journey to New York City. Though they wore civilian clothes they were, in fact, the Director of Naval Intelligence, Admiral John Godfrey, and his personal assistant, Lieutenant Commander Ian Fleming RNVR, the future author of the James Bond novels. What followed was to change American intelligence forever.
Until December 1941, the United States of America was neutral in the Second World War. In two years of open blitzkrieg, the Nazis had conquered much of Europe; Britain stood alone and broke, summoning aid from its overseas dominions and colonies. The British Prime Minister Winston Churchill remembered well that industrial America’s entry into the Great War in 1917 had assured victory. He needed a repeat, but the US President F.D. Roosevelt proceeded cautiously.
The first American aid to the Allied cause was spun as protecting an isolationist nation. In return for 50 old American destroyers for the Royal Navy, the USA obtained from the British Empire 99-year leases on a chain of strategic Atlantic bases: in Newfoundland, Bermuda, the Bahamas, Antigua, St Lucia, Jamaica, Trinidad and British Guiana. Between January and March 1941, there were also secret military and naval staff talks codenamed ABC – the American-British Conversations. Following these, the Chiefs of Staff and the Joint Intelligence Committee in London sent the two men to Washington DC to help ‘set up a combined intelligence organisation on a 100 per cent co-operative basis’.
The relationship of Admiral John Godfrey to Ian Fleming was like that of ‘M’ and James Bond, but also father/son. Fifty-three-year-old Godfrey had three daughters but no son; thirty-three- year- old Fleming had three brothers but no father. (Major Valentine Fleming DSO had been killed in the Great War just before Ian’s ninth birthday.) Admiral Godfrey had a brilliant mind but a volcanic temper; Ian Fleming was imaginative and imperturbable. He was a good fixer and drafted swift, crisp memos.
The two men flew KLM to Lisbon and then took the Pan Am Boeing 314 seaplane via the Azores to the British colony of Bermuda, 600 miles east of North Carolina, where the first American garrisons were building a base to help protect what President Roosevelt called ‘the Western Hemisphere’. Hamilton, Bermuda was where the British had set up the Imperial Censorship and Contraband Control Office to read the world’s mail, taken off transatlantic ships and planes. Fifteen hundred British ‘examiners’, also known as ‘censorettes’ because most were women, worked in the waterfront Princess Hotel, processing 100 bags of mail a day – around 200,000 letters – and testing 15,000 for microdots and secret ink messages, before sending on the bags on the next plane or ship. At first the USA objected to this infringement of liberty, but the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) soon realised how useful the system was when it began to reveal foreign enemy agents on US soil.
Godfrey and Fleming arrived in New York City on 25 May 1941. They stayed at the St Regis Hotel on 55th Street and 5th Avenue in Manhattan and soon went to meet ‘Little Bill’, the Canadian businessman William Stephenson, and his American friend and ally ‘Wild Bill’, Colonel William J. Donovan.
The bullish Bill Donovan (a WW1 Medal of Honor winner and New York lawyer) had twice travelled to the war-zone on unofficial inquiry missions for the US president. All doors had been opened for him: Winston Churchill was eager for American help. Donovan had got on well with Admiral Godfrey in London in July 1940 and had met Fleming in Gibraltar in February 1941.
The other Bill, ‘the quiet Canadian’ Bill Stephenson, had been sent to the USA in June 1940 by the British Secret Service with the mission of improving relations with J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI. President Roosevelt recommended ‘the closest possible marriage between British Intelligence and the FBI’, and Hoover saw that by working with the British he could expand his counterespionage empire through the Caribbean, Central and South America. The US State Department, however, insisted on the status quo of the Neutrality Acts.
William Stephenson’s job as the SIS representative in America was investigating enemy activities in the western hemisphere, protecting British supplies against sabotage, countering German propaganda and encouraging the USA to intervene in the war on Britain’s side. Already, in the summer of 1940, William Stephenson had set up the offices for what would become British Security Co-Ordination at 630, Fifth Avenue, New York City. Because many American patriots were opposed to US involvement in foreign wars, most of BSC’s work was covert.
Nicholas Rankin spent twenty years broadcasting for BBC World Service where he was Chief Producer, Arts and won two UN awards. He is the acclaimed author of A Genius for Deception: How Cunning Helped the British Win Two World Wars and Ian Fleming’s Commandos: The Story of the Legendary 30 Assault Unit. Want to read more? Here are part 2 and part 3.