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Readers Story – My Father was the inspiration for James Bond

We have encouraged our fans to submit their own amazing war stories using the email [email protected]. This month, we highlight an incredible submission, written by William Miller, who is convinced that it was his father who was the inspiration behind James Bond, the legendary super spy, after he worked in the same intelligence department as Ian Flemming (Bond’s creator) during the war.

It’s a fun read, you’ll have to make up your own mind as to whether William is correct with his assertions.

Please note, Amazing War Stories doesn’t have time check the veracity of reader submissions, we rely on the integrity of the authors and their research, but we are happy to share their stories.

William’s story begins below…

I am as certain as I can be that my father, naval intelligence officer Lieutenant (Sp.) T. B. C. Miller DSC RNVR (1920-2003), known as Basil, must have been an inspiration for Ian Fleming’s famous character, James Bond.

Lieutenant (Sp.)T.B.C. Miller DSC RNVR

His story really starts in June 1940 when his father, Gerald Miller was working as Shipping attaché in the British Embassy in Madrid. As France was falling the Royal Navy was concerned that, if Spain joined the Axis powers, German troops would cross the Pyrenees, advance to the south of Spain, and capture the Gibraltar naval base. Admiral John Godfrey, Director of Naval Intelligence, dispatched his personal assistant Ian Fleming to Madrid via Lisbon to put in place Operations Goldeneye and Pilgrim. The former was a plan to ensure continued communications with Gibraltar if it were attacked. The latter was a plan to invade the island of Gran Canary because the port of Las Palmas was sufficiently large and deep to take the Gibraltar fleet if the base was captured. Ian Fleming also brought instructions from London for Gerald Miller to return to Las Palmas, where he had lived all his life, and prepare for Operation Pilgrim.

It seems likely that Gerald also met the British academic Professor Peter Russell in the Madrid Embassy because, after being recruited into British intelligence, he later helped to plan the details of Operation Pilgrim. Before that, Russell was responsible for chaperoning the Duke of Windsor safely away from the Madrid

embassy, avoiding German intelligence, and directing him via Lisbon to the Bahamas.

My father Basil Miller, aged 20, was already at the family home in Las Palmas, having been educated at Rugby School, and rather stranded in Grand Canary on the outbreak of war. It is clear from the records that my father helped his father Gerald with his work for naval intelligence whilst he was still a very young, unemployed civilian. Gerald Miller was managing director of the family shipping agency, Miller & Company, which had a prominent position in the port of Las Palmas and owned powerful salvage tugs based there. This enabled him to keep a close watch on German merchant ships which were blockaded in the port at the outbreak of war. One of these was the German U-boat supply vessel, CORRIENTES.

Basil Miller’s father Gerald Miller visiting
a Royal Navy ship as British Consul after WWII

British and French intelligence was so concerned that the CORRIENTES might begin refuelling German U- boats, enabling them to attack the shipping which brought so many of our vital imports from South America, South Africa and round the Cape, that they activated an extraordinary plan to attack the ship in the harbour. The French merchant ship SS Le Rhin sailed to the Canaries from Marseille with a team of French naval saboteurs , led by Claude Peri. They limpet mined the CORRIENTES on 8 May 1940, damaging her to the extent that she had to go into shallow water to repair, thus preventing her from supplying U-boats for the time being. Gerald Miller delayed taking up his appointment at the Madrid embassy until this operation was completed. The story is described in detail in a book by Edward Marriott, called Claude and Madeleine. Basil Miller witnessed these events, and began to help his father Gerald, with keeping a watch on the CORRIENTES and planning for Operation Pilgrim, once he had returned from Madrid to Las Palmas in June 1940

In order for the British military planners to design a force capable of invading the island of Grand Canary, they needed to know the strength of the Spanish defences. They also needed to know the attitude of the local population in order to assess what opposition they would mount, and how easily they could be controlled in the aftermath of an invasion. Basil Miller helped his father with both these matters, and appears to have acted as his personal assistant on intelligence matters. Between them, and with the help of other staff of Miller & Company, detailed maps of the location, calibre and manufacturers of all of the naval and anti-aircraft gun positions were plotted. Assessments were also made of the local Spanish air force, the airport at Gando and the strength and location of all army units. They also produced an extraordinary detailed map showing the ownership every building in the town of Las Palmas. This was accompanied by a priority list of the most important people to arrest on the first day of the invasion, which included the German consul, the local head of German intelligence (the Abwehr), and the local heads of the Spanish Navy, army and air force. The position of Gerald Miller’s house was also clearly marked as H.M Consul’s house, so that it would not be bombed by the RAF. Another task was to inspect and photograph all the potential landing beaches in order to select those which were the least protected and which had the most suitable geography for an opposed naval landing. Photographs of these beaches, and indeed all the plans which I have described, are now open to view at the National Archives in Kew. Finally a report was prepared which pointed out that, since many of the leading merchants in the Canary Islands were Scottish expatriates like the Millers, the employment which they provided to local people led much of the population to be pro-British.

Basil Miller continued helping his father with this work until the summer of 1941, when staff of the Miller company suspected that another blockaded German ship, the oil tanker CHARLOTTE SCHLIEMANN, was actively refueling U-boats which were tying up to the outside of the mole on dark, moonless nights. At these times in the month excessive quantities of food and supplies were being moved along the mole, and next day the plimsoll line on the tanker showed that it had risen out of the water by an amount corresponding to a delivery of fuel oil to a U-boat. Gerald Miller reported this to the foreign office in an encrypted signal on 30 May. At the same time Admiral Godfrey sent a request to Gerald Miller that a young man with knowledge of the Canary Islands be sent to London to be recruited into naval intelligence for the purpose of providing local knowledge to Professor Peter Russell and the others planning the Pilgrim Operation. Gerald spoke to his son Basil who readily agreed to go himself.

Taking secret documents with him, Basil managed to get to London incognito by signing on as a deckhand with the neutral Swedish merchant ship, SCANIA. Leaving in May 1941, and after surviving attacks by Stuka bombers, he eventually arrived in Workington in the North of England. After being held up by the police, who thought he was a foreign spy, his urgent pleas that he needed to get to the Admiralty, were believed, and he was allowed to make his way to London.

On 7 June, while Basil was at sea, Bletchley Park had managed to decode a German naval Enigma signal warning U-boats not to refuel at the Cape Verde Islands because it was becoming too dangerous, but instead to refuel at a place code-named CULEBRA. My father told me that he had visited Bletchley Park during the war but because of his life long commitment to secrecy, he never told me why. However, Bletchley Park historians told me in May this year that my father was cleared for full access to ULTRA i.e. the code breaking work at Bletchley Park on 27 July 1941 which was almost immediately that he joined Naval Intelligence Division, NID, in London. For such a new recruit to have been trusted with Britain’s most greatest secret, Basil must have been very important to naval intelligence at that time. My feeling is that he was probably sent immediately to Bletchley to help them understand the decoding of German naval Enigma signals by helping them to compare the signal that they had intercepted concerning CULEBRA with Basil’s obervations of the U-boat refueling in Las Palmas. At any rate it has been reported more recently that the CULEBRA incident was one of the very first successful intercepts of German naval Enigma made by Bletchley Park, and it appears that junior naval intelligence officer, Basil Miller, helped them to do it.

Next Basil proposed to the Special Operations Executive (SOE), a detailed plan to limpet mine the CORRIENTES for a second time, together with the other German ships which may have been refueling U-boats in Las Palmas. He described how it would be relatively easy for naval commandos to kayak or swim across the harbour at night from the British Club and plant magnetic mines. This could be carried out partly by loyal staff of Miller & Company, supported by elite Polish commandos who would be trained at the SOE’s Station 14 based at Briggens (country House) near Roydon, Essex. In the end this plan, code named Operation Warden, was not carried out for political reasons (not wishing to force Franco onto Hitler’s side ) and because a diplomatic protest to the Spanish was successful in preventing the Germans from using a neutral port for belligerent activity.

Basil also presented Naval Intelligence with a multi page essay on the politics of the Canary Islands in relation to how the local government and population would react to an invasion by the British.

After his first few weeks of whirlwind reporting, debriefing and induction to NID, Basil was sent to Greenwich for naval officer training. During this time, he was clearly considered so important, both to the future security of the Gibraltar fleet, and to protecting our vital imports from the South Atlantic from U-boat attack, that Mountbatten and Fleming travelled down to Greenwich to see him rather than the other way round. He was also invited to a dinner attended by General de Gaulle and US Fleet Admiral King at which he was seated between the these two visiting VIPs so that they could speak to him at first hand.

Later Basil visited Oxford to pass on his local Canary Island expertise to Professor Peter Russell, and the naval intelligence geographic unit there. He helped the team interpret the many charts and maps prepared by his father and his staff on the local geography and defences of the island of Grand Canary, and to choose the invasion beaches for Operation Pilgrim. Basil was also being prepared to take an active part in the invasion by being trained, like James Bond , to swim ashore from a submarine, walk up the beach where he would not cause alarm as he was a known local resident, and inform his father that the RAF and Navy were about to begin the invasion. On this signal the British community were to quietly retreat to the safety of the golf club.

After that he joined the Admiralty team planning the second raid on the Norwegian Lofoten Islands code named Operation Anklet. He was chosen to be the naval intelligence officer attached to Admiral Hamilton on the cruiser ARETHUSA which led the raid. The advantage of this pairing was that Hamilton had also been selected to lead the combined operations assault on the Canary Islands (Operation Pilgrim) and this was a way for them to develop a working relationship and to give Basil some operational experience.

At this point Basil must have visited Bletchley Park because he had been chosen for an ultra secret intelligence role in the Lofoten raid. At about this time the Bletchley code breaker Harry Hinsley had worked out that even the smallest German naval vessels, such as weather ships and armed trawlers, carried naval versions of the Enigma machine which were the most difficult to decode. This information was passed to Ian Fleming who designed a series of raids on these small ships because they were the least defended and in principle the easiest to capture. Fleming briefed Hamilton and Miller that there was a good chance that such vessels would be encountered during the Lofoten raid, so Basil Miller, the naval intelligence officer attached to the Operation Anklet part of this raid had to be briefed and trained to board such a vessel, seek out its radio room, and be able to identify and capture any Enigma material on board.

As Admiral Hamilton led the cruiser flotilla up the Vestfjord in December 1941, between the Lofoten Islands and the mainland of Norway, great excitement was caused when they sighted the German armed trawler GEIER. My father told me that the captain of the GEIER threw his Enigma machine overboard when he saw the Royal Navy approaching. However, according to the citation for his subsequent decoration with the Distinguished Service Cross (one level below the VC), “ he showed initiative and good judgement in the planning of the Operation, and showed daring and resource in its execution, leading a boarding party … “ onto the GEIER. According to other published sources, he managed to identify and capture very important Enigma material including “bigram tables and codebooks” which were as significant in helping Bletchley Park to break the German naval Enigma codes as was the better-known material that was captured from the German submarine, U110 and the weather ships. This was a very James Bond type of operation.

However, this was not the end of Basil Miller’s James Bond like activity during this raid. An urgent need arose for an intelligent officer to lead an expedition onshore at Reine in the Lofoten Islands, behind enemy lines. Some named Quislings needed to be arrested in their homes, and the layout of the land on the way to an important radio station which needed to be destroyed, needed to be reconnoitred. Despite having had no commando or weapons training (except his Rugby School service in the Officer Training Corps), Basil volunteered to lead a small party of marines ashore secretly by using a captured Norwegian fishing boat, in order minimize the risk of detection by the German shore defences. This mission was spectacularly successful and was carried out without injury or losses to their own men. Two important Quislings were taken from their homes, which Basil found this very difficult emotionally, because it was Christmas time and their wives pleaded that they were able to take presents from their Christmas trees. He also captured four Germans which helped to clear the way and make it easier for troops of 12 commando to destroy the important radio station without any warnings being given.

Amusingly Basil told me modestly that he hardly knew how to handle the Tommy gun that he took with him. This James Bond like, naval intelligence commando raid predated the formation by Ian Fleming of his famous 30 Assault unit, and seems likely to have been the inspiration for its creation. It appears that when the Quislings arrived in London, they were interrogated by an obscure MI5 officer called John Bingham, who was the inspiration for John le Carré’s character, George Smiley.

On returning to the Admiralty from this successful raid Basil returned to the work of planning for Operation Pilgrim, and frequently sat alone on an inter-services committee as the representative of Naval Intelligence Division because he was the only officer with local knowledge of the Canary Islands. Soon after that, because of his successful experience of reliably carrying secret documents to London from the Canary’s, despite all risks and setbacks, and indeed from the Admiralty to Admiral Hamilton’s Flotilla in Scapa flow before the Lofoten raid, Basil was trusted with the hugely responsible and most secret role of carrying fleet orders from the Admiralty to the Mediterranean fleet in Alexandria.

After serving there on the naval intelligence staff he was posted to Aden, where he saved the life of a senior army officer whom he was looking after. He was driving him in a jeep along a very narrow desert road with steep downward slopes on each side, giving onto very rough desert ground. Without warning, he was confronted by a fast oncoming convoy of very large army trucks, and was forced to risk driving off the road to avoid a collision. Skillfully he managed to keep control of the jeep, but the huge bump which occurred when he returned to the road woke up the senior officer, nearly throwing him out of the vehicle. Not realising that he was being driven by a undercover naval intelligence officer (probably in unrecognisable, relatively scruffy and unmarked khaki), he exclaimed, “What the hell are you doing corporal !?”

After Aden, Basil was suddenly called back to London, priority one, for an unknown new mission. This involved a fascinating and tortuous journey on a huge Short Sunderland flying boat, which started off by following the River Nile to the south as far as Lake Victoria to get away from the fighting in the Mediterranean. The aeroplane then crossed the tropics to the River Congo, and followed that to coast of West Africa. They made many stops on the way for refuelling, including an overnight stay in a hotel in Coquilhatville, in what was then the Belgian Congo. Basil’s new Schick electric razor fused all the lights in the hotel, plunging into darkness his fellow VIP passengers who included Eric Shipton (the famous mountaineer and Consul General in Singkiang) and Dr Pannikar (Indian Ambassador to the United Nations).

Eventually flying via Lisbon, Basil, arrived back at the Admiralty to the question from a senior naval officer, “Do you speak Portuguese”?” Basil responded, rather surprised, “No, not a word, sir!” “Ah”, said the naval officer, “we wanted you to go to the Azores as resident Naval Intelligence officer during the allied naval occupation. Always trying to be helpful and obliging, Basil showed initiative by adding, “But I speak Spanish, Sir, and with three weeks with “Hugo’s Portuguese” I could do a preliminary conversion.” So he was accepted for the new role, and after his brief language course, he began helping with the planning for the allied occupation of these mid-Atlantic Islands.

Roosevelt, Churchill and their top military planners needed an Atlantic island to occupy in order to build up a massive advance force of mainly Americans to enable an invasion of North Africa to be code named Operation Torch. The Canary Islands were ruled out by then, as it would be likely to push Franco onto Hitler’s side in the war, and Germany, beginning to be on the back foot, the risk that the Canary Islands would be occupied by the Germans for a U-boat base was receding. Churchill thought that the Azores were a better bet because Salazar might be less of a problem as the country was traditionally pro-British and treaties existed between the two countries.

So Basil was instructed to cross inside Admiralty Arch and visit the Naval Historical Section which was staffed then by two elderly naval officers who happened to be brothers, one with a stammer, and one a captain and the other an Admiral. Basil was briefed to ask if, in addition to the known treaties, they had any information about help given to Portugal by the Royal Navy in relation to a mutiny in the 1930s. Perhaps typical of the many odd, and apparently amateur and incompetent events which took place in the midst of the chaos of all out war was the reply from the elderly officer with a stammer, “ We’ve, we’ve, we’ve only got as far as Jutland.”! Basil does not relate how NID eventually obtained the information that they needed, but Salazar was persuaded, partly by arm- twisting, and the Allied occupation took place. Sometimes we might wonder how we won the war!

On embarkation to Horta in the Azores, Basil and another naval intelligence officer, were told to take a huge armoured truck with them in the cabin on the ship. They were not told what was in it, but that they had to deliver it safely to

the British naval officer commanding in the Azores. One of them had strictly to be in attendance of the trunk in the cabin at all times during the voyage. On arrival, the naval officer commanding, who apparently also did not know what it contained, told Basil, “ Well you had better open it then.” Inside, the entire trunk was filled to the brim with Portuguese currency, apparently enough to pay for the entire British naval operation in the Azores for the remaining two years of war, including all the wages and supplies for the seamen and naval staff. Naval Intelligence staff in London clearly realised that they needed two James Bond types to protect such an enormous sum of money.

Basil remained in the Azores until the end of the war in 1945 , acting mainly as a secure liaison officer between Royal Navy staff and their Portuguese surrogates, but he was also involved in some other quite absurd sounding activities. For example, when the money arrived, the naval staff had to acquire food locally for the British naval forces who were based there. Specifically, he was instructed to scour the island and buy as many cattle as he could to provide beef. This he managed to achieve, but there was then a panic as to where to house them, so he was then instructed to acquire suitable premises for holding and butchering the unfortunate beasts. These were perhaps not typical James Bond–type activities, nevertheless they were essential to the success of the Azores operation. They do, however, point to the fact that Basil Miller, like James Bond, was able to turn his hand to any activity necessary at any particular moment.

An adjunct to the story is that, when American forces began to land in Casablanca during the execution of Operation Torch, they were hugely held up and delayed by the chaotic overwhelming of the local port facilities, on the African coast, which were not designed to cope with such a large throughput of men and equipment. The British Minister of War Transport, Lord Leathers, was a personal friend of Basil’s father, Gerald Miller, because, before his appointment to the Cabinet, he had been a director of the London shipping company Mann George & Co. which owned an equity share in the Millers’ shipping business in Las Palmas of which Gerald was managing director. Leathers knew that Gerald had a very detailed practical knowledge of port operation as he had been involved in the management of Miller’s port activities since 1911. He therefore appointed Gerald Miller to be posted to a new role of managing the port of Casablanca. It is clear from reports made at the famous Casablanca conference, which Miller and Leathers both attended, that Gerald Miller was hugely successful in

unblocking the bottleneck by taking immediate control, getting the railway organised and placing huge orders (in Britain) for new steam railway locomotives and wagons to carry personnel and freight out of the port as quickly as possible. We believe that, among other VIP’s, he met and impressed a senior army officer called Michael Carver during this period He later became Field Marshall Lord Carver, Chief of the Defence Staff. I was at university with his daughter, and a Buckmaster (father of SOE fame) incidentally, among others.

Consul Gerald MiIler (right) entertaining Prime Minister Harold MacMillan (with his colleague Ken Park)
in Las Palmas in 1960.

After the war Basil Miller took up a post in the Cunard building with another shipping firm, Lambert brothers Ltd., which also had an equity share in the Miller company in Las Palmas. During this time he volunteered in the newly formed Royal Naval Special Volunteer Reserve, which comprised solely naval intelligence officers, one of whom was Viscount Astor.

The author of this article, William Miller (b.1951) is one of Basil’s four children with his wife Faith Nottidge. He is also the historian and archivist of the Miller family and has written extensively on the post-1600 history of his family.

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