Charles Petzold

The Alan Turing / James Bond Connection

June 1, 2008
Roscoe, N.Y.

Last Wednesday, May 28, 2008, was the hundredth anniversary of the birth of Ian Fleming, the creator of James Bond. A front page article in today's Arts & Leisure section of the Sunday New York Times by Charles McGrath entitled "That License to Kill Is Still Unexpired" includes a photo of the famous Enigma machine with the caption "The first Bond novelist, Ian Fleming, worked for British naval intelligence during World War II and was concerned with devices like the German Enigma, an encryption device. (The online version of the story includes the caption but not the photo.)

The Enigma machine was also Alan Turing's big concern while working at Bletchley Park, the center of Great Britain's code-breaking activities during the war. As discussed by David Kahn in Seizing the Enigma: The Race to Break the German U-Boat Codes, 1939-1943 (Houghton-Mifflin, 1991), 124-126 and Stephen Budiansky in Battle of Wits: The Complete Story of Codebreaking in World War II (Free Press, 2000), 158-159, Turing and his people were eager to get their hands on a month's worth of Enigma settings to help them understand the Enigma's mathematical characteristics.

Lieutenant Commander Ian Fleming of the Naval Intelligence Division came up with a plan to get those settings, and in a memo dated September 12, 1940, he described how it would work. (I'm quoting the version in Kahn including the material in brackets)

The plan was given the codename RUTHLESS, and was approved as high up as Churchill. It wasn't quite clear that a crash landing could be faked without serious damage to the crew, but the biggest problem was the lack of an opportune moment when a German ship was operating nearby. Kahn quotes one of the other codebreakers after the cancellation of the operation:

Turing and Fleming never met, and quite likely never even knew about each other. Ian Fleming wrote thirteen James Bond novels between 1953 and his death in 1964. Only Casino Royale and Live and Let Die were published before Turing's suicide in June 1954.

Coming June 16, 2008!

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