History detective, historian, investigative writer & specialist tour guide

The identity of the ‘real’ James Bond, Secret Service Agent 007, has intrigued James Bond fans all around the world since 1952, when novelist and former spy Ian Fleming wrote Casino Royale, the first of the Bond books.

Fleming was interviewed on several occasions. However, the one question he failed to answer before he died was – ‘Who was the real James Bond? Was he based on a real spy?’

Some of the events depicted in the James Bond series most certainly happened. A gambling incident inspired Casino Royale, and the opening scene of Goldfinger was based on an event Fleming personally witnessed, when wartime Serbian double agent, Dusan Popov, emerged from the sea in 1940 to make contact with Dutch agents, wearing full evening dress protected by a rubber suit.

Wilfred Dunderdale, head of the British spy organisation, MI6, in Paris, definitely exhibited some of Bond’s more flamboyant characteristics.  Dunderdale, who had an eye for women and a penchant for fast cars, also drove an armour-plated Rolls Royce, opted for hand-made suits and wore cufflinks by Cartier. 

There were also a number of derring-do types who undertook clandestine operations in Nazi-occupied Europe, and who could also have supplied the action for Fleming’s novels. However, the one question that has intrigued many and which has never been answered with any degree of satisfaction is who Fleming used for his primary model.

Bond’s fictional credentials, created by Fleming, were Commander in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve, and Agent 007 in Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service, also known as MI6. Many of Bond’s well-known tastes and traits mirror those of Fleming himself: his fondness for women and alcohol, his golf handicap, the custom-made cigarettes, his London Club, the same brand of toiletries, and his love of scrambled eggs. Fleming, however, would say only that he had based Bond on people he had met during his wartime service with Britain’s Naval Intelligence.

Various names have been put forward over the years, all claiming, in some way or other to be Fleming’s ‘inspiration’. Some, such as those who died long before WW2 began, or were not involved in WW2 intelligence, can be dismissed. So can all those whose intelligence work was limited solely to the war, who had no close or personal connection to Fleming, or who have, for various reasons disqualified themselves.’

There is, however, a mysterious MI6 agent, naval intelligence officer and a close friend of Fleming, whose British secret service number was 007. He also shares too many other qualities with Bond for it to be pure coincidence. His name is Denis-Emerson Elliott.

I discovered him in 1996 when researching material on the final days of Singapore, before it fell to the Japanese in February 1942. I was trying to locate people who had been on the evacuation ship Empire Star, when I learned that an ‘elderly gentleman’, a former British Naval Intelligence Officer, who now lived in Canberra, was on the vessel.

I tracked him down and he was intrigued enough by my phone call to talk to me. After discussing the evacuation from Singapore, we chatted generally about wartime events there. When he mentioned the names of his colleagues, names that were known to me through my research work into secret wartime intelligence, I said ‘Well, in that case you must have belonged to MI6.’ To which he replied,  ‘I couldn’t possibly talk about that on the phone’.

A week or so later he called to tell me he would be in Sydney and invited me to meet him, face to face, so we could talk. As he didn’t like flying, he was taking the train to Perth and had a transit stop of 4-5 hours. He gave me my instructions:

Place: Central Railway Station, country platform

Time: 11 am.

Recognition signal: He would be emerging from the Canberra train carrying a soft, black-leather briefcase.’ 

It was a dreadful day. Cold, drizzly and overcast. But despite the depressing winter weather, I was in high spirits. Denis Emerson-Elliott, whom I had privately dubbed ‘MI6’, sounded very intriguing. As an officer in the Royal Naval Reserve, he had served with the Department of Naval Intelligence in Australia after his evacuation from Singapore and had spent the remainder of the war as personal assistant of its Director, commander R M Long, who was also MI6’s ‘man in Australia’.

Commander R M Long, DNI and MI6 from lynettesilver.com

The Canberra train consisted of only two carriages. I had no idea of what my ‘MI6’ looked like but I did know from our phone conversations that he sounded terribly British.

The train eventually arrived and out stepped an elderly man, spare of build and immaculately dressed and groomed. I didn’t need to look for the black leather briefcase.

He suggested that we had lunch and led the way. He did not select one of the smaller cafes, which were quiet and cosily inviting. Instead he headed for one filled with a chattering lunch-time crowd. I doubted there would be a spare table, but ‘MI6’ spotted one and made a determined beeline for it.

Old habits die hard – especially if you have spent all your working life in the Secret Service. The table Denis Emerson-Elliott chose was in the far corner of this busy, noisy cafe. The chair he selected for himself allowed him to have his back to the wall, at the same time giving him a direct line of sight to the door.

We had plenty to talk about and it is not surprising that we developed an instant rapport. I had spent years immersing myself in war-time events which he was describing from first-hand experience. We were like two old friends, reliving the glorious days of the British Empire and reminiscing about former colleagues, many of them secret agents, whom I also ‘knew’ through my research. A full account of this rather surreal meeting with Denis on the railway station opens my book Deadly Secrets, in which he is an important character. 

Because of my knowledge of secret wartime operations in S-E Asia and Australia, I went on to forge a close relationship with Denis Emerson-Elliott and his son, Derek, a barrister, who had no idea his father was a spy until 1990. Until this revelation, Derek had thought Denis had amassed his wealth from a company he had owned to support a good lifestyle – lovely homes in exotic places round the world, servants, nice (and fast) cars – and that he had ‘retired’ early!

The Emerson-Elliott home in Singapore

The Emerson-Elliott home in Singapore

Denis Emerson-Elliott (R) in the 1930s with fellow MI6 agent ‘Mac’ Williamson, beside Denis’s  latest car, a blue duck-tailed Alvis.

Denis Emerson-Elliott (R) in the 1930s with fellow MI6 agent ‘Mac’ Williamson, beside Denis’s latest car, a blue duck-tailed Alvis.

After one meeting with me he told Derek, ‘That girl knows too much’. However he also confided that he was speaking to me about many things he believed should be made known, as ‘she knows how to handle the truth’. Some of this previously unknown information about wartime missions appears in Deadly Secrets.

However, it was not until some years after Denis’s death in 1997 that I discovered that he had kept one particular secret to himself.

One day Derek sent me some of his father’s papers and, as I was reading through them, the number BB007 came up. I asked Derek if he knew what it meant. He didn’t. But I did.

It was his father’s British secret service number, and I jokingly remarked that it was the same number as the fictitious James Bond.

I was astonished when Derek replied, ‘Well my father was a close friend of Ian Fleming, trained with him in Scotland for MI6 and was his “opposite” number in England during the war, where he held the same post with British Naval Intelligence as my father had in Australia. They were in close contact throughout the entire war.’

BB stood for British Bureau, a prefix assigned to British secret agents. I knew this because I had previously investigated two other British agents who had worked for Secret Intelligence in South-east Asia and had joined Special Operations in Australia, following the fall of Singapore. Their numbers were BB 187 and BB 233, which showed Denis had been recruited very early.

As evidence of the friendship between Denis Emerson-Elliott and Fleming, Derek produced a photo of the pair, taken in 1934 when they were at an MI6 training house in Scotland. I was struck by the fact the two men looked very similar, an impression that was strengthened by the photo below, far right, of a younger Fleming, where his hair is slicked back.

Fleming (L) and Denis, 1934

Fleming (L) and Denis, 1934

Ian Fleming

Ian Fleming

Ian Fleming

Ian Fleming

Derek also discovered from his father’s papers that his mother, ‘Norma Emerson-Elliott’ was not an ‘English rose’ born in Taunton, County Somerset, but a White Russian named Nona Orlov who, as a baby, had escaped with her mother from the Bolsheviks. In 1939, British intelligence had re-invented her and given her a British passport.

After the war was over, the family returned to Singapore, where Denis resumed his secret service work, but in early 1948 they unexpectedly relocated to a large house in the Cameron Highlands, in Malaya. Denis told his wife and children that the reason for moving from hot and steamy Singapore was to enjoy the healthy coolness of Malaya’s premier ‘hill station’.

The move took place just before the Malayan Communist Party (MCP), under leader Chin Peng, took to the jungle in a bitter and bloody uprising against British colonial rule, known as ‘the Malayan Emergency.’

From its formation in 1930, the colonial Government deemed the MCP an illegal organisation, because of its diametrically opposed political and economic ideologies. However, when Japan invaded Malaya on 8 December 1941, a marriage of convenience saw communists and capitalists united against the common enemy. Throughout the war, the British secretly supplied arms, ammunition and equipment to support the communists, whose efforts against the occupying forces won them wide acclaim. So high were Communist stocks in post-war Malaya that the MCP was poised to win the next election, something that Whitehall was utterly determined to prevent.

The end of the war also ended the alliance and, within a matter of a month or so, the British, who had been full of praise for the contribution made by MCP, were pressuring the party to disband. The leaders reluctantly complied, but the rank-and-file’s anger, compounded by post-war economic hardships, eventually led to an uprising.

The Emerson-Elliott family’s move to the Cameron Highlands, in the heart of communist territory, was part of MI6’s strategy, and it appears that Denis’s task was to lure the communists into their jungle insurrection. The reasoning was that, once committed to the jungle, and to killing innocent people, the MCP would be seen for what it really was – a bandit organization fighting to gain total control of Malaysia.

Within days of the family’s arrival, the whole of Malaya was gripped by the MCP uprising. When guerrilla forces killed three European planters, the government declared an emergency on 12 June 1948. On 27 July the MCP was officially outlawed, forcing them into the jungle and effectively preventing them from taking part in any elections. The MI6 ploy had worked.

Denis Emerson-Elliott had a long undercover association with the MCP, whose immediate post-war leader, Loi Tack, is now known to have been a British double-agent. Having infiltrated the organisation and managed to become its Secretary General, he secretly ‘defected’ to the Japanese in 1942.

In turn, Denis managed to convince the MCP, who thought he was a double-agent and that he had switched sides in 1946, after his return to Singapore. Early that year Vladimir Skripkin, a Soviet naval officer who worked for Russian intelligence, made it known to MI6’s Far Eastern Bureau in Singapore that he wished to defect. From the evidence available it seems certain that, in order to convince the Communists that he was on their side, Denis, deliberately betrayed Skripkin to the Russian KGB, who subsequently executed him. Having proved his credentials, Denis was then able to infiltrate the Chinese communist movement in Malaya. Ironically, Kim Philby, the infamous English spy who really was working for the Russians, was blamed for betraying Skripkin, something he vehemently, and truthfully, denied.

It appears that Denis moved to Cameron Highlands to stay in touch with the new MCP leader, the pro-British Chin Peng. In 1947, Chin had replaced Loi Tack, who had been forced to flee in 1946 when, realising there was an impending move by the MCP to investigate him for his wartime betrayal, fled Malaya, taking the party funds with him. Reeling from the shock, the Party waited one full year to elect another Secretary General, the 26-year old (and secretly pro-British) Chin Peng.

Chin Peng

Chin Peng

Before becoming Secretary General, Chin Peng was a senior officer of MCP’s Fifth Regiment in the Malayan state of Perak. During the war he was the MCP’s principal liaison officer with Force 136 – an undercover British organisation based in India, which infiltrated Malaya in 1943 during the Japanese occupation and joined up with the communists. Just before Singapore fell, MI6’s Oriental Mission had trained about 150 MCP cadres at their secret 101 Training School in Singapore, and had set up ammunition and supply dumps for them to continue the fight. With only a few hours before Malaya was overrun by the Japanese, Denis Emerson-Elliott was among a small group of British officers, urgently setting up dumps and infiltrating ‘stay behind’ parties behind enemy lines. They, and the local communists, harassed the Japanese from jungle hide-outs throughout the war. Ironically, once peace was declared, the pupils, having been trained in the rudiments of guerrilla warfare and with arms at their disposal, turned on their masters.

The small settlement in the Cameron Highlands, chosen by Chin Peng as his local area HQ, was established in the late 1800s as a hot-weather resort, to allow colonial administrators, affluent traders, tin miners, planters and rubber-estate managers to escape from the heat and humidity of the lowlands. It was a most attractive retreat, surrounded by mountainous jungle and with very English-style bungalows scattered about a carefully manicured golf course.

The Emerson-Elliotts drove up to the Highlands by car, arriving late in the afternoon. At the end of a narrow road, curving from the golf course through thick jungle, were two attractive and spacious bungalows.

‘Moonlight’, mock-Tudor in style, surrounded by a magnificent rose-garden, was the most distant and was selected by Denis as their temporary home. The neighbouring bungalow, ‘Starlight’, was alpine in character, constructed from granite rocks with a white stucco upper floor and verandas projecting out over the jungle. The wilderness began at the back door, with a ravine where tigers prowled at night, and secret trails led away to Sakai villages, deep in the forest.

Moonlight bungalow

Moonlight bungalow

Starlight bungalow, the Emerson-Elliott’s home, 80 metres away

Starlight bungalow, the Emerson-Elliott’s home, 80 metres away

The Emerson-Elliott children fell in love with Moonlight but, only a day or so after the family settled in, Denis shifted them to Starlight, some 80 metres or so down the hill, behind a jungle-topped hillock. It is now evident that the reason for the move was to screen Chin Peng and his henchmen, who were about to take up residence, from any surprise visitors coming up the private road. As an added precaution, a military field telephone line was strung between the two bungalows, with a handset in Denis’s study that the children were banned from ever touching.

Malaya was now gripped in the uprising, which seemed to seriously threaten the very existence of the Government of Malaya, particularly in the early months. The communists carried out a classic guerrilla war, operating largely from the jungle areas around Cameron Highlands, ruthlessly attacking government forces, rubber plantations, tin mines, police stations, railways, roads and innocent civilians.

However, such warfare was doomed to failure. The jungle inhibited movement, restricted supply, and was a constant physical strain on those unwise enough to try and use it for long-term cover.

In hindsight, it seems extraordinary that Denis would deliberately place his family in such danger. However, he and his wife assured the children, who knew that Europeans were being attacked, that the family had a private talisman: a tall, thin Chinese man called Ah Khow, who provided immunity against the bandits.

Ah Khow had previously worked as the chef at the Blue Cow Hotel, a resort establishment closed down by the security forces in early 1948, on suspicion of being involved with the terrorists. However, when the chef lost his job Denis employed him as the family cook. Ah Khow, who was the go-between for Denis and the MCP, moved his large family into the servants’ quarters, behind Starlight.

With Ah Khow on ‘their’ side”, the children felt safe from the violence and sudden death surrounding them. While other families put sandbags around their doors, and never moved far from home except in police-protected convoys, the Emerson-Elliotts lived a free and easy life, playing golf as a family on the unprotected golf course and even driving unescorted down the mountain. Little did the children know that it was their father who was their real talisman.

On more than one occasion while out driving, the family spotted silent, straggly lines of bandits moving along the Tapah-Tanah Rata road – only to see them swing their guns away from Denis’s distinctive black Wolsley at the last moment.

While the children lived in ignorant bliss at Starlight, over at Moonlight, the MCP’s killing field, the communists were executing ‘defectors’ and ‘running dogs’ and burying the bodies in the rose garden.

The two houses are still standing and form part of a hotel, but Starlight is now known as Sunlight Bungalow. In 1967, Moonlight was the bungalow from which the famous Thai silk millionaire, and wartime American secret agent, Jim Thompson, mysteriously disappeared.

One day, the children returned from school to discover that the family had hurriedly abandoned Starlight and moved into a cottage attached to the Cameron Highlands Hotel. The next morning they woke to find that Ghurka soldiers, who formed part of the British security forces, had set up camps around the house, following a move against the terrorists in the jungle near the bungalows. For the next few weeks the Ghurkas were always visible, escorting the children to and from school, sitting outside the classrooms with machine guns resting on their knees, and following them down to the football field on sports afternoon. Unescorted family drives and walks, along with romps on the golf course, now became a thing of the past.

However, with the communists ousted from their stronghold, there was clearly no reason for the family to remain. Denis’s contacts had all gone into hiding and, with the bandits on the run, the undercover task of secret service agent BB 007 was now complete. A few weeks after the Ghurkas arrived, Denis decided to leave the Highlands, telling his family that he had decided not to drive down the mountain in one of the heavily protected convoys, as ‘convoys attract attacks’. The reality was, because of his communist ‘friends’, that Denis was untouchable.”

Events, however, almost proved otherwise.

They reached a rubber plantation outside Tapah when shots rang out. A bullet struck the front right mud-guard of the Wolsley but instead of accelerating, Denis screeched the car to a halt and began remonstrating with the unseen attackers in Cantonese and Malay. The attack was not pressed home. Denis returned to the car and drove off, with nothing to show for the encounter other than a single-bullet hole in the mud-guard.

After the Emergency ended, the family went to England, where Derek met many prominent MI6 people who visited their country mansion, Almer Manor. Guests included Denis’s friend and colleague Ian Fleming, who was yet to publish the first of his Bond novels.

Almer Manor, BB007’s UK home, with his children playing on the lawn.

Almer Manor, BB007’s UK home, with his children playing on the lawn.

James Bond books and movies have been hugely successful, which is probably the reason why the public has an endless fascination on just who Fleming used as his primary model. Some, who are supposed to be the inspiration for Bond, can be eliminated because they weren’t involved in wartime intelligence work, or had no close or personal connection to Fleming. For instance, the name of Wing Commander Forest Yeo-Thomas, known as The White Rabbit, has been put forward. He served with distinction behind enemy lines as a secret agent but his only connection to Fleming was a memo Fleming wrote in May 1945 outlining Yeo-Thomas’s escape from the Nazis.

Denis Emerson-Elliott, on the other hand, ticks all the boxes. Firstly, there is his long-term friendship with Ian 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.

Secondly, Bond and Denis share a similar background. Both were officers with the Royal Naval Reserve, both worked for MI6 and spoke several languages fluently. Denis could also be ruthless and assassinate people if the need arose but, unlike Bond, he kept a low profile, as real spies work hard to create and maintain a convincing cover. Like Bond, he too enjoyed the company of women, was suave, sophisticated, urbane, charming, charismatic and loved fast cars. But, most importantly Denis and Bond had the same secret service number, 007. And both operated under a false name.

Denis-Emerson-Elliott, 1943

Denis-Emerson-Elliott, 1943

Sketch by Fleming of his imaginary Bond

Sketch by Fleming of his imaginary Bond

So, who is Denis Emerson-Elliott?

Denis was actually born in London in 1905, as Leonard Emerson. However, according to his British passport, he was born in Somerset in1908 as Leslie Denis Elliott. He used this name when he went out to India and Malaya in the 1920s, after he’d become involved with MI6. Later he added his real surname, and a new passport was issued by MI6 as Leslie Denis Emerson-Elliott.

Although Denis shared many of Bond’s traits, the reality was very different. Being a spy profoundly affected Denis who, in later life, was ashamed he had to lie, deceive and betray people he often knew and even liked.

He was deeply saddened by some of the things he had done, especially the betrayal of the unfortunate Vladimir Skripkin, and the execution of a Dutch-Eurasian, who was a Japanese agent. Enemy messages intercepted and decoded by Naval Intelligence had revealed that he had infiltrated the Coastwatching network in the islands to Australia’s north and had to be eliminated. Denis shot him through the head while the man was kneeling down, rummaging in his pack on an isolated jungle trail, but at the last instant he raised his head and Denis blew off the top of his skull.’

It is doubtful that anyone really knew the real Denis Emerson-Elliott, secret agent 007. His very name, along with his background details, were all fake. He was, however, an utterly charming man, smooth as silk, intriguing, secretive and wonderful company – just like James Bond.

Lynette Silver, September 2014

To view a video clip of an interview with Lynette on Australia’s Channel 9 Today Show, or for details of the book In the Mouth of the Tiger, based on the life of Denis Emerson-Elliott, and co-written with his son, Derek Emerson-Elliott, click here