007 and 666: A True Tale of Spies and Sorcery

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A while back, I had begun working on an article that dealt with some of the more extraordinary (and in some cases, even paranormal) aspects of James Bond creator Ian Fleming’s career with British Intelligence Services during World War II. As most who have read the novels or studied James Bond’s history otherwise may know, many of Fleming’s experiences in real life later inspired the adventures of the world’s most famous secret agent. The article, however, was never published; therefore, I felt it was perhaps a good time, along with the release of Quantum of Solace in theaters, to present for the first time my original tribute to the 007’s classy creator. As the name implies, the following article, 007 and 666: A True Tale of Spies and Sorcery, is indeed based on real events that lead to the capture of the infamous Nazi Rudolph Hess. With a cast of characters that includes Maxwell Knight (then Fleming’s superior officer in MI5), the notorious Aleister Crowley, and Fleming himself, it is by far one of the oddest tales ever to stem from the annals of history.


“All is fair in love and war,” the saying goes. We measure this statement by the amount of dirt that finally comes to light several years, if not decades, after any given plot in military or political history, especially those that leave behind the most unanswered questions. Yet between the extremities of love and war lie stranger truths, some so odd, so alien that they bring new meaning to the expression. Surely, during no greater a moment than the blind urgency of wartime could those in authority ultimately resort to the truly strange, hoping to wring resolution out of desperate chaos.

By June of 1940, within one year of Britain’s declaration of war on Germany, the Nazi’s devastating victory over the French in the Battle of France had already left Adolph Hitler with a strong sense that “the War in the west was won”. Earlier in March that same year, Britain had made a formal agreement with the French that neither country would seek separate peace measures with Germany, and in spite of France’s surrender on June 25, the British had held their ground firmly with regard to such negotiations. Without immediate plans for action, by early July 1940 Hitler began planning an invasion of the United Kingdom which he deemed Operation Sealion. Though later scheduled for September 24, 1940, Sealion would be postponed within days of its target date, and then withdrawn altogether on September 17, 1940 “until further notice”, having lost its focus after the London Blitz. Nonetheless, it is presumed that hope of an understanding with the British might somehow be reached had remained on the minds of certain members of the Axis powers, many of whom were all the while relieved that Sealion had never been enacted.

The Visionary

No one seemed to hold this contention greater than Rudolph Hess, deputy and third in command under Hitler famous for his “surprise” solo flight to Scotland in May 1941, who later admitted to having planned the trip “shortly after a conversation with the Fuhrer in June 1940,” just prior to when Hitler began formulating Operation Sealion the following month. Covert information sources with direct access to Nazi leaders, specifically exchanges between Hess and Adolph Hitler around this time, would later provide evidence that Hess “had grave doubts about carrying on a war against the British,” feeling that Russia was the greatest threat to Germany at the time, and that other Nazi officials, including Hitler, may have shared this sentiment. No doubt, the manner in which Hess personally chose to manage this belief would result in a tangled web of questions which, to this day, remain unanswered.

An item of intrigue that often remains omitted from the history books has to do with the emphatic belief held by many of the Nazis regarding occult astrology and other alternative sciences. British author and researcher Ellic Howe, who during World War II had been recruited by British secret services and became involved in a number of operations regarding Nazi interest in the occult, wrote several books during the 1960s and 70s dealing with information he collected about this odd fascination of the enemy. In fact, it is understood that the Nazis had in 1932 founded an astrological study group called Arbeitsgemeinschaft Deutscher Astrologe, and that later during wartime, Nazi minister of propaganda Joseph Goebbels even appointed a department of occultism known as the AMO (Astrology, Meta-psychology and Occultism).

Coupled with his mixed feelings about war with Britain, among all Nazis Rudolph Hess also seemed most impressionable with regard to such occult practices. Though a great deal of speculation remains about Hess’s mental state throughout his later life (having famously pretended to suffer from amnesia during the trial at Nuremburg, displaying odd behavior that would only worsen up until his death while incarcerated at Spandau Prison), it seems that an early example of things to come may lie in Hess’s description of his first meeting with Hitler. He would tell how his life was forever changed, of all places, in a beer hall in Germany in 1920, during a meeting of which he later said he had felt “as though overcome by a vision.” Whatever this had meant literally to Hess, by 1940 it had progressed into a sense that he was destined to fulfill some “greater purpose” in the War on behalf of Germany; perhaps some sad remnant of the great vision that had swept over him back in 1920.

According to the late Dr. Rainer Hildebrandt, German General Karl Ernst Haushofer, a teacher and friend to Hess who had taught him the principles of geopolitical studies, said that at the time of Hess’s flight, “Hitler’s astrological aspects were unusually malefic. Hess interpreted these aspects to mean that he personally must take the dangers that threaten the Fuhrer upon his own shoulders in order to save Hitler and restore peace to Germany.” Quite literally Hess, who had shared with the Fuhrer such intimate contact as recording Hitler’s dictations while in prison together in 1923 (which would serve as the basis for the book Mein Kampf), had felt that all manner of servitude to his leader, the visionary who by grace had shared his dream with him, was justified.

Fate ultimately lead Hess to Scotland, where in a failed attempt at contacting supposed Anglo-German Nazi sympathizers he was captured, interrogated, and imprisoned for the remainder of his life following the trial at Nuremburg. Whatever cosmic forces may have been acting upon him to make this final realization of his great vision, the scribes of fate may very well not be the only ones to have conspired in luring Hess on his historic solo flight in 1941, an idea that serves as the impetus for a tale involving spies, sorcerers, secrets, and inevitably, the lies and dirt packaged alongside what few facts may remain.

The Secret Agent

“Now this is what Hess proposes to do. He wants to fly to England alone,” the message read, held in the hands of then thirty-two year old Ian Lancaster Fleming, who at the time was operating under the known codename “17F”. It was a fitting title, as seven would continue to be a number of special interest to him throughout his life.

Having worked alongside Fleming at the foreign desk of the Sunday Times, British writer Donald McCormick related that Fleming, at the time a Commander in the British Royal Navy, had received the message from a pre-war contact he had made named Vanessa Hoffman; all this being information McCormick was later allegedly urged “not to breathe a word of” while Fleming was still alive. Since having met her in Germany prior to the War, Hoffman had continued to serve as a conduit for information filtered to Fleming by spies and various informants infiltrating Germany. However, Hoffman herself was no spy, having received this particular message from an enigmatic agent known only by the alias “Bill Findearth”, later revealed to be William Otto Lucas, an intelligence agent with contacts and “moles” in the Gestapo, as well as an anti-fascist network in Switzerland during World War II.

It was through one of Lucas’s moles that some of the War’s most sensitive details at the time were said to be obtained: a US intelligence informant named Helga Stultz who worked in a room adjacent to Hitler’s office at the Berghof, his home in the Swiss Alps. Stultz, due to her frighteningly advantageous location, had been privy to information regarding some of the Nazi leader’s most intimate affairs, and it was through her inside-ears that intelligence agents like Fleming would ultimately garner helpful leads that might aid in new ideas for stifling the Nazi threat. This most recent transmission in particular, Fleming hoped, would lend itself to one such idea.

In his ongoing correspondences, William Otto Lucas had initially suggested to British Intelligence that observations he had made of the Nazi occult interests might be exploited to the advantage of the allies. However, few military bodies gave this much thought outside the British Royal Navy, of which Ian Fleming was a Commander at the time. Even in the case of Naval Intelligence, little was made of the information, prompting Lucas’s suggestion that “someone else” might be interested (possibly Washington, as much of the information Lucas gathered during this time was being sent along to the United States as well). Incidentally, it has been suggested that Vanessa Hoffman, the very one linking Lucas’s sources to Fleming, had also first introduced him to astrology while in Germany nearly a decade earlier. Perhaps it was due to his early interest in such matters, as well as this association with Vanessa Hoffman, that encouraged Fleming’s decision in the matter. He later said of the circumstances, “I decided to be the ‘someone else’ who might effectively exploit the idea.”

However, due to the sensitive nature of the information available, it is alleged that Fleming, though never given direct orders not to try and make beneficial use of this knowledge, was not formally backed by MI6 or any other military establishment. Indeed, the plan yet to unfold would become very much a labor of his own undertaking, though interest in the matter wasn’t exclusive to Fleming; Prominent MI5 agent and friend Charles Henry Maxwell Night (who later served as inspiration for the character “M” in Fleming’s James Bond novels) shared Ian’s clinical interest in occult matters. Still, this scant support would eventually allow Fleming only limited direct control over the matter in its later stages.

Fleming, like many with Naval intelligence, had hoped to seek less provocative methods of baiting the Germans for intelligence purposes, in contrast to Churchill’s strong militaristic approaches for which he would later be criticized (namely in the 1945 bombings of the German city of Dresden, in which a majority of the casualties were civilians and injured soldiers). Viewing the newly appointed Churchill’s early tactics as confrontational and aimed at provoking Germany into an attack, it is surmised that by mid 1940 Fleming had begun to develop ideas that would buy time for the British before Hitler attempted a full-on invasion. Paired with the information sent along by Lucas, around this time Fleming had also conducted studies of Royal Navy Admiral Sir Barry Edward Domvile, former director of the British Department of Naval Intelligence. Domvile, while visiting Germany in the early years of the Nazi party and later having attended the Nuremberg Rally in 1936, had adopted pro-Nazi views and backed several controversial figures at the time, including St. John Philby of the British Peoples Party, a pro-fascist group with anti-Semitic views operating in Britain up until 1946. Based on his experiences with the Nazis, Domvile had begun a sort of Anglo-German brotherhood called The Link, which operated between 1936 and 1939. Though no official acknowledgment of ties with the Nazi party was ever made, The Link did however publish a journal called The Anglo-German Review that boasted a desire for “promoting Anglo-German friendship”, but also filtered a good deal of Domvile’s pro-Nazi tendencies of the time. The onset of World War II had brought their activities to a halt, but as told by writer Anthony Masters in his 1987 book The Man who was M, The Life of Maxwell Knight, Fleming wondered what might be achieved by filtering false leads to Germany that Domvile’s organization hadn’t been disbanded, but instead had merely gone underground once the conflict began.

Initially, it was the strong opposition of German Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, first learned of by MI6 just prior to the war, that made him a prime consideration for contact, having been involved with at least two aborted assassination plots against Hitler, and by 1940 already disgusted with many of the anti-Semitic war crimes he had witnessed. However, it was likely that Canaris could not be easily lured in this manner as he, unlike many Germans in position of government at the time, displayed no tendencies that might indicate he had any interest in the occult. Shifting his sights elsewhere, Fleming felt the new information being received about Rudolph Hess made him the next best target, especially with regard to existing knowledge of his reliance on horoscopes and astrology. Therefore, in addition to planting information overseas that would suggest the continued underground efforts of The Link in Britain, Fleming now also hoped to develop a second ruse, based on astrological information to be leaked to the somewhat vulnerable Hess, which might help provoke his decision to fly to Britain.

Fleming knew he had been dealt a delicate hand early in the game; he took no chances with the gathering and sending of information, as winning the gambit would depend on accurate reliable sources, not to mention a means of getting his info to the Nazis without arousal of suspicion. That in mind, Fleming’s first ruse would be misdirection, in that he knew the earliest whispers of the continued underground efforts of The Link would have to appear to come from some place other than Britain. Having initially gone to Maxwell Knight, who had possessed the files on Sir Barry Domvile and The Link, it was only fitting that Fleming continued to use Knight’s mystique in the effort to plant the information effectively, especially with the intrigue he had already aroused in Fleming due in part to his worldly (as well as other-worldly) interests. Fleming and Knight had the information planted overseas, from where it could be received and passed along to Germany via intelligence agents, presumably at a popular coffee house in Lisbon called the Café Chiada. Lisbon, a country which, during World War II, had been one of merely a handful to remain neutral in the region, maintained open European Atlantic ports, allowing it to become a major gateway for undercover and refugee operations out of the U.S. and, of particular value to Fleming, a nest for spies.

Beyond this point, the secrecy of the operation was mandatory; Fleming’s Director of naval intelligence Rear-Admiral John Godfrey and Maxwell Knight had a strong dislike for one another due to previous rivalries in aspiring to become the new head of S.I.S. in Britain. Neither man would take the position, but no doubt Knight still was wary of Godfrey’s influence as DNI. Ironically, this same position had been previously held by none other than Sir Barry Domvile up until 1930.

The Sorcerer

It may have been the early influence of Vanessa Hoffman that first piqued Fleming’s interest in the occult, but no doubt it was Maxwell Knight’s unusual experience with the matter that inspired him to somehow involve Aleister Crowley. In the mid to late 1930s, Knight had first met Aleister Crowley through suspense writer Dennis Wheatley, with whom he was known to attend dinner parties in the company of Knight and Wheatley’s wife Joan. Wheatley and Knight both seemed fascinated with the wild rumors that involved Crowley, most of which kept him in ill-repute, though Knight seemed to regard Crowley as eccentric, but harmless. Claiming only to have a “purely academic interest,” Wheatley and Knight had even applied to Crowley as novice occultists themselves, and begun attending ceremonies for research purposes regarding passages involving black magic in Wheatley’s novels.

Various accounts from this period relate that MI6 agents had been visiting Crowley in 1940-1941, who had a residence on Jermyn Street at the time. Fleming’s biographer Donald McCormick had said that “the PA to the DNI,” or rather, the personal assistant to the Director of Naval Intelligence at the time, Admiral Sir John Godfrey, had begun the correspondence. Godfrey’s personal assistant, of course, was Fleming. Another reference was alleged to have come from the late Rosa Lewis, owner and operator of the exclusive Cavendish Hotel at 82 Jermyn Street, who claimed that she had served Crowley and Fleming, who met there occasionally in 1941. It was around the time of these meetings that first mention of what became known as “Project Mistletoe” was made, a reference to the mythical character Balder of Valhalla.

Still stranger rumors from this period exist, though unconfirmed, as nearly all of those involved are now deceased. According to some accounts, the story spins off at this point into a sub-plot of sorts involving a ritual later referred to as “the fireworks display” held by Crowley in Ashdown Forest, a wooded area in the county of East Sussex and the inspiration for the “Hundred Acre Wood” in the children’s story Winnie the Poo. In the ritual, a dummy dressed “in effigy” as a Nazi soldier (designed to vaguely resemble Rudolph Hess) was implemented in a conjuring initiated by Crowley to use dark forces to influence Hess’s actions. Fleming was allegedly present at the ritual, though this is merely in accordance with unconfirmed claims for which too little evidence exists to lend much support.

More likely than any bizarre rituals that might have occurred is that Crowley was merely the likeliest candidate for providing official aid in astrological matters to British intelligence. In fact, at various times throughout his later life, Crowley, having a great knowledge of cities throughout Europe from his travels, served as an agent to M.I.5 and had been assigned to spy on various German operations, including those of German agent Gerald Hamilton. No doubt, having some experience with government work already made Crowley the primary consideration for the position as consultant in Fleming’s undertaking.

Another who would later claim to have had involvement in faking Nazi horoscopes was author Ellic Howe, who revealed in his 1982 book The Black Game how he too had been recruited by British Intelligence during World War II and asked to create realistic looking typefaces to be used in a fake printing of the German astrological magazine Zenit. In conjunction with the various ways Fleming and Knight may have attempted to leak horoscopes to the Nazis, similar means may have been implemented all the same in hope of reinforcing German awareness of The Link’s survival underground, as described by Maxwell Knight’s biographer Anthony Masters:

Fleming briefed an astrologer, via a Swiss contact, also an agent, to infiltrate Hess’s occult circles in Germany. This he successfully did, ensuring that Hess was given the picture he and Knight had conceived, that of an influential band of plotters who wished to bring down Churchill and the government and negotiate peace with Germany. The message was passed to Hess via a fake horoscope.

The Capture

In his historic flight, Hess attempted to land in a large field (by some accounts being arrested by a farmer with a pitchfork, as depicted in one news-reel of the time). He was removed forcibly from the plane, injuring his leg in the process, and taken under British custody. “I decided to fly (to England) shortly after a conversation with the Fuhrer in June 1940. The delay was caused by difficulties in obtaining a machine and long-range equipment as well as unfavorable weather conditions,” Hess later said of his trip, also claiming that military setbacks in North Africa could have misconstrued his intentions and given “false interpretation” to his motives. His hesitation may not have prevented such sentiments however, as history tells us the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union only days after his flight to Scotland, and Joseph Stalin was later said to be “convinced that Hess’s mission was to negotiate a deal for common action against Russia.” Though this may actually have been the intention behind Hess’s actions, Stalin also believed his prolonged imprisonment by the British had been in order to keep Hess available should an Anglo-German union ever be made, hence posing a greater combined threat against the Soviets. This, no doubt, was supported in Stalin’s mind by the silence that had surrounded Hess’s capture.

However, Germany may have viewed British silence over the affair a bit differently. On 22 June 1941, Joseph Goebbels, Nazi Minister of Propaganda, made a peculiar entry in his diary, which read “The Fuhrer has high hopes of the peace party in England. Otherwise, he claims, the Hess affair would not have been so systematically killed by silence.” This might suggest that Hess’s actions were, as of the time the entry was made by Goebbels, still favorable in site of the Nazis.

This would not last, however; the Nazis subsequently launched the Aktion Hess, where hundreds of people were arrested in Germany with particular discrimination against astrologers. In particular, Hess’s astrological advisor, Ernst Schultestrathaus, was imprisoned for advising that he fly on May 10, though he denied having given this information to Hess. The Aktion Hess had been justified by Goebbels in an article where he described that Hess had been influenced by the influence of astrologers in his “failing health”. Following such references to his mental state, Hess was troubled when he soon learned that instead of praise, he had received denunciation from the Fuhrer; Hitler labeled him publicly as a madman.

Appropriately, it was none other than Aleister Crowley that Fleming urged British Intelligence to allow to interrogate Hess, whose ramblings at the time of his capture were said to be riddled with occult references. The interrogation was not permitted, in spite of a personal letter from Crowley, which stated that “If true that Herr Hess is much influenced by astrology and magick, my services might be of use to the department.” However, in his stead the decision was made to use Brigadier Roy Firebrace, who happened to be the first president of the Astrological Association of Great Britain, having been tutored by a German astrologer.

The Coincidences

Perhaps, in spite of boasting similar credentials, Crowley’s well publicized eccentricities had made British Intelligence wary of implementing him officially as an occult consultant. This, however, would not keep him off Fleming’s mind, of course. Regardless as to what extent Crowley and Fleming may have actually interacted beyond the Hess affair, those familiar with Fleming’s thrillers featuring the world’s most notorious spy, James Bond 007, will remember the various ways “The Great Beast” ties most remarkably into the literature. For instance, “007” had indeed been a handle used by a British secret agent long before it was adopted by Fleming for Bond’s character; the number had first been used by none other than famed occultist John Dee, who not only had been given the nickname “eyes” in the sixteenth century by Queen Elizabeth, but who also had claimed to make contact with the great beyond via portals that led to what he called “Ethers”, supposed levels of alternate dimensional existence which, throughout his life, Crowley had made every attempt at accessing. Quite simply, James bond hadn’t been the first 007 to serve under “her majesty’s secret service.” Incidentally, for the decades Rudolph Hess would spend incarcerated at Spandau Prison which lasted until his death, he was referred to only as “prisoner number seven.”

But a more direct reference to Crowley in the work of Ian Fleming may have been the stark resemblances between him and that of Le Chiffre, the first of many villains that readers of the Bond thrillers would be introduced to in 1953’s Casino Royale. Fleming’s long time assistant at the foreign affairs desk of The Sunday Times would point out their less flattering similarities in his book Alias James Bond – The life of Ian Fleming:

Not only does the general figure of Le Chiffre, with his size, his ugliness, and all the overtones of unmentionable vice match the impression Crowley usually created, but minor parallels exist between them. Both called people “dear boy”, and both, like Mussolini, had the whites of their eyes completely visible around the iris.

Another interesting parallel regarding the written works of Fleming had less to do with Ian’s own work, but rather that his brother, Peter. In 1940, Peter published a book titled The Flying Visit, in which Adolph Hitler flies a plane to England, parachutes down and is apprehended by a British agent, and engages in peace talks with his captors. Many have surmised that Ian may have been influenced by his brother’s fiction, but even stranger is the notion that Peter may have actually been prompted by his brother to write the book as further incentive for Hess, if only subliminal, to make a “flying visit” of his own; an allegation Peter Fleming would continue to deny until his death. In addition to expressing resolute disbelief regarding his brother’s involvement in affairs involving Hess or Crowley, he played down the entire matter, calling it “a new legend about my brother”.

Regardless of how or why, the legends have persisted. MI6 files containing official information regarding the affair were said to have been opened in the early 1990’s, and being labeled classified, the contents of which were not to be disclosed until 2017. To the frustration of those seeking evidence of Fleming’s wild exploits, the files were found to be empty. Thus, the question remains as to where, if they ever existed, could the classified documents have disappeared? Might it all have been one last ruse, Fleming’s final and greatest ploy; the vehicle for yet another legend meant to leave us questioning the entire matter? It is a fine prospect, at least, and perhaps no one could have played the whole gambit better than he.

In his life, Fleming had expressed the feeling that he paled in comparison to his fictional counterpart James Bond, exaggerating his own exploits and retelling his greatest adventures vicariously through the dapper and dangerous secret agent. But regardless of his own perceptions, Fleming’s uncanny ability to pit the elements of love and war against one another, the lingering possibility that he at very least could have pulled the wool over the eyes of his superiors in British Intelligence, and perhaps most importantly, the amusement he seemed to take from doing so, will much to his liking have him remembered as nothing less than a living master among spies.

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