Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Dutch Courage

While writing my third novel, I stumbled on a small problem. I had plotted out a chapter set during the Second World War in which my protagonist, British agent Paul Dark, is sent on a mission to an island in the Baltic. But as I came to write it, I realized I was unsure how he would reach the island. Parachute? Submarine? I reached for one of my most thumbed books, M.R.D. Foot's official history of the Special Operations Executive, to refresh my memory on how that organization had inserted secret agents behind enemy lines during the war. To my great surprise, I found myself reading a passage I had never paid due attention before, mentioning an operation MI6 had undertaken in 1941.

Those few lines took me on a fascinating journey into the origins of one of the best known moments in modern cinema, and taught me a great deal about how fiction and reality can sometimes collide in the most surprising ways. I submitted an article about my research to The Sunday Telegraph, who felt that the story would be better told for their readership if they cut it a little and reframed it as an interview with me. I agreed, and you can read the result here. Below is a slightly extended version of the article I originally submitted to them – click on the images to enlarge them. And Paul Dark's arrival in the Baltic? You'll have to wait a bit for that one. But no dinner jackets are involved.

Dutch Courage
Jeremy Duns explores how a real MI6 operation during the Second World War may have inspired one of James Bond’s most famous moments

It’s one of the most iconic – and coolest – scenes in modern cinema. A secret agent emerges from water at night wearing a wetsuit, creeps onto a heavily guarded wharf, knocks out a sentry, and plants some plastic explosive in a storage tank. He then unzips his wetsuit to reveal that he is wearing a dinner jacket beneath it, complete with a carnation in the buttonhole. He walks into the nearest bar, glances at his watch and lights a cigarette just as the storage tank erupts into flames behind him.

This, of course, is the opening scene of the third James Bond film, Goldfinger. Released in 1964, it turned Bond into a global phenomenon, and 007 peeling away his wetsuit to reveal black tie has become one of the most recognisable moments of the series. No such scene featured in Ian Fleming’s novel of the same title, but in many ways it defines the character of James Bond: one moment a tough secret agent focused on a dangerous mission, the next a high-living playboy. It is pure fantasy, of course, and light years away from the world of real espionage.

Or perhaps not. Surprisingly enough, it seems that the scene may have been inspired by an extraordinary mission undertaken by British intelligence during World War Two.

The operation was planned in the autumn of 1941, in a small flat above 77 Chester Square, the London residence of the exiled Dutch queen, Wilhelmina. Three young Dutchmen – Bob van der Stok, Peter Tazelaar and Erik Hazelhoff Roelfzema – had an idea for a method of inserting an agent into occupied Holland, from which they had recently escaped.

As students, the Dutchmen had often spent time at the seaside resort of Scheveningen, near The Hague. They knew that the Palace Hotel there had been taken over by the Germans as a headquarters for their coastal defence forces, and that every Friday night they held a large and boisterous party there. Their idea was both ingenious and audacious – approach Scheveningen in darkness by boat, and then take Peter Tazelaar into the surf by dinghy. He would strip off his watertight suit into evening clothes and make his way ashore, right under the noses of the Germans. If stopped by sentries, he would drunkenly claim to be one of the party-goers. From there, he would continue his mission.

Dutch intelligence in London was mired in political intriguing, and not interested in running the operation – but the British were. They were initially sceptical of the method of inserting Tazelaar onto the beach, which sounded more like a student prank than a serious proposal for an espionage operation, but the head of MI6’s Dutch section, Colonel Euan Rabagliati (right) – nicknamed ‘The Rabbi’ by the Dutch – eventually agreed to the plan.

The mission’s aims were twofold: first, Tazelaar (pictured left, as a naval cadet) was to make contact with a Dutch wireless operator at a safe house and begin transmissions with London at pre-arranged times; secondly, he was to set up a wider intelligence-gathering network to provide reports, maps, photographs and other items that couldn't be transmitted over the wireless but that would be picked up by sea and taken back to London by Motor Gun Boat (ie the same way he had come). In the latter category were also two people, Dr Wiardi Beckman and a Captain Tielens, both of whom Queen Wilhelmina wanted to join the Dutch government-in-exile in London.

To prepare for the operation, The Rabbi sent Hazelhoff Roelfzema and Tazelaar to train at various secret establishments. They learned to shoot at a pistol range beneath Baker Street Underground station and practised boat landings off the coasts of Cornwall and Devon. An experimental watertight suit was made for Tazelaar and, so that his contacts would be in no doubt of his credentials, Queen Wilhelmina was persuaded to write a note in her own hand verifying his mission. MI6 reduced her message to the size of a fingernail, and it was placed inside the collar of Tazelaar’s dress shirt.

The operation itself proved harder to pull off than anticipated, due to poor weather and the difficulties of locating Scheveningen’s promenade in the dark. But after several frustrating false starts, at just after half past four in the morning on November 23 1941, Hazelhoff Roelfzema, Tazelaar and another Dutchman, Chris Krediet, along with Lieutenant Bob Goodfellow, disembarked from British Royal Navy Motor Gun Boat 321 onto a small dinghy. The Dutchmen slipped out of the dinghy as they neared the surf, and Hazelhoff Roelfzema and Tazelaar waded onto Scheveningen’s beach. Hazelhoff Roelfzema helped Tazelaar unzip his watertight suit: beneath it he was wearing immaculate evening clothes. Hazelhoff Roelfzema poured a generous dose of Hennessy XO (Tazelaar’s favourite) from a hip flask over his friend, and returned to the dinghy.

Now reeking of brandy, Tazelaar proceeded to stagger convincingly past the sentries stationed around the hotel. Against all odds, the first part of his operation had succeeded. He made contact with the wireless operator, and within three days had also made contact with Dr Beckman and Captain Tielens. Then things started to go wrong. Tielens didn’t want to make the journey to London, and couldn't be persuaded, but Beckman agreed to the plan. However, the return rendez-vous was beset by problems: the Motor Gun Boat didn't navigate to the meeting point on time, and then a collaborator betrayed the fact that landings were taking place at the beach to the Germans.

On January 18 1942, Hazelhoff Roelfzema (right) arrived on the beach at a prearranged time to deliver two vitally needed transmitters to Tazelaar. But his friend was not there. Thinking quickly, he decided to bury the transmitters in the sand, to be picked up later. But how to let Tazelaar know where to find them? He knew from his student days that there was a telephone booth near the hotel. If he could reach a member of the Resistance, they could tell Tazelaar where the transmitters were buried.

After donning a British naval uniform from the motor gunboat, which he hoped in the darkness would resemble a German one closely enough, Hazelhoff Roelfzema embarked on his own Bond-like mission. Once ashore, he safely passed several sentries and managed to reach the telephone, where he discovered to his horror that it no longer accepted the old Dutch coins he had brought with him. Frustrated, he beat a hasty retreat to the motor gunboat, and headed back to England.

Unknown to him, Tazelaar had had a very good reason for not making the rendez-vous – he and a member of the Resistance had been picked up by the Germans while walking down to the meeting point. Amazingly, they managed to bluff their way out of it: both were wearing dinner clothes, and stuck to the cover story of being drunken revellers. Tazelaar had even brought along a bottle of genever, which he generously passed around. A local policeman, luckily also a member of the Resistance, vouched for the pair, and the Germans let them go. Dr Beckman was not as lucky: he was arrested on the beach waiting to be picked up by motor gunboat, and later died in Dachau.

The highly unusual idea of an agent coming onto an enemy coastline in a watertight suit, only to strip it off to reveal full evening dress and then mingle with the local nightlife festivities, is remarkably similar in concept to the opening sequence of Goldfinger. The director of Goldfinger, Guy Hamilton, was an officer in the Royal Navy’s 15th Motor Gunboat Flotilla during the war, and was involved in landing MI6 agents onto coastlines in much the same way as was done with Peter Tazelaar. But, now 87 and living in Mallorca, Hamilton says he has never heard of the operation in Holland. ‘I was indeed inserting agents into enemy territory from motor gunboats during the war, but they were always as farmers or something along those lines, to blend in with the locals – never in black tie!’

So how did the idea behind this remarkable wartime operation make it into Goldfinger? It was not public knowledge when the film was made, but it was something of a cause célèbre in British intelligence circles. According to the official history of the Special Operations Executive (SOE), published in 1984, MI6 pulled off this operation ‘in a style SOE envied’. The scene in Goldfinger was written by a former SOE agent, Paul Dehn, who had been brought in to polish the first draft of the screenplay by Richard Maibaum. Maibaum’s draft opened with James Bond in black tie watching a dancer stamp her heels in a waterfront nightclub, when a warehouse bursts into flames off-screen. Everyone scatters in turmoil, but 007 stays seated calmly, until Sierra, ‘a well-dressed and good-looking young Latin’ enters the club and approaches Bond. ‘Forgive me for being late,’ he says. ‘There were last-minute complications.’

Dehn evidently decided it would be more exciting if we saw how the operation to blow up the warehouse had been done – and if Bond were the one doing it. The scene first appears in his draft of December 23 1963, albeit in a somewhat less playful form than the version filmed: the ‘hairless distended cadaver of a dead dog, legs pointing stiffly skyward’ drifts through water ‘scummed with flotsam, refuse and vegetable rind’. The dead dog then rises clear of the water, revealing James Bond with his teeth ‘clamped to the cadaver’s underbelly’.

This was deemed too grotesque, and the dead dog became a seagull in the film. But the scene is otherwise almost identical to the finished product. Bond comes ashore in ‘a black water proof suit, zip-pocketed all over and a water proof ruck-sack’, dispatches a couple of sentries, breaks into a storage tank, squeezes gelignite ‘like toothpaste from a stocking’, then clears the wall and reaches comparative safety. Then, ‘in one smart gesture’, he unzips the top of his water-proof suit, revealing a white dinner jacket, ‘complete with red carnation.’

Paul Dehn knew quite a lot about the use of gelignite, attacking storage tanks, and inserting secret agents into enemy territory. In fact, he was an expert. During the war, he had been a senior instructor at SOE’s training school in Beaulieu, and wrote a manual for the organization’s agents. Between 1943 and 1944, he was a senior instructor at Camp X, the centre in Canada set up to train SOE and OSS agents to be inserted behind enemy lines to conduct sabotage operations (he is second from left, below).

Dehn also took part in SOE operations himself, in both France and Norway. Camp X’s syllabus, much of which Dehn probably wrote, and with all of which he would have been very familiar, contained detailed instructions on how to kill sentries silently, place explosives in storage tanks and camouflage oneself when crossing water.

Peter Tazelaar undertook his mission in November 1941 with MI6, but he joined SOE later in the war. Following his brief capture by the Germans in January 1942, his use as an agent in Scheveningen was over. After escaping via Switzerland and Spain, he made his way back to Britain in April 1942, whereupon he was promptly dismissed from the Dutch navy for insubordination, a victim of political intrigues beyond his control. After a stint with the Commandos, Tazelaar also became a training instructor in Canada, at the Dutch military base in Guelph, following which he was recruited by SOE and parachuted back into Holland in 1944, from where he maintained radio contact with London for six months.

There is no evidence that Dehn ever met Tazelaar, either in England or Canada, but it seems likely he would have heard about such a remarkable operation from colleagues either during or after the war. One possible occasion came the year before he started work on Goldfinger. In December 1962, former SOE agent William Deakin organized a conference on wartime resistance in Europe at St Antony’s College, Oxford, of which he was warden. One of the lectures was by Dr Louis de Jong, the director of Holland’s State Institute for War Documentation, and in it he described Tazelaar’s ‘evening dress’ operation in detail. De Jong’s lecture was published in the proceedings of the conference in a limited mimeograph of fewer than 100 copies. Dehn may well have attended the conference or read de Jong’s lecture in the proceedings afterwards.

At any rate, the idea of the real operation seems too bizarre to have been thought up twice, so it seems likely that, one way or another, Paul Dehn learned of it through his contacts in Britain’s close-knit intelligence community and decided it was just the sort of daring mission suitable for James Bond. In drawing on real espionage history and expertise, Dehn created a sensational opening sequence that would become an iconic cinematic moment, but perhaps also paid secret tribute to the ingenuity and bravery of Allied secret agents he had worked with and heard about during the war. If so, that would have been very much in the spirit of Ian Fleming, who did much the same in his novels.

Dehn went on to work on the screenplays for The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, The Deadly Affair and several other films. He died in 1976.

Erik Hazelhoff Roelfzema continued to run operations on the coast of Holland, inserting agents, weapons and transmitters, before joining the Royal Air Force – he flew 72 missions in a Mosquito and was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, as well as the Militaire Willemsorde, the Netherlands’ highest military decoration. After the war, he emigrated to the United States. His autobiography, Soldaat van Oranje (Soldier of Orange), was published in 1971 and was made into a film by Paul Verhoeven in 1977, with Rutger Hauer starring as a fictionalised version of him and Jeroen Krabbé as a composite of several characters, including Peter Tazelaar. Edward Fox played a version of Euan ‘The Rabbi’ Rabagliati.

Soldier of Orange was the most expensive Dutch film made to date, and helped pave the way for Verhoeven and Hauer’s careers in Hollywood. It was also a calling card for Krabbé. In the DVD documentary Inside The Living Daylights, the James Bond films' producer and writer Michael G Wilson mentions that Krabbé, who plays Koskov in The Living Daylights, had been brought to their attention by Soldier of Orange.

In 2003, Hazelhoff Roelfzema published In Pursuit Of Life, an expanded autobiography in English, including most of the material from Soldier of Orange. The introduction was by Len Deighton. Hazelhoff Roelfzema died in Hawaii in 2007.

Bob van der Stok also joined the RAF, but his Spitfire was shot down in France in 1942 and he was captured by the Germans. He was imprisoned in Stalag Luft III, but was one of the three men to tunnel his way out. In the film The Great Escape, James Coburn’s character was partly based on van der Stok. He died in 1993.

Peter Tazelaar’s life could have provided enough material for several films. Queen Wilhelmina also awarded him the Militaire Willemsorde, and in May 1945 he and Hazelhoff Roelfzema became her aides de camp. Tazelaar wasn’t satisfied with that, though, and went off to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) to fight the Japanese. After that, he served with the military police during the Dutch colonial war in Indonesia, then became a CIA agent, carrying out several missions in eastern and central Europe during the 1950s. He died in 1993.

‘He had a lot in common with James Bond,’ says Victor Laurentius, author of a recently published biography, De Grote Tazelaar: Ridder & Rebel (‘The Great Tazelaar: Knight and Rebel’). ‘He was good looking, a cool womanizer, and in many ways an atypical spy.’ Laurentius points out that, like Bond, Tazelaar was an inveterate daredevil: during his operations, he spent significant amounts of time in casinos and other places crowded by German officers.

Real espionage is, of course, much less glamorous than a Bond film, even if you’re in black tie. Peter Tazelaar was one of the lucky ones: many Dutch agents ended up captured, tortured and shot. Nevertheless, his remarkable brandy-soaked stroll past the sentries at Scheveningen stands as one of the most imaginative and daring espionage operations of the Second World War. Next time you watch Goldfinger, spare a thought for the real spy who dared to journey behind enemy lines in a dinner jacket.

With many thanks to Guy Hamilton; Victor Laurentius; Lynn Hodgson, Renu Barrett at McMaster University Library, Ontario; Sophie Bridges at the Churchill Archives Centre, Cambridge; and Colleen Kelley at the Special Collections of the University of Iowa Libraries.


EH Cookridge, Set Europe Ablaze: Special Operations Executive in Western Europe 1940-1945 (Pan, 1969)
MRD Foot, SOE: The Special Operations Executive, 1940-1946 (BBC, 1984)
Erik Hazelhoff Roelfzema, Soldier of Orange (Sphere, 1982)
Erik Hazelhoff, In Pursuit Of Life (Sutton, 2003)
Louis de Jong, Britain and Dutch Resistance, 1940-1945 (delivered at a conference on Britain and European resistance, St Anthony’s College, Oxford, December 10-16, 1962)
Victor Laurentius, De Grote Tazelaar, Ridder & Rebel (Stichting Peter Tazelaar, 2010)
Denis Rigden (introduction), SOE Syllabus: Lessons in Ungentlemanly Warfare, World War II (PRO, 2004)
Adrian Turner, On Goldfinger (Bloomsbury, 1998)

On the web:


  1. Forgive me for commenting on one small aspect of your blog insofar as relates to your mention of MRD Foot. One particular passage of Foot's work leads me to question the accuracy of the book and to cross check any part of interest. On page 234 of my copy, Foot refers to the abduction of a General (Kreipe) in Crete, which he calls an 'almost absurd coup'. He writes that Leigh Fermor and Moss "captured the German General in command of the island, and drove him through a score of his own road-blocks to a distant cove, whence he was removed by submarine to Eygpt". It seems to me that Foot has fallen for the story that Leigh Fermor and Moss concocted to mislead the occupying forces. Paddy and Moss left, in the strategically abandoned car, a letter to the German authorities intending to mislead them as to their escape route. As we all know. Kreipe was spirited over Mt Ida and across Crete to the southern shores where he eventually left by motor launch. I find Foot's lack of attention to detail quite alarming.
    Otherwise a fascinating blog, thank you.

  2. Thanks for the comment, Tim. I hadn't spotted that error in MRD Foot's book, but yes, it seems to be one. There are a couple of minor mistakes I have spotted in the book, but in general I find him pretty accurate. He only mentions this operation in passing, but I suppose he was working with hundreds of files. Most of the details of this operation are described in Soldier of Orange, and in de Jong's 1962 lecture.

    At a later date, I mean to write a bit here about research, and accuracy or the lack of it in non-fiction books on espionage. Chinese whispers and sensationalism are the norm, and you usually have to triple-check everything!

  3. Tim, you may also be interested in my article 'Commando Bond', which discusses Patrick Leigh-Fermor a little. I've just put it up.