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A peek inside London's old war office, the place of inspiration for James Bond

LAUREN FRAYER, HOST:

I'm going to take you now on a little adventure in London, where I live, in search of the origin of one of the world's best-known secret agents.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE JOHN BARRY SEVEN AND ORCHESTRA'S "THE JAMES BOND THEME")

FRAYER: We begin on a busy road called Whitehall. It's lined with these big government buildings. There's mounted cavalry outside, soldiers in red uniforms with these gleaming, gold helmets, guarding the entrance to a cluster of royal palaces here. Across the street from all of this, I'm stepping into an ornate hotel lobby.

So we're walking up this red-carpeted, grand marble stairway, a crystal chandelier overhead. And there's a plaque that says, the Old War Office Building.

EMIEL DANNEELS: It's built on the ruins of Whitehall Palace, the palace for which the famous street that runs alongside our building is named after.

FRAYER: Emiel Danneels is originally from Belgium, and he's our guy. The Old War Office had fallen into disrepair but has now been renovated into a branch of the posh Raffles Hotel.

DANNEELS: I am part of our wonderful concierge team, but I am as well the hotel historian. So I like to tell the stories, and this building has many.

FRAYER: This building was the headquarters of the British Army, a command center during both World Wars and where the MI5 and MI6 intelligence agencies got their start.

DANNEELS: It was supposed to be 1,100 rooms and 2.5 miles of corridors.

FRAYER: For hotel guests, it's like sleeping in the Pentagon.

DANNEELS: And it's here that Eisenhower had his first meeting when he came over to London to take over the top Allied command.

FRAYER: Behind one door...

This is a wood-paneled, like, really rich colors, floor-to-ceiling windows and a bust of Winston Churchill.

DANNEELS: So this is the room where, in 1909, they founded MI5 and MI6. It's where they planned every battle in the First World War. And it's where in 1944, they planned arguably the most famous military operation in history. And we just celebrated its 80-year anniversary.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: On the 6th of June 1944, the...

DANNEELS: This is our room where we say, if only the walls could talk.

FRAYER: And I imagine back then, they did not have these digital keypads.

DANNEELS: (Laughter) No, no. I think...

FRAYER: I ask Emiel, when they renovated the building, did they find any evidence of old-school spycraft, secret compartments, trap doors? He thinks for a minute, deciding how much to say. They found tunnels, he says, lots of them.

DANNEELS: Leading from here, at a location unknown to the Houses of Parliament, Buckingham Palace...

FRAYER: At a location that you won't tell me?

DANNEELS: I'm not allowed to tell.

FRAYER: That sounds like a challenge...

DANNEELS: (Laughter).

FRAYER: ...For investigative reporters.

DANNEELS: Exactly. But unfortunately, I'm not allowed to tell where it is, but...

FRAYER: There's a trap door someplace in the floor here that leads to a network of tunnels.

DANNEELS: Exactly, yeah.

FRAYER: I convince him to take me to the basement.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Fifty feet below ground, on a level with the bed of the Thames...

FRAYER: There's an old government vault.

DANNEELS: So you needed to have special clearance just to walk through that door, and there would have been a Marine guard standing outside of it, as well. Nowadays, it's just one lock (laughter).

FRAYER: And you'll let us in?

DANNEELS: Exactly.

(SOUNDBITE OF UNLOCKING DOOR)

FRAYER: Wow. It's a little bit colder inside here, like a vault.

It's a vault where, throughout the 20th century, the British government stored fake passports and real ones belonging to secret agents operating abroad.

DANNEELS: They had quite a lot. They actually had the most dangerous woman in Europe. She was American - so Virginia Hall, a woman as well with only one leg. Her whole network that she set up in occupied France was captured by the Germans, as she was betrayed by, unfortunately, a Belgian priest, so - so sorry for my countrymen there. But she managed to stage the escape for all of the officers in her network...

FRAYER: As Emiel rattles off spy stories, I start to notice something about the numbering on the doors here.

DANNEELS: The rooms behind this door were, on the original building plans, numbered 006 and 007.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FRAYER: Turns out, this is also where a budding spy novelist worked in naval intelligence during World War II. And his name was Ian Fleming, the creator of that most famous spy character.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "DR. NO")

SEAN CONNERY: (As James Bond) Bond. James Bond.

DANNEELS: He would have come in here sometimes, I think, especially while he was part of planning certain operations.

FRAYER: Now, the old passports have long been cleared out, and Raffles Hotel has turned this vault into an aptly named 1920s-style speakeasy.

DANNEELS: It begs to be a bar called The Spy Bar.

FRAYER: And if our listeners want to visit here?

DANNEELS: You will never see it on any website, any social media platform, you know, keeping in theme with the whole spy vibe that we have going on here.

FRAYER: Is there a secret knock, like...

(SOUNDBITE OF KNOCKING).

FRAYER: There is no secret knock or handshake. The bar is actually open to the public Tuesday through Saturday evenings. But there's no sign. You have to ask for it in the hotel lobby.

DANNEELS: This place makes the best martinis in all of London.

FRAYER: I'll have one shaken, not stirred.

DANNEELS: Not stirred, good.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRAGUE PHILHARMONIC ORCHESTRA'S "THE JAMES BOND THEME (FROM 'DR. NO')") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Lauren Frayer covers India for NPR News. In June 2018, she opened a new NPR bureau in India's biggest city, its financial center, and the heart of Bollywood—Mumbai.