Real 007 flew mail from Botwood, surveyed seals

Steve Bartlett
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Some of the real James Bond's earliest exploits might have been in Newfoundland.

Maj. Sydney Cotton, an adventurous Aussie who some say inspired the 007 character, established an aircraft facility at Botwood in 1921.

Through his company, Cotton’s Aerial Survey (Newfoundland), he became an aviation pioneer in this province.

According to, Cotton was the first pilot to bring mail to the seal hunt, and he helped fly the first airmail from Botwood to Halifax. An early attempt at the latter put him in hospital; he was struck by a plane’s propeller.

The site says Cotton — who flew bombing missions with the Royal Naval Air Service during the First World War — also piloted the first flight ever taken by Joey Smallwood, in 1922. He flew a plane carrying reporters over St. John’s. Joey was a journalist at the time.

Cotton’s place in our aviation history didn’t end there. He was the first to spot seals by aircraft, gathering information on where the largest herds were. Those efforts prompted legendary songwriter Johnny Burke to pen the tune, “Cotton’s Patch.”

The pilot once ran into engine trouble miles from shore while seal spotting and he seriously questioned what he was doing.

He’d survive, but Cotton’s Aerial Survey wouldn’t. It lasted but three years, with lack of government support an apparent factor. He continued in business ventures elsewhere, and in 1939, the British Secret Intelligence Service enlisted him for photographic reconnaissance in countries like Germany.

Under the guise of a businessman scouting for film locations, Cotton photographed German airfields, naval bases and apparently even Hitler’s yacht.

He is said to have flown the last civilian flight out of Germany before the Second World War.

Also a gadgeteer, who invented things like a system to help cameras from freezing at high altitudes, Cotton was soon heading a squadron of Royal Air Force planes fitted with cameras, a job he lost after a disagreement with superiors. He continued his business pursuits after the Second World War and died Feb. 13, 1969.

“Cotton had been an unconventional individualist who was often right when well-placed opponents were wrong,” reads the Australian Dictionary of Biography.

“Somewhat arrogant and conceited, he made powerful enemies easily, which cost him recognition and financial rewards. Yet, he was a man of considerable courage and energy, with a sharp mind and a flair for improvisation. In another age he would have made a splendid buccaneer.”

The speculation is he was a splendid character, at least in part, on which to base a fictional agent named Bond, James Bond.

Around the time he was a MI6 spy, Cotton became buddies with Ian Fleming, a British Naval Intelligence officer who would go on to create the Bond franchise in the 1950s. “They shared a love of women, fast cars, gadgets and exotic weaponry,” David Pahlke told the Queensland Times in 2011.

Pahlke — a councillor in Ipswich City, Australia, where Cotton was born and buried — has explored the Cotton-Fleming-Bond connection.

It was a recent article in another Australian newspaper, The Tasmania Mercury, where Cotton and his Newfoundland ties were put on my radar.

In a July 27 story, Cotton’s daughter Sally-Anne said she’s convinced Bond originated with her father.

“His passion was aviation, flying with hidden cameras in planes and that’s how he met Ian Fleming,” she is quoted as saying. “It’s the whole association of what the two of them did together in the war and beyond that started the whole Bond legend.”

No luck reaching Sally-Anne Cotton for this piece.

And there are other descendants of Cotton that’d be fun to track down, like — if she’s still alive — the daughter Cotton had with one-time wife Millicent Joan Henry, who he met in Newfoundland and helped receive an education in England.

The couple divorced in 1944, according to the Australian Dictionary of Biography, but what became of Henry and the daughter?

Did they move back to Newfoundland?

Does the real James Bond have descendants here?

It’s intriguing stuff, but that’s to be expected with 007 involved.


Email Steve Bartlett at

On Twitter, he’s @TelegramSteve.


Organizations: Royal Naval Air Service, Australian Dictionary, British Secret Intelligence Service Royal Air Force Queensland Times

Geographic location: Newfoundland, Botwood, Newfoundland.Maj Halifax Germany Ipswich Australia England.The

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