His Name Was Popov, Dusko Popov
A Certificate of Registration of Yugoslavian spy Dusko Popov know as double agent Tricycle, released, by the Public Records Office along with other documents. Source: (alamy.com)
James Bond, the protagonist and titular character of Ian Fleming’s popular spy series, is possibly the most well-known fictional spy in existence. However, a closer look at a former acquaintance of Ian Fleming suggests that not all of 007’s adventures were fictional. In fact, the character of James Bond may well have been inspired by a Yugoslavian double agent by the name of Dusko Popov.
Popov was born in 1912 on the Balkan Peninsula in present-day Serbia. Due to the affluence of his family, he enjoyed yachting trips and being attended to by family servants during his early years. The family’s wealth also allowed him to be educated at the best schools in Europe where he learned several languages, including Italian, French, and German. He obtained a law degree from the University of Belgrade before moving to Germany to pursue a doctorate. There he met and became friends with Johann Jebsen.
Jebsen and Popov both came from wealthy backgrounds and therefore had expensive tastes, particularly with regards to cars and women. While Popov lacked the brooding good looks of Sean Connery and Pierce Brosnan, his charisma, and most likely his wealth, made him something of a ladies’ man. Nazis had recently taken control of Germany and Popov was quite vocal in his opposition to them. As a result, in 1937, he spent eight days in Freiburg Prison, having been arrested by the Gestapo. Jebsen contacted Popov’s father, who managed to free him and put him on a train to Switzerland. This left Popov’s indebted to Jebsen and the repayment of that debt would lead to Popov becoming a spy.
It was 1940 and, despite his earlier anti-Nazi sentiments, Jebsen had joined the German Intelligence Service, presumably to avoid being sent to the front lines. He called in the favor, attempting to recruit Popov as an intelligence operative. Having no desire to be of assistance to the Nazis, Popov went instead to the British government, who encouraged him to accept Jebsen’s offer as a double agent. Popov soon gained the trust of the German Intelligence Organization, Abwehr, and began feeding the Germans false information. His most important contribution was in diverting the German's attention away from Normandy, convincing them the attack would occur in Calais. They were so convinced that even after the attack began, they believed it to be a diversion and therefore withheld reinforcements.
Like Popov, Ian Fleming was born into a wealthy family and acquired a preference for fast cars and women. Before becoming a writer, he worked as a special assistant to the Director of Naval Intelligence. It was during this time that he came into contact with Popov. It was at the Casino Estoril in Portugal in 1941. Popov had convinced the Germans to give him roughly $40,000 to set up a German spy ring in London, though his real plan was to deliver the money to the British. Fleming’s job was simply to make sure Popov didn’t blow the money, no easy task considering they were in a casino. Popov sat down at a baccarat table with a wealthy businessman who was just begging to be put in his place and bet the entire $40,000 on a single hand. Fortunately, the businessman didn’t call his bet. A similar scene would later appear in Fleming’s first James Bond novel, Casino Royale (1953).
That same year, Popov was sent to America, where the Germans had tasked him with setting up a spy network. They allegedly also asked him to collect information, particularly on the defenses of Pearl Harbor. Popov later claimed to have informed FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover of the Germans’ interest in Pearl Harbor but was dismissed because of Hoover’s distrust of foreigners. However, most historians believe that the Nazis were unaware that Japan was planning an attack.
After the war ended in 1945, Popov moved to France, where he lived a relatively quiet life. During the 1950s and 1960s, Ian Fleming wrote the James Bond novels, with several of them being published after his death from a heart attack in 1964. In 1974, Popov released a book of his own, a memoir entitled Spy/Counterspy, which detailed his life as a double agent. He died in 1981, a result of years of smoking and drinking heavily.