ISSN 1759-2836 (online)
by Andrej Živanić
It’s the middle of WWII and Ian Fleming (the future James Bond creator), is working for MI6 on the tail of a man in Lisbon. The target is a double agent whom MI6 have just given $50,000 cash to. Fleming follows the man out of the lobby of the Palacio Hotel accross to a Casino.
Fleming shadows him from table to table until he stops at a game where a Lithuanian is holding the bank. The Lithuanian announces “Banque Ouvert” (no limit). Dipping his hand into his breast pocket the man extracts $50,000 dollars and starts to count it on the table. The whole casino stutters to silence.
Fleming, watching, spits out his drink as his face turns green. The Lithuanian squirms in embarrassment. Cool as a cucumber the man with the money tells the chief croupier “I suppose the casino is backing this man’s bet since you didn’t object to his Banque Ouverte”. “The casino never backs a players stake” is the Croupier’s shy response. Pretending irritation the man with the cash, says “I’m sure you will call this to the attention of management and that in future such irresponsible calls of Banque Ouverte will be prohibited. It’s a disgrace and annoyance to all the serious players.” As the man who just flashed $50,000 cash in a wartime casino turns to see his Shadow out of the corner of his eye, he sees a look of amusement on Fleming’s face. From that moment on Fleming trusted his fellow agent and never followed him again.
Little surprise then when Ian Fleming sat down after the war to write his first James Bond novel that it would be Casino Royale.
This is a snaphot of Serb, Duško Popov, the real life agent that inspired Fleming’s fictional spy. Popov was a WWII spy and counterspy. Originally recruited by the German Secret Service “The Awebhr”, he also worked for MI6. The man who fed the British information about Nazi Operation Sea Lion, helped thwart the German invasion of Britain, the first man to know and warn about Japan’s plans to attack Pearl Harbour, who had run-ins with the Americans, especially FBI boss J Edgar Hoover and to whom the British awarded an OBE.
Getting out of a Nazi situation
Popov’s story begins in 1936. Like many ambitious men in the Balkans he wanted to be fluent in German in order to get on in life. He already spoke Serbian, English and French, and so enrolled on a course in the German town of Freiburgs.
Whilst studying in Freiburgs Popov met German, Johnny Jebsen who became like a brother to him. They both shared a dislike for the Nazis and a love for the “popsies” (ladies), and yet every Friday when the Nazis would put on a lavish dinner for all the foreign students after the debates, everyone was in agreement with the Nazis’ views.
Both men were highly intelligent and sharp-witted and after they discovered that the Nazi students were winning all the debates because they had preknowledge of the topics they too availed themselves of the same information and for the next few months the Nazis didn’t win a single debate. Using his photographic memory and natural charm Duško ran rings around the Nazi arguments and he and Johnny would brag about their exploits all over town. Very soon Popov catches the eye of the Gestapo.
Shaken, but not Serbed
The Gestapo arrest Popov on suspision of being a communist. Over several days and nights they interogate him. Popov’s wit and humour do not desert him but unknown to him many of his friends are arrested and questioned also, and all but Jebsen turn on him and tell the Nazis what they want to hear.
Jebsen realises the seriousness of the situation and contacts Popov’s father (a major industrialist in Yugoslavia) who then calls Yugoslav Prime Minister Dr Stojadinović who immediately phones Goering. Popov is released and is given 24 hours to leave Germany. His contacts and Jebsen save Popov from the death camps and he appreciates his debt to Jebsen.
In 1939 a fateful meeting with Jebsen at the Serbian King Hotel in Belgrade in then neutral Yugoslavia transform Popov from a charming, witty and intelligent playboy into Agent Code named Tricycle.
“We’re preparing a report on the most suitable French politicians to contact when France falls”, said a casual Jebsen to Popov. Johnny had decided he didn’t want to be cannon fodder in the German army so using his contacts had got into the Awebhr. Jebsen had found where he best fitted and was sounding out Popov. Popov felt it was innocent enough for him to get these names as he had contacts and besides that he had an idea of his own, one that involved the British Embassy in Belgrade.
Life on the line... shaken not Serbed the second time
The information that Popov began to provide to the Germans and the British proved extremely accurate, however soon once again his life was to be put in danger.
“Your chauffeur Božidar is selling you out for a lousy 2000 dinars”, Johnny yells at Popov bursting into his room. “The Awebhr just instructed me to pay him 2000 Dinars and Božidar has just given me his report.” The Awebhr had put Božidar on their payroll to check on Popov’s movements.
There are no problems with the report... except for the five visits Dusko made to the British Embassy in Belgrade.
“You should know the Nazis by now, Duško, if they suspect the slightest thing, you’re marked for the chopping block, and they’ll come for your family later, even if I change this report before sending it, the Awebhr will speak with Božidar”.
The next day Božidar is shot dead, allegedly pillaging at a railroad yard. The amended report is sent to Berlin and the Awebhr are now more sure of Duško. His first overseas mission as Awebhr agent is set for Rome.
and Operation Sea Lion
Duško meets up with Johnny in Rome. They both elect to drink Scotch, given that Popov would be in London soon and needs to develop a taste for it. Jebsen gives Duško the inside track on how internal arguing between the Luftwaffe, army and navy mean that there are not enough German resources to invade Britain – the Germans have 2500 barges, motorised boats and 150 ships – but nowhere near what Haider, head of the army needs to transport all his troops. Popov knows this will be invaluable information for the British. The proposed British land invasion by Germany was code named Operation Sea Lion and was due to take place on 30 January.
A woman will pass and wink at you, follow her....
“I hope she’s Pretty”
After arriving in Lisbon from Rome, Popov is told to window shop. It isn’t long before an attractive blonde gives Duško a very friendly wink – he follows her to an Opal Sedan. They get in and after a few blocks, the car stops. The woman gets out and the car continues. As the car approaches an Awebhr meeting house the chauffeur instructs Popov to crouch down. The house may be watched. The car goes into the garage, and they both walk through the garage into the house. Duško meets Von Karsthoff a top ranking Awebhr officer.
After getting another grilling Duško is given instructions on what information he must collect from London... army locations, and importantly public morale. The blitz bombing had just started.
Upon landing at Bristol an MI6 chauffeur meets him and drives him into the Savoy Hotel, London. Duško is impressed – he can come and go as he pleases but for the first few days he is interrogated by all manner of MI6 officials – for all they knew perhaps he is a real Awebhr agent.
When it comes to telling them about the German problems with Operation Sea Lion – MI6 are genuinely surprised, it is the first time they hear about the internal squabbles between the German forces – they find it hard to believe that Germany will not try to invade Britain. Popov is grilled about this but compared to his Gestapo questioning some years earlier; he actually enjoys the episode. January 30th comes and goes. There is no invasion and Duško is proved right.
Character assassination by C
The head of MI6 was Major General Stewart Menzies, known as “C” and reports directly to Churchill. C spends several days with Popov after which he deliveres a no-nonsense character assassination, when the two are alone together for the first time:-
“You are honest, but without scruples. Your instincts and intuitions are stronger than your intelligence, which is way above average. Your conscience never bothers you. You are ambitious and ruthless and you can be cruel, although in an animal and not a sick way. When you are frightened you don’t panic. Danger is a stimulant for you”.
And looking straight into Popov’s eyes, Menzies continued :-
“ You have too many things on your banner for my taste.... but... for your job as spy and counterspy that is ideal.” Popov looked relieved.
“Oh but one thing, you don’t like following orders, you better learn to otherwise you will be a very dead spy.”
So that is their first meeting, direct and blunt. After the war Popov would become godfather to one of Stewart’s grand children.
The Daily Mail,
the Champagne Cork.
Be a Good Girl Now!
Upon his return to Lisbon Popov reports to his Awebhr handlers that Britain’s morale is low and it is only a matter of time before the British will sue for peace.
Relaxing one night in a club with a new lady friend, Popov notices he is being watched. He decides to create a diversion to lose his tail. There is an awful lady singer on stage who seems to be with a table of reporters from the Daily Mail.
Dusko pays a waiter to present the singer with a Champagne cork in full view of everyone. Indignant the singer stamps her way towards Duško’s lady friend; She is about to pour her drink over her, when Popov grabs her arm, turns her round points her to her table, pats her on her rump and sends her on her way saying “Be a good girl now”. The Daily Mail table starts a fight and Duško with his lady friend leaves during the confusion. The tail is lost.
Von Karsthoff’s question
It’s April 1941 – Duško had been growing in the eyes of both his German and British handlers – he was certainly now Germany’s top agent, however disaster loomed.
In Yugoslavia a coup d’etat by Yugoslav Army officers deposes Prince Paul. Hitler in a blind rage postpones the invasion of Russia and starts Operation Punishment, which includes 12 days of non-stop bombing of Belgrade.
At a bullfight in Spain, a man sitting behind Popov in the crowd jeers at a poor dying bull - “He’s collapsing like Yugoslavia” – Popov immediately spins around and punches him in the face.
This was the moment Popov had been dreading – his country is no longer neutral and he is summoned to Portugal for a crunch meeting with Von Karsthoff.
Von Karsthoff looks him straight in the eyes and asks... Duško, are you a Serb or are you a Croat?
It is the question Duško has been dreading.. if he answers Serb he will be killed, if he answers Croat, then it won’t be long before the Germans work out that no one with the name Popov could be a Croat, no Popov would be with the Ustaše for sure.. and yet answer the question he must; the fate of not only his own life but also the course of the war could depend on it.
To be continued…