The World War II Triple Agent Who Inspired James Bond

The World War II Triple Agent Who Inspired James Bond

Khalid Elhassan - September 6, 2018

Few people have ever have led a life as extraordinary or as impactful as did the Serb Dusan “Dusko” Popov (1912 – 1981), a World War II triple agent who was awarded medals by both the Germans and the British. A mostly unsung and largely unrecognized hero, Popov played an oversized role in securing the success of the Allied invasion of Normandy. And he pulled it off in style: helping defeat the Nazis while running around living the dream life of playboys, partying it up in top notch night clubs and casinos with a bevy of beauties and famous actresses.

He managed that because he was blessed with an abundance of natural charm and smoothness, good looks that set hearts aflutter, plus an agreeable presence that just drew people to him. That combination of charisma, coolness, wit and looks did not go unnoticed by a mid level British intelligence officer named Ian Fleming, who would go on after the war to create fiction’s greatest spy, James Bond. Indeed, it is almost a certainty that Fleming, who became acquainted with Popov during the war, modeled much of Agent 007 upon the smooth Serbian operator.

The World War II Triple Agent Who Inspired James Bond
Popov, looking as dapper in real life as Agent 007 could ever wish to be. Pintrest

Popov’s Journey From Dilettante Playboy to Antifascist

Popov was what might be called one of fortune’s favorites, starting with his birth in 1912 into a wealthy Serbian family that had been affluent for centuries. His grandfather was a rich banker and businessman who owned factories, mines, and retail establishments, and his father made the family richer still by adding real estate to its investment portfolio. Popov, an avid outdoorsman and athlete since childhood, thus grew up in the lap of luxury, attended by servants in the family’s numerous villas or while sailing the seas in one of the family’s numerous yachts.

He was set on the playboy path from an early age by an indulgent father, who built his kids a huge seaside villa, and gave them generous allowances that allowed them to host lavish parties there. However, while Popov’s father was indulgent, he did not simply spoil his kids rotten, but also insisted that they get as good a top notch education as his considerable wealth could afford. Thus, by the time Popov was a teenager he was fluent in French, German, and Italian, in addition to his native Serbian. Such linguistic skills would come in handy down the road.

After studying in England – where he got expelled from a prestigious prep school – and France, Popov returned home to study law at the University of Belgrade. At age 22, he went to Germany to pursue a doctorate at a university there, not long after the Nazis came to power. There, he befriended a rich German student named Johnny Jebsen, who had anti Nazi views.

The World War II Triple Agent Who Inspired James Bond
Dusko Popov. Total Croatia News

While in Germany, Popov, who until then had simply been a dilettante playboy with no interest in politics, came to loathe the Nazis and develop strong political opinions against them. He was not discrete about his views, however, and in 1937 he was arrested by the Gestapo on suspicion of being a communist, and tossed into prison. His friend Jebsen came to his aid, alerting Popov’s father, who in turn got the Yugoslav government involved. After high level contacts between Yugoslavia’s prime minister and Herman Goering, then head of the Gestapo, Popov was sprung from jail but ordered expelled from Germany.

The experience did nothing to improve his opinion of the Nazis, and when WWII broke out, Popov was primed and eager to pay them back if the opportunity presented itself. It presented itself when his friend Jebsen, whose family’s business needed favors from Popov’s, informed him in 1940 that he had joined Germany’s military intelligence, the Abwehr. Popov passed that information to a contact in the British embassy named Clement Hope, along with the observation that Jebsen was not that fond of the Nazis.

The World War II Triple Agent Who Inspired James Bond
Popov with a friend. Vanilla Magazine

Popov Gets His Start in Espionage

Popov’s German friend, Jebsen, sought to recruit him as an Abwehr agent, and the British urged him to play along, recruiting him as an MI6 double agent. He eventually turned Jebsen, and recruited his German recruiter into British intelligence as a double agent. Popov also fed information to his native Yugoslavia’s intelligence, making him a triple agent. He moved to London, and his family’s business activities gave him cover to travel back and forth to neutral Portugal. There, Popov met his Abwehr contacts, and fed them information provided to him by the British service that ranged from harmless truths, to half truths, to the outright misleading.

The Abwehr was pleased as punch, and although some of Popov’s handlers grew suspicious, their suspicions did not make their way up the chain of command. For one thing, an assignment to German military intelligence in Portugal was a cushy gig compared to less attractive ones, such as a posting on the Eastern Front. For another, many in the Abwehr, from its chief Wilhelm Canaris on down to lower officials such as Johnny Jebsen, disliked the Nazis and did what they could to undermine them.

In 1941, the Abwehr sent Popov to the United States, furnishing him with a small fortune and tasking him with gathering intelligence on Amrican defensive measures. The information sought included an extensive list of question about the defenses of Pearl Harbor, in which Germany’s Japanese allies were keenly interested. The British worked with the FBI to handle Popov while in the US, but J. Edgar Hoover and his G-men lacked the vision and finesse of their British counterparts. Instead of using Popov as a double agent to suss out German intentions and feed them misleading information, Hoover simply wanted to use him to catch German spies.

The World War II Triple Agent Who Inspired James Bond
Popov and a sketch of James Bond commissioned by Ian Fleming. Larry Loftis

Hoover failed to pass on Popov’s Abwehr questions to American military authorities – particularly the ones asking about Pearl Harbor’s defenses. After the Japanese attack wrecked the US fleet there a few months later, Hoover’s oversight would have wrecked his career, but he buried it so deep that it did not come out until after his death. In the meantime, the prissy FBI Director, whose private life was even more scandalous than Popov’s, got moralistic about the double agent’s partying and playboy antics. Hoover even threatened to have Popov arrested under the Mann Act for travelling with a woman across state lines “for immoral purposes”.

While Popov was in the US, the British assigned a naval intelligence officer named Ian Fleming to watch his every move. The future author of James of Bond followed Popov around as he made the rounds of American night clubs and casinos, womanizing, splurging the cash furnished him by the Abwehr, and making a killing on the roulette tables. The style and panache left an impression that would find expression years later in Agent 007, and some famous scenes from Casino Royale were based on Fleming’s observations of Popov in American casinos.

The World War II Triple Agent Who Inspired James Bond
One of Operation Fortitude’s inflatable tanks. Mashable

Popov Pays Off

Eventually, his relationship with the FBI having grown toxic and threatening to get worse, British intelligence recalled Popov to London, where he continued to feed the Abwehr false information. His biggest contribution came in the intricate Allied deception plans, collectively known as Operation Bodyguard, that sought to deceive the Germans about the planned invasion of France, scheduled for the summer of 1944.

Bodyguard had three goals. First, conceal the actual date and time of the invasion. Second, convince the Germans after the Allies landed in Normandy that those landings were just diversions intended to juke the Germans out of the Pas de Calais, where the real Allied invasion would land soon thereafter. Third, convince the Germans after the Normandy landings to maintain a strong defense in the Pas de Calais for at least two weeks, rather than drain it of defenders to reinforce Normandy.

Popov played a key role in a sub-plan of Bodyguard, known as Operation Fortitude, which created a fictitious First US Army Group (FUSAG) in southeast England under the command of general George S. Patton. Popov passed on made up details about FUSAG’s units, strength, and organization, which the Germans swallowed hook, line, and sinker. Their faith in Popov’s information was reinforced when they eavesdropped on fake radio traffic between fictitious FUSAG units. To further reinforce the deception, German reconnaissance planes were allowed to fly over and photograph concentrations of FUSAG tanks and transports that were actually inflatable dummies

Popov and Operation Fortitude paid off in a big way. After D-Day, the Germans were convinced that the Normandy landings were not the main event, but only the first in a series of landings. So instead of rush all available reinforcements to contest the Allies in Normandy, the Germans kept powerful formations in the Pas de Calais, to defend it from the “main invasion” by the fictitious FUSAG. Popov’s British handlers had hoped to convince the Germans to keep the Pas de Calais formations in place for two weeks after D-Day. Things worked out better than their wildest hopes: instead of two weeks, the Germans kept their units there for seven weeks, and by the time the Pas de Calais defenders were released, it was too late. The Allies took advantage of the breather to build a powerful beachhead in Normandy, before breaking out to liberate France and Western Europe.

The World War II Triple Agent Who Inspired James Bond
Popov in his later years. Warfare History Network

After Paris was liberated, Popov was sent there to establish a British intelligence network. With Yugoslavia turning communist after the war, there was no future for the playboy Popov back in his home country, so he remained in the West, where he prospered as a businessman. He was awarded the Order of the British Empire for his wartime exploits – a nice accompaniment to the medals given him by the Germans during the conflict – and eventually became a British citizen. A playboy to the end, he died in 1981, after years of heavy smoking and drinking, and many, many, women.


Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources & Further Reading

Defense Media Network – Dusko Popov, Real Life James Bond, Ran Afoul of the FBI

History on the Net ­- Dusko Popov, the Triple-Agent, Real-Life James Bond Who Warned the US About Pearl Harbor

Loftis, Larry – Into the Lion’s Den: The True Story of Dusko Popov, World War II Spy, Patriot, and the Real-Life Inspiration For James Bond (2016)

Macintyre, Ben – Double Cross (2012)

Total Croatia News – 007 in Dubrovnik: Meet Dusko Popov, Fleming’s Bond Inspiration

Vintage News – My Name is Popov, Dusko Popov: The Man Who Inspired James Bond

Warfare History Network – WWII Spies: Double Agent Dusko Popov, a.k.a. ‘Tricycle’

Wikipedia – Dusko Popov