Nobody is cooler than 007… right? Until recently, I assumed that level of badassery was reserved for the big screen. History is an amazing teacher, however, and it turns out one spy from world war 2 named Dusko Popov was so prolific as a double agent, so seductive to women, and so obsessed with fast cars, gambling, and the good life that his exploits put the fictional James Bond to shame.
Meet Duško Popov, who risked torture and execution during the war to ingratiate himself with the Nazis, who he vehemently hated, and relay their precious secrets to British intelligence. As a spy, he stole valuable information from and fed misinformation to the Nazis about events such as pearl harbor and the D-day invasion. He did so while famously courting actresses, female spies, and beautiful women all over Europe (talk about work/life balance). This is the weird history of the real James Bond, Duško Popov.
Highly educated and from a wealthy family, Popov was a successful businessman and attorney before world war two. His connections to high society in England, which he came by honestly, made him an asset in the Abwehr’s eyes. They must’ve been desperate for such an asset and likely bamboozled by Popov’s sophisticated nature because it’s unclear why they trusted him, given his history.
Popov was known for despising fascism and the Nazis. In 1937, while attending university in Germany, he was arrested after arguing the merits of democracy in a debate class. He spent some time in jail awaiting transport to a concentration camp before his friend and son of a German business magnate, Johan Jebsen, had his family call in favor of Hermann Göring himself. Popov was released, and he left Germany.
In 1940, Jebsen contacted Popov about calling in the favor he was owed. He needed a Yugoslav shipping license to bypass an allied blockade at Trieste, Italy, and Popov provided it. Jebsen informed Popov that he was working with the Abwehr so that he could move freely across Europe and avoid being pressed into military service. That gave Duško an idea.
He met Jebsen’s handler and convinced him that he would feed British secrets to the Nazis despite his reputation as a freedom lover. The Germans would pay handsomely for his services. When he returned to England, he contacted MI6, informed them of his new standing with the Abwehr, and they enrolled him as a double agent. The British would also pay handsomely. 29-year-old Popov had set himself up in one of the most precarious yet simultaneously awesome situations a bachelor could find himself in.
Free to move about the world, which almost nobody could do during the war. He was getting a disgusting sum of money between salaries and expenses from two intelligence agencies. He had a bevy of family wealth, connections to high society all over Europe, and the charisma to court the hottest women the 40s had to offer. What’s the catch? If the Abwher caught on, he’d be tortured and executed by Nazis.
One of the defining successes of Popov’s career as a spy, and conversely one of the FBI’s biggest blunders, was when he warned historical villain and nerd J Edgar Hoover about the imminence of an attack on pearl harbor. It was the summer of 1941. Popov traveled to American Nazi instruction to collect information about the defenses and munitions of a place called pearl harbor.
The British instructed him to warn America of the coming attack hoping to draw the US into the war. Popov could not gain an audience directly with the FBI director initially because he disliked British intelligence and disapproved of Popov’s playboy reputation. Duško did meet with a lower-ranking FBI agent and handed him a list of information specifically about Pearl Harbor the Germans wanted to know.
Hoover then agreed to meet Popov, but Duško would have to wait a few weeks in New York before the meeting. He was all too happy to do this, as he had put himself up in one of New York’s swankest penthouses and begun an affair with French actress Simone Simon, who was in the states filming a movie.
When they met, Hoover was rude to Duško about his womanizing tendencies. Hoover believed Popov was still acting on behalf of Germany, and he never shared the information about the impending attack with any other branch of the US government. On the flip side, Popov’s Abwehr handlers were furious about how much he had spent screwing actresses in New York without gleaning helpful information. They were suspicious and brought him in for interrogation, but as always, Popov was slick enough to regain their trust.
Another watershed historical event Popov played a role in was the D-Day landing. Popov worked with a team of counterspies in operation to mislead the Nazis into thinking the allied push back into mainland Europe would come through Callais as opposed to Normandy. The allies put great effort into deceiving the Nazis about their actual target.
These efforts included an inflatable balloon “ghost army” placed at the nearest point across the channel to Callais. They also had a slate of double agents, including Popov, working in a coordinated fashion to furnish false reports to the Nazis about invasion plans. They duped the Germans lock stock and barrel. So complete was their trickery that the Germans only redirected troops to Normandy days after the landing for fear it was a misdirection.
Today the D-Day landing is considered the beginning of the end for the Nazis and one of the most significant turning points of the war.
The nature of a spy is to remain hidden, which explains why so few people are aware of life as incredible as Dusko’s. While his name is unknown to most, his exploits have impacted western art and culture.
Popov met British intelligence agent and eventual author of the James Bond series, Ian Fleming, in Portugal at a casino in 1941. Fleming was tasked with shadowing Popov, who was carrying $50,000 the Abwehr gave him to create a spy ring in England. Popov was so bold, brash, and successful in gambling the money that Fleming was captivated by him. This incident inspired Fleming’s first bond novel, Casino Royale, and it’s no stretch to say Popov’s playboy spy persona inspired the Bond series as a whole.
Unlike his friend Johan Jebsen who the Nazis executed for being a double agent, Duško made it out of the war and lived to tell about it in his autobiography Spy/Counterspy. We can learn a lot from a life-like Popov’s. He set an example about having the guts to take risks when necessary, the value of confidence and people skills, and enjoying life’s finer things. If you choose between being like J Edgar Hoover or Duško Popov, go with Popov, Duško Popov.
Gay Edgar Hoover wouldn’t have stopped Pearl Harbor even if he had listened to Popov’s information on it. The US government wanted an excuse to get into WW II and needed to overcome public resistance to their plans. Big events are like that. They give you an excuse to do all sorts of things.