If you say “spy” to most people, the name they’ll reply with will be James Bond. Ian Fleming’s superspy anchors one of the longest-running film series and has sold millions of books. And there have been endless arguments over who inspired the man with a license to kill. A new biography of a major British spy, though, argues that Fleming had a very specific man in mind when Bond first sat down at the baccarat table: Notorious triple agent Dusan Popov.
Popov and Fleming were both part of one of the greatest misinformation campaigns ever invented and possibly one of the greatest achievements in spycraft, the A Force and the London Controlling Section. Their jobs were to feed the Nazis a rich diet of misleading intelligence and fleece them for every buck they were worth while they were at it. It was an idea first circulated in British intelligence by Fleming, in his Trout Memo comparing tricking the enemy to fly-fishing.
Popov was part of the Twenty Committee of double agents who made the program work. Dubbed “Tricycle,” Popov was a triple agent supposedly working for Yugoslavian intelligence, the German military intelligence apparatus the Abwehr, and the British, hence his odd alias. He spoke fluent German, had many highly placed German friends, and ran an import/export business, all perfect cover for a spy. He absolutely loathed the Nazis, which ironically turned out to be the reason he was recruited by them. His Abwehr contact, Johann Jebsen, was a close friend from Popov’s college days and hated the Nazis as much as Popov did. Jebsen cheerfully lied about Popov’s dedication to the Nazi cause, likely doing so to his superiors even as Popov himself was asking the British if they could use a double agent. Popov was central to, among other deceptions, Operation Bodyguard, which tricked the Nazis into believing an invasion at Calais was imminent, directing men and weapons far, far away from the real invasion at Normandy.
Popov’s appetite for booze, women, and gambling was legendary. In fact, the new biography of Popov relates how he used $50,000 of MI6’s money to shame a flamboyant gambler, a moment that likely inspired Casino Royale and that Fleming allegedly witnessed personally. When Bloch, an arrogant gambler, announced that he was playing for unlimited stakes, Popov casually threw the money on the table. Bloch couldn’t get the casino to stake him, and immediately chickened out.
It wasn’t all fun for Popov. He also had to build and run a fake network of spies while not tipping his hands to the Germans, and there was an emotional cost no one saw coming. Jebsen, who later worked for the British as part of the Twenty Committee himself, was abducted and interrogated by the SS in 1944. It’s believed it may have been to determine how much the British knew about Popov’s false network of spies in Britain. Jebsen’s ultimate fate has never been determined, but we know he didn’t break when interrogated; Jebsen knew many key details about Bodyguard and could have tipped the Nazis off to D-Day before it even started.
As for the case for Popov as Bond’s inspiration — in addition to the womanizing, gambling, and frivolous use of British tax dollars, Fleming would have been fully aware of Popov, likely reading his intelligence, and hearing about his exploits as a Continental playboy, as it came. Bond was a composite of a number of people, and they were all compelling. But none, perhaps, quite as much as the man who fooled the Nazis without realizing the cost would be his closest friend.
(via The New York Post)