Here’s the Story of an MI6 Agent Who Lived More Daringly Than James Bond
Pretty much everyone on the planet has heard of James Bond. The suave, unshakable, devastatingly handsome MI6 agent has been portrayed by Sean Connery, Roger Moore, Pierce Brosnan, Daniel Craig, and others on the big screen, but did you know he was actually based on a real life secret agent whose story is more incredible than anything you’ll find in fiction?
Although Fleming never admitted that Yugoslavian double agent Dusko Popov was his primary source of inspiration, there’s plenty of evidence that this was the case. It’s also believed that MI6 would never have allowed him to disclose this information in his lifetime, but today we’re going to tell you the fascinating story of the real life James Bond, so let’s get started.
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With that checked off the list, let’s move on to the article.
Dusko Popov came from a wealthy Serbian family in Yugoslavia. Although there was considerable political turmoil in his country as he was growing up, his family stayed above the fray and enjoyed a luxurious lifestyle with a number of villas and yachts. He often vacationed on the Adriatic coast and by all accounts lived a charmed life. Popov’s father insisted that he get a quality education.
He enrolled him in a prestigious preparatory school in England called Ewell Castle, but he was expelled after just four months for taking the cane the teacher used to punish students and snapping it in two in front of the class. When he was 18, he enrolled in the University of Belgrade, where he developed a reputation as a ladies’ man. After graduating, he continued on to the University of Freiburg in Germany to get his law degree in 1935.
While at the University of Freiburg, Popov became best friends with Johnny Jebsen, who also came from a wealthy background thanks to his shipping magnate father. At this time the Nazis and Adolf Hitler had already taken power, and Popov didn’t like how easily people were swayed into following Nazi beliefs.
He spoke out against the Nazis and published articles that ridiculed them. In the summer of 1937, he was arrested by the Gestapo, who said he was a communist. He might have been held in prison indefinitely if his father hadn’t had connections with the prime minister of Yugoslavia, who arranged for his release. Popov was then forced out of Germany, but it wouldn’t be long before he was welcomed back with open arms.
Life of a Double Agent
In February 1940, he was practicing law back in his hometown when he received a message that his friend Jebsen wanted to meet with him. Jebsen had joined the Abwehr [Ab-ver], Germany’s military intelligence service, and he was tasked with recruiting people to act as spies. Popov was torn as he knew his best friend needed him, but he also despised the Nazis. He quickly saw that this was actually a perfect opportunity to infiltrate the Nazis. He agreed to act as a German spy and then almost immediately went to the British intelligence and offered his services as a double agent.
Before long, Durov was simultaneously Britain’s greatest secret agent and Germany’s greatest secret agent. The British would feed him official looking information that was just a little off, which the Germans would gratefully accept. They felt as if he was doing the work of 10 men, which in actuality wasn’t far from the truth.
Because of his success with Abwehr, the Gestapo and the Nazi intelligence groups also recruited him to help them. On the other side, he was serving MI5, Britain’s domestic counter-intelligence agency, and MI6, Britain’s foreign intelligence agency. On top of this, he also later became an FBI informant. He beautifully maneuvered the complexities of having so many conflicting allegiances.
Resource: The 15 Richest Lawyers in the World
The Midas Plan
In addition to his spy work, Durov also had a cover that he was a businessman in the export and import business. Despite it being only a cover, Popov actually made major deals and was quite successful in his business endeavors as well while acting as a double agent. And if that weren’t enough, he also came up with the idea for a money laundering scheme through which he stole a significant amount of money from the Nazis with the backing of MI6. This was called the Midas Plan, and this is where Ian Fleming comes into the story.
At the time, Ian Fleming was an assistant to the Director of British Naval Intelligence, Admiral Godfrey. Godfrey was the one who signed off on the Midas Plan, and he knew when Popov was expected to receive a large payment from the Abwehr.
Godfrey tasked Fleming with shadowing Popov in order to ensure that the money was safely delivered to the chief of MI6 in Lisbon. Portugal was one of only two countries in Europe that had remained neutral in the war, so the capital city of Lisbon became a hub for spies and diplomats from both sides. It was a romantic city full of fancy hotels, fine restaurants, and exciting casinos, one of which would play a major role in Fleming’s inspiration for Bond.
Popov’s Casino Royale
In August 1941, Popov received the payment of $38,000—worth roughly 650,000 at today’s valuation—and rather than hide it or secure it in a safe, he decided to keep the money on him as he enjoyed a night at the Casino Estoril [Ee-shtor-il], one of the largest casinos in Europe. Fleming followed close behind without interacting with Popov in order to fulfill his duty of keeping his eye on the money. But he ended up studying Popov instead.
At the casino, Popov was playing at the baccarat table when a cocky Lithuanian businessman announced that he would match any amount someone bet at his table. Popov didn’t like his attitude and he wanted to teach him a lesson. So he pulled out all of the money that was to go to MI6 and bet it all on a single hand of baccarat to call the man’s bluff. The crowd went quiet, stunned at the massive amount of cash he laid on the table. Fleming reportedly had turned green at the thought that Popov was putting at risk the very money he had been tasked to protect.
After a tense moment, the flustered Lithuanian withdrew his claim and Popov cheerfully gathered the money off the table while telling the casino head that they shouldn’t allow such irresponsible gamblers at their tables. This scene that Fleming witnessed is said to have inspired a similar casino scene in his book Casino Royale. But more than that, Fleming appears to have largely based the entire character of James Bond on Dusko Popov.
How Popov Compares to Bond
How Fleming describes Bond in his book perfectly mirrors how Dusko was in real life. Just like Bond, he had dark hair combed straight back and blue-gray eyes. He spoke five different languages, was clean shaven, had won two shooting contests, was very athletic, and he was known to be a womanizer.
He was cultured and could fit into any setting, and he wasn’t afraid of danger—in fact, he sought it out. Dusko was charming, socially skilled, brilliant, good looking, calm and collected. Sound familiar? Even the picture of Bond that Fleming had commissioned looked similar to Popov. One difference was that Popov’s codename was ‘Tricycle.’ Doesn’t quite have the same ring to it as 007. But let’s get back to his story.
The Rest of the Story
After he safely delivered the 38,000 to MI6, Popov was sent to the US by the Germans to set up a spy network there. The British also thought Popov could be helpful in the States, and they put him under the director of the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover.
Unfortunately, Hoover did not trust Popov because he was a foreigner and a double agent. He wanted him to only serve as bait so that he could catch real German spies instead of actively taking part in missions. Popov even warned Hoover about the Japanese plan to attack Pearl Harbor in August 1941, four months before the actual attack, but Hoover disregarded his warning.
The FBI did not trust him to send messages to the Germans, so they did it on his behalf. This caused the Germans to become suspicious as the quality of his work dropped. Nevertheless, he was able to maintain his cover to the very end and even played an instrumental role in the success of the D-Day invasions by deceiving the Germans about when and where the attacks would occur.
Popov had achieved the unthinkable. He was willing to die for the cause, but because of his quick thinking, smooth talking, and smart decision making, he survived and had numerous amazing experiences along the way.
After the war, he continued his successful import/export business as a British citizen and kept quiet about all his spy adventures until he published his biography entitled Spy/Counterspy in 1974. Even his wife and children had not known about his life as a spy before this. He passed away in 1981 at the age of 69 following a prolonged illness.
There’s no way we could cover every exciting part of Popov’s life in this article. For that you’ll have to check out Into the Lion’s Mouth: The True Story of Dusko Popov: World War II Spy, Patriot, and the Real-Life Inspiration for James Bond. Author Larry Loftis did extensive research into the declassified MI6 documents that contain the incredible details of Popov’s life as a double agent.
You can hear this captivating novel on Audible for 20 dollars, but even better, if you go to alux.com/freebook and sign up, you can get the audiobook version for free thanks to our partnership with Audible!
While researching his story, we’ve come across this quote from Ian Fleming we’d like to share with you that goes like this:
“Never say ‘no’ to adventures. Always say ‘yes’, otherwise you’ll lead a very dull life.”
Your life probably won’t be as exciting as James Bond or Popov, but you can definitely avoid being trapped by boredom by getting out of your comfort zone and saying yes to an adventure that you would normally say no to.
Now that we’re wrapping up this story, we’d like to know: Had you ever heard of Dusko Popov before today? Let us know in the comments.