J. Edgar Hoover failed to pass on Dusko Popov’s Abwehr questions to American military authorities – particularly the ones that sought information about Pearl Harbor’s defenses. After the Japanese attack wrecked the US fleet there a few months later, Hoover’s oversight should have wrecked his career. However, 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 the Serb spy, got moralistic about Popov’s promiscuous lifestyle, nightlife escapades, and playboy antics. Hoover even threatened to have Popov arrested under the Mann Act for traveling with a woman across state lines “for immoral purposes”.
The British assigned a naval intelligence officer named Ian Fleming to watch Popov’s every move in the US. The future author of James of Bond followed Popov around as he made the rounds of American night clubs and casinos, womanized, splurged the cash furnished him by the Abwehr, and made a killing on the roulette tables. The style and panache left an impression that found expression years later in Agent 007. Indeed, some famous scenes from Casino Royale were based on Fleming’s observations of Popov in American casinos.
Eventually, Dusko Popov’s relationship with the FBI grew toxic, and as J. Edgar Hoover stewed over the double agent’s antics, things threatened to get worse. So British intelligence recalled their spy to London, where he continued to feed the Abwehr false information. His biggest contribution to the eventual downfall of the Nazis came in the intricate Allied deception plans, collectively known as Operation Bodyguard. Their ultimate aim was to mislead the Germans about the planned invasion of France, scheduled for the summer of 1944.
Operation 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 send its defenders to reinforce Normandy. Popov played a key role in a sub-plan of Bodyguard, known as Operation Fortitude, which revolved around a fictitious First US Army Group (FUSAG) in southeast England under the command of General George S. Patton.
Dusko Popov passed on to the Abwehr made-up details about FUSAG’s units, strength, and organization. His German handlers swallowed his misinformation hook, line, and sinker. Their faith in Popov’s information was reinforced when they eavesdropped on fake radio traffic between fictitious FUSAG formations. 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. A spanner was thrown in the works, however, when the Germans arrested Popov’s friend Johnny Jebsen, the Abwehr agent who had “recruited” him to spy for the Nazis.
Jebsen was kidnapped in Lisbon and smuggled back into Germany. There, he was tortured, then sent to a concentration camp where he disappeared and is presumed to have been killed near war’s end. Jebsen knew that his friend Popov was a double agent – indeed, Popov had turned him and made Jebsen a double agent for the British. The Germans did not know that, however, and had snatched Jebsen because they thought he was about to defect, not that he had already turned. They did not suspect Popov, and ironically, had arrested Jebsen because they feared that he would inform the British about the Serb, whom they viewed as one of their star spies.
2. A Double Agent’s Key Contribution to the Allies’ Success in Normandy
When British intelligence learned that Johnny Jebsen had been arrested by the Germans, they feared that he would reveal that Dusko Popov had actually worked for the Allies all along. They thought it was all over for their Agent Tricycle, and suspended his activities and those of his network. Despite torture, however, Jebsen did not let slip that Popov, Agent Ivan to the Germans, was a British spy. When British intelligence realized that the Abwehr still trusted Popov, they put him back to work to continue the deception. He and Operation Fortitude paid off for the Allies in a big way.
After D-Day, the Germans were convinced that the Normandy invasion was not the main event, but only the first in a series of landings. So instead of rushing all available reinforcements to contest the Allies in Normandy, they 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 Nazis kept their units there for seven weeks. By the time the Pas de Calais defenders were finally released, it was too late for the Germans.
The Allies took advantage of the breather afforded them by the success of the Operation Bodyguard and Operation Fortitude deceptions to build a powerful beachhead in Normandy. From there, they eventually broke out to liberate France and Western Europe. After Paris was freed from the Nazi yoke, Dusko Popov was sent to the French capital to help establish a British intelligence network. When Yugoslavia turned communist after the war, there was no future for the playboy Popov back in his home country, so he decided to stay put in the West.
Popov 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. He prospered as a businessman and had no intention to reveal his wartime activities. In 1972, however, John Masterman published The Double Cross System in the War of 1939 to 1945, a deep dive into British wartime intelligence. That convinced Popov to write up his own account, and in 1974 his autobiography, titled Spy Counter-Spy, was published. 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 and Further Reading