Popov, Duško Popov

Code name Tricycle

Marco Montagnin

You have too many devices on your banner for my taste’ he said, ‘but for your job that’s ideal

That Bond, James Bond, is definitely dead is a fact. We can finally leave behind a character that has undergone a decaying involutional process over the years. Whether it was a decision taken to safeguard the average viewer or a shrewd suicide on behalf of EON productions, the result remains the same: it is the end of an era that had already ended a long time ago. An era of charm and seduction, of cigarettes and alcohol, in which it was legitimate not to come to terms with people who made the Aurea Mediocritas and thoughtlessness – to quote George Orwell’s Neo-Language, which our language is increasingly resembling – their reason for being.

No one felt the pressing need for another Bond, especially not for a female one – who has at least been spared the name ‘Jamie’. Among the various attempts at reanimation, the first thing they did was to bring the film character closer to the literary one; these were, of course, books written by different authors, films played by different actors and, naturally, each one included his own particular nuance. Nobody hardly remembers what the original idea and style was. In the latest films, in fact, the most iconic features of the famous secret agent were, bit by bit, subtly removed, so that the change would go unnoticed. The films lost their essential charm and became mere action films. Now that the work is done, having buried James Bond – and hoping he will not be inappropriately resurrected – it would be interesting to recount the story of how he originally came into the world.

James Bond was Dušan ‘Duško’ Popov; or more appropriately, it was Duško who originally was Bond.

I’m told that Ian Fleming said he based his character James Bond to some degree on me and my experiences. As for me, I rather doubt that a Bond in the flesh would have survived more than forty-eight hours as an espionage agent.[1]

Duško was born in what once was the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, into a wealthy Serbian family and spent his childhood in Dubrovnik. He later studied at the best European schools, in France and England, graduated in law in Belgrade and decided to enrol at the University of Freiburg for his PhD.

Freiburg is where it all began: a carefree boy from a good family, leading a comfortable and trivial life of alcohol, women, cars and a fair amount of sports – a young man who had embraced hedonism – came into contact with the pre-war Hitler regime in 1936.

Like many others, he had decided to go to Germany because of its economic and cultural influence over south-eastern Europe.

Obviously, I was politically uninformed, or almost so. The Nazis had been in power for nearly four years and although I war repelled by them, that didn’t stop me from going to study in Germany. It seemed to me that the pros outweighed the cons.[2]

Upon his arrival he realised that he had been naive, and that the regime was far more oppressive than he had initially thought: unwelcome teachers and those of Jewish origin had been removed from schools and universities, signs were posted in shops: Betreten für Hunde und Juden verboten, duels between students were encouraged at universities, and there were two types of clubs organised for Germans and for foreigners; in the latter, the Germans carried out a work of persuasion, trying to influence the ideas of foreigners and make them adhere to Nazi ideology. Confident and thanks to his influential connections at home and to his new German friends, Duško continued his lifestyle without restricting his freedom and without adhering to the oppressive and limiting Nazi ideals. However, after receiving his PhD, he was arrested by the Geheime Staatspolizei and interrogated for eight days without any chance to rest but fortunately without being tortured or beaten.

His release was possible thanks to the interest of Johann Jebsen, a friend of Duško’s. His providential telephone call to Duško’s father, who had been informed of his son’s arrest, pressed the demand to Yugoslav Prime Minister for his son’s release.

Jebsen later became the greatest inspiration in Duško’s life. He was the orphaned son of a wealthy Hamburg shipowner family, handsome in appearance (according to northern European standards at the time), complementing his natural attractiveness with old-fashioned elegance: an umbrella always at his side and a monocle declaring that he was a proud member of the Germanic race.

In addition, he had brilliance and a magnetic charm: he could beguile anyone and his emotional and intellectual coldness was disarming. He despised the Nazis, yet he became an important member of the Abwehr; he betrayed them, but he never betrayed the German people. He understood that he could be useful in trying to save the rest of the world from the Nazi menace, but he never fooled himself into thinking that he could save Germany too.

Duško then joined the Abwehr thanks to Jebsen and on his advice contacted the British to become their undercover agent in the Nazi ranks; he joined MI5, in the Committee XX section.

He soon became the best spy on both fronts, despite often passing false, partially true or otherwise unimportant information to the Germans through so-called ‘covert’ operations designed to lure the enemy towards a false target. In doing so, he foiled a number of events that could have changed the final outcome of the war. Amongst others, he was one of the main culprits for the failure of Operation Sea Lion: the Germans were ready to invade England, which had no hope of resisting the assault, but the information reported by Duško delayed it until it became unfeasible. It was also thanks to his efforts that Operation Barbarossa was also delayed, following his false report of a possible British landing in Greece. He even played a role in the success of the famous D-Day, when he directed the Germans to a false landing point on the French coast. He did the same thing in Sicily when announced their landing but pointed to the wrong coast; despite everything he managed to be the most important spy for the Germans and was obviously of fundamental importance to the British for whom he managed to form a vast network of loyal double-agent. Essential to his success was his ability to disguise himself as the best German spy in the enemies’ camp; by holding this position, he managed to create a vast network of spies who, like him, operated secretly for the Allies.

As well as sabotaging Axis military operations, his contribution was also important in deciphering military codes – of which he possessed the cipher key – for weapons espionage, and in confirming to the British that German scientists would not be able to develop nuclear devices in time. He also informed the Allies that the Germans were using the microdot in order to exchange sensitive information.

He went to the United States of America to set up a spy network for the Germans, but his true purpose was something else: to recreate a duplicate spy network. America had not yet entered the war and, despite pressure from the British secret services, the U.S.A. was a failure for Duško who risked blowing his cover and that of all the spies working for him, due to the poor management of the F.B.I. who considered him nothing more than a playboy. The definitive breach with the Americans was the attack on Pearl Harbour. Duško had warned the F.B.I., had delivered the conclusive evidence, had predicted the timing and methods of the attack, but was ignored.

Peculiar was his trip to the United States, which was officially to set up a network of German spies overseas but it actuallyturned out that these agents were supposed to secretly work for the Allies. The United States had not yet declared war on the Axis, and Duško’s mission was a total failure – regardless of the support of British intelligence. In fact, the United States F.B.I. was involved in a very bad management of the operation and, without question, the mistrust of the organisation heavily fell on Duško: they considered him nothing more than a playboy and risked blowing his cover, as well as that of the entire network of spies he managed. The final breaking point with the US intelligence services was the attack on Pearl Harbour.  Duško had warned the F.B.I. of what was about to happen, bringing conclusive evidence and predicting the timing and operations of the attack. His warnings, however, were ignored – perhaps out of short-sightedness, or maybe because it was necessary to convince the majority of the population of the necessity of an intervention in Europe, and for this purpose the secret services were prepared to sacrifice the lives of the soldiers stationed in the Pacific.

Nevertheless, Duško decided to return to Europe where he considered his contribution decisive.

Most of his information still came from Jebsen who, towards the end of the war, was officially recruited by the British. The capital of espionage during World War II was Lisbon, where Duško contacted Estoril, the German headquarters for espionage and counter-espionage in Western Europe.

Towards the end of the war Jebsen was captured by the Geheime Staatspolizei and subsequently executed. He was apparently trying to escape the complicated situation in which he found himself, but actually never betrayed his closest friend or the British. He was charged for smuggling currency: after the purge of the great Nazi hierarchs, he had been smuggling currency to enrich people in important positions who were supposed to protect him from any possible repercussions; unfortunately, out of fear, they failed to do so.

Duško obviously tried by all means to save his friend, his mentor, the man who had changed his life, who more than anyone else had contributed to tilting the fate of the war in favour of the Allies – a far-sighted man who had predicted the defeat of the Axis, the failure of the Russian and African campaigns, the impossibility of German generals hostile to Hitler helping the Allies – but he did not have the time to do so. The man who had discovered the attack on Pearl Harbour in advance and had managed to send the information to the United States was killed, an anonymous victim among millions of the regime.

His villa was about two miles away. The spring night was too balmy, too peaceful, it didn’t seem right for this world. We strolled in a community of silence. We parted on the steps of the house with a handshake. I turned and walked away.
‘Dusko’ Johnny called.
I faced him from about ten feet away.
‘Nothing. I just wanted to have a good look at you. It’s going to be a while. I feel we are going in different directions.’ He was speaking to me in German. I could see him start to say, ‘Auf Wiedersehen’ but only the first syllable came out. ‘Goodbye’ he said in English. It makes a difference, a farewell. Somehow, if you are not going to see a friend again, you want to tell him ‘Adieu’ but it is a hard word to say. Yet ‘Auf Wiedersehen’ ‘au revoir’ stick in the throat.
I said ‘Goodbye’ too, thankful for that ambiguous English expression.[3]

One evening, Ian Fleming tailed Duško, who had the money for the mission to the United States with him. When Duško realised that he was being followed, he recognised Fleming and realised that he was acting on his own account and not on behalf of the British. Everyone paled at the amount of money he gambled, and the casino apologised, saying that it could not guarantee a player – the Lithuanian did not have the money to pay for the bet. Duško answered that they should not have let him announce banque ouverte then; Fleming understood and, despite his initial shock, began to admire this Serbian playboy who always managed to be loved by women wherever he went, and who alone seemed to unbalance the fate of the global conflict.

The war ended more or less as it is recounted in today’s history books: Germany was not only defeated, but destroyed and dismembered. Yet, it seems that some things are systematically overlooked: for instance, the atrocities committed by the victors, such as selling an entire population, the Cossacks, to the Soviets, who were promptly exterminated despite appealing to the British while the whole world looked the other way. By the same token, they ignored and neglected to remember the fundamental importance of a few individuals in shaping the fate of the conflict: they became merely anonymous sacrifices, necessary to prevent the Nazi advance but unworthy of everlasting memory. And yet their contribution was crucial in protecting the future and freedom, that freedom which, for Duško, was always the most important thing.

‘You have too many devices on your banner for my taste’ he said, ‘but for your job that’s ideal.’ I pondered that later, trying to decide exactly what he meant. Everything else he had said was to the point, whether I recognized myself by his description or not. This remark left room for speculation. It is true, I had been accused politically and socially of standing everywhere from conservative to radical. As far as I was concerned my banner was that of liberty, but I suppose that can come in manyforms, therefore the many devices.

‘You have the makings of a very good spy’ Menzies continued more specifically ‘except that you don’t like to obey orders. You had better learn or you will be a very dead spy.,

Menzies wasn’t a man for melodrama. I told myself I would have to take his advice seriously even if it made the device on my banner droop.[4]

Below is a description of Duško taken from: Voci di Frederic Prokosch, Adelphi, Milano, pp.148-151

Di tanto in tanto arrivava al Palacio un curioso personaggio che regolarmente si fermava a cenare a un tavolino accanto al mio. Era un giovane allegro e socievole, ma bruttissimo, con una faccia da luna piena, un naso informe e vaste guance butterate. Il grigio madreperla degli occhi ricordava l’interno di un’ostrica, mentre la voce faceva pensare a un grosso gatto che facesse le fusa. Per me era sempre un piacere veder entrare Dusko Popov nella sala da pranzo.
«Lei che ne pensa, Popov? I tedeschi attraverseranno la Manica? ».
Oppure: «Che cosa prevede? I tedeschi arriveranno a Mosca, Popov?».
O anche: « Mi dica, Popov. Lei crede che i cinesi entreranno in guerra? ».
Gli occhi di Popov si facevano garbatamente meditativi, un grande sorriso di compiacimento gli increspava le guance e la sua voce profonda mi riempiva gli orecchi di affettuosi accenti slavi.
« Vedremo. È un rompicapo. È un enigma. Può succedere tutto».
Gli dicevo:«Lei capisce la mentalità russa, Popov?».
«È un mistero. I russi sono un indovinello. Con i russi può succedere tutto».
A poco a poco mi lasciai conquistare da Dusko Popov. La sua stessa presenza animale dava un senso di refrigerio. Non smetteva di guardarsi intorno nella sala da pranzo, con quegli occhi di madreperla in cui la scaltrezza slava si mescolava a un’ingenuità infantile.
« È pensabile, Popov, che i nazisti vincano la guerra?».
«I piatti della bilancia sono in equilibrio. È un punto interrogativo » gorgogliava Popov.
« Che opinione ha dei nazisti, Popov? Sono orribili come sembrano?».
Scrollava la testa con una smorfia: « Chi può dirlo? Sono un enigma ».
Dopo cena andavamo alla casa da gioco, dove lui puntava alla roulette sotto i lampadari.
Era incredibile. Tutto quello che faceva aveva un tocco di magia. Aveva una fortuna strepitosa, ridicola, fantastica. Puntava le sue fiches sul numero 12 e, oplà, era «Douze!». Poi le puntava sul 7 e, inutile dirlo, era «Sept!». «Faites vos jeux!» diceva il croupier, e Popov si stringeva nelle spalle, raccoglieva le sue fiches con aria indolente e andava al bar.
«Sono molto infelice » gorgogliava. «Beva un brandy con me, Fritz. Vede quella bella ragazza belga con le trecce d’oro? Si rifiuta di parlare con me. Muoio dalla voglia di innamorarmi di lei. E lei mi ignora totalmente. Sono sbalordito. Sono sconcertato ».
«È un rompicapo, quella ragazza » gli dicevo. «È un enigma, non è vero, Popov?».
In lui c’era il gusto dello scherzo e insieme un’elegante cerimoniosità. La concretezza solare di un contadino dalmata si accompagnava al languore umbratile di uno squisito francophile. Ma sotto quelle cangianti sfaccettature intuivo qualcosa di diverso, di più sottile e più allarmante, perfino vagamente diabolico.
Il brandy cominciò a ispirarmi riflessioni filosofiche. Dissi: «Secondo lei, Popov, nella storia dell’uomo c’è posto per una cosa come il bene e per una cosacome il male? ».
Sussultò, come se l’avesse punto una zanzara.
«Il bene? Il male? Mio caro Fritz, che cosa sono mai il bene e il male? Quanto più vedo il mondo, tanto più mi domando se esistano veramente. Un terremoto è male? Il colera è male? ».
« Dante» osservai «riteneva che il tradimento fosse il peggiore di tutti i mali».
La vasta faccia di Popov si apri in un sorriso lunare. «E se un uomo tradisce il diavolo? È ancora un grande male? Se un uomo tradisce Hitler – è ancora un grande male? ».
Lasciai la casa da gioco e mi spinsi fino alla spiaggia. Vidi Anibal in piedi su una roccia, bellissimo nella sua uniforme di ufficiale, con i grossi bottoni di metallo che luccicavano sotto la luna.
Gli parlai di Popov e del suo lunare scetticismo, del suo amore per le donne e della sua fortuna alla roulette. Anibal mormorò: « Non si fidi delle apparenze, amico mio. Lei conosce Estoril, immagino. Ebbene, c’è sempre qualcosa che gli occhi non vedono, qui a Estoril».
« Vuol dire che… » dissi cautamente.
« Ma certo» confermò Anibal.
« Eppure è così gioviale, così infantile».
« Esattamente» disse Anibal.
« Lei lo conosce? ».
«Intimamente» disse Anibal.
Come Popov, il mio amico Anibal aveva un debole per le donne, ma a differenza di Popov era aiutato da una bellezza che ricordava quella di Rodolfo Valentino. E, sempre a differenza di Popov, era costretto dalla mancanza di escudos e dalla disciplina militare a contenere i suoi aneliti amorosi.


Dissi: « È strano. Dove ha conosciuto il mio amico Popov?».
«In un’osteria di Cascais. È un uomo generoso, il suo Popov».
«Le ha offerto un bicchiere di vino? ».
« Due bicchieri di vino».
«E di che cosa avete parlato?».
« Di donne. E di altre cose».
« Anche della guerra, forse?».
« Dei nostri nemici» disse Anibal.
« Dei tedeschi e degli italiani?».
«E dei russi, anche» disse Anibal. « Il suo amico Popov è gentile, generoso e anche intelligente. Mi ha raccomandato di non fidarmi di nessuno, e meno che mai dei russi».
Mi strizzò l’occhio e sputò nel mare.
Non avevo dubbi che Popov fosse una spia, ma non riuscivo a capire se fosse al servizio degli alleati o dell’Asse. Solo sei anni dopo, sotto il sole di via Veneto, appresi finalmente la straordinaria verità su Dusko Popov, conosciuto nelle alte sfere anche col nomignolo di Triciclo: lui, così gioviale, così innamorato, così incredibilmente fortunato al gioco, con quella faccia che sembrava una luna disseminata di crateri proprio lui, l’amico di Churchill e di Ribbentrop, il più grande fra tutti gli acrobati del doppio gioco nella storia dello spionaggio.

[1]Dusko Popov, Spy counter Spy, Book Club Associates, Great Britain 1974, p.125

[2] Ivi, p. 3

[3] Ivi, p.245

[4] Ivi, p.61

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