Born in 1912 to a wealthy family in modern day Serbia, then the Austro-Hungarian empire, he studied law, first in Belgrade and then in Freiburg, Germany. While a less than diligent student at Freiberg, he developed his reputation for womanising. In the summer of 1936 he went so far as challenging someone to a duel for flirting with a woman he was with. He joined the German-International Society, where he would passionately debate and denounce Nazis. He claims he was arrested for this in 1937, and only released after his father called the Yugoslavian Prime Minister, who then called Herman Göring.
Popov subsequently joined the Abwehr (German military intelligence), but simultaneously informed British intelligence of his recruitment, opening up the possibility of him becoming a double agent. The Abwehr took his family hostage in Belgrade, believing it would ensure his loyalty, and assigned him to Lisbon, Portugal, then a key neutral ally for the British. Here he received funds from the Germans to build a spy ring, but handed the cash to his British handlers and returned only misinformation. He spent time in the luxurious Casino Estoril, where he would pass messages to his spymaster using the numbers on a roulette table.
Deemed a trustworthy asset, the Abwehr relocated Popov to America where he was tasked with building a network of spies and gathering intelligence on US targets. Remarkably Popov claims to have informed the Americans of Japan’s planned attack on Pearl Harbour, providing evidence that it was to be modelled on Britain’s bombing of Tarnto, Italy in 1940. Supposedly Popov had been asked by his German handlers to gather information on Pearl Harbour, indicating the location of the forthcoming attack. Influenced by his dislike of Popov’s playboy lifestyle, J. Edgar Hoover, head of the FBI, is said to have ignored the warning and failed to tell President Roosevelt. However, the veracity of this story is hard to prove, as many historians have convincingly argued that the Nazis were actually unaware of Japan’s plans.
The dysfunctional relationship with the FBI resulted in him being returned to London, where he was set the task of feeding false information to his German employer with remarkable success.
he was set the task of feeding false information to his German employer with remarkable success
Information fabricated by British intelligence and passed to the Abwehr by Popov helped deceive the Germans into believing that the invasion of France would be happening in Calais, rather than Normandy.
His dramatic story of espionage, coupled with his reputation for womanising while working – he reportedly had an affair with the French actress Simone Simon - was reportedly the inspiration for Ian Fleming’s character James Bond. It is believed that Fleming, then working for British intelligence in Portugal, met Popov at a Casino in Lisbon and witnessed him gamble £50,000 of British intelligence money during a game of baccarat. This enormous bet at the Casino Estoril was to become the inspiration for the Bond novel Casino Royale. After the war Popov received an OBE from the British and lived out his remaining days in France. In 1974 he released his memoir, Spy/ Counterspy, before dying in 1981 after a life of heavy drinking and smoking.