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May 08 2002 at 04:06PM
London - Tales of daring espionage, a penchant for attractive women and a life of playboy extravagance. No, not the fictional James Bond but a Yugoslav-born double agent for Britain during World War II.
According to intelligence files released on Thursday, Dusko Popov was seen as one of the most successful British agents of the conflict.
The Germans resolutely believed he was spying for them, declaring him their best agent in England.
But what comes through in the intelligence files is not his espionage but his lifestyle. It caused concern in the United States but was apparently seen by his British handlers as a forgiveable vice outweighed by his dedication.
Codenamed Tricycle over his apparent preference for three-in-a-bed sex, he was an "adventurer ... who spends money freely", according to an assessment by the British counter-intelligence service MI5.
Blessed with "great charm of manner" and a complexion that depended on his previous night's activities, he is described as a man "fond of the society of attractive women (who) acquires mistresses wherever he goes".
During a stay in the United States, Popov dated actress Simone Simon and spent lavishly - $80 000 dollars in 14 months, the FBI wrote disapprovingly to MI5 - forcing his handlers to fob off a debt-collection agency.
But he was also courageous, discreet and utterly loyal, MI5 concluded, and provided valuable information.
Popov was born to wealthy Serb parents in July 1912. He was recruited by a Johann Jebsen of German intelligence but promptly offered his services to its British counterpart as a double agent.
A talented linguist, fluent in Italian, French and English and with some German, he quickly became a central figure in a Yugoslav network of agents that included his brother Ivan.
The "Yugoslav ring" communicated by wireless, secret writing in the form of microdots and in person, Popov visiting his Lisbon-based German handlers seven times between 1941 and 1944.
Travelling across Europe and beyond, he supplied details on a wide range of subjects including German rocketry developments and the modus operandi of its secret services.
He was also involved in fooling the Germans ahead of the D-Day landings by Allied forces in northern France on June 6, 1944.
One of the newly released files is a questionnaire from his German handlers asking him about installations in Hawaii and at Pearl Harbour.
It was dated July 1941, five months before Japan attacked the US naval base and dragged Washington into the war.
In his biography Popov claims that the FBI ignored this information, which he says might have helped prevent the attack.
In 1942 the Germans sent him to the United States. MI5 informed the US Federal Bureau of Investigation that he was really working for London but the FBI was suspicious.
It dismissd him as "idle with extravagant habits ... living the life of a playboy".
An MI5 note from March 1943 said Popov was genuinely upset at his enforced split with Simon because of his recall to London, "although he was not long in seeking to console himself elsewhere".
Perhaps it was "Gwennie" who consoled him.
In a letter dated May 13, 1943, she apologised for not being able to make a rendezvous because Charles (presumably her husband) was unexpectedly coming to London.
"He won't be here for long though so I'll ring you as soon as I can. I'm so sorry as I was all ready for you!"
Popov's efforts for MI5 were officially recognised in 1947, two years after WWII ended, when he was decorated with the Order of the British Empire.
Appropriately, the medal was handed over in the bar of the Ritz Hotel. - Sapa-AFP
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