Article by Larry Loftis
Rear Admiral John Godfrey, Britain’s Director of Naval Intelligence during World War II, had always said that his personal assistant was such a great administrator and intelligence planner that the roles should have been reversed.
The assistant, of course, was Lieutenant Commander Ian Fleming.
In the early days of 1941, when Germany was winning on all fronts, Britain desperately needed the United States to join the fight. With that as the ultimate goal, Godfrey arranged a trip to Washington to meet with Franklin Roosevelt to convince the president that the U.S. should have an intelligence agency similar to the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6). Until now, the FBI handled all intelligence, domestic and foreign. If FDR agreed, Godfrey would urge him to appoint General “Wild Bill” Donovan as its head. Fleming, meanwhile, would meet with junior associates and help draft a charter for the new agency (Office of Strategic Services, forerunner of the CIA).
Since there were no direct flights from London to Washington, Godfrey and Fleming would have layovers in neutral Portugal going and returning. They left on May 20 and arrived in Lisbon that evening. Godfrey apparently lodged with a friend but Fleming checked into the ritzy Palacio Hotel in Estoril, Portugal’s version of the Côte d’Azur. He signed in with his real name—Ian Lancaster Fleming—and listed his occupation as “Government Official.” The following day they left for Washington.
While Godfrey and Fleming were in the U.S., MI6 double agent Dusko Popov checked into his usual suite on the third floor of the Palacio. For weeks at a time, he would meet with his German spymaster to discuss reports, new codes, and questionnaires.
When Fleming returned from his U.S. trip later that summer, he decided to spend a few weeks in Estoril—partly to spend time with his friend David Eccles, a British military attaché, and partly to enjoy cocktails at the Palacio and baccarat at the casino.
It was here that James Bond was born.
Shortly before his death on August 12, 1964, Fleming told a BBC reporter that he had created the Casino Royale story from gambling with several Germans at Casino Estoril on his outbound trip to the U.S. As Fleming biographer John Pearson noted in The Life of Ian Fleming, Ian’s explanation was a canard. What Pearson didn’t know in 1966, however, was why Fleming lied, and what really happened. Without question, Fleming crafted his fictitious story to avoid prosecution under Britain’s Official Secrets Act. If Ian—or Dusko Popov—said a word about what actually happened on Fleming’s return trip to Estoril, he and Popov would have been charged with violation of the act, fined, and likely imprisoned.
What really happened? The first week of August, Fleming shadowed Popov from the Palacio to Casino Estoril and watched. Popov—about whom Fleming would have heard from Admiral Godfrey—made an outrageous baccarat bet—with MI6 money—against a wealthy but boorish opponent named Bloch (who had fled the Nazis from Liechtenstein). If the scene sounds familiar, it should; the scenario would be repeated in Casino Royale, Fleming’s first novel.
Bloch becomes LeChiffre (who had fled the Russians), Fleming becomes Mathis (the intelligence agent watching), and Popov becomes James Bond (an MI6 agent betting an outrageous sum with MI6 money).
Fleming also would have heard through Godfrey—who sat on Popov’s two supervisory boards (W Board and the Double-Cross Committee)—that Popov, a notorious playboy, had a fling with his attractive sub-agent, Friedl Gaertner (code-named “Gelatin”).
Enter “Vesper” and the re-creation of 1941 is complete.
For the entire story, 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 (Berkley, 2016).
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