Ian Fleming, Lisbon, and the WWII Espionage Game

Article by Larry Loftis

Nothing is what it seems.

Whether the subject is screenwriting, novel plotting, or espionage, the goal is the same—deception. As Hollywood scribe Robert McKee explains in his legendary book, STORY, “If the scene is about what the scene is about, you’re in deep sh*t.”

On February 14-17, I will be giving media interviews in Lisbon, Estoril, and Cascais for the Portuguese release of INTO THE LION’S MOUTH: The True Story of Dusko Popov—World War II Spy, Patriot, and the Real-Life Inspiration for James Bond.

Lisbon and Madrid, as most history buffs know, were the two hotbeds of WWII espionage since Portugal and Spain were officially neutral. While my interviews will take place in bookstores, historical centers, and Fleming’s old haunts—Casino Estoril and the Palacio Hotel—I’m hopeful to spend time in the city’s two espionage engine rooms: the British and German embassies.

Above: Interior of the Palace of the Viscounts of Porto Covo da Bandeira,home to the British Embassy during the war. Below: German Embassy.

Above: Interior of the Palace of the Viscounts of Porto Covo da Bandeira, home to the British Embassy during the war.

German Embassy, 1940

German Embassy, Lisbon, 1940

While researching Dusko Popov’s and Ian Fleming’s activities in Lisbon, I came across the war files of the Polícia de Vigilância e de Defesa do Estado—Portugal’s secret police.  The PVDE, as it was known, kept meticulous records on all foreigners, including legation staffs. I smiled when I reviewed the British and German lists.

All was not as it appeared.

Below is the PVDE’s list of British embassy staff. Two names in particular were more than paper-pushing diplomats. Just above the watermark is the name David Eccles, “Economic Counselor;” just below, Ralph G. E. Jarvis, “Second Secretary.”

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David Eccles was in fact an attaché of the Ministry of Economic Warfare, and an advisor to America’s OSS (forerunner of the CIA). He was also a close friend of one Ian Fleming.  As I detailed in Into the Lion’s Mouth, when Fleming returned to Lisbon from his 1941 trip to Washington with his boss, Director of Naval Intelligence Admiral John Godfrey, it was in the residence of David Eccles that Ian stayed.

Fleming had the highest regard for Eccles, and suggested to Godfrey in a memo from Lisbon that summer that the U.S. should bring aboard a “first-class economic plenipotentiary of the Eccles type.”

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And Ralph G. E. Jarvis, listed as an embassy secretary, was none other than Colonel Ralph Jarvis, MI6 Lisbon station chief, and supervisor of Britain’s top spy, Dusko Popov.  It was Jarvis who would give Popov updated codes, aliases, and places to meet.

From a public telephone, for example, Jarvis told Popov he was periodically to call 52346. If the Germans suspected nothing and everything was fine, Dusko was to mention that it was a lovely day and he was enjoying the sunshine.  If the Germans suspected him, he was to say that he thought a storm was breaking and it was likely to rain. If he was blown, he was to say “the party is over.” Some appointments were to take place at the Tapada Ajuda tennis pavilion an hour before the stated time. In some cases, he was to speak only in French. And on it went.

The Germans worked in similar fashion, and many of their agents also had covers at their embassy. Popov’s Abwehr supervisor, Major Kremer von Auenrode, was listed on the embassy staff as “Albert von Karsthof,” wanted to be called “Ludovico,” and sometimes signed documents as “Anzuweto.” Von Karsthof’s secretary, Elisabeth Sahrbach, had an appropriate embassy cover as a typist.

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“Albert von Karsthof,” located just below the watermark, is listed on the embassy staff with the generic title of “Adjunto” (Adjunct).

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Adolf Nassenstein, Gestapo agent, can be seen at the top of the watermark with the convenient title of “Funcionário” (Employee). Von Karsthof’s secretary, Elisabeth Sahrbach (sixth from botttom), is appropriately listed as “Dactilógrafa” (Typist).

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At the top of the watermark is Eric Schröder, listed as “Assistente Cientifico da Leg.” (LegationTechnical Assistant). At the bottom of the watermark is Fritz Cramer, “Funcionário” (Employee).

Those who have read Into the Lion’s Mouth may recall that the Germans interrogated Popov mercilessly—sometimes for up to eight hours at a stretch. The five agents who conducted the debriefings were von Karsthof, Gestapo Major Adolf Nogenstein (listed on the embassy staff with his alias, “Adolf Nassenstein”), SD Major Eric Schroeder, Abwehr I’s Major Aloys Schreiber, and Abwehr III’s Lieutenant Fritz Kramer.  All but Schreiber, who appeared later in Lisbon, had embassy covers. Nogenstein—a fanatical Nazi who refused to surrender in 1945—would later stage a shootout reminiscent of the O.K. Corral.

British Lieutenant-Commander Ian Fleming, however, played it straight, checking into the Palacio with his real name, and keeping his nose to the grindstone for his boss.

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Left: Fleming’s Palacio registration on his outbound Lisbon layover. Right: Fleming’s August 11, 1941 memo to Godfrey from Lisbon (where he remained for weeks after the U.S. trip).

On August 11 that summer Fleming cabled a memo to Godfrey, updating him on Ian’s work in Lisbon, Madrid, Gibraltar, and Tangiers. What Fleming didn’t put in the memo, however, was that he had just witnessed at Casino Estoril the most outlandish bet—some $750,000 in today’s currency—he’d ever seen.

To the patrons at the casino that night, of course, all was not as it appeared. The gambler was none other than MI6 double agent Popov, and the money—which Dusko had just brilliantly stolen from the Germans the day before—now belonged to His Majesty’s Secret Service.

Admiral Godfrey knew about the grand larceny, of course, because as a member of the Double-Cross Committee which supervised Popov he had approved it; Plan Midas, it was called. What he didn’t know was that the handsome and charming playboy would dare to wager it in a casino bet.

And what Popov didn’t know was that his shadow from Naval Intelligence—who had observed his every move that night—would later reconstruct the scene in a magical setting.

Casino Royale.

Incidental Intelligence

Read the entire story in Larry Loftis’s 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-Caliber, June 14, 2016).

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