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spies, lies and double agents: portugal in ww2

A neutral country is the perfect environment for spying during a war. It may not be possible to find out exactly what was happening in Berlin from London, but on the neutral ground of Lisbon you could find out was happening in both cities.

Lisbon was the hub through which the wires of espionage ran. Official departments from the warring parties provided the funding for the intelligence machine, plus the framework required to receive and deliver information to high command. The spies’ agents were the cameras and microphones and external drives feeding the computer with information. The spies intercepted the lines of communication between the street, the Allies and Axis, scrutinising, interpreting and filtering what they received before sending it on its way.


Intelligence officers from every country rubbed shoulders around town, especially espionage HQ, the Palácio Estoril. During the war there were as many as fifty intelligence agencies operating in Lisbon. There were official spies but they were way outnumbered by an army of freelance amateurs: waiters, cleaners, taxi drivers and shop-keepers who watched and listened and reported to whomever was paying. An American intelligence paper of 1943 reported that “a remarkably high proportion of the population are working for one or more of the intelligence services”.  Spy-fever gripped Lisbon, and spy-watching became something of a pastime. Foreign correspondent Polly Peabody remarked that spies would loiter in bars and cafes being quite conspicuous at times, while another part of the clientele waited for something to happen – some rendezvous or even a confrontation – until it was difficult to tell between these camps of lurkers who were the spies and who were the real customers.

And then, there was another group who was watching the people watching the spies. The Portuguese secret police were not only on the take (more often from the Germans) but acted like an arbiter for both sides. Its concern ran less with the foreign bureaus than Portuguese nationals, or illegal, working for them.

The elite of the spies were the double agents. While many of these supernaturally gutsy people faded into obscurity when the war was won, many others entered the realms of folklore.

None more deserving so than Garbo, or Juan Pujol Garcia, whose career as a spy started more strangely than fiction. At the start of the war the only credentials he possessed were a sturdy conviction about right and wrong and an extraordinary talent for bullshitting.

Spanish born Garbo wanted to be a spy because he didn’t like the Germans. He fronted up at the British Embassy in Madrid and volunteered himself, and they sent him away. So he contacted the Abwehr, the German Intelligence Agency who heartily accepted him and his plan to supply them with British currency for which documents were held in a Portuguese bank. Once in Portugal he met someone with an entry visa for Argentina, which he ‘borrowed’, had copied and took back with him to Madrid, where he spun the Abwehr another story about a mission in Britain (for which he’d use the Argentinean visa to leave from Portugal). The Abwehr gave him some invisible ink, a code book and $3000.


But he didn’t go to England. He stayed in Lisbon where he bought a map, a guide book and a English-French phrasebook of military terms (he didn’t speak any English) and used these to hash together invaluable intelligence about the Allied war effort for the Germans. Indeed, he made it all up. But his were very good, as one of his “reports” about a British fleet assembling in Malta caused the Germans to send a convoy to intercept it, rousing the interest of MI6 about a new spy on the loose.

Garbo continued his freelance counter-intelligence work from Lisbon for some time, being handsomely paid by the Abwehr for his long-winded letters packed with minisculia about troop movements and the occasional major gaff about English culture, while British M16 agents tried to discover his identity. Coincidentally he presented himself at the American Embassy in Lisbon, from where the British finally recruited him and brought him to England.

Under the control of M16 his real work began. He built a network of imaginary sub- agents and developed his credibility further with the Germans with titbits of quality, sanctioned by MI6, intelligence. In the beginning Garbo’s gift of the gab is somewhat laughable, but by 1944, the subtlety and psychology of his reports to the Abwehr had made him the most trusted of German agents, and the very valuable asset to the Allies. M16 put Garbo in the centre of Operation Fortitude, the plan to divert the Germans away from the Normandy landings. Garbo is credited as the most successful spy of WW2.

The Abwehr, as the Garbo case shows, was far from being a very effective intelligence agency. This is not just history written by the winners. It can’t be said that the German agency was implicitly subversive, but the Abwehr head, Admiral Wilhelm Canaris was later recognised for his opposition to the Nazi party and his involvement in plots to depose Hitler.

The Abwehr staff came from civilian life rather than the military and recruitment focussed more on numbers than ability. In ideology the workforce ranged from the indifferent to barely-veiled anti-nazis. Neutral-country branches were run almost independently from HQ and their managers did only what was required to keep their jobs, while padding their expense accounts and creaming the top off agents’ generous fees. However, the Abwehr still managed to infiltrate almost every aspect of Portuguese life, from Government departments to brothels (the Allies also ran brothels for intelligence gathering purposes). The Abwehr bugged the foreign ministry, Salazar’s office, bribed officials and had a much wider network of informants than the British. And they paid their agents 10 times as much.

It might have been that Canaris wanted the Abwehr to overspend and under perform, even teeter on the edge of incompetency. He had filled his office in Berlin with staff who would be loyal to him rather than the Nazi party, and thus people who were less likely to inform against him. Maybe this background explains why WW2 history is filled with stories of the greatest double agents of all time.


Dusko Popov might have been the real James Bond. A womaniser, gambler and with a taste for champagne and sports cars, he was a regular at the Estoril Casino’s tables. Popov was a Yugoslav and a successful commercial lawyer, with genuine business interests in London and Lisbon. When he was recruited by an anti-Nazi Abwehr officer to work for Germany, he immediately volunteered himself at the British embassy in Belgrade who turned him over to MI6. The Abwehr ran him from Lisbon, where he developed a close working relationship with his case officer, a flamboyant character called Karsthoff which lasted throughout the war. Karsthoff enjoyed the theatre of the spy business and the two of them single-handedly created the movie star cool cliché of being a secret agent.

Popov, aka Ivan, would be concealed on the floor of Karsthoff’s car while being chauffeured to and from Karsthoff’s Moorish style villa in Cascais. Popov was taught elaborate manoeuvres to avoid being followed, secret writing, hidden cameras, and convoluted codes he would use to receive messages from Karsthoff’s gorgeous secretary-cum-mistress across the roulette tables at the casino.

The head of the Iberian branch of M16, Popov’s immediate boss, was Kim Philby, who was spying for the Russians and later a defector, along with his famous colleagues in M15 Guy Burgess, Anthony Blunt, John Caincross (MI6) and Donald Maclean (foreign office) otherwise known as the Cambridge Five. They gave Popov the code-name Tricycle, apparently because of his penchant for threesomes.

But the head of M16 in London, Stewart Menzies, had Popov lined up for the serious top- secret assignment of receiving communication from Canaris in Berlin about plans to depose Hitler.

After the German invasion of Yugoslavia Popov’s cover as a businessman in Lisbon evaporated and the Germans found him another job, as Delegate of the Yugoslav Ministry of Information, based in New York. For this assignment he perfected his playboy image, by first taking the luxury Clipper sea plane from Lisbon, his pockets filled with spy paraphernalia like microdots, crystals for making invisible ink, a coded copy of Virginia Woolf’s Night and Day and seventy thousand dollars in cash. In New York he was put up at the Waldorf Astoria and on his first day strolling the streets of Manhattan he bought a Buick convertible with red leather that caught his eye in a showroom window. After the Waldorf he rented an apartment and spent $12 000 on furniture, records and a Chinese butler. Of course he wined and dined sensational women like French actress Simone Simon and did almost no work. He disgusted J. Edgar Hoover with his behaviour, (Popov was on loan to the FBI) as well as by failing to entrap any German spies on American soil. He was running up debts and the Germans were refusing to send him more funds. Eventually MI6 had to recall him to London.


Although he hadn’t really provided the Germans with any worthwhile intel during his New York stint, they patched things up and gave him another $25 000 on his return. Nor could MI6 stay mad with him for long,  as the head of MI5 noted in his memoirs “Popov’s ability to persuade the Germans through sheer force of personality was remarkable” making the agent invaluable as a conduit of misinformation. Popov also engineered plans that were as enticing to the Germans as they were successful for the British. At one time he had both intelligence agencies unwittingly cooperating in organising the “escape” to Britain of 150 Yugoslav military officials. While on route through France the group would be infiltrated by German spies and then, once safe in Gibraltar, everyone would be turned into double agents to work for the British. The plan was successful and substantially bolstered Popov’s network of agents. The plan also briefly reunited him with his brother, whom Popov was hoping to bring back to England with him. Neither knew that the other was a double agent, even though both were working for the British.

While Ian Fleming was watching Popov, another British novelist, was making notes on another secret agent who went by the code name Ostro, who along with Garbo and Tricycle was excellent material to base a character on. Graham Greene also worked under Kim Philby for a short time in the British intelligence office while they were being tormented by a spy who acted like a double agent but was not under their control. MI6 found the combination of Ostro having direct access to the German high command and his ability to have remained undercover and inaccessible to them to be very dangerous. Ostro, or Paul Fidrmuc, was the champion of liars. What was known about him was sketchy but what the British did know was that the intelligence he supplied the Germans with was false. Wildly and extravagantly false. What irritated the British, enough for MI6 to plan his assassination, was that high-ranking German officials came to Lisbon to consult with him and receive reports considered so confidential that they could only be received in person. Reports that to the British described as “humorously mistaken” and “fantastically wrong”. Now and then, however, Ostro’s predictions were frighteningly accurate – according to information he’d received from a staffer of Field Marshall Montgomery the D-Day landings would take place on the Cherbourg peninsula, so he informed the Germans, perhaps without knowing he’d made the intelligence coup of the entire war.

Fortunately the Germans took no action on this piece of news as they were also listening to the equally compelling reports by Garbo, that said Normandy was just a diversion and that the real invasion would take place at Pas-de-Calais. Both spies survived the war, although not much is known about Paul Fidrmuc after he was released by U.S. authorities when they found nothing to charge him with, having never been a Nazi party member nor implicated in any war crimes. More true to form for a spy novel hero, Garbo first faked his own death and then ran a gift shop in Venezuela for almost 40 years, until his death in 1988.




  1. Holly Blades May 22, 2012 12:23 am Reply

    What happened to Popov? Years ago I met a Colonel Popov at a Royal British Club event in Lisbon–he was very old and ill, wore a monacle and when his wife tried to keep him from indulging in the port that was going around he irritably insisted, “Pass it to the LEFT, Margaret! Pass it to the LEFT!” He died soon after. Could it have been the same Popov?

    [Reply to comment]

    Emma   Reply: May 22nd, 2012 at 3:29 am

    good question… wiki just says he lived in France and died in 1981 aged 69, leaving a widow and three sons. He published his memoirs, Spy, Counterspy, in 1974, so maybe you’ll have to read the book! I don’t think he was a colonel though… and Popov was Serbian… does that help?

    [Reply to comment]

  2. Inês Oliveira May 27, 2012 10:15 pm Reply

    Hi! I’ve just discovered your blog and I have to say I wish I had the time to read it all at once: I loved it! Your life seems so exciting, I must come back to read the rest soon! ;))

    [Reply to comment]

    Emma   Reply: May 29th, 2012 at 11:15 pm

    Thanks Inês!

    [Reply to comment]


  3. Henning Fischer June 18, 2012 10:25 pm Reply

    Really a great blog. Lots of good information 🙂 I go every year to Portual. This year it’s back to Porto. Maybe I’ll find him some day your site 🙂

    [Reply to comment]


  4. Michael Lough August 16, 2012 12:10 pm Reply

    been lurking on your site for awhile now and keep coming back for updates cripes knows why other than being a pom living in Toronto wishing to live somewhere, like where you are living…(best i can do) You are slowly joining the choir of the universe like all expats everywhere and this makes us fellow travellers…

    Got a shed to rent out for a week or two? 8)

    ‘kin great septic…;^)

    Michael Lough

    [Reply to comment]

  5. José António Barreiros August 26, 2012 4:24 am Reply

    Good afternoon.
    Congratulations for this post.
    Best regards

    [Reply to comment]

    Emma   Reply: August 28th, 2012 at 3:18 pm

    thanks jose, 24-land is a superb blog.

    [Reply to comment]


  6. Tony G Gomes January 7, 2013 3:47 pm Reply

    Hi, would you have more material regarding Portugal in WW II?
    Would you have details about Jewish refugees in transit through Portugal? What information, if any, did Portugal gleaned through her embassies in Roma, Berlim, Tokio, London? Did Portugal receive anti-nazi Germans? Thanx. Tony

    [Reply to comment]

  7. ines May 2, 2018 9:57 pm Reply

    i like popov

    [Reply to comment]

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