Dusko and Johnny were friends. Their friendship was founded on a shared appreciation of money, cars, parties, and women, in no particular order and preferably all at the same time. Their relationship, based almost entirely on frivolity, would have a profound impact on world history.
Dusan "Dusko" Popov and Johann "Johnny" Jebsen met in 1936 at the University of Freiburg in southern Germany. Popov, the son of a wealthy Serbian industrialist from Dubrovnik, was twenty-four. Jebsen, the heir to a large shipping company, was nineteen. Both were spoiled, charming, and feckless. Popov drove a BMW; Jebsen, a supercharged Mercedes 540K convertible. This inseparable pair of international playboys roistered around Freiburg, behaving badly. Popov was a law student, while Jebsen was taking an economics degree, the better to manage the family firm. Neither did any studying at all. "We both had some intellectual pretensions," wrote Popov, but "[we were] addicted to sports cars and sporting girls and had enough money to keep them both running."
Popov had a round, open face, with hair brushed back from a high forehead. Opinion was divided on his looks: "He smiles freely showing all his teeth and in repose his face is not unpleasant, though certainly not handsome," wrote one male contemporary. He had "a well-flattened, typically Slav nose, complexion sallow, broad shoulders, athletic carriage, but rather podgy, white and well-kept hands," which he waved in wild gesticulation. Women frequently found him irresistible, with his easy manners, "loose, sensual mouth," and green eyes behind heavy lids. He had what were then known as "bedroom eyes"; indeed, the bedroom was his main focus of interest. Popov was an unstoppable womanizer. Jebsen cut a rather different figure. He was slight and thin, with dark blond hair, high cheekbones, and a turned-up nose. Where Popov was noisily gregarious, Jebsen was watchful. "His coldness, aloofness, could be forbidding, yet everyone was under his spell," Popov wrote. "He had much warmth too, and his intelligence was reflected in his face, in the alertness of his steel-blue eyes. He spoke abruptly, in short phrases, hardly ever used an adjective and was, above all, ironic." Jebsen walked with a limp and hinted that this was from an injury sustained in some wild escapade: in truth it was caused by the pain of varicose veins, to which he was a secret martyr. He loved to spin a story, to "deliberately stir up situations to see what would happen." But he also liked to broker deals. When Popov was challenged to a sword duel over a girl, it was Jebsen, as his second, who quietly arranged a peaceful solution, to Popov's relief, "not thinking my looks would be improved by a bright red cicatrix."
Jebsen's parents, both dead by the time he arrived in Freiburg, had been born in Denmark but adopted German citizenship when the shipping firm Jebsen & Jebsen moved to Hamburg. Jebsen was born in that city in 1917 but liked to joke that he was really Danish, his German citizenship being a "flag of convenience" for business purposes: "Some of my love of my country has to do with so much of it actually belonging to me." A rich, rootless orphan, Jebsen had visited Britain as a teenager and returned a committed Anglophile: he affected English manners, spoke English in preference to German, and dressed, he thought, "like a young Anthony Eden, conservatively elegant." Popov remarked: "He would no more go without an umbrella than without his trousers."
Preoccupied as they were with having fun, the two student friends could not entirely ignore the menacing political changes taking place around them in the Germany of the 1930s. They made a point of teasing the "pro-Nazi student intelligentsia." The mockery, however, had a metal strand to it. "Under that mask of a snob and cynic and under his playboy manners," Jebsen was developing a deep distaste for Nazism. Popov found the posturing Nazi Brownshirts ridiculous and repulsive.
After graduation, Popov returned to Yugoslavia and set himself up in the import-export business, traveling widely. Jebsen headed to England, announcing that he intended to study at Oxford University and write books on philosophy. He did neither (though he would later claim to have done both). They would not meet again for three years, by which time the world was at war.
In early 1940, Popov was living in Dubrovnik, where he had opened his own law firm, and conducting affairs with at least four women, when he received a telegram from his old friend summoning him to Belgrade: "Need to meet you urgently." Their reunion was joyful and spectacularly bibulous. They went on a bender through Belgrade's nightspots, having enlisted "two girls from the chorus of one of the clubs." At dawn, all four sat down to a breakfast of steak and champagne. Jebsen told Popov that in the intervening years, he had become acquainted with the great English writer P. G. Wodehouse. With his monocle and silk cravat, Jebsen now looked like an oddly Germanic version of Bertie Wooster. Popov studied his old friend. Jebsen wore the same expression of "sharp intelligence, cynicism and dark humour," but he also seemed tense, as if there was something weighing on his mind. He chain-smoked and "ordered his whiskies double, neat, and frequently. In style, his clothes still rivalled Eden's, but his blond hair was no longer so closely trimmed and he had a neglected moustache, reddened by tobacco."
A few days later, the friends were alone at the bar of a Belgrade hotel, when Jebsen lowered his voice, looked around in a ludicrously conspiratorial manner, and confided that he had joined the Abwehr, the German military intelligence service, "because it saved him from soldiering, of which he was very much afraid as he is a heavy sufferer from varicose veins." Jebsen's recruiter was a family friend, Colonel Hans Oster, deputy to Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, the chief of the Abwehr. He now had the formal but vague Abwehrtitle of "Forscher," meaning researcher or talent scout, with the technical rank of private, attached to a four- hundred-strong special detachment of the Brandenburg Regiment. This unit was in reality "a wangle by Canaris to keep a number of young men out of the clutches of compulsory service." Jebsen was a freelance spy on permanent leave from the army, with a personal assurance from Canaris that he would never wear a uniform, never undergo military training, and never be sent to war. He was free to spend his "time travelling throughout Europe on his private business and financial affairs, so long as he held himself available to help the Abwehr when called upon to do so."
"Hitler is the undisputed master of Europe," Jebsen declared. "In a few months' time, he'll probably fi nish off England, and then America and Russia will be glad to come to terms with him." This was pure Nazi propaganda, but Jebsen's expression, as usual, was glintingly ironic. "Would you dine with a friend of mine," Jebsen asked suddenly, "a member of the German embassy?" The friend turned out to be one Major Muntzinger, a corpulent Bavarian and the most senior Abwehr officer in the Balkans. Over brandy and cigars, Muntzinger made his pitch to Popov, as subtle as a sledgehammer. "No country can resist the German army. In a couple of months, England will be invaded. To facilitate the German task to make an eventual invasion less bloody, you could help." Muntzinger shifted to flattery. Popov was well connected. His business was the ideal cover for traveling to Britain, where he must know many important and influential people. Why, did he not know the Duke of Kent himself? Popov nodded. (He did not admit that he had visited Britain only once in his life and had met the duke for a matter of minutes at Dubrovnik's Argosy Yacht Club.) Muntzinger continued: "We have many agents in England, quite a number of them excellent. But your connections would open many doors. You could render us great service. And we could do the same for you. The Reich knows how to show its appreciation." Jebsen drank his whiskey and said nothing. Muntzinger was somewhat vague about the kind of information Popov might gather: "General. Political." And then, after a pause: "Military. Johnny will introduce you to the proper people when and if you accept." Popov asked for time to think the offer over, and in the morning he accepted. Jebsen had recruited his first spy for German intelligence. He would never recruit another.
Popov, meanwhile, had begun to develop what he called "a little idea of my own."
From Double Cross: The True Story of the D-Day Spies by Ben MacIntyre. Copyright 2012 by Ben MacIntyre. Excerpted by permission of Bloomsbury Publishing.