Along with its glorious stretch of golden coastline, Lisbon was a hive of spying activity during World War II, with many secret agents from both sides operating under the cover of their diplomatic status.
Portugal’s neutrality both encouraged and facilitated the presence of some of history’s most celebrated spies, including 007 creator Ian Fleming, actor Leslie Howard and British author Graham Greene, among many others.
Lisbon and its environs was a strategic marketplace for spies working for the Third Reich and the Allies. Their paths crossed in hotel lobbies right across the Portuguese capital and all along the Estoril and Cascais coast, a region also known as the Portuguese Riviera.
Fleming himself stayed at the Hotel Palácio in Estoril (indicated on the map below) and the hotel features prominently in the Bond movie On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, much of which was filmed in the area in 1969, including the scene (pictured above) shot at Guincho Beach near Cascais.
As stated in an American document published in 1942, Lisbon was the ‘main point of entry and exit for agents, representatives and every form of communication (except radio) between Continental Europe and the rest of the world’. It was very much the hub through which the wires of espionage ran, and during the war there were as many as fifty intelligence agencies operating in and around the city.
The British used Portugal as a platform in the economic war for the surveillance of German spy networks, counter-espionage and the escape of prisoners and Allied servicemen from Nazi-occupied countries through covert operations via Gibraltar and Lisbon en route to London.
In May 1941, whilst working for the British secret services, Fleming would have found all the inspiration he needed at the Casino Estoril to write his first novel, Casino Royale. It was there over the roulette wheels and blackjack tables that he conceived the famed James Bond character with his debonair, shaken-not-stirred demeanour.
Greene was another writer greatly influenced by his war time experiences in Lisbon. In 1943 he was Britain’s spymaster in Portugal reporting to Kim Philby, one of the notorious Soviet moles along with Anthony Blunt, Maclean, Burgess and Cairncross, quite definitely five of the most famous double-agents ever to be uncovered.
Two other celebrated double-agents in Lisbon were the Yugoslav brothers Duško and Ivo Popov, also known under their respective code-names of ‘Tricycle’ and ‘Dreadnought’. Both were recruited by the British secret services and were actually British spies. Often in Portugal between 1940 and 1944, ‘Tricycle’ transmitted information to the British about the planned abduction of the Duke of Windsor by the Gestapo in Portugal, as well as the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour.
The two actors Zsa Zsa Gabor, who’d fled from Hungary in 1944, and Leslie Howard, who was now aiding the Allied war effort, also stayed in the Lisbon area at the Hotel Palácio in Estoril. In June 1943, the latter departed from Portugal where he’d been attending the première of his penultimate film Spitfire, The First of the Few, on a BOAC plane that was shot down by German fighter planes over the Bay of Biscay. According to one version of the story, the Germans thought that Winston Churchill was travelling on that plane.