I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.
When the Allies invaded Normandy in June 1944, the success of the landings was due, in no small part, to the work of a Spaniard who convinced his German spymasters that he had insider access to their enemy’s plans. Ben Macintyre in The Times Online describes Juan Pujol Garcia as “brave, gentle, brilliant, and also slightly potty.”
Spanish Civil War Veteran and Anti-Nazi
Juan Pujol Garcia was born in Barcelona in 1912. During the Spanish Civil War, he managed to enlist in both sides, but claimed he never fired a shot. The experience of the conflict turned him against both Nazis and communists.
When the Second World War broke out, he decided to do what he could to help the British, who by 1940, were alone in the conflict with Nazi Germany and their, at the time, Soviet allies. These were desperate days in Britain with the threat of a German invasion ever present.
Spy Has Difficulty Getting Recruited
History.net records that “in January 1941 Pujol decided to volunteer as a British spy, but failed to make contact with an appropriate official in the Madrid embassy.
“Pujol then decided that he would be more useful to British intelligence if he were already a German agent.”
To the Germans, he spun a creative yarn about his contacts in high places in Britain. Germany’s Abwehr intelligence service bought the story and thought they had snared a valuable intelligence asset. Given the spy identity “Arabel,” Pujol was equipped with invisible ink, money, and secret codes.
Pujol Establishes his Credibility
Arabel the spy popped across the border into Portugal and headed for Lisbon, a major German listening post. He began filing intelligence reports as though he was in England. The Times says his information was mostly “culled from guidebooks and magazines … [and was] full of elementary mistakes.”
One of his communiqués advised that “there are people in Glasgow who will do anything for a litre of wine.” Never mind the comical errors, the Abwehr was convinced Arabel was the real deal.
He created a fictional network of sub-agents and invented stories of their brave deeds and escapes from hapless British counter-intelligence agents. He showed a considerable talent in making his fictional characters appear real to his German handlers. He had found his niche as a consummate actor.
British Intelligence Watched Arabel
Code-breakers in England were picking up Arabel’s signals and were intrigued by this German spy who didn’t know that Glaswegians almost never drink wine. They were also worried about the bits of intelligence that were true; did they have a mole in their midst?
When he once again approached the British to work for them he was treated with more respect. After a thorough debriefing history.net records “He was accepted by British MI5 as agent Garbo, one of many German spies being operated by the British under what came to be known as the double-cross system.”
Originally, his code name was “Bovril” but this was changed to reflect Pujol’s considerable acting skills.
Working with MI5, he pretended to tour the British countryside to visit his fictional agents, 27 in all. He even sent a cake to his German handlers with an aircraft manual inside.
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Spy Network Formed
By 1944, Arabel/Garbo had created a team of two dozen agents whose reports were written by MI5 and duly sent off to the Abwehr. The Times describes the team as “a motley crew, including Welsh Aryan supremacists, communists, Greek waiters, disaffected servicemen, and crooks. The only thing they had in common was their non-existence.”
MI5 even killed off one of their fictitious spies and arranged for an obituary to appear in the press where German intelligence was bound to spot it.
Role in Normandy Invasion
In advance of the Normandy landings, Pujol and his invisible spies played a key role in a misdirection scheme that would make the very best conjurer proud.
Code-named Operation Fortitude, Pujol and other double agents fed information to the Nazis that helped convince them the attack was going to come across the shortest stretch of the English Channel between Dover and Calais.
Pujol’s credibility was enhanced when, 24 hours before D-Day, he sent a message that the invasion was imminent. But, he followed up with his most crucial contribution to the war effort.
Three days after the amphibious landings on the beaches of Normandy he sent a message that read “This is the fake, you have to believe me.”
In his 2012 book Agent Garbo: The Brilliant, Eccentric Secret Agent Who Tricked Hitler and Saved D-Day, Stephan Talty writes that this saved the attack: “Hitler and the high command were debating whether the Normandy invasion was the real one and whether to send all [their] reserves from Belgium and France down into Normandy and basically destroy the incoming divisions.”
Pujol's message convinced Germany to hold their reinforcements back long enough for the Allies to establish a beachhead and move in enough troops and munitions to take on and defeat Hitler’s main forces.
In a delicious irony, the Abwehr paid for all the lies their agent was sending them. According to a Random House website, Germany expensed $340,000 on Pujol’s make-believe team.
Decorated by Both Sides
Six weeks after D-Day, Arabel was awarded the Iron Cross, by order of Hitler himself, a decoration normally handed out only to men in combat. At the same time, the British secretly inducted Garbo as a Member of the British Empire. Pujol is probably the only person to hold both decorations.
Germany never tumbled to the deception and, after the war, the U.K. faked Pujol’s death and settled him in Venezuela. In 1986, he published his memoirs and in 2009, a documentary Garbo: The Spy was made about his exploits.
He died in Venezuela in October 1988.
- Juan Pujol was a complete amateur in the spying trade. He had tried his hand at chicken farming and hotel management before he decided to “start a personal war with Hitler.”
- Prior to the D-Day landings, Pujol and others worked on creating a one-million strong army that never existed. It was stationed in southeast England opposite Calais complete with inflatable tanks and warships. The whole imaginary force was given a real-life commander, General George Patton, who hated not having a real command. Pujol sent messages giving eyewitness reports of airfields being built and troop movements.
- “Garbo, the Secret Agent from Hendon.” Ben Macintyre, The Times Online, June 6, 2009.
- “Garbo.” Dundurn Press, May 2004)
- “Agent Garbo: The Brilliant, Eccentric Secret Agent Who Tricked Hitler and Saved D-Day.” Stephan Talty, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012.
- “World War II: Double Agent’s D-Day Victory.” Historynet, June 12, 2006.
- “The Spy Who Tricked Hitler: The Story of Double Agent Juan Pujol and D-Day.” Stephan Talty, Daily Beast, July 11, 2012.
© 2017 Rupert Taylor