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23rd Headquarters Special Troops was a tactical deception unit comprised of 1,100 troops. They took part in over 20 battles, to include the Operation Overlord. This unit remained classified for almost 40 years after the close of World War II, and even today some of their missions are still classified.

Garbo

The Story Behind Britain’s Greatest Double Cross Agent

Juan Pujol Garcia lived a lie that helped win World War II. He was a double agent for the British, performing so well that they nicknamed him for the enigmatic actress Greta Garbo.

Juan Pujol Garcia had been working at a hotel when he decided to become a spy. Although he was born to a wealthy Barcelona family in 1912, Pujol had squandered his privileges. To the disappointment of his family, he dropped out of boarding school at 15, eventually enrolling instead at an academy for poultry farmers. At 21, he served six months of mandatory military service, but army life wasn’t for him: The pacifist ditched the cavalry and bought a movie theatre. When that venture failed, he bought a smaller theatre, which flopped too. Success chronically eluded him. By 24, Pujol had resigned himself to working on a sinking chicken farm and marrying a girl he wasn’t sure he loved. His life was normal, if not boring.

The inside story of Juan Pujol Garcia, codenamed Garbo, was the most remarkable of Britain’s Second World War Double Cross agents. Inside files show how he fed misinformation to the Germans in order to deceive them about Allied intentions on a number of topics, most notably the timing and location of the D-Day landings.

They also reveal the price of this success, particularly on Garbo’s young wife, who had been an integral part of setting up the espionage network and yet soon came to be seen as the biggest threat to its success.

Juan Pujol Garcia in his uniform as a lieutenant in the Spanish Republican Army.

Garbo, unlike virtually all other Double Cross agents, was not originally a German spy. Instead, he started out on his own, working in Lisbon, feeding the Germans information he made up from the few maps and guide books he had available. Garbo’s wife, Araceli, played a vital role in the setting up of this deception. She personally delivered some of Garbo’s earliest messages and through some excellent acting helped convince Garbo’s German handlers that he was spying in England, when in fact he was living quietly in Portugal.

From the outset, it was clear that Garbo could not run a deception network on his own and he was keen to establish links with the British intelligence services. Unfortunately, although perhaps unsurprisingly, the British embassy officials in Lisbon and Madrid were less than impressed when he approached them unheralded and offered his services as a spy.

It fell to Aracelli to establish the connections which would turn Garbo from being one man’s dream into one of the most successful spies of the war. Unknown to her husband she made contact with Edward Rousseau, the American Assistant Naval Attaché in Lisbon. Rousseau, unlike his British counterparts, believed Mrs Garbo’s story and despite further setbacks, Garbo eventually came to the notice of the British intelligence services.

Garbo was rapidly moved to England for his own safety and to facilitate his work, and it was natural that his pregnant wife and their first child should come with him. From the outset this caused problems. Neither Garbo, nor his wife spoke English, and whilst he spent long hours every day with his bilingual case handler Tomás Harris, she was left alone, increasingly homesick. This was not helped by the fact that MI5 were vehemently opposed to Mrs Garbo making friends among the Spanish community in London, as this was felt to be heavily influenced by the pro-German Spanish intelligence service. Harris reported after one meeting that ‘she grumbled that she had not a single friend here, that her husband would not let her mix with Spanish women in London, nor correspond with her Spanish friends in Spain.’

Juan Pujol Garcia, right, came terrifyingly close to having his cover blown by his unimpressed wife, left. Juan Pujol Garcia was Britain’s most important double agent of the Second World War CREDIT: THE NATIONAL ARCHIVES/PA

As Britain’s most important double agent of the Second World War, the brilliant cunning of Juan Pujol Garcia – codenamed Agent Garbo by MI5 – proved crucial in defeating Nazi Germany.

However, during his pivotal work in giving the Germans a false location for the D-Day landings, he came terrifyingly close to having his cover blown by his unimpressed wife.

His scheming was nearly wrecked because of his spouse, Araceli, struggled to cope with the pressures of his double life.

Mrs Garb had concerns over a number of small issues around food, domestic help, and care for her children which compounded as the MI5 officers dealing with the case struggled to understand or gather the resources to do anything about them. At the same time, she was clearly cut out from any involvement in the network which she had been so instrumental in setting up.

These problems manifest themselves in increasingly erratic behaviour. At a dinner to celebrate their anniversary, Mrs Garbo told a concerned Harris that she had already developed grandiose plans to blackmail the Germans and ‘impoverish Hitler’. Recognising her mistake she retracted her comments later the same evening, but it helped to reinforce concerns MI5 held regarding her.

Through the middle of 1943, Mrs Garbo became increasingly upset and homesick. Harris wrote that:

‘she is a highly emotional and neurotic woman and therefore I have never definitely disillusioned her in her hopes that she might be allowed to see her mother before the termination of the war’.

She frequently complained, with some justification that she rarely got to see her husband, due to the pressures of his work.

Desperately homesick and lonely, Mrs Garbo took matters into her own hands and demanded that she be allowed to return to Spain or else she would go to the Spanish Embassy and reveal all. This led to a major argument between Garbo and his wife, and concern for MI5. British intelligence officers realised they needed to do something to address the security risk and initially came up with the plan of supposedly cutting ties with the Garbos, and getting him to continue work unbeknownst to his wife.

The plans never took off, and the spy ended up retiring with his wife to Venezuela

“Garbo” ran a network of fictitious sub-agents sending back a steady stream of false intelligence reports to his German spymasters.

She even warned of outing Garbo as he convinced the Nazis the D-Day landings would take place at the Pas de Calais – diverting German forces away from Normandy, scene of the actual invasion, saving countless Allied lives in the process.

Fears the deception could unravel if she was recognised by fellow Spaniards in London meant that her movements were strictly controlled by Pujol and she was largely confined to the house with her two children, to her intense frustration.

Matters finally came to a head in June 1943 – a year before D-Day – when, after quarrelling violently with her husband, Mrs Pujol threatened to go to the Spanish embassy and tell all unless she was allowed to travel home to see her mother.

“I don’t want to live five minutes longer with my husband,” she screamed at Pujol’s alarmed MI5 case officer, Tomas Harris. “Even if they kill me I am going to the Spanish embassy.”

With a visit to Spain out of the question, Mr Harris suggested she should be told Pujol had been sacked as a result of her outburst, while quietly allowing him to carry on his work against the Germans under the cover of working as a BBC translator.

However, Pujol felt rather more drastic action was needed if she was to be brought round. With the agreement of MI5, he came up with a deception plan every bit as cunning as those he used to fool the Germans.

The next day, Mrs Pujol was informed her husband had been detained following a violent argument with his MI5 spymasters over her treatment – prompting what Mr Harris described in his report as a “hysterical outburst”. She then threatened to take the children and “make a disappearance”.

Garbo together with MI5 would pretend that he had been placed in prison because of his wife’s actions and the security threat it posed. When informed Mrs Garbo went through the full range of emotions, contrition, anger and then despair.

Later that evening she made a desperate call to the MI5 wireless operator who worked with Garbo.

An MI5 officer who was sent to check up on her found she had turned on all the gas taps in the house in an apparent suicide attempt.

The former spy’s Venezuelan passport. Courtesy Tamara Kreisler

He came round to the house to find ‘her sitting in the kitchen with all the gas taps turned on’. She demanded he left but instead he went out into the garden and later recalled that ‘during the next hour and a half I found her sitting in the drawing room with both gas fires turned on, on two separate occasions’. Summing up the officer concluded that ‘there was a 90% chance that this was mere “play-acting”, but she was sometimes in such a nervous state that there was the 10% chance of [an] accident’ reported Mr Harris, who sent over his own wife to comfort her.

The following afternoon, a tearful Mrs Pujol was taken blindfolded to MI5’s Camp 020 interrogation centre near Ham Common, West London, where her husband was brought before her, unshaven and dressed in camp clothing.

In an emotional reunion, she swore to him she had never meant to carry out her threat to go to the embassy and had simply wanted her request to return home to be taken seriously.

“She promised that if only he was released from prison, she would help him in every way to continue his work with even greater zeal than before,” Mr Harris noted. “She left Camp 020 more composed, but still weeping.”

The charade was not quite over. Mrs Pujol was then taken before MI5’s legal adviser, Major Edward Cussen, who after a stern dressing down, told her he had decided her husband should be released and allowed to continue his work.

“He reminded her that he had no time to waste with tiresome people and that if her name was ever mentioned to him again, he would simply direct that she should be locked up,” Mr Harris noted. “She returned home very chastened to await husband’s arrival.”

Mr Harris was clearly in awe at the way Pujol orchestrated the whole affair, writing: “The extraordinary ingenuity with which he has conceived and carried through this plan has perhaps saved a situation which might otherwise have been intolerable.”

Tommy Harris’s report on the incident shows that MI5 took a harsh line on Mrs Garbo’s behaviour. He wrote that:

‘she thought that if she could lure him [the wireless operator] round, that she would terrify him by a pretence of suicide; that when he reported to us, as she had anticipated, in panic, she would have called our bluff and we would come running up to her.’

 As it was, the security services continued with their pretence of Garbo’s incarceration. Mrs Garbo was forced to give a statement in which ‘she admitted that all the blame attaches to her and that she will not do anything in future to jeopardise the work being done by her husband or cause embarrassment to the Office.’ To add authenticity Garbo himself penned a fake statement which he was supposed to have made to a Tribunal into the case. One MI5 officer admiringly minuted that it had ‘shades of Pericles!’

Garbo was, therefore ‘released’ on the understanding that Mrs Garbo would do nothing further to interfere with the spying work being carried out. Although Mrs Garbo’s direct agitation to return to Spain stopped following her husband’s elaborate deception plan, it does not appear that she was any happier. Despite her vital role in establishing Garbo she was cut off from any involvement in the case and isolated from much external contact.

The files document much of the extraordinary success of Garbo as an agent, however, they also reveal the human cost. In this case, it was Garbo’s wife who paid the greatest price for her husband’s work. At the height of a bloody conflict, it is easy to understand why Garbo and MI5 took such a tough line, but it is difficult not to feel sympathy for Mrs Garbo and admiration for her role in one of the greatest deceptions of the 20th century.

Juan Pujol-Garcia (codename Garbo) The Garbo network (printed) World War II

In the weeks leading up to D-day, Allied commanders had their best game faces on. “This operation is not being planned with any alternatives,” barked General Dwight D. Eisenhower. “This operation is planned as a victory, and that’s the way it’s going to be!” Indeed, more than 6,000 ships were ready to cruise across the English Channel to plant the first wave of two million troops on the white beaches of Normandy. Nearly 20,000 vehicles would crawl ashore as 13,000 planes dropped thousands of tonnes of explosives and thousands of paratroopers.

The sheer size of the invasion—it would be the largest in history—was staggering. But so were the stakes. With the first day’s casualty rate expected to reach 90 percent and the outcome of World War II hanging in the balance, the truth was that Eisenhower was riddled with doubt. He’d transformed into an anxious chimney, puffing four packs of cigarettes a day. Other Allied leaders felt equally unsure. “I see the tides running red with their blood,” Winston Churchill lamented. General George S. Patton privately complained of feeling “awfully restless.” Chief of the Imperial General Staff Alan Brooke was more blunt: “It won’t work,” he said. The day before the invasion, Eisenhower quietly pencilled a note accepting blame in case he had to order a retreat. When he watched the last of the 101st Airborne Division take off, the steely general started to cry.

They were worried for good reason. With so many troops and so much artillery swelling in England, it was impossible to keep the attack a secret. Hitler knew it was coming, and he’d been preparing a defence for months. Only one detail eluded him, and he was confident in a Nazi victory if he could figure it out—he needed to know where, exactly, the attack would happen. To make D-day a success, the Allies needed to keep him in the dark: They’d have to trick the Germans into thinking the real invasion was just a bluff while making it seem like a major attack was imminent elsewhere. The task seemed impossible, but luckily, the British had a secret weapon: a short, young balding Spaniard. He was the king of con men, an amateur spy gone pro, the world’s sneakiest liar. He was also, of all things, a chicken farmer.

The spy did so well in the fight against Hitler, plans were made for him to spy on Soviet Russia

Pujol was the Walter Mitty of the war, a very imaginative daydreamer. In 1941, he had about as much chance of being a master spy as you and I have of winning the Olympic decathlon this year.

Pujol had failed in almost everything he’d tried in his 32 years: student, businessman, cinema magnate, soldier. His marriage was falling apart. But in one specialised area of war, the espionage subworld known as the double-cross game, the young man was a kind of savant, and he knew it. After years of suffering and doubt, Agent Garbo felt he was ready to match wits with the best of minds of the Third Reich.

When the British didn’t pay any attention to him, his plans veered toward espionage. He knew that he had to go to the Germans first, establish himself as a German operative, and then turn double agent.

“But of course, he didn’t have the ability to get to London, so he just went back to Lisbon. He pretended he was in London, a place he’d never been to. He didn’t even speak the English language. And he started on this self-made, imaginary espionage career.

The British were terrified. They were like, ‘Someone has sneaked past our lines and someone is in the heart of the beast, reporting on us!’ because his reports were so believable, even to people in the country he was supposed to be spying on.

At the beginning … he’s just reporting movements of different battalions in England. Increasing confidence in himself and giving [the Germans] what he considers chicken feed — little bits of military information that, at the beginning, were completely true. These were nonessential facts the British felt that they could pass on. And slowly, over time, they begin to mix that chicken feet with imaginary information they wanted Germans to believe.

So the ration of true to false declined over time and at the end, he was giving them 100 percent fantasies.

He was creating a million-man army called FUSAG, which was going to be sort of the alternative to the real one that landed at Normandy. Normandy would be presented as a feint, you know, provocative first move to get the Germans to attack it, while the real invasion was going to come up the coast at Calais. Pujol was the point of the spear in getting that information across to Hitler.

There were fake destroyers being created out of rubber, fake airfields cut into the English countryside where real planes landed. [Pujol] was sort of the screenwriter for an epic film that was being played out right across England.

February 24, 1942, a night that most certainly did not live in infamy. At first, the lights in the sky were believed to be a Japanese air raid. The military response certainly suggested that it was indeed some sort of air attack. The night sky was filled with anti-aircraft fire, and it was later reported by Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox that it was a false alarm caused by a weather balloon. Some UFOlogists believe that the event was actually a battle with extra-terrestrial aircraft.

England’s country lanes were choked with troops. It was early 1943, and planes, jeeps, and tents were everywhere. Locals joked that the island would sink under all the weight. To German reconnaissance aircraft, it was obvious that something big was about to happen. Garbo’s job wasn’t to hide the impending French invasion—it was to convince the Germans that it was going to happen in Calais, 200 miles north of Normandy. If he succeeded, most of the Nazi soldiers would be waiting in the wrong place when the real invasion happened. But few people believed the ploy could actually work. Tricking Hitler, intelligence officer Ralph Ingersoll once said, was the equivalent of “putting a hooped skirt and ruffled pants on an elephant to make it look like a crinoline girl.”

To pull it off, Garbo had to convince the Nazis that a nonexistent million-man army was assembling in southeastern England. The imaginary army was given a real name: the First United States Army Group, or FUSAG. According to Stephan Talty’s book Agent Garbo, the British spared no effort or expense to make the hoax look legit. Inflatable decoys—mock tanks and boats—dotted harbours and farms. Fake hospitals were erected. Bulldozers ploughed faux airstrips, and soldiers built hundreds of phoney wooden aircraft. When a bogus oil plant was constructed near Dover, the Brits requisitioned wind machines from a movie studio to blow dust across the Channel to make the construction site more believable. Newspapers showed King George VI inspecting the artificial plant. Carrier pigeons were released in enemy territory with the property of fusag IDs wrapped around their legs, and special machines stamped tank tracks along dusty roads. Newspapers published fake letters complaining about the ruckus all the imaginary soldiers were causing. And as the date of the real invasion neared, General Patton appeared across south-eastern England to rally the make-believe troops.

GARBO “sent” his best agents to south-east England to report on the activity. Meanwhile, other phoney agents reported seeing bombers in Scotland, which made an additional attack on Norway look imminent. The reports made Hitler so nervous that he kept 250,000 much-needed troops stationed in Scandinavia. By May 1944, German High Command was utterly confused. Field Marshal Erwin Rommel was convinced FUSAG was real. Just before D-day, the Allies bombed 19 railroad junctions near Calais—and none in Normandy. Accompanied with GARBO’s reports, the bombings led most Nazi bigwigs to agree: All signs pointed to Calais.

During early phases of the war, British pilots thought of an ingenious way to get beer to the front-lines. They would return to Britain for basic maintenance, and then return to the front with kegs of beer strapped to their planes. This spitfire modification involved mounting kegs of beer to the fuel, and bomb pylons on the bottom of the fighter plane. Never underestimate a Brit’s need for a cold glass of ale.

At 6:30 a.m. on June 6, 1944, the first Allied troops stormed onto the sands of Omaha Beach, Normandy. D-day had begun. Although the first boats met a stiff resistance, the Nazis were relatively clueless. The German Seventh Army stationed nearby was snoozing in its barracks. General Hans Speidel had told both his armies to reduce their states of readiness because of gloomy weather. General Friedrich Dollmann was so convinced June 6 would be a slow day that he scheduled war games. Meanwhile, Rommel had taken the day off to celebrate his wife’s birthday. (The day before, as the Allies prepared history’s biggest invasion, he was picking wildflowers.) When Berlin learned that forces were landing in Normandy, the staff refused to even wake Hitler. The ploy had worked—almost nobody took the invasion seriously. Nazi brass thought it was a scheme to distract them from the real invasion—at Calais.

Two days went by. Tens of thousands more troops hit the beaches, and German generals still refused to send in serious reinforcements: They were still waiting for the fake army to attack. On June 9, a desperate General Gerd von Rundstedt begged Hitler to send the Panzers, the Axis’s fearsome tank squads. Hitler finally caved. This was terrible news for the Allies: The Panzers could cripple the invasion.

But early that morning, GARBO sent a message about the fake army that would change history: “I am of the opinion, in view of the strong troop concentrations in southeastern and eastern England, which are not taking part in the present operations, that these operations are a diversionary maneuver designed to draw off enemy reserves in order then to make a decisive attack in another place … it may very probably take place in the Pas-de-Calais area.”

The message was forwarded immediately to Berlin. Hitler’s personal intelligence officer underlined the word diversionary and handed it off to a higher official, who laid it on Hitler’s desk. The Abwehr chimed in confirming the information. Later that night, Hitler read Garbo’s message; shortly after, an order beamed from High Command: “The move of the 1st SS Panzer Division will, therefore, be halted.” Suddenly, nine of Germany’s meanest armoured divisions—all bound for Normandy—stopped dead in their tracks and turned around to defend Calais.

It was Garbo’s greatest lie, and it arguably turned the tide of the war. The fake-out saved tens of thousands of Allied lives and secured a foothold on the continent. A month later, 22 German divisions were still waiting in Pas-de-Calais for the fake army. By December, when Allies had regained France, German commanders still believed FUSAG was real. Berlin was so convinced by GARBO’s reports that it awarded him an Iron Cross—an honour usually reserved for troops on the front line. Months later, the King of England followed suit and made Pujol a member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire—one of the nation’s greatest honours. The self-made spy became the first and only person decorated by both sides.

D-day was the beginning of the end. Hitler killed himself the next spring, and the Abwehr told Garbo to give up—they’d never realised they had a double agent on their hands. By then, his network of phoney agents had stolen £17,554—nearly $1 million to- day—from Nazi coffers. Soon, Pujol fled to South America to be, as he put it, “forgotten, to pass unnoticed and to be untraceable.” Four years later, the MI5 reported that he had died of malaria while exploring Africa.

But this too was another brilliantly executed lie—a rumour spread to shake off any vengeful Nazi loyalists. Pujol, then 36, was alive and well in Venezuela, where his life became boring and normal again. He married, had two sons, opened a book- store, and got a job with Shell Oil as a language teacher. He even tried going back into the hotel business, where, again, he failed miserably. He lived off the radar until 1984, when the enterprising journalist Nigel West found him after a decade-plus search. That year, a 72-year-old Pujol returned to London for an emotional reunion. His former MI5 colleagues were gobsmacked. “It can’t be you,” one of them burst. “You’re dead!”

West took Pujol to Omaha Beach for D-day’s 40th anniversary. When the spy saw the cemetery—with its long, neat rows of white headstones—he dropped to his knees and burst into tears. He felt responsible for each grave. But as the day wore on, word circulated that Pujol was there. Hordes of gray-haired men flocked to him, begging to shake his hand. One man, surrounded by family and fellow veterans, took Pujol by the arm and beamed. “I have the pleasure of introducing Garbo, the man who saved our lives.” Again, tears flooded Pujol’s eyes. This time, though, he smiled.

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Agent Garbo: The Chicken Farmer Spy by Mark Simner – WW2 Nation


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