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Garbo

The Story Behind Britain’s Greatest Double Cross Agent

The Normandy Landings of 6 June 1944 marked the beginning of the liberation of occupied Western Europe. Until the very last minute, the place of invasion – Normandy – was the most heavily guarded secret on the planet. The Security Service made a significant contribution to the success of D-Day through its double agent Juan Pujol, codenamed GARBO, who has been described as the greatest double agent of the Second World War. On his own initiative, the industrialist’s son from Barcelona approached the Germans and tricked them into thinking he wanted to spy for them.

Possibly the greatest double cross operation in British espionage history was nearly ruined by a Spanish double agent’s homesick wife and her horror at wartime British food. He went to England, working with MI5 to create a whole network of entirely imaginary agents and feeding misinformation to the Nazis, culminating in the ultimate triumph: a leading role in securing the success of the D-Day landings by convincing the Germans the main invasion would happen around Calais, not in Normandy.

Throughout it all, “the small meek young Spaniard”, as his MI5 handler called him, was never the problem. He fooled the Germans so completely they awarded him the Iron Cross.

The problem was the meek young Spaniard’s wife.

“Mrs Garbo”, Araceli Gonzalez de Pujol, had never left the Iberian Peninsula before she arrived in London in the spring of 1942. Speaking no English, missing her mother, the 23-year-old became terribly homesick. Mrs Garbo was, horrified by having to swap a Mediterranean diet for the rationed offerings of a country that was still decades away from accepting haute cuisine or the gastropub.

Her despair at “too much macaroni, too many potatoes and not enough fish,” was duly noted by MI5.

So too was the fear that driven by the desire to go home to mother, or to the Spanish Embassy in London, Mrs Garbo might divulge to a fascist power the secrets of what was fast becoming the most successful double cross of the Second World War, and arguably of British espionage history.

So it was that on 22 February 1943, agent C P Harvey of MI5 was ordered to neutral Lisbon, Portugal, with a top secret mission: to purchase 12 pairs of silk stockings for Mrs Garbo. Harvey was left in no doubt as to the importance of the stockings, at a time when silk was in short supply in Britain, with most of it going to make parachutes, not hosiery. Mrs Garbo had been promised the stockings, he was told.  An MI6 agent had already been to Lisbon but failed to secure the stockings, on account of failing to ascertain the size required.

“It would,” Tommy Harris, Agent Garbo’s MI5 handler, warned Harvey, “make a very bad effect on her morale” were Britain not to honour its stockings promise.  This was now “a small matter of some importance”.

Fortunately, Harris had established that Mrs Garbo took the same size stocking as Mrs Gill, wife of MI6 officer Gene Risso-Gill.

“If you cannot get the size from Mrs Gill,” Harvey was ordered, “please get any small size”. On 4 March, Harvey returned from Lisbon with the message: “Herewith 12 pairs of stockings for Mrs Garbo for which I expect to be repaid 10/- [10 shillings] customs duty.”

News that the stockings mission had been accomplished was relayed from MI5 to the Secret Intelligence Service MI6, in a document now filed for posterity in the National Archives as “To SIS re Mrs Garbo’s stockings.”

“In 1941 when the Germans were all-powerful in Spain, the British Embassy in Madrid was being stoned, France had collapsed and the German invasion was imminent, little were the Germans to know that the small meek young Spaniard who then approached them volunteering to go to London to engage in espionage on their behalf would turn out to be a British agent. Still less were they to discover that the network which they instructed him to build up in the UK was to be composed of 27 characters who were nothing more than a figment of the imagination.”
– Tomas Harris, GARBO’s MI5 case officer, 1946

During World War II, the Security Service played a key role in combating enemy espionage, intercepting German communications and feeding misinformation back to Germany. The Service achieved great success in uncovering enemy agents in Britain, some of whom were “turned” by the Service and became double agents who fed false information to the Germans concerning military strategy throughout the war. This was the famous “Double Cross” system, a highly effective deception that contributed to the success of the Allied Forces landing in Normandy on D-Day in June 1944. When captured German intelligence records were studied after 1945, it was found that almost all of the further 115 or so agents targeted against Britain during the course of the war had been successfully identified and caught. The only exception was an agent who committed suicide before capture.

Juan Pujol Garcia was Britain’s most important double agent of the Second World War CREDIT: THE NATIONAL ARCHIVES/PA

Files released in 2016 from The British National Archives reveal the inside story of Juan Pujol Garcia, codenamed Garbo, the most remarkable of Britain’s Second World War Double Cross agents. The 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.

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.

The Security Service’s success only came after an initial period of great confusion. The Service was inadequately prepared for the massive increase in work that came with the onset of war. It had far too few staff to deal with its new responsibilities. At the end of 1938, the Service had only 30 officers and another 103 secretaries and registry staff.

These problems meant that, when war was declared, a flood of reports, vetting requests and enquiries overwhelmed the Security Service. During the second quarter of 1940, the Service received an average of 8,200 vetting requests each week. The Service also had to contend with fears of a “Fifth Column” of Nazi sympathizers in Britain working to prepare the ground for a German invasion. This resulted in thousands of reports of suspected enemy activity, each of which had to be investigated. The problem rapidly worsened with the introduction of internment (imprisonment without trial). Within the first six months of the war, 64,000 citizens of Germany, Austria and Italy resident in the UK had to undergo security interviews to confirm that they were “friendly aliens”. In addition, suspected British Nazi sympathisers such as Sir Oswald Mosley were imprisoned to guard against the threat of domestic subversion.

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 tons 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.

Juan Pujol Garcia aka “Garbo.”

Juan Pujol Garcia – was born in Barcelona in 1912 to a wealthy family with liberal political beliefs. He reluctantly fought in the Spanish Civil War, managing to do so on both sides and – so he claimed – without actually firing a single bullet for either side. He emerged from that experience with a dislike for totalitarianism in general and a particular loathing for Nazism. The onset of war in 1939 convinced him that he should make a contribution, as he put it, “to the good of humanity.”

How he did this was dictated by his admiration for Britain, then standing alone in the face of the Axis.

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.

But life in 1930s Spain was anything but boring. In 1931, King Alfonso XIII sensed his popularity crumbling and fled the country without formally abdicating, leaving Spain a political vacuum. Communist and Fascist groups violently fought for power. Bullrings became theatres for public massacres, and the corpses of politicians littered Madrid’s alleys.

When Spain plunged into civil war in July 1936, Pujol was supposed to report for duty, but he fled instead. He was soon caught and thrown in prison. Then, after unwittingly joining a jailbreak, he bolted to a safe house in Barcelona. He never saw his fiancée again. More than a year passed, and in 1938, a depressed and emaciated Pujol emerged from hiding. The escapee looked so bad; he was able to forge a document saying he was too old for the army. It would be the first of a growing snowball of lies.

Desperate for money, Pujol eventually landed a job managing a dumpy Madrid hotel ironically named the Majestic. The walls were grubby and the heating was shoddy, but in a certain sense, he had found a home. He was a passionate small-talker, and a hotel was a great place to meet people. And those people could be his ticket out of war-torn Spain.

One day, the Spanish Duke of Torre walked into the hotel and asked for a room. Pujol struck up a conversation about parties, which prompted the Duke to complain that his aunts—two elderly pro-Franco princesses—were upset they couldn’t get their hands on any scotch since the civil war erupted. Pujol’s eyes lit up. He knew there was hooch across the border in Portugal. He didn’t have a passport—obtaining one was nearly impossible—but if anyone could get him one, it would be a pair of Franco-loving princesses.

So Pujol wagered the duke a deal: If he could procure Pujol a passport, then Pujol would procure some scotch. The royal agreed, and soon the Spaniard had his papers. He chauffeured the aristocrats into Portugal, bought six bottles of black market booze, and moseyed back into Spain with ease. Like that, he had a document that people killed, and were killed, for. He could escape.

The timing could not have been worse. There was nowhere safe to escape to. Weeks earlier, in September 1939, England had declared war on Germany. Hitler was beginning to gobble up Europe, and word of concentration camps had leaked past Spain’s censors. Pujol was trapped—and outraged. “My humanist convictions would not allow me to turn a blind eye to the enormous suffering that was being unleashed by this psychopath,” he wrote in Operation Garbo, a 1985 book co-authored by Nigel West. So instead of plotting his escape, Pujol began plotting schemes to help the Allies.

In January 1941, he walked into the British embassy and vaguely asked for a job as a spy. There was just one problem: He knew absolutely nothing about espionage. He floated from one embassy secretary to the next, talking in circles about “his services.” They offered their own services by showing him the door.

Fortunately he was not deterred, deciding instead to take matters into his own hands by getting himself recruited by the Germans and offering to spy for them in England.

Undeterred, Pujol returned home and fine-tuned his spiel. Then, he did the unthinkable: He called the German embassy and declared he wanted to spy for the Nazis. In contrast, Pujol had no difficulty making contact with German Intelligence in Madrid, offering them the story that he was a Spanish government official of fanatical pro-Nazi persuasions travelling to London on official business and wanting to do his Fascist duty there. After some initial hesitation, they accepted him. He was given a crash course in espionage, including secret writing.

Araceli Pujol Garcia. Araceli Garcia threatened to go to the Spanish embassy and tell all (Image: The National Archives/PA)

The voice on the line was heavy and guttural. It told Pujol to go to the Café Lyon at 16:30 the next day—an agent in a light suit would be holding a raincoat in the back of the café waiting for him.

Pujol followed orders. He strolled into the café and introduced himself to an athletic, blue-eyed blond man sitting in the back. The agent greeted him with a cold nod. His code name was Federico, and he was specially trained to spot frauds. Pujol sat and started professing a devout—but false—love for Hitler and the New Order. The rant was cunning and bombastic. Off the top of his head, Pujol spun a rambling web of lies, rattling off names of nonexistent diplomats whom he claimed were friends. Impressed, Federico scheduled a second meeting.

Rendezvousing at a beerhouse, Federico told Pujol that the Nazi spy ring—the Abwehr—didn’t need more agents in Spain. Rather, they needed moles who could snoop abroad. Pujol beamed and told the recruiter about his passport. Federico nodded. A few days later, he told Pujol to go to Lisbon and charm the embassy into awarding him an exit visa. When Pujol got there, the embassy refused.

It looked like a dead end, but again, Pujol’s gift of gab proved handy. At his hotel in Lisbon, he befriended a portly, affable Galician man named Jaime Souza. On a night out together, Souza unveiled a document that made Pujol’s heart leap—a diplomatic visa. For the next week, Pujol accompanied Souza everywhere: amusement parks, nightclubs, cabarets, and, eventually, a casino. One afternoon, as the duo played roulette, Pujol pretended to double over with stomach cramps. He told Souza to keep playing while he ran back to the hotel. He raced to their room, opened Souza’s suitcase, pilfered the visa, and snapped a few photographs. Then, he returned to the casino floor as if nothing had happened.

Within days, Pujol had forged the document. Upon returning to Spain, he showed it to Federico: Pujol was in. The agent was so impressed, he took Pujol under his wing, stocking him with invisible ink, cyphers, $3,000 in cash, and a code name: ARABEL—Latin for “answered prayer.” His first assignment was to move to England, pose as a BBC radio producer, and crib British intelligence.

Pujol, of course, had no interest in actually spying for the Nazis. He wanted to be an Allied double agent. So instead of following orders to go to Britain, he went to Portugal. Confident the Allies would accept him now that he had access to German secrets, he dashed to the British embassy and showed them the ink, the ciphers, and the cash—he had everything a double agent needed. But the British reply was clear: “No.” Pujol was crestfallen. “Why,” he wondered, “was the enemy proving to be so helpful, while those whom I wanted to be my friends were being so implacable?”

Despite its name, Britain’s intelligence office was anything but. When the war began, the office was a factory of bad ideas. In 1941, it tried convincing the Germans that 200 man-eating sharks had been dumped in the English Channel. A year later, it seriously considered staging the Second Coming of Christ. (The plan was simple: A Jesus-like figure would magically appear across the German countryside, perform miracles, and preach peace.)

The decision to reject Pujol, however, was a matter of politics. The Allies wanted to keep Spain out of the war, so a Spanish double agent wasn’t enticing. Plus there was the minor detail that Pujol didn’t know a thing about England. He had never been there. He knew nothing about its military. He barely spoke the language. And now, in order not to blow his cover with the Abwehr, he had to convince the Nazis he was living there.

On June 6, 1944, Allied forces invaded Normandy in Operation Overlord during World War II. The largest seaborne invasion in history, the operation began the invasion of German-occupied western Europe and contributed to an Allied victory in the war.

Without leaving Portugal, Pujol bought a map of England, a tourist guidebook, and a list of railway timetables—and began lying through his teeth.

Armed with a copy of the Blue Guide to England, reference books (including one on the Royal Navy) and a few magazines he had found in his local library, he concocted impressive-looking reports written in such a way that they appeared to have been sent from London.

Unsurprisingly, considering that he had never visited the UK, he made some factual mistakes. One of the best known was his remark to his German controller that on a visit to Glasgow he had found men who “would do anything for a litre of wine”. Fortunately, it appears that the Germans were equally unaware of Glaswegian drinking habits.

The Abwehr had told him to recruit subagents for help. Pujol had a better idea: He’d make them up. If something went sour, he could blame it on his imaginary employees. When something went right, he’d take the credit. With that, ARABEL started fabricating sources, spies, and stories. Using newspapers and telephone books as inspiration, Pujol wrote sprawling, baroque letters to the Abwehr that contained practically no useful information at all—they were just meant to waste the agency’s time. But Pujol knew he couldn’t keep up the ruse forever. If he wanted the Abwehr’s trust, he’d need to start sending some legitimate information. He asked for Britain’s help, but the embassy rejected him a fourth and fifth time.

Then, by chance, some of ARABEL’s reports struck too close to the truth. In one letter, he told the Germans that a convoy of five Allied ships had left Liverpool for Malta. Little did Pujol know, but the made-up report was, in reality, mostly correct. When Britain’s spy circle—the MI5—intercepted the message, agents panicked. A Nazi spy was loose in England! “The British were going crazy looking for me,” Pujol later recalled. He pulled a similar stunt weeks later, reporting that a major armada was departing Wales. This time, the convoy didn’t exist. But U-boats and Italian fighter planes scrambled to ambush it anyway, wasting tons of fuel and thousands of man-hours. Now, this grabbed the Allies’ attention.

The Brits were so impressed with his ability to play a fervid Nazi, they code-named the amateur spy GARBO because, in their opinion, he was the best actor in the world.

By April 1942 Pujol had, at last, made contact with MI6 and was moved to London. His management was taken over by the Security Service. Here, his case was given to a Spanish-speaking officer, Tomás (Tommy) Harris. The Official History of British Intelligence in World War II describes what followed as “one of those rare partnerships between two exceptionally gifted men whose inventive genius inspired and complemented each other.”

Araceli Garcia struggled to cope with the pressures of her husband’s double life CREDIT: THE NATIONAL ARCHIVES/PA

Then GARBO was in 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.’

Mrs Garbo’s 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.

GARBO himself came up with the much more radical plan that they put into action. 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. He came round to the house to find ‘her sitting in the kitchen with all the gas taps turned on’. She demanded he leave 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 some times in such a nervous state that there was the 10% chance of an accident’

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 jeopardize 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 file from the National Archives, 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.

Many photographers took pictures of Allied forces landing on the beaches of Normandy during D-Day.

By 1944 Pujol and Harris, working together had invented no fewer than 27 sub-agents, each with full life stories. The fictional agents included such characters as a Venezuelan in Glasgow, an indiscreet US army sergeant and a Welsh nationalist leading a group of Fascists called the “Brothers of the Aryan World Order” in Swansea. Contact with Madrid was maintained through ostensibly innocent hand-written letters that concealed secret writing. They were addressed to a post-box address in Lisbon given him by the Germans.

Between them Pujol and Harris wrote 315 such letters averaging 2,000 words each. The writing style was pre-determined by Pujol while still in Portugal. He posed as a verbose, fanatical Nazi ready to risk his life for the Führer’s “new world order”.

This rich vein of fantasy was maintained and enlarged under Security Service control to provide as much “confusing bulk” as possible for the enemy to assimilate. The assessment of the Official History of British Intelligence in WW2 is that the Germans, in Spain at least, became so flooded with information from GARBO’s agents in Britain that they made no further attempt to infiltrate the UK.

From the beginning the Security Service’s priority was to build up German confidence in their supposed agents to the point where the Allies could use them for military deception purposes.

The first of these was in support of plans for the Operation TORCH landings in North Africa in November 1942. A report from GARBO’s “agent” on the Clyde informed the Germans that a convoy of troopships and warships had been seen leaving port, painted in distinctive Mediterranean camouflage. The message was sent by airmail postmarked well before the landings and timed to arrive too late to provide the German High Command with advance warning. The information was thus accurate, but militarily unusable. The Germans were nonetheless delighted; Pujol was told, by return, “We are sorry they arrived too late but your last reports were magnificent”.

During 1943 it was decided that radio communications with his German controllers were needed. Pujol invented a radio mechanic who, by happy coincidence, was only too pleased to offer his discreet services to the cause. From August 1943 virtually all of the GARBO reports were passed by this means.

It proved enormously complex to maintain the continuity and integrity of this large, entirely fictional network, and the information it was providing – all of which had to be approved and prepared for transmission. But the pay-off was that by 1944, the Security Service had put in place a group of “agents” who were completely tried, tested and trusted by the Germans. This proved an enormously valuable asset in the deception operation that led up to the D-Day landings.

The D-Day landings (Image: Getty)

As a bona fide double agent, GARBO’s network of imaginary spies ballooned. He enlisted a travelling salesman, a cave-dwelling Gibraltarian waiter, a retired Welsh seaman turned Fascist mercenary, an Indian poet nicknamed RAGS, an obsessive-compulsive code-named MOONBEAM, and even an employee at Britain’s Ministry of War. The bogus spies filed expense reports; some earned real salaries, all funded by the Nazis. By war’s end, GARBO had invented 27 personas. Working for the MI5 also meant that Pujol finally had real military information at his fingertips. So to build the Abwehr’s trust, he began giving away legitimate Allied secrets, peppering the reports with enough white lies to throw off the Nazis.

The phantom agents spread rumours that Norway might be attacked, while others claimed that Dakar, Senegal, was next. The news confused the Nazis and kept them ill-prepared. To save face, GARBO wrote the Abwehr a letter one week before the true African invasion, detailing exactly when and where the Allies would attack. The information could have put thousands of troops at risk, except that the MI5 intentionally delayed the letter so it arrived one day late. The stunt saved lives and made GARBO look like an oracle.

Other stunts boosted his star power. When the Nazis wanted to bomb civilian trains in England, they asked GARBO for a train timetable. He sent an outdated one. When they wanted a book containing Royal Air Force secrets, GARBO mailed it in a cake with all the up-to-date pages deviously torn out. When Germans shot down a civilian plane between Portugal and London, killing everybody aboard—including Hollywood actor Leslie Howard—GARBO lambasted the Abwehr. One of his make-believe agents, a pilot, could have been onboard! Embarrassed, the Germans never attacked another civilian aircraft on that route.

By June 1943, Pujol had become one of Germany’s most prized spies. The Abwehr sent him new ciphers and vials of invisible ink—which made it easier for the MI5 to crack enemy codes. Meanwhile, the Nazis circulated a memo comparing him to a 45,000-man army. Pujol, who’d failed at school, at military service, and at business, was a virtuoso con man. And now, he had all of the ingredients he needed to cook up his biggest lie yet.

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.

Security Service agents and their case officers were carefully primed to convey information, often in mere snippets, all designed to point in one direction. Like an elaborate jigsaw puzzle, each piece would contribute to a picture, the full significance of which was only confirmed when it was complete.

At the heart of the deception plan was an entire “ghost” army, the First US Army Group (FUSAG). This supposedly comprised 11 non-existent divisions (150,000 men) under the command of General George S. Patton, renowned as one of the Allies’ best tank commanders. The FUSAG was seemingly poised in Kent and Essex ready to join the invasion – well away from the real invasion force massing to the west. Other Security Service agents were used to substantiate the deception plan. They were so successful that German Intelligence and, more importantly, the German High Command believed the false story completely.

The British spared no effort or expense to make the hoax look legit. Inflatable decoys—mock tanks and boats—dotted harbors and farms. Fake hospitals were erected. Bulldozers plowed faux airstrips, and soldiers built hundreds of phony 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 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 southeast England to report on the activity. Meanwhile, other phony 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.

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 armored 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 honors. 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 realized they had a double agent on their hands. By then, his network of phony 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.

Pujol died in Caracas in 1988. Tomás Harris, Pujol’s Security Service handler, left the Service after the end of the war. He spent much of his time in Spain and was killed in a car crash in Majorca in 1964.

The Security Service released Tomás Harris’s case files on GARBO to the Public Records Office (now The National Archives) in January 1999. Harris’s “Summary of the Garbo Case 1941-1945” is also published in the PRO’s Secret History Files series, entitled Garbo: The Spy who saved D-Day, introduced by the historian Mark Seaman.

The following are profiles of three of GARBO’s fictitious agents. They are examples of what intelligence operatives call “legends” – a cover story designed to fool the target into believing the bona fides of an agent. In this case, GARBO went one step further by creating completely fictitious agents.

In his postwar “Summary of the Garbo Case 1941-1945”, Tomás Harris lists each of GARBO’s invented agents, describing them as if they were real people with a history of collaboration with GARBO.

Agent 7 (1) – Soldier in the 9th Armoured Division
NAME: Not mentioned
NATIONALITY: British
OCCUPATION: Soldier in the 9th Armoured Division. Not mentioned.
RECRUITED: Prior to the 16.9.43.

The 9th Armoured Division, frequently referred to in the traffic as the Panda Division (since its insignia was that of a panda) was built up as a first line formation by the GARBO organization at the time of Operation STARKEY. The Germans took a lively interest in the activities of this Division. The association of the words PANDA and PANZER seemed to register in German minds. They were prepared to accept this Division as a likely assault division for the Second Front.

In the absence of a directive we built up the potential of the 9th Armoured Division until January, 1944, after which period it was allowed to fade out since the plans then revealed that it was not amongst those Divisions which were to be used in the Order of Battle of FORTITUDE (SOUTH). In fact it never operated in France and was disbanded.

Agent 5 (the brother of Agent 3)
NAME:Not mentioned.
NATIONALITY: Venezuelan.
OCCUPATION: Of independent means. Later employed as a commercial traveller in Toronto.
ADDRESS: Glasgow and, later, Toronto.
RECRUITED: Prior to 14.6.42.

He was first mentioned by GARBO during the period when GARBO was working in Lisbon. He was brought onto the scene in connection with a provocation by GARBO to ascertain whether the Germans were refuelling their submarines in the Caribbean. He then offered the services of this individual to set up a refuelling base near his parents’ property in Venezuela. The offer was turned down. He was later used as bait to draw the Germans to disclose whether they were interested to have an agent in Northern Ireland. Finally he was recruited in June, 1942, as an active member of the GARBO network.

At that time the Germans were very interested in the Isle of Wight. It would, in fact, have been difficult, if not impossible, to have got an agent in there but we decided to satisfy their request to send Agent No. 5 to investigate activities there. To make it appear plausible that he should have been able to enter the Island, we depicted this agent as an adventurous young man prepared to take any risks for his masters. We set out in great detail the story of his adventurous clandestine entry to the Island and the perilous experiences he had there.

Though the story told was similar to that which one might read in any spy novel the Germans liked it, believed it to be true, and thus he rose in their estimation.

Having completed this dangerous mission, and toured the south coast of England and Wales the agent, a restless character, decided that he wanted a change.

With the help of Agent No. 7 he eventually smuggled himself out of England to Canada, having received instructions from GARBO to endeavour to set up a sub-organization there. This he successfully did, and, by August 1943, he was already communicating in secret writing to a cover address in Lisbon provided by the Germans for this purpose.

Agent No. 3
NAME: Not mentioned. (His letters to the Germans were signed PEDRO.)
NATIONALITY: Venezuelan.
OCCUPATION: Of independent means.
ADDRESS: Glasgow.
RECRUITED: Prior to the 7.10.41.

This was the third and last of the agents recruited by GARBO whilst he was operating in Lisbon. He was represented as having been educated in the University of Glasgow and was still in the U.K. at the outbreak of war. Though his exact means of livelihood were never disclosed, the impression was given that he was a man of means, whose family had properties in Venezuela, one near Comuna and another in Caracas.

From the outset GARBO showed a preference for this agent and, being the oldest survivor of the network, after disposing of Agents Nos. 1 and 2 it was natural that he should have finally gained the rank of Deputy Chief of the GARBO network.

He was the first to be given secret ink to write direct to the Germans who furnished him with a cover address in Lisbon for this purpose. The letters were written in this Office. They were written in English, a language which the Germans were told he knew as well as his native Spanish, if not better, since he had been absent from Venezuela for many years. His traffic was, on the whole, higher grade than that of any other agent during the first two years of the history of the network.

After GARBO’s first arrest in 1944 the entire organization was directed by this agent and the Germans came to regard him as an able substitute for the Chief of the organization. The purpose of handing over the organization to this agent, and removing the control from GARBO, was primarily with a view to being able to run the organization entirely through this Office without the personality of GARBO entering into it, and this was achieved. Thus, during the last months of the running of the case, this Office was in direct communication with the German Intelligence Service, utilizing only officers of this Department to communicate in English on a wireless transmitting set which was installed within our Office building.

(The Service does not reveal the names of its agents unless the agents themselves have publicised their connection with them, as GARBO did in 1985 in publishing his own autobiography – “Operation GARBO” – under his own name).

 


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