Garbo

It was a solemn march to the Hôtel Meurice in Paris for German General Dietrich von Choltitz on August 25, 1944.  The German Army in Normandy had been smashed.  The encircled Falasie pocket, containing 50,000 German troops – the last of the men who had defended Normandy – had given up.  American General George S. Patton’s Third Army was running wild through the disoriented German lines.

As for Paris, the Meurice had become, just hours before, the advance headquarters of Free French General Philippe François Marie Leclerc de Hauteclocque, better known simply as Leclerc – de Gaulle’s de facto right-hand man.  Despite explicit orders from the Führer himself to destroy Paris, von Choltitz chose instead to surrender the city without a fight (whether this was out of a desire of self-preservation or the preservation of Paris became the subject of great debate after the war).

The City of Lights was back in the hands of Allied forces.  While history credited so many famous names with Paris’ eventual liberation, perhaps the greatest credit is due to a man few would ever know – Juan Pujol Garcia, better known as the double-agent “Garbo.”

Juan Pujol Garcia – his intelligence work as the double-agent “Garbo” convinced the Axis that the Normandy invasion would come at the Pas de Calais – so much so that the Germans never truly left their positions

Juan Pujol Garcia was an unlikely hero.  Although he was born to a wealthy Barcelona family in 1912, Pujol’s life read as a series of failures and bad choices.  He dropped out of boarding school at 15, instead choosing an academy for poultry farmers.  After serving his six months of mandatory military service at 21, he bought a movie theater.  It flopped.  In an effort to financially recover, Pujol bought a smaller theater.  And it failed too.  By his mid-20s, Pujol was little more than a poor chicken farmer.  At best, Pujol could be called a raging mediocrity.

If Pujol seemed on the sidelines of life, Spain was about to be cast onto center stage of world affairs.  In April of 1931, amid the parliamentary victories of the so-called republicans (in effect, socialists) King Alfonso XIII fled the country without formally abdicating, leaving Spain a political vacuum.  By the time the Spanish Civil War broke out in 1936, Alfonso was trying to engineer his return.  But Nationalist General (and future dictator) Francisco Franco made it clear that Alfonso would be not allowed back to govern the country, regardless of the outcome of the war.

A young Pujol serves in the Spanish military. Pujol was a noted pacifist and rejected going back into the army during the Spanish Civil War. For his views, he was sent to prison, only to escape and hide for years

In July 1936, Pujol was supposed to report for military 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.  More than a year passed, and in 1938, an 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.  The move showcased what would become Pujol’s emerging major talents – forgery and lying.

Now a free man, Pujol’s only thought was escaping the fascist regime in Spain.  The only question was where one could escape.  This was the fall of 1939 – Hitler was beginning to gobble up Europe, and word of Nazi war crimes had leaked past Spain’s censors. Pujol felt trapped, but also 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.  Pujol’s focus quickly shifted.  Instead of trying to escape fascists, he would fight Fascism.

Generalissimo Franco – (center) visits with Adolf Hitler. Spanish under Franco managed to stay out of the war; a likely surprise for Hitler and Mussolini who had spent considerable resources helping him win the Spanish Civil War

Juan Pujol Garcia’s entrance into the world of espionage was hardly the stuff of James Bond movies.  In January of 1941, he literally walked into the British embassy in Spain and asked for a job as a spy.  His total lack of skill for the sort of “cloak and dagger” work required in such a field was apparent to anyone he approached, and Pujol was repeatedly rebuffed.  Some wondered if he was some sort of idiotic mole or double-agent.  His lack of skill, or of opportunities, didn’t faze Pujol.  Instead, he struck upon a new plan – if the Allies wouldn’t accept him as a spy, perhaps the Germans would.

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Pujol’s abrupt tactics worked better on the Germans and they arranged for him to meet one of their handlers in a cafe.  His code name was Federico, and he was specially trained to spot frauds.  Pujol sat and started professing a devout admiration for Hitler.  The rant was equal parts 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.  Federico informed Pujol if he really was as talented as he professed, he should go to Lisbon and charm the embassy into awarding him an exit visa.  Pujol, who had developed quite the gift of gab while managing a hotel after his escape from prison, believed he could easily accomplish his mission.  Yet after Pujol arrived in Portugal, the embassy refused his exit visa.  Pujol’s career as a spy seemed to be over before it started.

First success: Garbo steals his first documents – a diplomatic visa – from Jamie Souza

Pujol hadn’t let earlier failures discourage him, and he wouldn’t let this one either.  At his hotel in Lisbon, he befriended an affable Galician man named Jaime Souza from the embassy. 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 evening, 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.  The agent was so impressed, he took Pujol under his wing, stocking him with invisible ink, ciphers, $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 was now confident the Allies would accept him since he had access to German secrets, and he dashed to the British embassy and showed them the ink, the ciphers, and the cash.  But the British reply was clear: “No.” Pujol was heartbroken. “Why,” he wondered, “was the enemy proving to be so helpful, while those whom I wanted to be my friends were being so implacable?”

British “Intelligence” – while Bletchley Park made British intelligence look like James Bond, the real intel services acted more like Inspector Clouseau. Here is one of their many bad ideas, a bomb inside a rat

The decision to reject Pujol was a matter of politics. The Allies wanted to keep Spain out of the war, assuming that if they did enter, it would threaten Gibraltar, so a Spanish double-agent seemed a recipe to create more problems than it might solve.  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…without British help.

While still in Portugal, Pujol bought a map of England, a tourist guidebook, and a list of railway timetables – and began lying through his teeth.  The Abwehr had told him to recruit sub-agents 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 letters to the Abwehr that contained practically no useful information at all – they were just meant to waste the agency’s time.

Pujol knew he couldn’t keep up the ruse forever.  He had manged to string along German intelligence for months, with no one’s assistance but his own.  But if he wanted the Abwehr’s trust, he’d need to start sending some legitimate information.  He again asked for Britain’s help, but the embassy rejected him a fourth and fifth time.

It’s actually a still from a movie on Garbo, but the point is the same – the German’s war planning trusted every word from Garbo. One memo referred to him as worth the weight of a 45,000 man army

Pujol finally caught the attention of British Intelligence – for all the wrong reasons.  In one letter, he told the Germans that a convoy of five Allied ships had left Liverpool for Malta. The letter was entirely fictitious, but the contents proved accurate.  When Britain’s MI5 intercepted the message, agents panicked.  Somehow a Nazi spy had managed to land in England.  Pujol was now being actively pursued, albeit within England as British spies believed he must be operating in country to have the level of detail that he reported.

Equal parts astonished and cocky, Pujol attempted to repeat his magic, telling the Axis that a major armada was departing Wales.  U-boats and Italian fighter planes scrambled to ambush it, wasting tons of fuel and thousands of man-hours.  The move impressed the Allies, who were starting to catch on to Pujol’s routine.  By April of 1942, MI5 had contacted Pujol, drafting him to service as a double-agent.  Pujol’s talent for inventive lying had at last served him well.  MI5 was so taken with his commitment to his role, they code-named the amateur spy “Garbo”, after famed actress Greta Garbo, because, in their opinion, he was the best actor in the world.

As a bona-fide double-agent, Garbo’s network of imaginary spies ballooned into a cast of characters Ian Fleming would envy.  A traveling 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 were all supposedly spying for the Third Reich.  The bogus spies filed expense reports; some earned real salaries, all funded by the Nazis. By war’s end, Garbo had invented 27 personas.

The Garbo Network – in the end, the Germans would pay Garbo and his “agents” over $1 million in today’s value for his intelligence work

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 disinformaton to throw off the Nazis.

The first real test of Garbo’s credibility would come during Operation Torch – the campaign to invade North Africa.  In preparation, Garbo reported that three of his agents had seen seeing troops in Scotland, preparing for an invasion.  These phantom agents spread rumors 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 gamble was massive – if the Germans believed Garbo, they could meet the Allied troops on the beaches.  In order to protect lives, and Garbo’s credibility with his German handlers, MI5 intentionally delayed the letter so it arrived one day late.  From that point on, whatever doubts the Abwehr might have had with Garbo disappeared.

Operation Torch – American troops land in Algiers. Torch demonstrated, to the Germans, that Garbo was a genuine spy and that he had accurate information as to Allied intentions

Other stunts boosted his legitimacy.  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 again.

By June 1943, Pujol had become Germany’s most prized spy. 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 artist.  And now, he had all of the ingredients he needed to cook up his biggest lie yet.

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Hiding the impending invasion of France was somewhat of an impossibility.

The endless series of potential invasions the Allies presented to the Germans via Garbo (and other intelligence assets).

Over three million American troops would eventually pass through the British Isles, bringing hundreds of thousands of jeeps, tanks and planes with them.  There was no obscuring the scale of the forces involved nor their target – liberating France.  Garbo’s job wasn’t to hide the invasion, but rather convince the Germans that it was going to happen in Calais, 200 miles north of Normandy.  If the rouse succeeded, most German soldiers would be waiting in the wrong place.  But few people believed the ploy could actually work.

To pull it off, Garbo had to convince the Nazis that a non-existent million-man army was assembling in southeastern England.  The imaginary army was given a real name: the First United States Army Group, or FUSAG.  The Allies 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 the fake army had a very real general “leading” it – George S. Patton, who the Germans believed was the logical choice to lead an invasion given his bold leadership and aggressive tank tactics.

Gen. George S. Patton – the commander of the Allies “Ghost Army”, Patton hated the assignment, which took him out of the initial fight for France. After two heavily publicized incidents of him hitting soldiers in Sicily, Patton was lucky to have any command, even a fictional one

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 German Intelligence to agree: all signs pointed to Calais.

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At 6:30 a.m. on June 6, 1944, the German Seventh Army was stationed in the Pas de Calais and sound asleep.  General Friedrich Dollmann was so convinced June 6 would be a slow day that he scheduled war games.  General 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.

German Generals at Calais – even though the German General Staff begged Hitler to move troops from Calais to met the Allied invasion at Normandy, most stilled believed the major Allied push would be at Calais (after all, it was the shortest distance between England and France)

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 and crush the invasion force before it could get a toehold.  Hitler had believed in Garbo as much as his intelligence branches, but the evidence was starting to erode Garbo’s insistence that Normandy was a spoiling attack.  Even if it was, the news out of Normandy was troubling for the German army.  Hitler relented – the panzers would go to Normandy.

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.”  Nine armored divisions – all bound for Normandy – stopped dead in their tracks and turned around to defend Calais.  The single greatest threat to the Allies establishing a beachhead in France had been defeated by a piece of paper.

Patton’s Ghost Army – Armored Division. The Allies spent considerable efforts to mock up an army for German intelligence, including these inflatable tanks.

Even by July, 22 German divisions were still waiting in Pas de Calais for George S. Patton’s phony army.  By August, as divisions were escaping the Pas de Calais due to the Allied advance – spearheaded by Patton – the German General Staff still felt FUSAG would land elsewhere.  The rouse had been so completely bought by Hitler and his commanders that in December of 1944, long after the Allies had regained France, German commanders still believed FUSAG was real and would attack.

The utter lack of anything approaching operations by FUSAG did nothing to dampen Berlin’s opinion of Garbo.  Instead, Pujo was awarded an Iron Cross.  Months later, the King of England followed suit and made Pujol a member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire.  The self-made spy became the first and only person decorated by both sides in World War II.

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The lies didn’t stop with the end of the war.

Pujol fled to South America after the war, escaping with some of the money the Nazis had paid him.  Even MI5 lost track of him, passing along stories that Pujol had died of malaria while exploring Africa.  He was no longer of anyone’s interest.  Pujol had emerged from seemingly nowhere and disappeared back in that same fog just as quickly.

Pujol in 1984 – alive and well and back in London

But this too was another lie; one designed to discourage any former Nazis from asking too many questions or potentially hunting him down.  Like most of his life before the war, the truth of Juan Pujol Garcia’s life was incredibly dull.  Pujol, only in his mid-30s, settled in Venezuela.  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 a journalist, uncovering his stories from the war, was surprised to learn that Pujol was very much alive – and no longer really hiding his identity anymore.  That same year, a 72-year-old Pujol returned to London.  His former MI5 colleagues were in disbelief. “It can’t be you,” one of them exclaimed. “You’re dead!”

5 thoughts on “Garbo

  1. What an amazing (and, I suspect, generally unknown) story. I’m thinkin’ Brad Pitt for the movie.

  2. That’s what I thought too; movie. But then I thought, how would today’s Hollywood rewrite this story to make the US look bad and maybe it’s best not to turn it into a movie. Looks like there’s a few books on this story, will have to order one.

  3. How certain are you, Mitch, that Pujol was really one of the good guys? An awful lot of Europeans were playing both ends against the middle. A more high-profile personality was Nils Bohr. There is still some doubt how hard Bohr had tried to make a nazi A-bomb. I’ve heard that after he received word that the Americans had dropped the bomb on Hiroshima, he demonstrated to his fellow German scientists (then in captivity in England) exactly how we had done it.
    I once read a fascinating history of Shanghai between the wars. Shanghai was an open city, nominally partitioned between various powers and warlords. Everyone was spying on everyone else, all the spies and all the authorities were switching sides as they thought best, and trying to line their own pockets while avoiding getting shot.

  4. I’m sorry I got the moniker wrong, First Ringer — I saw the topic was WW2 and I thought it was Mitch’s!

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