Juan Pujol García was born in Spain on 14th February 1912. His biographer, Stephan Talty, has pointed out: "He’d been a dreamer since childhood, which he spent 'covered in bandages' after acting out wild adventures as an explorer or the Hollywood cowboy Tom Mix. His parents didn’t understand him, didn’t understand why he crashed his tricycle through plate-glass windows and nearly decapitated himself while acting out some daydream. Pujol tried to explain that his imagination 'controlled' his brain, and that he was powerless to stop it. That imagination cursed him throughout his early life. Pujol was so convinced that he had a great part to play in world affairs that he was a disaster at everyday life." (1)
Pujol became a poultry farmer and a manager of a small hotel. (2) During the Spanish Civil War he developed a hatred of fascism and in January 1941, he offered his services to the British Embassy in Madrid. (3) However, his offer was rejected because of suspicions that he was a German agent.
Juan Pujol now went to see Wilhelm Leissner, of Abwehr. After "characteristically lengthy and involved negotiations" he was given the codename "Arabel" and sent to London "with a questionnaire, secret ink, money, cover addresses, and the German blessing." (4) Fearing arrest if he went to England, he decided to go to Lisbon instead and using information from tourist guides, reference books, and British newspapers, which were widely available in neutral Portugal, began fabricating intelligence reports about the British Isles. Leissner was convinced by this information and he became a trusted agent. (5)
Pujol once again approached the British authorities about working as a spy against Nazi Germany. By this time "Arabel" was well known to British intelligence through Ultra intercepts, and extensive efforts had extensive efforts had been made to track him down. "When MI5 realised that he had never set foot in England and had created a bogus network from scratch, it was an opportunity too good to miss... By January of 1944 he had sent some 400 secret letters to Germany and transmitted nearly 4,000 secret letters to Germany and transmitted nearly 4,000 messages by radio. The grateful Germans believed he had a network of fourteen sub-agents and eleven well-placed contacts, including one in the Ministry of Information, eventually awarded him the Iron Cross and paid him around £31,000 (more than £800,000 at today's values) to maintain his network." (6)
John Masterman was the creator of the Double-Cross System (XX-Committee), an operation that attempted to turn "German agents against their masters and persuaded them to cooperate in sending false information back to Berlin." (7) He was already aware of Pujol's activities and was amazed that he was "the sole inventor and begetter of this convoy" of messages and had been "responsible for a great expenditure of useless labour on the part of the enemy" and that he would "be a worthy collaborator than an unconscious competitor". (8)
Juan Pujol was interviewed by Gene Risso Gill in Lisbon. He was brought to London in April 1942 where he met Desmond Bristow and Tomás Harris, two agents involved in the Double-Cross System. Bristow later recalled: "Juan, a short man with slicked-back dark hair revealing a high forehead, and warm brown eyes with a slight mischievous glint, smiled as I shook his hand. The room was sparsely furnished, with just a table and four chairs set against a window overlooking the small back garden of the semi-detached house. I spent the next four hours translating the messages he had sent to the Abwehr into English. In the afternoon I started the preliminary debriefing. As the representative of MI6, it was my task for the next eight days to interrogate this enigmatic Catalan." (9)
Bristow of Section V of MI6, the Iberian sector of the Counter-Intelligence Department told his boss, Kim Philby, that he was convinced that Pujol was genuine in his desire to work as a double agent for the British. Pujol was given the codename GARBO (because he was the greatest actor that MI6 had encountered). Tomás Harris became his case-officer. Christopher Andrew, the author of The Defence of the Realm: The Authorized History of MI5 (2009) has argued: "The most inventive disinformation came from the Spanish double agent GARBO and his full-time case officer, Tomás Harris... who formed one of the most creative and successful agent-case-officer partnerships in MI5 history." (10)
Pujol posed as the employee of a large fruit and vegetable importer who did much business with Spain and Portugal from Covent Garden market. "He spent seven days a week, averaging six to eight hours a day, drafting secret letters." (11) His first project was Operation Torch, which was the first major Allied offensive of the war invasion of the Second World War. Planning the invasion of French North Africa began in July 1942. Pujol was one of eight double agents were used to pass disinformation to the enemy.
As MI5 wanted to use GARBO in later operations, it was agreed that he should send accurate details of the planned Allied invasion. However, it was arranged for these reports to be delayed in the post. They did not reach GARBO's case-officer until 7th November, a a few hours before the Allied landings and after the invasion force had already been spotted by the Germans. It did not occur to the Abwehr to blame GARBO for the delay or to suspect the involvement of British intelligence. His German case-officer told him: "Your last reports are all magnificent, but we are very sorry they arrived late."
By 1943 GARBO had convinced Abwehr that he had a network of highly productive sub-agents. It was claimed that the twenty-eight agents, were mostly in the UK but some of them were as far afield as North America and Ceylon. His imaginary list of agents included a soldier in the 9th Armoured Division, a NAAFI waiter, a Welsh fascist, a censor and a secretary in the Cabinet Office." (12) The Germans believed that Pujol was their most successful agent. "Up to March 1943, when he acquired a wireless, all his reports were conveyed by secret writing in letters notionally carried by an airline employee working on the London-Lisbon run, but actually organised entirely by SIS (MI6), as was the transmission of his German case-officer's replies." (13)
Duff Cooper reported to Winston Churchill that "GARBO works on average from six to eight hours a day - drafting secret letters, enciphering, composing cover texts, writing them and planning for the future. Fortunately he has a facile and lurid style, great ingenuity and a passionate and quixotic zeal for his task." (14) As a result of receiving this information Churchill apparently said: "In wartime, truth is so precious that she should always be attended by a bodyguard of lies."
Tomás Harris and GARBO played an important role in the deception plans for the D-Day landings. The key aims of the deception were: "(a) To induce the German Command to believe that the main assault and follow up will be in or east of the Pas de Calais area, thereby encouraging the enemy to maintain or increase the strength of his air and ground forces and his fortifications there at the expense of other areas, particularly of the Caen area in Normandy. (b) To keep the enemy in doubt as to the date and time of the actual assault. (c) During and after the main assault, to contain the largest possible German land and air forces in or east of the Pas de Calais for at least fourteen days." (15)
Harris devised a plan of action for Pujol. He was to inform the Germans that the opening phase of the invasion was under way as the airborne landings started, and four hours before the seaborne landings began. "This, the XX-Committee reasoned, would be too later for the Germans to do anything to do anything to frustrate the attack, but would confirm that GARBO remained alert, active, and well-placed to obtain critically important intelligence." (16)
Christopher Andrew has explained how the strategy worked: "During the first six months of 1944, working with Tomás Harris, he (GARBO) sent more than 500 messages to the Abwehr station in Madrid, which as German intercepts revealed, passed them to Berlin, many marked 'Urgent'... The final act in the pre-D-Day deception was entrusted, appropriately, to its greatest practitioners, GARBO and Tomás Harris. After several weeks of pressure, Harris finally gained permission for GARBO to be allowed to radio a warning that Allied forces were heading towards the Normandy beaches just too late for the Germans to benefit from it." (17) As a result of his role in the success of the D-Day landings, Juan Pujol was awarded the OBE on 25th November 1944.
Pujol feared that Nazis would seek revenge after the war. With the help of MI5, Pujol moved to Angola and faked his death from malaria in 1949. He then moved to Lagunillas, Venezuela, where he ran a bookstore and gift shop. In May 1984 the author, Nigel West, based on information provided by Tomás Harris, found him and after extensive interviews published a book about his experiences. (18)
Juan Pujol García died in Caracas on 10th October 1988.
Donald Darling of M19, in charge of escaped prisoners of war and anybody else wanting to return to England, met Pujol, gave him money, showed him around Gibraltar and generally looked after him for two weeks. Donald quickly came to the same conclusion as Gene about Pujol, and with his sharp sense of humour named him Mr Bovril; this was to prevent that sinking feeling coming over any of us. The final message sent from us at St Albans confirming the go-ahead eventually put Mr Bovril in a seat on a Sunderland seaplane headed for Plymouth.
On the evening of April 25th the Sunderland landed in Plymouth harbour. Mr Bovril was met by Cyril Mills and Tomas (Tommy) Harris of MIS. The following morning Harris and Mills escorted Bovril on the train to the Royal Patriotic School for initial interrogation and filing of his arrival in England.
On April 28th I caught the morning train to London, the underground to Hendon and walked to 35 Crespigny Road, the house assigned to Bovril by MIS. Cyril Mills greeted me and introduced Pujol. My undercover name on this occasion
was Captain Richards. Juan, a short man with slicked-back dark hair revealing a high forehead, and warm brown eyes with a slight mischievous glint, smiled as I shook his hand. The room was sparsely furnished, with just a table and four chairs set against a window overlooking the small back garden of the semi-detached house. I spent the next four hours translating the messages he had sent to the Abwehr into English. In the afternoon I started the preliminary debriefing. As the representative of M16, it was my task for the next eight days to interrogate this enigmatic Catalan.
GARBO works on average from six to eight hours a day - drafting secret letters, enciphering, composing cover texts, writing them and planning for the future. Fortunately he has a facile and lurid style, great ingenuity and a passionate and quixotic zeal for his task.
The Nazis rated him their best spy in England; the Brits said he was the greatest secret agent of the war.... Many people dream of becoming spies. Life as James Bond or a character from an Alan Furst novel seems racy and well-paid. But when faced with actual espionage the training, the danger, the use of other human beings for motives that can feel questionable or even sordid - they forget about it. They move on.
Juan Pujol didn’t move on. At the beginning of World War II, this brilliant young Spaniard wanted to “start a personal war with Hitler,” and espionage was his chosen method of doing it. He was willing to risk his life—and that of his gorgeous wife, Araceli—to have a great adventure and perhaps save the world in the process.
There were a few problems with this plan, though. Pujol wasn’t a spy. He was an ex-chicken farmer and hotel manager who was, in the spring of 1941, stuck in a one-star dump in Madrid. He had no training in espionage. He had no contacts in the espionage world. He was living in a Fascist-controlled country that was infiltrated by thousands of Nazi agents and informers. He had about as much chance of becoming a world-class intelligence operative as you or I have of winning the gold in the Olympic steeplechase.
Only one year later, Pujol had transformed himself into something almost unprecedented in the long history of intelligence. He was on his way to becoming a completely self-made master spy. By that time, Pujol was a rising star in MI5’s stable of double agents. The Germans trusted him implicitly. He conducted missions that involved global assets and caused the Nazis to send fighter planes and destroyers to attack convoys that didn’t even exist. The Allies were so in awe of his powers of confabulation that they’d given him the code name “Garbo,” because he was the greatest actor they’d ever seen.
And when the Allies began planning D-Day, it was Pujol who was chosen to lead the deception effort. He would be the point of the spear in convincing Hitler that the Normandy landings, the greatest invasion in human history, was in fact a fake, and that a million-man army was about to attack him along another length of French coast. Pujol was going to be lead actor in the most complex wartime deception ever conceived.
This simply doesn’t happen. Nobodies don’t will themselves into the game in the course of one short year. But somehow this mischievous and enigmatic man had done just that. At a price, however...
The self-made spy finally convinced the Allies that he wanted to work for them and was smuggled into England. At his debriefing in London, he told his British handlers why he’d volunteered to fight the Nazis. His brother, Joaquin, had been vacationing in France when he came across a horrific scene: the Gestapo pulling out refugees from their hiding places in a French home and executing them in cold blood. The MI5 officer, a half-Jewish artist named Thomas Harris, listened to the gruesome tale and afterward declared that Pujol would make a “marvelous agent.”
In doing the research for Agent Garbo, my book on Pujol, I discovered what became one of the more fascinating details of his story: at the time Pujol was being debriefed, his brother Joaquin had never been to France. He’d never been out of Spain. The story was a complete fantasy, created by Pujol to make sure the Allies believed him and that he would be allowed to live out his dream.
Soon afterward, Pujol and Harris began one of the great partnerships in espionage history: they sent the Abwehr airplane manuals baked into cakes, created an army of 27 fake sub-agents to feed the Nazis fake narratives, made battleships vanish from the Indian Ocean and pop up thousands of miles away. An MI5 advance man toured the English countryside for hotels the imaginary informants could “stay” at and pubs they could describe in their bulletins. The Germans rated Garbo their best spy in England; he was even awarded the Iron Cross, something that amused Pujol to no end.
A document has been published for the first time which proves that the Nazis were fooled by the Allies’ D-Day landing plans.
The double-cross was so significant that it arguably shortened the length of World War II.
It was a certain Juan Pujol Garcia, an apparent Spanish businessman, who is at the heart of this new discovery - for the part he played in convincing the Nazis that the Allies were planning to stage the majority of the landings in Pas de Calais, rather than the Normandy coast.
An intercepted memo picked up by British agents and decoded at Bletchley Park, revealed to the Allies that Garcia’s lie had not just worked, but had altered Germany’s war strategy. The Allies knew in advance that Adolf Hitler and his troops had fallen hook, line and sinker for the plot.
The Spaniard Pujol, known as Alaric Arabel to the Nazis, ran a network of spies in Britain, feeding information back to Berlin via his handler in Madrid. But in reality, he was working for the Brits (they knew him as Garbo) and his web of lies would mislead the enemy.
The BBC has reproduced the document and the main takeaways are these: not only were many German troops kept in the wrong area, thus preventing them from swamping Normandy but the Allies knew in advance that their plan had worked. Indeed, lives were surely saved and the war was brought to a quicker conclusion.