Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Agent Garbo, Savior of Normandy

Most people have probably heard of D-Day. D-Day is when American, British and Canadian ships landed on the shores of Normandy in German-controlled France, off-loading thousands of troops under heavy German fire. The surviving troops established a base in France. Successfully landing these troops in France, which gave the Allies a foothold in Europe, changed the course of the war and allowed the Allies to throw the Germans out of France, and less than a year later to win the war. What few people realize is that the success of D-Day, more than anything else, was probably influenced by the scheming and misinformation provided to Nazi Germany by one man.

Juan Pujol Garcia was a failed chicken farmer and movie theater owner in Spain who hated the Nazis and Fascism. He decided to become a spy to help the Allies win the war and defeat Hitler. In an unlikely series of events, Pujol became a double agent, pretending to be a spy for Germany while actually spying for Britain. But Pujol was not just any spy, he was possibly unparalleled in history for his skills as a spy. As a German "spy," he passed back false information,  in such a believable way that the Germans actually gave him a medal, the Iron Cross, for his work. The English, who he was actually working for, also gave him a medal for bravery, meaning that Pujol is probably the only man to be awarded a medal of bravery from both sides in World War II. What follows is how Pujol used trickery to help D-Day succeed, and ultimately helped the Allies to win the war.

In this story, I am going to briefly discuss Pujol's early life, but my main focus will be his role in the success of D-Day. This focus is unfortunate but necessary, because Pujol's entire life is incredibly fascinating. There is not enough space in the blog format to go into all of Pujol's life in one entry. The man did more incredible things in his life than many armies of regular people. If you find this story interesting, I strongly suggest reading Agent Garbo by Stephan Talty, which does much more justice to all of the interesting aspects of Pujol's life.

Early Life

Juan Pujol Garcia was born on February 14, 1912 in Barcelona, Spain. He was born to Juan Pujol, the owner of a Barcelona dye factory, and one of his employees, Maria Garcia. As a child, Pujol was a blur, known to his family and friends as "Bullet." He was known for causing chaos and damage- his siblings would not allow him to play with their toys for fear he would destroy them. He recalled that his name was constantly being yelled in the house. He also had a highly active imagination-what was chaos to others were marvelous adventures to Juan, in which he was the hero. At the age of seven, Juan was sent to a boarding school. Juan's devoutly Catholic mother was dismayed by the chaos that followed Juan everywhere and thought a strict boarding school might sap the destructive energy from him. Juan hated the school he was sent to, and was, throughout his childhood, a mediocre student. He lived for the weekends, when his father would visit him and take him for walks on the beach, teaching him more than he would ever learn in the classroom. From his father, Juan learned to be accepting of others differences, and to care for all people. This would help draw him to his later life's pursuits.

Juan Pujol Garcia as a young Spanish soldier.

In his twenties, Juan went back to school, where he studied chicken farming. In 1933 Pujol joined the Spanish military. Soon after, a flu epidemic hit Barcelona, which claimed his father's life. Pujol was devastated by the loss of his father. He wanted to make his family proud: he bought a large movie theater, and when that failed, he bought a smaller one. All of his business pursuits failed; he was, by all accounts, a terrible businessman, and eventually became a salesman for a chicken farm. In 1936, his beloved Spain exploded in war. 

The Spanish Civil War was fought between the Socialist Republicans, who supported the Spanish government, and the fascist Nationalists, led by the rebelling General Francisco Franco. Pujol was called up to serve in the Nationalist army but refused to serve. After years of hiding, switching sides and running for his life, the war finally ended in 1939. Pujol was left much like Spain was: broken, hate-filled, and bitter. But he did gain a few things from the war: a beautiful, fiery wife named Araceli; a deep hatred of intolerance, Communism and Fascism; and a desire to save the world from the latter three, no matter what the risk.
General Francisco Franco, victor of the Spanish Civil War.

Guernica, a painting by Pablo Picasso. The painting's chaos was inspired by the violence of the Spanish Civil War.

Early Spying Career

In September 1939, German Nazi troops began to take over Poland, marking the beginning of World War II in Europe. Pujol detested the Nazis, who had helped Franco and the Nationalists win the Spanish Civil War, and whom he saw as bullies. At first, Pujol thought he wanted to be a writer for the BBC, working for the Allies against the Germans. But he soon came to realize that his true passion was espionage- it was fast, exciting, allowed him to help others, and, perhaps most importantly, it allowed him to stretch his imagination to its full limits. Finally, in 1941, he worked up the courage and walked into the British Embassy and offered his "services," which were undefined and nonexistent. Not surprisingly, he was turned away. Rejected by the British, he stubbornly decided to take his services to the German Abwehr spy agency, with a plan that once he was an established German spy, he would go back to the British and offer to be a double agent.

To be successful in this endeavor, Pujol knew that he would have to convince the Germans that he actually sympathized with them. So he and Araceli sat down and deeply studied the ideas of Nazism so that Pujol could act like a Nazi to the Nazis. When he was confident in his "Nazi credentials," Pujol contacted the German Embassy and offered his services. After a few meetings with German officials, Pujol was accepted, given some money, and sent on a mission to Portugal. He was given the code name "Arabel," Latin for "answered prayers." While in Portugal, he was able to get a fake visa with a series of tricks that would make James Bond proud. Then he returned to Spain with his new visa, a rare commodity that made him infinitely more valuable to the Germans. After more trickery, he was able to convince the Germans that he was traveling to England, where he would spy for the Nazis. In reality, he returned to Portugal, where he sent fake reports to the Germans about Allied activities in England, sending the Germans on the occasional wild goose chase, wasting their resources and time chasing nonexistent plans. Pujol had never been to England, he did not even SPEAK English, and yet he was sending his German handlers detailed reports of what he was "seeing" in England. He gathered information from movies, pamphlets, old maps and train schedules from England he found in libraries. Using this information, he created reports that were so detailed, the Germans did not doubt them. On the occasions when he made a mistake, Pujol bluffed the Germans, acting offended and giving excuses. He knew the Germans were so desperate for spies they would probably overlook his mistakes, and he was usually right! 

The real genius of Pujol's plan, however, was the network of imaginary "spies" he invented, whom he claimed were littered throughout England, spying for him. He passed on so much information to the Germans from this "network", from all over England, that Pujol was eventually able to claim he had 27 unique spies planted throughout the island. He came up with elaborate backstories for each of these characters, and then used the positions they held to pass along false information to the Germans, claiming, for instance, that his spy on the coast had seen a new British war ship, the falsified details of which he included in a report. Pujol's plan actually worked so well that the Germans began to pay the salaries of some of his men! Another layer of the genius of his plan was that it actually offered Pujol additional protection. If any of his stories to the Germans failed to come true (and many did), he could blame his "spy" who had "fed him the story." The Germans did not know who the spy was, so they could not try to punish him. And it could not be Pujol/Arabel's fault because he was getting this information from his "sources in the field." Eventually, the Germans became so impressed by Pujol's work, they stopped trying to send real spies to England, because Pujol was doing "such a good job." Basically, Pujol created 27 fake people around whom he designed elaborate hoaxes with which he misled the German Abwehr for the entirety of the war.

A chart showing Pujol's collection of spies.

It turns out Pujol's stories were so well-researched and written, that he managed to convince the British that he was inside Britain. Not only did he fool the Germans, who knew little about Britain- Pujol had the British convinced he was there! When the British spy agencies MI5 and MI6 began getting intercepted reports about a German spy in Britain, however, they were a bit confused. First of all, they were pretty sure they had captured and arrested every German spy in Britain, so it was news to them that a new spy who was code-named "Arabel" had entered the country. Secondly, the reports this alleged spy was sending were flawed. As they read reports day after day, most of them were quite obviously incorrect. But a few would give information that was accurate, which showed the British that whoever this "Arabel" guy was, he seemed to have access to at least some sensitive information, and not only that, but the Germans were listening! Several times, the British read a report from "Arabel" which they knew was incorrect, only to watch the Germans avidly respond to the report, at one point sending out a huge force of men to ambush a convoy of ships that Arabel had claimed were leaving Britain. Of course, there was no convoy of ships, which confused the British even more! Who was this "Arabel", and what was his motive? Was this an attempt by the Germans to bluff a spy into England? Were the Germans being tricked by a con man, and if so, why was the con man doing it? The English spy agencies sent out men to locations where Arabel claimed to be, looking for the spy. As Pujol later said, "...the British were going crazy looking for me."

For several months, Arabel went silent, and the British thought they had lost him. Then, in February of 1942, the spy agency MI5 got a letter from their agency in Spain, claiming a man named Juan Pujol had approached an American diplomat with a strange offer: he wanted to spy for the Allies, and he was already "spying" for the Germans. The British realized they had found "Arabel" and scrambled to meet with him. They figured that the chaos he was causing the Germans with his letters could be much more effective if partnered with actual British intelligence and insight. Pujol met with a British agent, who questioned him and discovered just what he had been doing. Soon after, he was smuggled to England, for real this time, to begin his career as a double agent fighting against Nazi Germany.

Spying for Britain

When Juan Pujol Garcia joined the British spy agency MI5, British espionage was still in it's early days, and needed some serious improvements. Some of the far-fetched early ideas passed around in intelligence circles in Britain included an idea to plant a "Jesus-figure," a supposed Messiah, in Germany. The goal was to trick the German people into believing that Christ had returned and that they should drop out of the war. Obviously this plan was ridiculous, and was never actually tried. Another idea the British had was to spread rumors that they had created a device to light the English Channel on fire, hoping that the rumor would cause German soldiers to fear the possibility of attempting to invade Britain, and that Germany would not try it. Apparently, this ploy was actually attempted, and  IT WORKED! German pilots captured in England admitted they had heard of the rumors. It just so happened that around that time some German soldiers were burned in a bombing raid in France. French witnesses believed these soldiers were the charred survivors of an attempted invasion, which seemed to confirm the rumors of a burning Channel. The rumor spread quickly from there... soon French citizens could be seen standing behind German soldiers, mocking them by rubbing their hands together as if to warm them over a bonfire. Even the Germans were overtaken by these rumors, and soon the Germans were trying to make their ships fireproof, with limited success. One British radio broadcaster even mocked the Germans on radio, giving the German invasion forces language tips: "Ich brenne, Du brennst, Er brennt..." (I burn, you burn, he burns). These far-fetched plots show the low-quality of the spy agency Juan Pujol Garcia was joining in 1942.

Pujol was quickly trained in what MI5 did know about the espionage game and absorbed into the British system. His imaginary agents were all meticulously logged and given code names so that future reports fed to the Germans would be flawless. A system for how Pujol would send his messages to Germany was put together, so that his deceptions could have their maximum effect. He was also given a new British codename. His British handlers said he was such a good actor, they decided to name him "Garbo", after the actress Greta Garbo. Pujol began sending huge amounts of information to the Germans. But now, he had access to English military intelligence, so his reports were usually sprinkled with just enough truth to make the story believable, and build the Germans trust in him, while filled with enough inaccuracy to ruin German plans. One of the more ingenious ways that Pujol would get the Germans to believe him, which he did throughout his spying career, was by including a nugget of truth in all of his lies. By basing his lies in truth, they were more believable, and protected him from being outed as a liar. Another banner of Pujol's deception was to send accurate British plans to the Germans- but too late for the Germans to take any concrete action. In this way, Pujol could claim he was sending true information, but it was being delayed. He was giving up British secrets that could not hurt Britain. And the best part was the Germans continued to accept this information without question.
An older, wiser Agent Garbo.
Pujol, now known as "Garbo," ran deception for several major efforts in the war. Perhaps most notably, he deceived the Germans in the lead up to Operation Torch, when American General George S. Patton led troops into German-controlled North Africa. Pujol successfully convinced the Germans that the invasion was actually coming in Norway, which kept large numbers of German troops pinned there, instead of fighting American troops in Africa. Finally, to keep his cover intact, Pujol did reveal that it was in fact Africa that was the target of the Allied troops. But Pujol's British controllers intentionally withheld the information for several days, so that while Pujol's information did reach the Germans, it reached them a day too late! Pujol looked like a genius, having "exposed" the location of the attack. As far as the Germans knew, Pujol could not help that the British had delayed the sending of his letter.

Pujol would take part in a number of other missions important to the Allied war effort, but none could match the role he would play in the invasion of Continental Europe. Without Agent Garbo, the D-Day invasions on the beaches of Normandy likely would have been impossible.

Operation Fortitude

By late 1942, the Allied forces were making plans to try to open a new war-front in Continental Europe, which they called Operation Overlord. The tide of the war was changing: the Allies were taking back Africa, the Soviet Union was turning back the German armies, and Allied air raids were taking their toll on the German homeland. But to truly end the war, Europe, and ultimately Germany, would have have to be invaded and conquered. This meant that the Allied leadership needed to choose where the invasion would come from. There were two realistic places to launch an invasion. The first was in the Pas de Calais, in far Northern France. Calais was the more realistic site: it was closer to the English coast, only 21 miles by boat. But the Germans knew this, and therefore had it heavily guarded. The second, less-realistic option, were the beaches of Normandy, 160 miles to the Southwest. It was less heavily guarded, but the Germans could easily change that if they caught wind that Normandy was where the invasion was coming. And Normandy WAS where the invasion was coming- Calais was too heavily guarded. But this decision was made months before the invasion would actually happen. The Germans would have to be kept in the dark about the date and location of the attack, despite a huge build-up of troops that would be required at Normandy if the invasion were to be successful. The Allies would have to make an army near Normandy disappear and make the Germans believe an army was actually massing near Calais. To do this, they enlisted their best agent, Juan Pujol Garcia, and put him on this new task, code-named Operation Fortitude.
The invasion plan of Operation Overlord.

Quickly, a plan to deceive the Germans was compiled. They would need to trick the Germans about when and where the invasions would happen, all while disguising the actual goal: Normandy. Early deception attempts failed- the Germans could not help but notice that the English ports near Normandy were filling up much faster than those near Calais- nearly two million men and their equipment were arriving in Southern England. The Germans had to be merely competent to notice the surging troops, while the English had to be masters of deception to hide it. If the Germans were to continue believing Pujol, he would have to come up with a good explanation for the location of troops. 

What Pujol and his colleagues came up with to hide the truth behind the D-Day invasions was almost incredibly ballsy. They proposed creating an "imaginary army" near Calais. The goal of this was to convince Hitler and the Nazis that there was an invasion coming at Calais, and that the buildup of men at Normandy was actually a feint designed to pull German troops away from the "real landing site." To make this plan work, the First United States Army Group, or FUSAG, was formed- an army of a million imaginary men to be led by General Patton of Operation Torch fame. Pujol, with the help of several other double agents, was put in charge of convincing the Germans that more than a million men, along with tanks and other equipment, were massing across the English Channel from Calais, when in fact, there were hardly any. Pujol began moving some of his "best agents" closer to where the "action" was, so that they could report to the Germans everything that was happening in preparation for Calais. Pujol began sending hundreds of messages a day about what he was seeing.

It was the general consensus of the Allied leadership that, just by sheer volume, the Allied troops would be able to take the beaches of Normandy on D-Day. The goal set for Pujol's mission was to delay one division of German tanks for two days- a seemingly trivial goal, but one that was huge for the soldiers that would actually be attempting to invade. The challenge would be keeping that land, and building up the stronghold they had created. If Garbo could successfully keep those tanks away from Normandy, the chances of maintaining control would be that much greater.

The strategies Pujol and his colleagues would use to convince the Germans of the existence were incredible. 250 fake landing vessels were created and placed near Calais. Hundreds of fake rubber tanks were created, which looked real from the sky but, according to one report, could be destroyed by a child with a pocket knife. Huge, empty camps were created, complete with hundreds of camp fires kept lit by a skeleton crew. Fake airfields, factories, even a fake harbor were created to give the illusion that a huge invasion force was massing near Calais. General Patton began to make fake publicity appearances to his imaginary troops, many of which were "picked up by the press," stories that were planted in the newspaper to give the operation legitimacy. MI5 agents even wrote letters posing as English housewives, complaining about "all the noise the soldiers were making." Pujol and other agents even sent these newspaper articles as proof to the Germans. Props including sound recordings and pyrotechnics were employed to make it appear as though millions of men were occupying this mostly deserted area. By May of 1944, only a month before the planned invasion, the Germans believed there were 79 divisions of troops in England, when there were only 52. Agent Garbo was succeeding in convincing the Germans of the existence of a million-man ghost army.

Soldiers carrying an inflatable tank during Operation Fortitude. the tanks looked real from a distance but were bouncy and light.
As D-Day approached, Pujol had one last challenge. He had to convince the Germans that the troops that did land on Normandy on that fateful day were not the main force, because the Germans were obviously going to notice when hundreds of thousands of men invaded. He had already made a million men appear out of thin air; now he had to make another million disappear. What Juan Pujol Garcia attempted was to try and convince the Germans that there would be two attacks- a small, initial feint to draw German troops away (at Normandy), followed by a much larger main assault (at Calais). Pujol began to send the Germans a series of contradictory reports, trying to muddy the water and keep the real goal, Normandy, as hidden as possible. When his initial reports proved false, as he knew they would, he began to complain to his German handlers about the incompetence of his spies, keeping them from sniffing out his lies. There began to be real evidence, however, that the Germans believed the invasion was coming at Normandy. So Pujol and colleagues increased the misdirection, dropping a large number of hints that the Normandy invasion WAS coming, but that it was a feint. There was quite a bit of evidence that Nazi leadership, including Hitler, believed Pujol- Calais would be the true target, and Normandy must be ignored.

After months of trickery and deception, it finally came time for the assault on Normandy on June 6, 1944. Juan Pujol Garcia was given the honor of "announcing" the invasion to the Germans, with the goal being that he could buy the Allies two days of low resistance in Normandy. Agent Garbo sent his last few messages, trying to push as many German troops as he could toward Calais. He even acknowledged that there was an invasion happening at Normandy, but assured the Germans that this was not the "main assault." Even as the landings were happening, Pujol was misleading the Germans!

Three hours later, 6,483 ships carrying 120,000 men, along with hundreds of planes to provide air support, would beach themselves on the shores of Normandy. What they would find would prove the success of Operation Fortitude and Juan Pujol Garcia. While an estimated 10,000 Allied troops would die on the first day of the invasion, many thousands were probably saved because German defenses there were not nearly as strong as those at Calais. Only around 50,000 German troops waited at Normandy, a number that would have at least tripled had the Germans been aware of the goal of D-Day. The Allies were able to establish a foothold at Normandy on that first day, a launching point for the assault that would ultimately end the war. More than a million Allied soldiers would land in Normandy in the next month, safe because the first day had been successful.
The chaos and violence of the D-Day landings.

Despite this huge number of  Allied troops, the German leadership continued to believe Agent Garbo, and did not send in any additional troops in the days after D-Day. On June 9, three days after the invasion, Hitler nearly signed off on sending several divisions of tanks to defend Normandy, which would have severely damaged the Allied cause. But Agent Garbo sent another message, claiming he had met with several of his agents, and that his imaginary army, FUSAG, had not entered into the fight (obviously). Pujol claimed that the Allies were waiting for the Calais region to be stripped of troops before launching the real invasion. This changed Hitler's mind, and he pulled the troops back. In fact, for a month after the invasions at D-Day, the Germans continued to keep their reserve divisions, who could have turned back the Allied invasion force, waiting at Calais for an invasion that would never come! 22 divisions of troops sat for a month at Calais thanks to Juan Pujol Garcia. This allowed the Allies to firmly establish a base at Normandy and then to begin pushing into the European interior. As General Dwight Eisenhower told Pujol, he had saved "a lot of lives."

 Within a year World War II would be over. This would have been impossible without success at Normandy. A few last signs of how successful Agent Garbo was:
  • German reinforcements did not begin heading towards Normandy until late August, nearly two months after D-Day
  • Intelligence maps captured from German troops continued to show FUSAG where Garbo had said they were until October
  • When the German war diarist was being interrogated after the war, a whole year later, he still was not fully convinced that Calais had been a lie, four months after the war ended.
  • On July 29, Pujol was even awarded the Iron Cross of Germany- a month after he had betrayed them on D-Day!


After the war ended, Pujol's career as a spy came to a close. It became clear that to protect him from German retribution, "Agent Arabel" would have to be arrested. So Juan Pujol Garcia made a few last rendezvous and meetings with his German handlers, and then he was deactivated and made to disappear. After debriefing, Pujol stopped being Garbo and began to plan for the future. He was awarded 17,554 pounds, nearly a million dollars, half of the money he had been paid by the Germans for his "services," and he moved his family to Venezuela, with the cover story that he was selling art with his wife, Araceli. Four difficult years later, in 1948, Araceli took their children and moved back to Spain, leaving him alone in Venezuela. A year later, Araceli received a message: Juan Pujol Garcia had died of malaria while traveling in East Africa, with no explanation of what he was doing in there. And that is how the story ends... except it isn't.
Newspaper article about Juan Pujol Garcia reappearing after being presumed dead for forty years.
The story is not over because Agent Garbo had one last trick up his sleeve. To throw off any Nazis who might still be pursuing him, he faked his death with the help of a few trusted MI5 agents. He returned to Venezuela, started a new family, failed again as a businessman, and mostly lost contact with his old life. Then, in 1984, he was tracked down by an British historian trying to find Agent Garbo. He was convinced to come out of hiding. He surprised some of his old MI5 colleagues by reappearing from the dead on the fortieth anniversary of D-Day. He visited the beaches of Normandy and met soldiers whose lives he had likely saved. He was also able to reconnect with his first family, many of whom he had not seen in forty years. Juan Pujol Garcia, AKA Arabel, AKA Garbo, died of a stroke in 1988, as the author of one of the most incredible and unlikely lives in history.

If you found this story interesting, please, PLEASE read the book Agent Garbo by Stephen Talty. He goes into the exquisite details of Juan Pujol Garcia's life in a way I just do not have space for!


  1. Mayyasi, Alex, "The Greatest Double Agent in History," Priecenomics.  http://priceonomics.com/the-greatest-double-agent-in-history (Accessed 12 October, 2015).
  2. NPR Staff, "'Agent Garbo'- The Spy Who Lied About D-Day", review of Agent Garbo, by Stephen Talty, NPR, 7 July 2012. http://www.npr.org/2012/07/07/156189716/agent-garbo-the-spy-who-lied-about-d-day.
  3. Reilley, Lucas. "The Most Amazing Lie in History." Mental Floss, http://mentalfloss.com/article/58468/most-amazing-lie-history (Accessed 12 October, 2015).
  4. Talty, Stephen, Agent Garbo. (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2012).
  5. Talty, Stephen, "The Spy Who Tricked Hitler: The Story of Double Agent Juan Pujol and D-Day," The Daily Beast. http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2012/07/11/the-spy-who-tricked-hitler-the-story-of-double-agent-juan-pujol-and-d-day.html (Accessed 2 October, 2015).
  6. Wikipedia Contributors, "Juan Pujol Garcia", Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joan_Pujol_Garcia (Accessed on 12 October, 2015).
  7. Wikipedia Contributors, "Normandy Landings", Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Normandy_landings (Accessed on 12 October, 2015).
  8. Wikipedia Contributors, "Spanish Civil War", Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, ://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spanish_Civil_War (Accessed on 12 October, 2015).

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