Priceonomics

In 1941, Juan Pujol Garcia approached intelligence officers at the British embassy in Madrid to “offer his services” in the war against the Nazis. To the men and women of Britain’s security services, it was not a particularly compelling offer. In the words of Amyas Godfrey, a British expert on military history, [Pujol] “was no James Bond -- he was a balding, boring, unsmiling little man.” 

A former chicken farmer who managed a one star hotel in Madrid, Pujol had spent much of the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s locked in an apartment with the lights off, making no noise so as to avoid being noticed and arrested. He had no background in espionage. British intelligence rebuffed his offer, all but laughing him out of the embassy, according to journalist Stephan Talty, author of Agent Garbo

This did not deter Pujol's aspirations; instead he decided to establish himself as a false German spy in order to offer his services as a double agent to the British. He approached the Germans, this time with the story that he was a Nazi sympathizer in the Spanish government who travelled often to London -- an audacious lie given that Pujol could not speak English. Yet on the strength of a forged diplomatic passport, German intelligence officers bought Pujol’s story. They gave him a crash course in espionage and told him to recruit a network of agents in England who could send dispatches back to Nazi Germany. 

Within four years, Juan Pujol Garcia would be awarded merits of distinction by both the Germans and the British and play a key -- if not pivotal -- role in the invasion of Normandy. One could easily make the argument that this balding, boring man was the greatest double agent of all time.

The World’s Greatest Actor

Pujol’s experience during the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s drove him to play the dangerous game of deceiving Nazi Germany. His experience with fascist thinking during the war, in which Germany and Italy supported one side, led him to despise Nazis and to view Hitler, as he would later recall, as “a demon, a man who could completely destroy humanity.”

Pujol had instructions to spy from England, but as his identity as a government official was a sham and his diplomatic passport a forgery, he could not even go to London. Instead he went to Lisbon, Portugal, where he wrote fake intelligence reports that he sent to his German handlers. Rather than recruit agents, he invented fictional ones and read the Blue Guide to England to infuse their dispatches with details from their supposed locations around England. Between reference books about the British military, English magazines, and his fertile imagination, Pujol created impressive fakes of a spy’s reports, all the while continuing to try and contact the British to become a double agent.

Despite the fully fictional nature of Pujol’s spying, the Germans began to see him as a valuable asset. His dispatches were so convincing that the British, picking up signs of his reports through radio chatter and other means, launched a manhunt to find this lone spy in England. According to Stephan Talty, author of Agent Garbo, it was when Germany responded “in full force” to a fake report from Pujol about British troop movements in Malta that Pujol simply “pulled out of thin air” that British intelligence took Pujol seriously, made him an agent, and moved him to London. 

Once Pujol arrived in London, British intelligence helped him to establish himself as an invaluable asset to the Nazis. Pujol and his handlers worked together to flesh out the biographies -- from “an indiscreet U.S. army sergeant” to the Welsh leader of the “Brothers of the Aryan World Order” -- of a fully functional network of 27 agents stationed around England that Pujol had supposedly recruited. Pujol’s guidebook was replaced by an employee who traveled England to scout locations for the fake agents' travels. 

For the first time, Pujol also had true information to report. British intelligence fed him innocent troop movements as well as valuable information that Pujol would send postmarked in advance of military engagements yet too late to make an actual impact. After Pujol sent “advance” warning of British landings in North Africa in November 1942, for example, his German contact replied, “We are sorry they arrived too late but your last reports were magnificent."

To prevent the Germans from wondering why Pujol failed to provide crucial intelligence, Pujol blamed his fictional agents. In one instance when he chose not to report the movements of the British fleet, Pujol told the Germans that his agent in the area had fallen ill. He later reported that the agent died, and British intelligence placed an obituary for the fictional agent in local newspapers. The Germans later agreed to pay a very real pension to the agent’s equally fictional widow.

When Pujol arrived in London, British intelligence initially codenamed him BOVRIL after a meat extract used in soups and stews. But his first handler switched his name to GARBO after the famed actress Greta Garbo. After all, only the world’s greatest spy could convince Hitler and Germany’s high command that he was their man while feeding them disinformation.

The World’s Greatest Spy

Pujol, aka Agent Garbo, maintained contact with his German handlers in the Madrid Embassy through innocent-looking letters that contained secret messages, and later by inventing a sympathizing English radio operator who could send reports directly. During his four years as a double agent, Pujol achieved incredible results. 

British intelligence had Garbo write as many reports as possible both to build up his esteem to his Nazi handlers and also to create a “confusing bulk” of intelligence that could confuse and overwhelm the enemy’s intelligence. Official British security service histories report that Pujol wrote “315 letters averaging 2,000 words each,” with many quoted in the intelligence reports of Germany’s high command, and that “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.”

In addition, Pujol’s extensive communications helped decipher German communications. The Allies’ successful cracking of the Enigma machines used by Nazi Germany to encrypt internal messages is widely cited as an important factor in the war. But as the Germans regularly changed the cipher, deciphering communications was a constant effort. As Garbo’s messages were sent from Madrid to Berlin, it served as a sort of answer key that helped deduce the cipher. 

Garbo’s greatest coup, however, was deceiving the Nazis about the Allied invasion of Normandy, commonly known as D-Day. As the landing approached, Hitler fully expected the Allies to attack Europe. As a result, Allied leadership made every effort to convince Hitler that the troops would arrive in the more natural landing point of Pas de Calais, France. To do so, the Allies took celebrated American general George Patton and stationed him just across from Pas de Calais in Dover, England. Patton was made leader of the purely fictional First United States Army Group (FUSAG); it was Pujol’s job to make the German’s believe that FUSAG was a massive force prepared to invade at Pas de Calais.

To do so, Garbo sent dispatches from his fictional agents suggesting a massing of troops in Dover under Patton. When D-Day arrived, Pujol desperately wrote to the Germans that the attack was a feint, intended to draw German troops away from the real action at Pas de Calais. In Agent Garbo, Stephan Talty notes that the Germans held Garbo’s intelligence in such high regard that when they received Garbo’s memo, Hitler ordered troops on their way to Normandy to turn around. 

Nearly two months after D-Day, two German armored division that General Eisenhower had feared could stop the Normandy invasion remained in Pas de Calais, waiting for the real invasion. Incredibly, the Germans believed Garbo’s assertion that Normandy was a feint to the extent that Pujol was awarded the Iron Cross, an award normally given out only to soldiers in combat that required Hitler’s personal authorization. King George VI later named Pujol a Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire -- an award slightly below knighthood.

For a long time, the work of Agent Garbo remained relatively unknown. His actions remained classified and Pujol allegedly died shortly after the war. But that too was a fiction -- a cover story meant to protect Pujol from retaliation by Nazi sympathizers after the war. In 1971, a British politician who wrote about espionage under the pen name Nigel West tracked Pujol down to Venezuala, where Pujol was running a small gift shop. West convinced Pujol to return to Britain for a reunion with former colleagues during the 40th reunion of D-Day and to write an autobiographical account that fully told his story for the first time. Pujol died -- for real this time -- in Venezuela in 1988.

Perhaps the only thing more incredible than Garbo’s story is the fact that it has never received the Hollywood treatment. It has reportedly seen some interest from filmmakers, but never made it into production. Perhaps when it does, the fantastic tale of Juan Pujol Garcia will receive the renown it widely deserves.

If you found this history post interesting, you'll love our book → Everything Is Bullshit.

This post was written by Alex Mayyasi. Follow him on Twitter here or Google PlusTo get occasional notifications when we write blog posts, sign up for our email list.


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