The Normandy Landings of 6 June 1944 marked the beginning of the liberation of occupied Western Europe. 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. This page relates the remarkable story of GARBO and how he deceived the German High Command. (The Service does not reveal the names of its agents unless the agents themselves have publicised their connection with us, as GARBO did in 1985 in publishing his own autobiography - "Operation GARBO" - under his own name).
"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
GARBO - whose real name was Juan Pujol - was born in Barcelona in 1912 to a family of moderate means and 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".
Juan Pujol, aka GARBO
How he did this was dictated by his admiration for Britain, then standing alone in the face of the Axis. He decided contact the British authorities and offer to spy against Germany. This was to prove more difficult than he could have imagined. In 1941 Pujol tried to make contact with the British authorities in Madrid and Lisbon on three occasions. Each time his approaches were rebuffed. 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.
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. Once established on British soil his instructions were to build up a network of agents that would be capable of providing the Germans with the intelligence that they wanted.
Instead of travelling to England as arranged, Pujol actually moved to Lisbon - still trying to make contact with the British - and began work creating a network of wholly imaginary sub-agents. 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.
By April 1942 Pujol had at last made contact with MI6 and was brought 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".
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.
In January 1944 the Germans told Pujol that they believed that the Allies were preparing for a large-scale invasion of Europe and that they looked to him to keep them informed of developments. This prepared the way for what was to be GARBO's greatest coup.
The German High Command's assessment of the Allies' intentions was correct. Under the codename OVERLORD, British and American plans for an invasion of Occupied Europe were indeed under way. What the Germans did not know, however, was that part of the plan involved a massive piece of deception - in the form of Operation FORTITUDE, in which GARBO was to play a leading role.
Between January 1944 and D-Day over 500 radio messages (four transmissions a day) passed between GARBO and Madrid who in turn re-transmitted them direct to Berlin. The reports, which came from all parts of the GARBO network, disguised the status of the OVERLORD preparations, but also served another important purpose.
During the early invasion planning stages it was decided that if the landings were to be given the best chance of success the German High Command would need to be misled over where precisely they would take place. Once the actual point of attack - the Normandy beaches - was decided upon, the next move was to persuade the Germans that the invasion force would actually land much further to the north, in the area of the Pas de Calais (which Hitler had thought was the most likely arrival point all along).
What is more, the Allied planners believed that this fiction could be maintained even after the landings had taken place. GARBO's agents would report authoritatively that the Normandy landings were no more than a ruse and that the main attack was still to come in the Pas de Calais.
To support this objective the 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.
To encourage them into believing that the Normandy landings were a mere diversion and that the main thrust was still to come in the Calais area, it was arranged that on 5 June GARBO would warn them to stand by for an urgent message at 03:00 on 6 June (the day of the landings). At this point he would report from an "agent" he had acquired in an assembly camp in Southampton that things were on the move, troops were being issued with embarkation kit, including vomit bags, and all signs were that the invasion force was about to leave for France.
Unaccountably, however, the German radio operator failed to keep the scheduled appointment on air. The full significance of the missed message dawned on German Intelligence the day after the invasion, earning GARBO additional credit for reliability. To rub salt in the wound, GARBO told his German contacts of his disgust at not being heard on air the previous day: "I cannot accept excuses or negligence. Were it not for my ideals I would abandon the work".
On June 9, D-Day +3, GARBO sent perhaps his most important message of all. It was very long and reported a meeting that he had had with his agents that day. GARBO asked that it be conveyed urgently to the German High Command. Pointing out that the First US Army Group under Patton had not yet moved from South East England, GARBO reported authoritatively that the purpose of the "diversionary" Normandy landings was to help ensure the success of the forthcoming assault on the Pas de Calais.
The Germans accepted this claim, the culmination of Operation FORTITUDE, as accurate. It deceived them so completely that throughout July and August, they kept two armoured divisions and 19 infantry divisions in the Pas de Calais in anticipation of an invasion. This gave the Allies precious time to establish their bridgehead.
The German Commander-in-Chief, Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt, was one of those taken in, even to the extent of overruling a proposal from General Erwin Rommel that his divisions should move from the Pas de Calais to assist the defence in Normandy. As the Official History of British Intelligence in WW2 comments, their "intervention in the Normandy battle really might have tipped the balance".
Ironically, GARBO's reputation among the Germans was enhanced by the whole D-Day affair. On 29 July 1944 he was informed that he had been awarded the Iron Cross by the Führer himself, for his "extraordinary services" to Germany. By return message Pujol and Harris expressed GARBO's "humble thanks" for such an honour, for which he was truly "unworthy".
In September 1944, following a scare that Pujol was about to be exposed as a British double agent, it was decided that he should go to ground, although his network continued to provide misleading information to the Germans.
The Security Service carefully protected the deceptions they had played on the Germans, in particular the method of deploying the double agent which had, arguably, never been used so effectively before. They sought to protect Pujol from any possibility of Nazi retribution while also hoping that his favoured position would enable him to penetrate any post-war Nazi activity.
In December 1944, Pujol was awarded an MBE presented by the Security Service's Director General, Sir David Petrie, in recognition of his services. Pujol eventually moved to Venezuela, where he lived in relative anonymity. He 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
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)
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.)
OCCUPATION: Of independent means.
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.