Picture of D Day landings


'The greatest double agent of the Second World War'

Juan Pujol
                          Juan Pujol, codenamed GARBO

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

Background: GARBO's motivation

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".

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.

The "rare partnership" of GARBO and Harris

Picture of Tomás Harris

Tomas Harris.jpg
                                Tomás Harris

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.

Military deception

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.

How the deception plan worked

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".

End note

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.

GARBO's agents

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.