The nazis considered him their most valuable spy in England, and awarded him the Iron Cross in 1944; the British awarded him the  Most Excellent Order of the British Empire later that same year. How did an ex-chicken farmer and part-time hotel manager living in Madrid pull off such a feat?

Juan Pujol during his brief military service

Juan Pujol was nothing if not a dreamer. As a child he frequently injured himself acting out his fantasies of being an intrepid explorer or a cowboy like Tom Mix. He was pretty much a failure in real life, but he lived in a world of imaginary greatness. And by the time he was a young man he had grown to despise fanaticism–especially communism and fascism–as a result of his experiences during the Spanish Civil War.

Although Pujol had no training in espionage, nor any contacts in the espionage world, he had a dream–he would become a double agent. In January 1941 he went to the British Embassy in Madrid and offered his services…and was summarily turned down. The British suspected he was a double agent. So, Pujol turned to the Germans.

Pujol presented himself to Wilhelm Leissner, of Abwehr, the German military-intelligence service for the Wehrmacht. After extensive interrogation by the Germans, he was given the codename “Arabel” and sent to London with a questionnaire, secret ink, money and cover addresses. Pujol now had his prized audience–from officers right up to the führer himself. Over the next 3 years he would hoodwink the famed German intellect with an elaborate web of lies that were so effective they have been credited by many historians with assuring the success of the Battle of Normandy, and perhaps the outcome of the war.

Knowing that if he actually went to Britain he would most likely be arrested, Pujol instead set up shop in Lisbon. Having never been to Britain, Pujol relied on tourist guides, shipping schedules and newspapers. He created a fictitious network of spies, giving them false identities such as a Portuguese man named Carvalo, a Swiss man named Gerbers, and an unnamed man of independent means from Venezuela. His ruse worked. He received a cable from the Abwehr: “Your activity and that of your information gave us a perfect idea of what is taking place over there; these reports, as you can imagine, have an incalculable value, and for that reason I beg of you to proceed with the greatest care so as not to endanger in these momentous times, either yourself or your organization.”

The British were also fooled: who was this agent roaming undetected through the country with his agents, gathering valuable information? They decoded messages stating that he had contacts inside the British Ministry of Information, as well as an agent in Canada. One of his agents, he said, was so high up in the chain of command that he spied on the activities of British Admiral of the Fleet Louis Mountbatten.

Pujol continued to play the Germans as if they were trout, dangling bits of tantalizing information. Cabling the Germans he told them that he was offered a job inside the Ministry of Information working for a man named Brenden Bracken, who was a friend of British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. The job would give him ample opportunity to spy for the Germans and provide them with huge amounts of information. But, he told them, he had qualms about accepting the job because he would be betraying Germany. The Germans snapped at the lure, and Pujol sent back more elaborate and false information from his new “position”.

Although the Germans were uncharacteristically gullible, the British were characteristically thick. They continued to rebuff Pujol’s overtures. It required some subterfuge by Pujol’s wife, Araceli. She visited the American Embassy in Lisbon and gave them a copy of a microdot—information put on a letter no larger than a period—that her husband was using. That got everyone’s attention. (Araceli eventually became despondent and threatened to reveal everything, so Pujol had to create an elaborate ruse to save the operation, and his marriage. But that’s another story.)

The Brits eventually realized that the enigmatic agent roaming their countryside and fabricating elaborate stories was none other than Pujol. They smuggled him out of Lisbon straight to the docks at Plymouth, where he was met by Security Service officers. They described him as  “A short man with slicked-back dark hair revealing a high forehead, and warm brown eyes with a slight mischievous glint.” Pujol would be paired with his case officer, Tomás Harris. They formed one of the most creative and successful agent-case-officer partnerships in MI5 history–the Lennon-McCartney of spycraft.

Pujol was put in the Double Cross System, the most secret program the British had during World War II, which was responsible for counterespionage activities. He eventually earned the code name, “Garbo” recognizing his skill at acting many characters. For the next 2 years most of his work focused on deception operations leading up to the Normandy invasion. The deception phase of the plan was called Operation Fortitude, whose main purpose was to lull the Germans into thinking that the main attack would be at the Pas de Calais area, not Normandy. It was to this effort that “Garbo’s” work would excel in fooling the Germans as to the real landing site of D-Day.

Pujol told the Germans that he was working in a freelance position for the BBC and for the Ministry of Information. He further informed them that he now had another source inside Spain’s Ministry of Information. He also invented another agent, whom he called Fred (agent 4), who was supposed to be a waiter from Gibraltar who worked in the Chislehurst Caves in London where an underground arms depot was located. He soon had 27 fake agents under his direction.

Posing as the employee of a large fruit and vegetable importer who did much business with Spain and Portugal from Covent Garden market, Pujol’s first project was Operation Torch, which was the first major Allied offensive of the war. Planning the invasion of French North Africa began in July 1942. Pujol was one of eight double agents were used to pass disinformation.

Now MI-5 joined in the trout fishing game. They had Pujol send accurate details of the planned Allied invasion. However, it was arranged for these reports to be delayed timing it to few hours before the Allied landings and after the invasion force had already been spotted by the Germans. By this time the Abwehr so trusted Pujol that they did not blame him 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.”

In January 1944, Pujol received a letter from his controllers in Germany telling him that the Abwehr had received word of a major Allied offensive against Europe. They told him to inform them immediately of unusual ship, air, or ground movements. The final game was on.

Pujol made his first play: days before the Normandy landings, he told the Germans about formations of planes, tanks, ships, and trucks along the ports of the English Channel. In reality, these were nothing more than fakes, constructed of plywood by Allied engineers. German reconnaissance aircraft obligingly photographed this army in waiting.

On June 6, 1944, Pujol began sending a message that lasted over 2 hours. He reported that he had located the whereabouts of an Allied force called Army Group Patton in southeastern England. He further said that the Allied push on the Normandy beaches was a diversion and that the real invasion would take place at the Pas de Calais. In reality, Army Group Patton did not exist. The Germans took the bait, believing that the Normandy attack was just a diversion.

In response to Pujol’s warning, Hitler ordered the Fifteenth Army, composed of tank and infantry units, to be diverted from Normandy. The rest is history.

After the war, and fearing reprisals from surviving Nazis, Pujol travelled to Angola and, with the help of MI5, faked his death from malaria in 1949. He then moved to Lagunillas, Venezuela, where he lived in relative anonymity running a bookstore and gift shop.

In 1971, the British politician Rupert Allason, writing under the pen name Nigel West, became interested in Pujol. After chasing many leads, including contacting Anthony Blunt, the Soviet spy who had penetrated MI5, he found Pujol. At Allason’s urging, Pujol travelled to London and was received by Prince Philip at Buckingham Palace. On the 40th anniversary of D-Day, 6 June 1984, Pujol travelled to Normandy to tour the beaches and pay his respects to the dead.

Pujol died in Caracas in 1988 and is buried in Choroní, a town inside Henri Pittier National Park by the Caribbean Sea.

References & further reading. There is much more to this fascinating story.


Agent Garbo: The Brilliant, Eccentric Secret Agent Who Tricked Hitler and Saved D-day