Juan Pujol Garcia: Who Was Agent Garbo?

What do you do if you want to help the allied powers in World War II and Britain keeps telling you ‘No’? If you are Juan Pujol Garcia, you go to Germany and offer your services to them instead.

Jun 16, 2024By Erin Wright, MA History w/ concentration in Public History & Museum Studies, BA History & Writing

who was spy double agent garbo

 

Juan Pujol Garcia, alias Agent Garbo, was a prominent figure within World War II. When the British wouldn’t take the Spanish-born chicken farmer’s help, he went to the German Embassy and was recruited as a spy. Independently, he built up a fake spy network and sent false intel, until Britain finally recruited him as a double agent. He continued to feed the Germans misleading or late information and took part in various maneuvers, including Operation FORTITUDE and helping make D-Day successful.

 

On February 14, 1912, Barcelona, Spain Juan Pujol Garcia was born. While he had been in the army, he avoided the Spanish Civil War. His experience with both the Republican and Nationalist sides during this time made him detest communism and fascism. This knowledge was important in defining how he would react when the Nazi regime rose to power in Germany.

 

Just before the start of World War II, while the Nazis were rising into power and invading countries, Pujol decided that he would like to contribute “to the good of humanity.” He decided the best way to serve would be to become a spy. There are many examples of ordinary citizens becoming spies, including French woman Rose Valland, who engaged in espionage.  

 

Becoming a Spy

Juan Pujol Garcia in the infantry, 1931. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

 

With his wife he went to the British Embassy located in Madrid in January 1941, and offered to become a spy for them. They declined his offer, which in some ways makes sense. He wasn’t trained or a British civilian. In fact, he was a former chicken farmer, although he did serve in the Spanish Army. While Spain never officially joined the Axis side they did cooperate with the Nazis. Still, Pujol did not let this set-back stop him and he approached them two more times. When the British rejected him, he decided to go to the Germans and offer almost the exact same deal.

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He convinced the Germans that he worked for the Spanish embassy with a fake diplomatic passport and established his views as pro-Nazi. Then he got in contact with an Abwehr agent named Friedrich Knappe-Ratey who, after checking out Pujol, gave him basic training on how to be a spy. He was given a codebook, invisible ink to write messages, and six hundred pounds, before being sent on his way to England to recruit more members for the cause to learn war secrets.

 

Life in Lisbon

Juan Pujol Garcia, Garbo from Venezuela. Source: War Stories

 

Instead of going to England, Pujol settled in Lisbon, Portugal. There, he was armed with the items given to him by his spy handler – an English tourist map, information from the public library, and a shipping schedule to create the allusion that he was building a spy network in England. He began building a spy network of fictional people and became successful enough that Abwehr sent him a missive stating that they appreciated this useful information and to be cautious not to risk his spy ring. They continued to trust him despite mistakes he made with conversions of currency between countries and the metric system – because he wasn’t in England he didn’t realize the differences. If they did question something he would blame one of his “informants” for the mistake or inconsistency.

 

The British (Finally) Get Involved

Lisbon, Portugal in the 1940s. Source: Vintage Everyday

 

It wasn’t until a year later that Juan, or his wife Araceli, ended up approaching the United States about his independent spy activities. He was then connected with MI6 and brought on as a double agent. The British became aware of a spy working for Germany through their code breaking. They were not sure exactly what was going on, because the information sent out did not match actual locations or information, as Pujol only used maps.

 

For safety, they moved Pujol and his wife to England. His handler Tomas (Tommy) Harris helped him to expand his fake network of people to 27 different personas and write over three hundred letters back to Germany about his spy ring. The idea was to give them as much information from Pujol to make it difficult to ferret out information or detect deceit.

 

Now that he had help, he didn’t just send false information back, but gave specific facts that would arrive too late for the Germans to effectively use it, which made it seem like he was an asset. This included letting the Germans know details about Operation TORCH. It was through his work with Britain that he got the codename “Garbo,” after the actress Greta Garbo, considered one of the best actresses of the time.

 

D-Day

Greta Garbo in a publicity image for Anna Christie in 1930, 1930, Source: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

 

D day took place on June 6, 1944, and was the culmination of many different groups hard work. Pujol, as Agent Garbo, played a role in its success. Germany knew that the Allied forces planned to invade as early as January 1944, but they did not believe it would take place at Normandy – instead they were diverted 150 miles away at Pas de Calais. This led them to send both armored and infantry divisions to the wrong location.

 

Similarly to other information that the British had him send, he did give the Germans some details about the Normandy invasion, timed to arrive after D-day. By this time Garbo was also using radio transitions with one of his other “informants” and tried to arrange a time with the Germans to transmit information about D-day. There was no response from the German radio operatives until five hours after the time they scheduled, allowing him to give extra information out of date, because the time that had passed while he waited. He also sold his annoyance at the Germans not being on air to receive his message stating to them, “I cannot accept excuses or negligence. Were it not for my ideals I would abandon the work.”

 

Later Years

US Marines landing at Normandy in amphibious landing craft on D-Day, June 6, 1944. Source: A. E. French/Archive Photos/Getty Images

 

Agent Garbo continued to work for the British through most of World War II. Fearing repercussion from the Nazis, with the help of the British government he faked his death from malaria. However, they never realized until decades later his role in WWII. He received an Iron Cross Second Class for his “services to Germany” and an MBE from King George VI for his role as Agent Garbo for the Allies, making him one of only two people to receive honors and medals from both sides of the war. His role in D-day and spying against the Germans went largely unknown until Rupert Allason wrote a book with Pujol titled Operation Garbo. He died in 1988, as one of the best double agents within World War II, with almost no official training.

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By Erin WrightMA History w/ concentration in Public History & Museum Studies, BA History & WritingErin is a historian who got her MA at Indiana University Indianapolis in History with an emphasis in Public History and a BA at Grand Valley State University dual majoring in History and Writing. Her history focus is on women’s, medical, and food history. She is the co-founder of History Gals.