The spy who saved D-Day (Agent Garbo)

6 June 2014

Today is the 70th anniversary of the “D-Day” Normandy landings.

The American landing at Omaha Beach (Photo: Getty)

On the 6th of June 1944, President Franklin D Roosevelt solemnly declared, “You don’t just walk to Berlin”.

He was speaking at a White House press conference, where he had just announced that Allied troops had landed in northern France.

The gathering was a homely affair, with none of the bombast associated with similar events today. In fact, it was an occasion of masterly understatement. What he could have said was that the largest naval invasion in the history of the world was finally under way. But as he gave the assembled journalists the anodyne update, what he had no way of knowing was quite how successful the operation would be. Within a year, the war with Germany would be over, and Hitler would have a bullet in his head.

The long-awaited amphibious invasion of France was not a secret, and it came as no surprise to German High Command. Stalin’s armies had been scything ever deeper into Hitler’s forces in the east, where victories like those at Stalingrad and Kursk were definitively pushing the Germans west, out of Russia. But everyone knew that Hitler’s hold on most of mainland Europe was strong and not likely to be shaken. Stalin had therefore been urging the Allies to open up a second front in France to overstretch Germany’s war economy and troops. So Hitler and his generals knew it was coming.

Preliminary plans for a European invasion had been drawn up by the Americans in 1942 (Operations Roundup and Sledgehammer), but they were derailed by Churchill’s preference for military activity in North Africa, Sicily, and Italy to clear the Mediterranean. Finally, at a meeting in the Russian embassy in Tehran, Roosevelt and Stalin ganged up on Churchill, forcing him to abandon plans for a southern invasion in the Balkans, and securing his commitment to Operation Overlord, a full-frontal invasion of mainland France in May 1944.

At around this time, 2,600 miles west of Tehran, an unlikely part of the story had also begun to take shape.

Juan Pujol García was a native of Barcelona. His experiences in the Spanish Civil War — in which he fought for both sides without ever firing a bullet — had given him a deep loathing of both fascism and communism. At the outbreak of the Second World War, he was horrified at the increasing power of the Nazis, and approached the British authorities in Spain and Portugal to enquire if he could help for “the good of humanity”. Finding his offer repeatedly rebuffed, García decided on a more unorthodox route. He approached German intelligence in Madrid, and told them (quite untruthfully) that he was a Spanish official who regularly travelled to England. He explained that he was fanatically pro-Nazi, and just wanted to do his fascist duty.

The German authorities snapped him up, gave him some basic training, codenamed him “Alaric Arabel”, and sent him off to gather information on his next trip to England.

However, instead of heading for London, García made for Lisbon, where he began one of the most extraordinary and significant subterfuges in espionage history.

Juan Pujol García – ‘Garbo’ – made it all possible

Not content with being an agent himself, he used a Blue Guide to England, a book on the railways, a few reference manuals, and a couple of old magazines to invent a handful of completely fictitious agents roaming England. He dreamt up lives and adventures for each of his agents, fabricated intelligence reports from them, and solemnly passed the information back to his German handlers in the Abwehr, where the communications were received with earnest appreciation.

Despite his enthusiasm for fiction, García’s ignorance of Britain did lead to a few close shaves, like when he reported that men in Glasgow “would do anything for a litre of wine”. But fortunately the cultural gaffe went unnoticed, as it seems those reading his reports had similarly scant knowledge of Scotland.

Throwing himself into his new life, and armed with his platoon of fake agents, García set about wrong-footing German intelligence wherever he could. And month by month, his handlers’ confidence in him grew.

Before long, British intelligence intercepted his messages, and was at first alarmed that there appeared to be a highly active enemy agent in Britain. But when they uncovered that he had significant German naval resources tied up in a hunt for a non-existent convoy, they realised he was, unbelievably, working a one-man disinformation campaign against Hitler. British intelligence quickly brought him to England, where they paired him up with Spanish-speaking MI5 officer, Tomás Harris, and set the two to work.

Under Harris’s guidance, García (now codenamed Garbo by MI5) increased his network of fictitious agents to 27 entirely made up people. The cast list included several military personnel, a disgruntled NAAFI storeman, the Welsh nationalist fascist leader of the Brothers of the Aryan World Order, an Indian poet, a Venezuelan student in Glasgow, and even one known just as “a low grade spy”.

To further strengthen García’s credibility with Berlin, MI5 allowed him to pass some genuine information, too. For instance, he reported that one of his agents on the Clyde had seen a warship putting to sea painted in Mediterranean colours. The ship was, in fact, taking part in Operation Torch in North Africa, but García’s information was purposefully sent too late to be damaging to the campaign. Nevertheless, the report had the desired effect, boosting his profile in Berlin even higher, where it was viewed as a “magnificent” piece of espionage.

As D-Day approached, the intelligence services were preparing for the invasion alongside the military. All planners wanted to capitalise on Hitler’s belief that the inevitable invasion would come across the narrowest part of the Channel, from Dover to the Pas-de-Calais (150 miles east of the actual landing site).

So began Operation Fortitude South — a mindboggling plan to create a ghost invasion army — a vast American force of 11 divisions (150,000 men) known as the “First U.S. Army Group”, commanded by the tank whizz General George S Patton.

Endless phony radio traffic was generated to give the impression of intense troop mustering activity in Kent and Essex. Acres of dummy wooden aircraft and inflatable tanks were moved into the south-east to be spotted by German reconnaissance and spies. And British intelligence was all the while intently monitoring German reactions through the Ultra project at Bletchley Park, which was able to intercept and decipher all enemy communications. In intelligence terms it was a perfect “closed loop” — that rare creature in the world of subterfuge in which one side is able to introduce disinformation and then see precisely what reaction it triggers.

As D-Day approached and Operation Fortitude South progressed, Tomás Harris of MI5 brought García into the great deception plan. Fired up with the mission of bombarding the Germans with false invasion information, García dutifully filed voluminous reports from his “agents” reporting on the build-up of the fictitious First U.S. Army Group in the south-east of England. He passed over 500 messages — at times four transmissions per day — all giving detailed intelligence about General Patton’s non-existent army in Kent, together with its plans to invade across the Straits of Dover.

German High Command lapped up García’s reports. They were so impressed with the quality of his information that they made almost no other efforts to develop alternative intelligence sources in England, leaving García the undisputed man of the moment. His intelligence was nectar to Hitler, who saw it as an affirmation of his belief that the Allies would soon storm the Pas-de-Calais.

In preparation for the landings, Hitler had appointed the highly-experienced “Desert Fox”, Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, to oversee coastal defence against the invasion. Rommel’s last major command had been with the Afrika Korps, where his leadership and respectful treatment of prisoners of war had won the admiration of all sides. On the north of the Channel, the Allies were ranged under future U.S. president General Dwight D Eisenhower, who brought in as commander of the land invasion the English General Bernard “Monty” Montgomery, Rommel’s old adversary from the deserts of North Africa.

Rommel’s new task was by no means straightforward. As early as 1942, Hitler had called for a defensive Atlantic Wall to be built along the coastline of Europe, from the north of Finland to the Spanish border. The task was clearly impossible, and therefore only implemented patchily. When Rommel took over responsibility, he found the defences in a sorry state, so focused on beefing up the Wall in strategic places with pill boxes and artillery, as well as laying mines, underwater obstacles, and antitank devices on the beaches. Inland, he laid over a million “Rommelspargel” (Rommel’s asparagus) — four- to five-metre high posts linked to wires, mines, and grenades, designed to counter aerial landings. Unlike Hitler, he suspected a Normandy beach assault, and tried to bring tanks up to the Normandy coast. However, his commander, General Von Rundstedt, disagreed, preferring to place the armour closer to Paris, from where it could be more widely deployed as needed. Rommel was convinced this would lead to the tanks’ destruction by Allied planes as they rumbled to the beaches, but Hitler intervened to give some tanks to each of them, with the remainder kept under his personal control — a chaotic Hitlerish decision which happily crippled Rommel’s ability to use the armour effectively.

The Allied preparations had been intense. They already enjoyed overwhelming air superiority, and took full advantage of it in the five days before D-Day. Over 11,000 Allied aircraft flew 200,000 missions to drop 195,000 tons of explosives on surrounding French infrastructure, demolishing artillery, roads, railways, bridges, and radar, isolating the landing zone to slow down the German response. Additionally, they focused heavily on the Pas-de-Calais in an effort to give the false impression that the invasion would be coming there. Over 2,000 aircraft were lost in these sorties, but the objectives were achieved. At the same time, London and the BBC coordinated the French resistance in a massive programme of covert sabotage and disruption to the rail network, electrical facilities, and communication lines.

Map: BBC

Shortage of landing craft meant that the original plan for a 1st of May invasion was delayed until June. The moon had to be full, and the tide half in. The next available date, the 4th of June, was also abandoned owing to bad weather, but, spotting a small window, Eisenhower finally gave the green light for the 6th of June.

With an immense stroke of luck, Berlin’s meteorologists had predicted unceasing terrible weather for two weeks. Many of the soldiers in Normandy had therefore been given leave, while their officers had been sent to Rennes for wargames exercises. Rommel was also absent, having taken the opportunity to nip back to Germany for his wife’s birthday and to try to challenge Hitler over the question of where to deploy the tanks. He was therefore nowhere near Normandy when the invasion began just after midnight on Tuesday the 6th of June 1944.

Over 2,200 British and American bombers unleashed the offensive with a pounding from the air, while minesweepers cleared the Channel approaches. A swarm of 822 aircraft (some towing gliders) then dropped U.S. paratroopers to the west of the landing zone and British paratroopers to the east to secure the perimeters. All in all, around 13,000 Allied aircraft were airborne before dawn.

After a choppy hundred-mile crossing, the first troops began wading ashore at 6.30am. The American forces landing on Omaha beach faced heavy defences and took over 2,000 casualties (as depicted in Spielberg’s graphic 1998 film, Saving Private Ryan). By contrast, U.S. and Free French troops on Utah beach, British troops on Gold and Sword beaches, and Canadian troops on Juno beach, were all slightly more fortunate in facing less resistance.

Even as D-Day dawned, the Operation Fortitude South intelligence deception plan was still in full swing. At the same time as the 7,000 invasion craft headed across the Channel for the Normandy beaches, Allied aircraft dropped vast quantities of tin foil strips known as “window” to fool the radar on the French coast into thinking a massive invasion fleet was steaming out of Dover.

García’s hotline into the Abwehr was needed now more than ever, and he duly sent a barrage of messages from his “agents” to assure German High Command that the Normandy landings were merely a diversion. His reports were littered with detail (e.g., weary troops being issued with vomit bags) and worked so well that Hitler kept two armoured divisions and 19 infantry divisions back in the Pas-de-Calais throughout June, July, and August, and it is certain that had these units not been held back, the Allies would have faced a far bloodier landing. Even as late as the 29th of July, Hitler remained so convinced that García was on his side that he personally awarded him the Iron Cross for “extraordinary service”. By the time anyone realised there was no invasion force bound for Calais under General Patton, it was too late.

Once over their initial disarray, Rommel’s troops put up sustained heavy resistance, resulting in non-stop fighting until the 12th of June, when all five beaches were finally connected into one 50-mile united beachhead.

Despite the fierce fighting, the invasion rapidly settled into a stalemate, with the Allies largely pinned down. Way behind schedule, the Americans did not manage to break west and secure the Cherbourg peninsula until the 28th of June.

By this stage, Allied morale was low, but the same was also true of the German troops. On the 17th of July Rommel was injured by fire from a British plane. And when Von Rundstedt unguardedly told Hitler that all was lost and they should make peace, he was promptly fired. The malaise was, in fact, widespread across the entire battle-weary German army, triggering the 20th of July Plot — the army’s failed attempt to blow Hitler up in order to end the war. In the wake of the botched assassination, Hitler had almost 5,000 people executed. Rommel was the most senior plotter, but owing to his fame and popularity, Hitler could not risk having him arrested and murdered by the Gestapo. Instead, he forced Rommel to commit suicide with a cyanide pill in return for an assurance his family would not be harmed under the Sippenhaft laws which permitted execution of offenders’ relatives.

Needing to maintain the momentum, the Allies continued the assault on France in Operation Dragoon, another massive and successful beach invasion on the 15th of August — this time in the south, around Saint-Tropez and Saint-Raphaël.

Finally, the tide started turning. The Germans in the north began retreating, and on the 24th of August Paris fell to the Allies and the Free French — although, shamefully, the Americans, with no British complaint, refused to allow the black Free French soldiers from Africa (over two thirds of the Free French forces) to take part in the liberation march through Paris, insisting it be staged as an “all-white” event. (It was a startling piece of racism in a war fought, at least in part, in combat racism — although perhaps not surprising given the segregation in the American army at the time, and General Montgomery’s later public support for apartheid in South Africa.)

Allied troops were at the German frontier by September, and in January 1945 the full-scale assault on Germany began, culminating in the Soviets under Zhukov taking Berlin in April, with British. American, and other Allied troops firmly established 60 miles to the west of the city.

Back in England, García stepped down after D-Day for his own safety. In December, the Director General of MI5 awarded him the MBE, thus making him perhaps the only person to have been decorated by both sides in World War Two. Having done his part “for the good of humanity”, García slipped away, and nothing was heard of him until he faked his own death in Angola in 1959. But he was subsequently traced and invited back to England, where he met with HRH the Duke of Edinburgh at Buckingham Palace, was reunited with a group of wartime MI5 officers, and was taken on an emotional tour of the Normandy battlefields. He then retired to a quiet, anonymous life in Venezuela, dying peacefully in Caracas in 1988.

Juan Pujol García’s incredible imagination and extraordinary bravery saved many thousands of lives during the invasion of France. Anthony Blunt (who worked in MI5 during the war and knew Tomás Harris very well) confided that one of the Allies’ highest commanders said García’s contribution to D-Day was worth an entire armoured division. More broadly, García undoubtedly facilitated the overall success of the Normandy landings, which were the beginning of the end of the world’s bloodiest war. So perhaps, rather than erecting memorials to divisive figures like Arthur “Bomber” Harris, how about a memorial to the creative genius of Juan Pujol García, who did more for Britain and a peaceful Europe than most people will ever know.

(First published in The Daily Telegraph, 6 June 2014)