Agent Garbo: How Disinformation Won WWII

Famous British spy codenamed “Agent GARBO” was born Juan Pujol in 1912 in Barcelona, Spain. Prior to becoming a British spy in World War II, Pujol fought in the Spanish Civil War, but claimed to have fought for both sides, never firing a shot. While serving in the civil war, he came to develop a strong hatred for Nazism and, as World War II was kicking off in 1939, decided to offer his services as a spy to the British government. At the time, Germany was powerful in Spain, and the British could use all the help they could get, but Pujol was ignored by British authorities in Spain on three separate occasions. Undeterred by Britain’s reluctance to make him a spy, Pujol contacted German intelligence officials and offered to spy on their behalf on the British. He was able to convince the Germans that he was a fanatically pro-Nazi official of the Spanish government, and they believed him. He told them that he was being transferred to London on official assignment and he wanted to help Germany defeat the British from the inside. Despite being reluctant, the Germans recruited Pujol and offered him basic courses in espionage related topics, like secret writing. His primary objective as a German spy was to establish a network of agents loyal to the Nazis on British soil that would feed information back to Germany.

Instead of moving to Britain as ordered by the Germans, Pujol moved to Lisbon, Portugal and continued making attempts to contact British authorities to offer his services. To keep up appearances with his German case officers, Pujol created an imaginary network of agents, complete with back stories and individual personalities, to convince the Germans that he was actively recruiting Nazi agents. In 1942, Pujol was finally successful at contacting British intelligence authorities to offer his assistance and alerted them to the fact that he had been recruited by the Germans but was ready to serve Britain. This time, Pujol was not ignored, and was assigned a British intelligence case officer of MI5 by the name Tomas Harris. Together, Pujol and Harris maintained the original network of imaginary agents and successfully fooled the Germans into believing that Pujol had recruited at least 27 agents in Britain loyal to Hitler and the Third Reich. Imaginary agents of Pujol’s network included a South American living in Glasgow, a U.S. Army sergeant assigned to Britain, and the leader of a fanatical Fascist group known as the “Brothers of the Aryan World Order”. Working together, Pujol and Harris sent regular reports to German intelligence officers in Madrid, flooding them with so much information that German intelligence officials operating in Spain eventually decided to abandon further efforts to infiltrate Britain.

The ultimate goal of British intelligence maintaining Pujol and the fake spy network was to make the Germans so confident in the imaginary spy ring that it could eventually be used to control German military movements through the calculated release of disinformation. One of the operations that British intelligence coordinated to maintain Germany’s confidence in Pujol was to release the news through one of Pujol’s imaginary agents that Allied troops and ships covered in Mediterranean camouflage were seen departing a local port. While the source of the information was fake, the intelligence was actually true, and was detailed in a letter to the Germans from Pujol postmarked before the arrival of Allied troops in North Africa but scheduled to arrive too late to give the Germans enough time to prepare. Despite arriving late, the intelligence earned Pujol praise from German intelligence officials, who were convinced of Pujol’s loyalty and abilities.

To encourage the flow of information, and most likely in an attempt to avoid another incident of “late intelligence”, the Germans ordered Pujol to establish radio contact with his German handlers. Pujol, Harris, and the British intelligence services worked tirelessly to carefully craft each transmission sent by Pujol to German intelligence officers, ensuring that Germany never found out more than the British intelligence services wanted them to. By 1944, Pujol’s German handlers trusted Pujol so much that they confided in him suspicions that Allied forces were planning a large European invasion, and asked Pujol to be especially vigilant. The large European invasion his handlers were describing was in fact D-Day, and Pujol was well aware that plans to invade Europe were underway. In the days leading up to the arrival of Allied forces on the beaches of Normandy, Pujol sent multiple radio messages every day to his German handlers, some of which were routed all the way up to Hitler himself. Under the direction of British intelligence officers, Pujol not only disguised actual military preparations being taken by Allied forces, he also successfully convinced the entire German military that Allied forces would invade Pas de Calais, an area much further to the North of Normandy.

So convincing was Pujol that even as Allied forces arrived on Normandy, the German military continued to prepare for an attack from Pas de Calais in the north, convinced that the activity in Normandy was just a diversion to pull attention from the true point of attack. Along with Pujol and his imaginary spy network, British intelligence coordinated the strategic release of disinformation through other British operatives in other parts of Europe to substantiate the value of Pujol’s intelligence. The performance by Pujol and the invasion of Normandy were both successes for the Allied forces and major turning points for World War II.

After the war, Juan Pujol went on to live a relatively quiet life in South America and published a book of his exploits as a spy titled “Operation Garbo” in 1986, two years before his death in Caracass, Venezuela. Even after he left the world of espionage, Pujol’s imaginary spy network continued to feed disinformation to the Nazis and British intelligence services left many of the deceptions planted by Pujol intact until the fall of the Third Reich. Because of the role he played during World War II, Pujol has been listed by many as one of the greatest double agents of all time.


History: Agent Garbo. Security Service, MI5.