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GARBO: The Man You Never Knew That Saved The Second Front in WWII




Joan Pujol Garcia’s official MI-5 file photo. (Image credit: MI-5 Archive)


Today’s special Monday edition of Sunday Brunch continues with The Good News Review’s campaign to introduce and honor some of the most important and lesser known hero’s of World War II. In accordance with the recent 71st anniversary of D-Day, TGNR looks into the Allied Spaniard double-agent Joan Pujol Garcia; the man who saved D-Day and the Second Front without firing a single shot.

It has been debated from time to time if certain individuals are born out of time, those who’s personalities do not befit the generation that befell them. It is also pondered if some people are genuinely born to achieve a specifically predestined greater purpose. In the case of Joan Pujol Garcia, it is reasonable to conclude he may have been both. Joan Pujol Garcia is a name you are likely unfamiliar with, and for many years that exceptional anonymity was by design. Despite his historical low-profile, Joan Pujol Garcia was nothing less than the greatest Allied double-agent of the Second World War. The German Abwehr, military intelligence, knew him by the code-name ARABEL. Yet Pujol is best known by his British domestic counter-intelligence service, MI5, code-name GARBO. His role was a major factor in the success of D-Day, and the brutal combat that followed. He saved countless lives on the “Second Front” in France, all without ever firing a single shot.


Joan Pujol Garcia was born on February 14th, 1912 in Barcelona, Catalonia, Spain. As a Spaniard born in the early 20th Century, he would share many common hardships with his fellow countryman during a period of immense social upheaval, and civil war. Though Pujol was fortunate, he was born into an upper-middle class family, the product of his father’s successful ownership of an industrialized textiles factory. In reality, it was not material wealth that was Joan Pujol’s greatest inheritance. It was the idealized vision of life and humanity extolled by his father throughout his childhood. Family, charity, decency, liberty, and critical thought; these were the greatest lessons taught to the young Joan Pujol by his father. These established virtues, his father’s dutiful rearing, and Pujol’s overwhelming imagination provided Pujol with a stern moral compass that dictated his actions for the rest of his life. He would need them.

GARBO soldier

Joan Pujol Garcia’s official Spanish Republican Army Personnel Photo (Image Credit: National Archive of Spain)

In 1936 at age 24, Joan Pujol found himself a midst the Spanish Civil War: the horrific three-year struggle between the government of Republican Spain, and the upstart fascist Spanish Nationalist’s lead by General Francisco Franco. It was a wild change for the young Pujol. Pujol had previously undertook a handful of unsuccessful professional endeavors that included chicken farming, and cinema management, after abandoning formal education following a row with an instructor. Pujol also completed compulsory military service in 1931 as a member of the cavalry, but felt he had no place within the ranks of a military unit. Further in 1936, his then late father’s factory had been appropriated by its workers, a action that was supported by the ruling Republican Spanish government.

Despite his wholesale resentment for the Republicans, Pujol was drafted for military service. What followed was an odyssey of events that saw Pujol initially evade the Republican draft, and serve one-week of imprisonment by the Republicans until his girl friends family provided fraudulent ID papers showing him too old to mandatorily serve. Pujol then embarked for a short time managing a pig farm whose sole consumer was the Republican state. Pujol was so soured by the forced centrally planned economy that he volunteered for infantry service in the Republican army, enacting a plan to defect to the Nationalist forces. After a successful half-baked and nearly fatal defection; Pujol faced additional imprisonment by the Nationalist faction after openly expressing sympathy for the former Spanish monarchy.

The whirlwind that Pujol was swept into cultivated a deep seeded personal resentment for both Communism and Fascism. His experience during those three years would change not just Pujol himself, but the fate of Europe.


On September 1st, 1939, Nazi Germany invaded Poland. Three days later the governments of England and France declared war on Germany in defense of Poland. The Second World War had begun. Throughout the escalation of the conflict, the victorious Spanish Nationalist government remained officially neutral in the conflict, despite Fascist sympathies and the debt the Nationalist’s owed to Germany and Italy for their military support that propelled them to power. The official neutrality of Spain made Joan Pujol a neutral non-competent, an official designation Pujol never recognized.

Given Pujol’s experiences in the Spanish civil-war and unwavering belief in personal liberty, he declared a one man war against Adolf Hitler. Pujol recognized Hitler for what he was: the greatest threat humankind had ever faced. Yet he experienced one considerable setback, Pujol had no applicable skills short of his prodigious imagination that he could offer in service to the Allied powers.

As the course of war swept across the great powers of Europe, Pujol and his wife Araceli began his one man crusade against Nazism. Both Pujol and his wife began making contact with the British and eventually American embassy’s in Madrid, formally offering Pujol’s services as a spy to combat the Axis powers. They made multiple attempts to gain the interest of the Allies, but were shewed off. Initially he could offer no skill of clear value. Further as a rule of good intelligence, one does not accept cold offers for espionage from individuals fresh off the street.

Despite Pujol’s initial rejections he conceived a way to increase his value: he would make contact with the German embassy in Madrid, and offer to spy for them. Pujol managed to convince his future Abwehr handler, Abwehr Major Karl-Erich Kuhlental, that he was a dedicated fascist official, with passport access to Great Britain and British secret documents. Pujol’s offer was accepted hook, line, and sinker. Pujol was in “the game,” and was subsequently trained in the rudimentary skills of espionage. Skills such as secret ink use, and employing coded messages. He was subsequently assigned to spy in Great Britain.

The Abwehr gave Pujol the official codename “ARABEL,” the namesake stemming from the Roman trained Goth warrior who eventually sacked the Roman Empire. The plan was not without flaw’s or incredible danger. Pujol nor his wife spoke any English, had never traveled to England, and only had a passport that would get them both as far as Portugal. Despite the dangers and difficulties, it was the beginning Pujol desired.

WW2 Spying Cartoon

Allied propaganda cartoon warning against Axis espionage. (Image Credit: U.S. National Archives)

Pujol and his wife secretly moved to Lisbon, despite being assigned to England. While in Lisbon, Pujol generated absolutely fraudulent reports about war-time England. Information that was cultivated from open resources found in a Lisbon public library, such as an ABC railway guide and news reel’s. He then transmitted his reports via a “secret courier” to Madrid. Pujol’s reports usually constituted a very unusual product created almost entirely from Pujol’s unmatched imagination.

To enhance subterfuge, Pujol created a network of fictitious recruited sympathetic agents and sub-agents located throughout Britain. Agent character’s including deserting Greek sailor’s, a businessman living in the key British port of Liverpool, contacts within England’s “Aryan Brotherhood,” and even a secretary that worked in the British war department with whom he carried a torrid affair. Kuhlental and subsequently the German High Command astonishingly believed every word he wrote.

In truth, many of Pujol’s fictional reports on England had little substance regarding valuable intelligence, yet he maintained incredible subterfuge by adding lengthy flowery Nazi diatribes, mostly espousing the eventual victory of Hitler’s proclaimed 1,000 year Reich. Pujol’s credibility rose immeasurably among the brain trust of the Nazi war machine. Yet despite this incredible accomplishment, the British still refused Pujol’s offers of assistance, fearing he may be a German double-agent himself.

The English did not consider the genuine nature of Pujol’s offer until he generated a report to his German handler about a major fictional convoy headed from Liverpool to relieve the embattled isle of Malta. Based on Pujol’s report, Germany dispatched a considerable Luftwaffe, German Air Force, contingent to search for the non existent convoy. Through Britain’s famous code breaking efforts, ULTRA at Bletchley Park, England intercepted both Pujol’s dummy report, and Germany’s serious response. MI-5 thought they had missed a German agent operating in Britain, a true aberration given that MI-5 had been wholly successful capturing German agents until that point. Through Britain’s Secret-Intelligence Services (SIS), England identified the source as non other than the Spaniard who had approached them time and again since the war began. Once identified, MI-5 extracted Pujol and his family secretly to England via Gibraltar in early 1942.

GARBO fiction network 2

Pujol’s fictional network of recruited agents and sub-agents (Image Credit: WikiCommons)

Upon arrival in England, Pujol underwent extensive debriefing by the British Secret-Intelligence Services. With Pujol’s singular gift for imagination and subterfuge, and MI-5’s belief in his loyalty to the Allied cause, Pujol was made a double-agent and given the code-name GARBO. Pujol’s code-name was in salute to the actress Gretta Garbo, as one MI-5 officer thought Pujol the greatest actor in the world.

From the outbreak of war in 1939, MI-5 began a major undertaking to identify and apprehend every agent sent by Nazi Germany to the British Isles. Once apprehended, the captive agents were evaluated for their suitability in the “Double-Cross” system (XX), a program designed to “turn” captured German agents and use them as double-agents to England’s advantage. Throughout the course of the war, Britain’s Double-Cross system was a smashing success, and Pujol was to become their star player.

Greta Garbo

The great Greta Garbo, Pujol’s MI-5 codename sake. (Image Credit: Public Domain)



“The Second Front”

Big Three at Tehran

“The Big Three” at Tehran, where the western allies commitment for a second front was established. (Pictured from left to right: J. Stalin, F.D. Roosevelt, W. Churchill)

In World War II there was one issue that trumped all others between the members of the “Grand Alliance:” the creation of a second front in western Europe, what would ultimately become the invasion of France. Since the German invasion of the U.S.S.R. in June 1941, the Soviet Union had continually pressed the western allies to open a significant front in the west to alleviate stress on their embattled nation. It was decided in late 1942 that all of the assets acquired by MI-5’s Double-Cross system would be used to aid the Allied invasion of France. What is known today as Operation OVERLOARD, D-Day, had several significant challenges:

1.) Given the German theory regarding the defense of the European continent, the French coast along the English Channel was well fortified. Nazi propaganda referred to the collection of concrete bunkers, pill boxes, landing obstacles, and strategically placed ordinance as “The Atlantic Wall.” Though stronger in some areas than others, the Atlantic Wall was a series of coastal fortifications than ran from the Arctic Circle in Norway to the Spanish frontier. The vaunted defensive structure was 1,670 miles long.

Atlantic Wall Map

Map of the Atlantic Wall, highlighted in green. (Image Credit: WikiCommons)

2.) One need not the worst set of binocular’s to recognize that England, the United States, and Canada were amassing an incredible collection of military personnel and equipment for the expected cross-channel invasion in England. Between 1942 and 1944, England became a virtual fortress of military might. Nearly 1.5 million Americans alone were stationed in England prior to the invasion of France.


3.) With the clear eventuality of the cross-channel invasion, how would Allied military planners choose landing sights that would be both successful, and incur the fewest casualties?

To address these three main strategic obstacles, the western Allies decided that if one cannot hide a massive military force, one must lead the enemy to believe the attack would occur in a particular location, yet happen in another. As such, two suitable locations were the leading candidates, Pas-de-Calais and the Normandy coast.

The Pas-de-Calais was a well developed French port, well designed to handle logistic matters of supply and troop deployment, that was also the shortest distance across the English Channel for an attack originating in Dover. The second was the Normandy coast, a longer trip across the channel that had favorable landing beaches, and contained the major French ports of Cherbourg and Le Harve. It was decided that Normandy and not the Pas-de-Calais would be the location of choice. Yet the Allies had to convince Hitler and the German High Command that the main attack would ultimately commence at Calais.

Overloard Map Edited

Operation OVERLOARD invasion map, indicating the ruse landing site at Pas-de-Calais, and the real landing sight at Normandy. (Original Image Credit: U.S. Department of War. 1944.)



“A truth so precious it must be protected by a bodyguard of lies.” – Winston Churchill

With the assets accumulated by MI-5, all of the agents in the Double-Cross system were strategically used to create the ruse that the main invasion force would attack at the Pas-de-Calais. In practice MI-5 used their double-agents to transmit a varied melange of faulty intelligence that did not clearly outline the invasion destination, but instead reinforce the Axis consensus that the invasion of France would originate at Calais.

Over time Pujol, then GARBO, further reinforced his profile as the most trusted Axis agent in England. Pujol was assigned MI-5 case officer Tommy Harris who he would work with to develop his existing fictitious network, and keep German intelligence on the back foot. Pujol and Harris over time managed to convince German intelligence of two non-existent Allied armies.

The first such force was located in eastern Scotland, and was tasked to invade and liberate Norway. The second fictitious force was the First United States Army Group (FUSAG), that was in the southeast of England, set to invade Pas-de-Calais. GARBO’s reports were reinforced by the creation of dummy radio traffic created by the Allies to illuminate the notion that these forces existed, as well as displaying dummy inflatable equipment to be viewed by the beleaguered Luftwaffe, who could only perform high altitude reconnaissance of little accuracy. Even legendary U.S.General George S. Patton was placed in charge of the fictitious FUSAG in southeast England, because the Germans reverence for Patton lead them to believe he would assert the invasion spearhead. The complex picture painted by the Allies for the Axis’ benefit managed to convince Hitler to redeploy forces to reinforce both the Norwegian coast, and the Pas-de-Calais.

June 6th, 1944

D Day Landing Craft

View from an Allied landing craft at Omaha Beach, Normandy, France. (Image Credit: National World War II Museum)


On the eve of the Allied invasion of Normandy, Pujol and Harris were authorized to send a warning to Germany of the forces approaching the Normandy coast. It was designed to be transmitted early enough to maintain Pujol’s credibility, yet late enough so the German’s could not properly redeploy their forces.

General Eisenhower in overall command of Allied forces in Europe believed for the invasion to succeed the Allies required 48 hours without significant German counter-attack. Based on Pujol’s clear warning to Germany that the Allied invasion of Normandy was a diversionary measure, and that the major offensive would come later from the fictitious force station in southeast England, Germany never redeployed their massive defensive build up in Calais.

Eisenhower would not simply receive the 48 hours he required post-invasion, Pujol’s efforts would keep German reinforcements in Calais for nearly two months, awaiting an invasion that would never come. When German intelligence eventually inquired why the attack at Calais never commenced, Pujol responded by saying that it never became necessary, as the diversionary attack in Normandy had been so successful.

The Vanishing Act

Joan Pujol Garcia had played a major part in the grand D-Day deception, saving countless lives on both sides of the line. He holds a bizarre yet fascinating distinction, as he was decorated by both the Allies and the Axis. Given that Pujol’s cover and role were never exposed, he was awarded the Iron Cross First-Class by Adolf Hitler, and the Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) by England, both in secret. Pujol completely duped his Nazi handlers, and they would never uncover his deception.

To guarantee Pujol’s personal safety from possible future Nazi retribution, MI-5 spread the rumor that Pujol had died in Angola from Malaria in 1949. Following the war, Pujol left his wife and children and began a new life in Caracas, Venezuela. In Venezuela, Pujol would live in obscurity until he was identified by author Nigel West in 1984, following an extensive search. Pujol’s incredible role would not be revealed to the world until he was invited to the Normandy coast for the ceremony honoring the 40th anniversary of D-Day.

GARBO awards final

Pictured from left to right: The Iron Cross First Class, and Member of the Order of the British Empire (Image Credits: Wikicommons)

 Joan Pujol Garcia never relented in his one-man war against Nazism. His heroics would not be known for decades, and his story is still generally obscure. When he eventually wrote the novel that would account his epic tale, he took great pride in never once firing a shot in battle, or taking a life. Pujol was in tears when he first saw the graves of the D-Day casualties 40 years later, bitter in the knowledge he could not save all of the men lost there.

Greatest Secret GARBO Headline

1984 headline when the identity of GARBO was revealed at 40th anniversary of D-Day ceremony. (Image credit: unknown)

Given all Joan Pujol Garcia accomplished, every life he saved, and all the official honors bestowed him, Pujol deserves one distinction above all others: Joan Pujol Garcia was the living definition of irrepressible, all in service to the better world he never ceased trying to create.

In the end, Pujol was both the man with a utopian vision born well before his time. Undoubtedly he was also born in that time and that place with a greater purpose that all humanity has realized.

GARBO 1984

Joan Pujol Garcia in 1984.

Sources: “Operation Garbo,” Nigel West, Joan Pujol Garcia, 1985. “The Spies Who Fooled Hitler,” BBC. “Timewatch: MI-5 at War.” “Garbo The Spy,” 2009. “GARBO,” Dr. John McLaughlin.

Paul K. DiCostanzo is the Managing Editor for TGNR. He is a noted public speaker, an emerging historian of the Second World War, a vocal advocate for Crohn’s Disease/Ulcerative Colitis, and highly regarded interviewer. Prior to TGNR, Paul has a background in American National Security and American Foreign Policy. He has served as the Managing Editor for TGNR since March 2015.

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