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



GARBO MI5 PhotoMI5 Archive

Joan Pujol Garcia’s official MI5 photo


Today’s special Tuesday 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 upcoming 72nd anniversary of D-Day, TGNR looks into the Allied Spaniard double-agent Joan Pujol Garcia, better known as agent GARBO; 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 soldierNational Archive of Spain

Joan Pujol Garcia’s official Spanish Army photo

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.

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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 their 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 “ALARIC ARABEL,” the namesake stemming from Alaric I the Roman trained Goth warrior, future first king of the Visigoths, whose victories proved pivotal to precipitate the fall of 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 CartoonU.S. National Archives

Allied propaganda cartoon poster warning against Axis espionage

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 merchant 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 Office with whom he carried a torrid affair.

Kuhlental, and subsequently the German High Command, astonishingly appeared to believe 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 2Wikicommons

Pujol’s network of fictional recruited agents and subagents “operating” in the UK


Upon arrival in Britain, Pujol underwent extensive debriefing by the British Secret-Intelligence Services. With Pujol’s singular gift for imagination relating to subterfuge, and MI-5’s confidence in his unconditional loyalty to the Allied cause, Pujol was made a double-agent. It was then that he received his now famous nom de guerre, the code-name agent “GARBO.”

Pujol’s code-name was bestowed in salute to the timeless talent of actress Gretta Garbo. In the personal estimation of Colonel Thomas Argyll Robinson, MI-5’s head of the XX (Double Cross) program, Pujol was the greatest actor in the world.

“Tangle within tangle, plot and counter-plot, ruse and treachery, cross and double-cross, true agent, false agent, double agent, gold and steel, the bomb, the dagger and the firing party, were interwoven in many a texture so intricate as to be incredible, and yet true.” – Sir Winston Churchill reflecting on British wartime clandestine activities

True Agent to Double Agent: When Counter-Intelligence Is more valuable than bloodletting – A Double Cross is Born

From the outbreak of war in 1939, MI-5 began a sweeping 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 GarboPublic Domain

Legendary Greta Garbo, Pujol’s codename sake



“The Second Front”

Big Three at TehranU.S. National WWII Museum

“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 the Second World War there was one major strategic issue that trumped all others between the members of the most successful shotgun marriage/military coalition in history: the continued demand by the Soviet Union that the United States and British create a “second front” against Germany in Western Europe. Such an invasion, were it ever to succeed, would be a mammoth amphibious assault on the northern coast of France hitherto unparalleled in human history. This invasion would forever become known best as D-Day.

Commencing with the invasion of the USSR by Nazi Germany in June 1941, the Soviets had continually pressed their western allies to create a new and massive theater of war opposite the savage combat raging along the Eastern Front. By doing so it would serve to alleviate stress on their embattled nation, forcing Germany to strategically redeploy its forces to parry the assault from the Channel.

In late 1942 at that stage of the war, any Allied return to northwest Europe was still no less than 18 months away. Yet to Allied leaders at that time, the idea that in a year and halves time they would successfully return to France bordered on insane ramblings. Whatever the reality of the second-front’s noxious political ramifications, that ship was a long way from sailing. 

Yet at that time it was decided by the Allied intelligence braintrust that be, all of their human intelligence 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 a hells cape of fortification. Nazi propaganda referred to the collection of concrete bunkers, pill boxes, landing obstacles, and tactically advantageous placed ordinance as “The Atlantic Wall.”

Though clearly stronger in some sectors believed likelier invasion targets than others, the Atlantic Wall was more or less, a series of continuous coastal fortifications. These fortifications ran from above the Arctic Circle in Nazi occupied Norway, along the coastal length of the Arctic and North Seas, fully through the English Channel, and culminating at the Spanish frontier beside the French Atlantic coast. The vaunted defensive structure was 1,670 miles long.

Atlantic Wall MapWikicommons

Map of the Atlantic Wall, colored in green

2.) One need not the worst set of binocular’s to recognize that the British Empire, the United States, and Canada were amassing an incredible collection of military personnel and equipment for the expected cross-channel invasion originating from Southern England.


Between 1942 and 1944, England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland became a virtual fortress of military might. Nearly 1.5 million US Army soldiers alone were stationed in the British Isles 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 also incur the fewest casualties?

To address these three main strategic obstacles, the western Allies decided that if one cannot hide a massive military force preparing to invade, one must lead the enemy to believe the assault would occur in a particular location, yet happen in another.

As such two suitable locations were the leading candidates, the Pas-de-Calais and the Normandy coast.


The Pas-de-Calais was a well developed French port, perfectly designed to handle the logistical demands of supply, combat deployments, and also being conveniently located at the shortest distance across the English Channel for an attack originating in Dover.

The second contender was the Normandy coast situated on the Bay of the Seine, between Cherbourg and Le Havre. It was a comparatively longer trip across the channel, though enjoyed more favorable landing beaches. Further, major French ports of were located at the aforementioned 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 blow would ultimately fall at Calais.

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Overloard Map EditedOriginal Image U.S. Dept of War, 1944

Operation OVERLOARD invasion map. Indicating the ruse landing sight in Calais seen in red, and intended Normandy landing beaches in blue


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

With the assets accumulated by MI-5, all of the agents in the Double-Cross system were carefully used to orchestrate a massive strategic deception by generating the ruse that the main invasion force would attack at Pas-de-Calais.

In practice MI-5 used their double-agents to transmit a varied melange of carefully calculated faulty intelligence to the Abwehr. Information often consisting of half truths, uselessly accurate details, with various bald face lies, and occasional downright rubbish.  

In doing so, MI5 was careful not to clearly outline the ruse invasion destination. Instead by virtue of a more subtle and nuanced approach, MI5 identified overall German beliefs regarding Allied invasion prospects. In doing so, they gently coaxed German strategic thinking by manipulating their confirmation bias. Therefore over enough time, they successfully reinforced the general Axis consensus that the invasion of France would originate in Calais.

Over time Pujol, then GARBO, further reinforced his profile as the most trusted Axis agent in England. agent GARBO 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.

Agent 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.Army 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 CraftUS National WWII Museum

View from Allied landing craft at Omaha Beach

On the eve of the Allied invasion of Normandy, agent GARBO 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 agent GARBO’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 by armies that never existed.

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.

(Article Continues Below…)

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Agent GARBO: 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 agent GARBO’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 finalComposite from Wikicommons

Pictured from left to right: Iron Cross First-Class, & Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE)

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 HeadlineUnknown

The world headlines revealing publicly his incredible tale from four decades prior at the D-Day 40th Anniversary

Given all Joan Pujol Garcia accomplished, every life he saved, and all the official honors bestowed him, agent GARBO 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.

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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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