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

Juan Pujol Garcia, best known as agent GARBO, was the greatest Allied double agent in WW2 for his wild role ensuring victory on D-Day.



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 Juan 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 often debated if certain individuals are born out of time, those who’s personalities and values 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 Juan Pujol Garcia, it is plausible to conclude he may have been both.

Juan Pujol Garcia is a name many are likely unfamiliar with, and for many years that exceptional anonymity was by design. Despite his historical low-profile, Juan 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.

Pujol’s role was a major factor in the success of D-Day, and the brutal combat that followed. He saved countless lives on what was called the “Second Front” in France, all without ever firing a single shot. 


Juan Pujol Garcia: Catalonia’s Native Son

Juan Pujol Garcia was born on February 14th, 1912 in Barcelona, Catalonia, Spain. As a Spaniard born in the early 20th Century, Pujol would share many common hardships of his fellow countryman during a period of immense social upheaval, and civil war.

Pujol was fortunate, and born into an upper-middle class family. Their wealth was the product of his father’s successful ownership of a textiles factory. Yet in reality, it was not material wealth that was Juan Pujol’s greatest inheritance.

Pujol strongly embraced 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 extolled to the young Juan Pujol by his father.

These established virtues, coupled with his father’s dutiful rearing, and Pujol’s overwhelming imagination provided Pujol with a stern moral compass that dictated his actions throughout his life. He would need them.

The Spanish Civil War: A Personal Tempest

Juan Pujol Garcia, later agent GARBO, circa 1931National Archive of Spain

Juan Pujol Garcia’s official Spanish Army photo


In 1936 at age 24, Juan Pujol found himself a midst the Spanish Civil War: the horrific three-year struggle between the government of Republican Spain, and the upstart 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. Pujol had abandoned his formal education following a row with an instructor.

Pujol had completed compulsory military service in 1931 as a member of the cavalry. The experience lead him to the conclusion that he had no personal place within the ranks of a military unit. Further in 1936, his then late father’s factory had been appropriated by its workers, an action that was supported by the ruling Republican Spanish government.

Despite his wholesale resentment for the Republicans, Pujol was recalled for military service. What followed was an odyssey of events that saw Pujol initially evade the Republican mobilization, 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.

Following his release, Pujol 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 war economy that he volunteered for infantry service in the Republican army, enacting a plan to defect to the Nationalist lines.


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 away by cultivated a deep seeded personal resentment for both Communism and Fascism – seeing little difference for the totalitarian twins. His experience during those three years would change not just Pujol, but the fate of Europe.

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Europe Goes to War, Again

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 in Europe had begun.

Throughout the European conflict, the victorious Spanish Nationalist government remained officially, yet realistically dubious neutrality. Spain under Franco managed to maintain non-belligerency, but had clear Fascist sympathies. Franco indebted to Nazi Germany and Facist Italy for their military support during the civil war that propelled them to power.

The official neutrality of Spain made Juan Pujol himself a neutral non-competent. However it was 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. Though what was Pujol to do? He faced 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 further across the great powers of Europe, Pujol and his wife Araceli began their crusade against Nazism. Together they began making contact with the British and eventually American embassy’s in Madrid, and formally offering Pujol’s services as a spy to combat the Axis powers.

Pujol and Araceli made multiple approaches to gain the interest of the Allied powers, but each time they were shewed off. Initially he could offer no skill of clear value to them. 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 potential value: Pujol would make contact with the German embassy in Madrid, and offer to spy for them.

Pujol went to school on Hitler and Nazism, managing 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 eventually, after much persistence, accepted hook, line, and sinker. Pujol was in “the game,” and was subsequently trained in the rudimentary arts of espionage. Skills such as secret ink use, and ciphering 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.

Pujol’s plan was not without flaw’s or incredible danger. Pujol nor Araceli 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.

Allied WW2 Propaganda Cartoon, warning on Axis spiesU.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 guides and news reel’s.


Pujol then transmitted his reports via a “secret courier” to Madrid. Pujol’s reports usually constituted a very unusual but distinct product created almost entirely from Pujol’s unmatched imagination.

To enhance his subterfuge, Pujol created a network of fictitious recruited sympathetic agents and sub-agents located throughout Britain. Agent character’s including deserting Greek merchant sailors, a businessman living in the key British port of Liverpool, contacts within the Welsh “Aryan Brotherhood,” and even a “dowdy” secretary employed in the British War Office with whom he carried a torrid affair.

His handler Kuhlental, and subsequently the German High Command itself, 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 credibility by incorporating lengthy flowery Nazi diatribes. Most of which were espousing the eventual victory of Hitler’s proclaimed 1,000 year Reich, and the defeat of Soviet Bolshevism. 

Pujol’s credibility rose immeasurably among the brain trust of the Nazi war machine. Yet despite that incredible accomplishment, the British still refused Pujol’s offers of assistance, then fearing he may be a German double-agent himself.


The British did not consider the genuine nature of Pujol’s proposal until he generated a report to his German handler about a major fictional convoy headed from Liverpool to relieve the all important embattled isle of Malta.

Based on Pujol’s report alone, 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. If so it would have represented a true aberration, as MI-5 had been wholly successful capturing every German agent assigned to the UK up to that point.

Through Britain’s Secret-Intelligence Services (SIS), the British identified the source as none 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’s network of fictional agents and sub agents Wikicommons

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


A Star is Born

Upon arrival in Britain, Pujol underwent extensive debriefing by the British SIS. 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

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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. His stage was to set the table in Normandy. 

Greta Garbo, the namesake for Pujol’s MI-5 codename GARBOPublic Domain

Legendary Greta Garbo, Pujol’s codename sake



“The Second Front”

Pictured left to right, Josef Stalin, President Franklin D. Roosevelt & Prime Minister Winston S. Churchill. “The Big Three” at the Tehran Conference of November 1943.U.S. National WWII Museum

“The Big Three” at the Tehran Conference in November 1943, where the western allies commitment for a “second front” (D-Day) 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 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 English 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 half 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 OVERLORD, 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 hellscape 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. The vaunted defensive structure was 1,670 miles long.

A colorized map of the German “Atlantic Wall” in occupied Europe 1940 - 1944Wikicommons

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 eventual 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, 20 miles, 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 tactically  favorable landing beaches. Further, two major French ports 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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Operation OVERLORD (D-Day) invasion map, indicating dummy landing site at Pas-de-Calais, and the real site in NormandyOriginal Image U.S. Dept of War, 1944

Operation OVERLORD 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, MI-5 was careful not to clearly outline the ruse invasion destination. Instead by virtue of a more subtle and nuanced approach, MI-5 identified overall German beliefs regarding Allied invasion prospects. In doing so, the Allies 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 the Anglo-Spanish MI-5 case officer Tommy Harris, who he would work with to develop the existing fictitious spy network, thereby keeping German intelligence on the back foot. Pujol and Harris in their collaboration managed to convince German intelligence of two non-existent Allied armies.

The first such force was located in eastern Scotland, and was reportedly tasked to invade and liberate Nazi-occupied Norway. The second fictitious force was the First United States Army Group (FUSAG), that was stationed in the southeast of England at Kent, set to invade Pas-de-Calais.

Agent GARBO’s reports were reinforced by observable tangible evidence of their presence. The Allies generated dummy radio traffic, smoke from cooking stoves, 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 announced in command of the fictitious FUSAG, because the Germans reverence for Patton lead them to believe he would assert the invasion spearhead. If that all were not enough, the fictitious force had a highly publicized visit by King George VI. 

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. In doing so, it reduced the forces available to defend Normandy.

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 by MI-5 to send a warning to Germany of the forces approaching the Normandy coast. The message was designed to be transmitted early enough to maintain Pujol’s credibility, yet too late for the German’s to properly redeploy their forces. With the best of fate on the dynamic duos side, the German radio officer had turned off their set for the night when the warning was originally transmitted. Therefore the warning was not received until 8AM that morning, far too late. 

General Eisenhower in overall command of OVERLORD believed for the invasion to ultimately succeed, the Allies required 48 hours after landing without experiencing a 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 FUSAG stationed 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

Juan Pujol Garcia played a major role in the grand D-Day deception, saving countless lives on both sides of the line, helping best to ensure the invasions success. For his effort, Pujol holds a bizarre yet fascinating distinction, as he was decorated by both the Allies and the Axis.

Given that agent GARBO’s duplicity was never exposed, he was awarded both the Iron Cross First-Class by Adolf Hitler, and the Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) by England, each 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 post-war, 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 acclaimed author and British espionage historian Nigel West in 1984, following an extensive search. Pujol’s legendary role and identity 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.

The Nazi Germany Iron-Cross first class medal, and the British Member of the British Empire (MBE) medal, both of which GARBO was awarded in secretComposite from Wikicommons/TGNR

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

Juan Pujol Garcia never relented in his personal war against Nazism. His heroics would not be known for decades, and his story is still generally obscure to many. When he eventually co-wrote with Nigel West the memoir that accounted his epic tale, Pujol 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 for the fallen on D-Day 40 years later, bitter in the knowledge he could not save all of the men lost there. Quietly Pujol murmured, “I couldn’t save them.”

Breaking Headline revealing identity of Juan Pujol Garcia as GARBOUnknown

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

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

In the end Pujol was both the man with a utopian vision, and the man who in many ways born well before his time. Undoubtedly, it would also seem he was born in that epoch to serve a greater purpose that all humanity has realized.

Juan Pujol Garcia - Agent GARBO - traveling in 1984

Juan Pujol Garcia in 1984.


Sources: “Operation Garbo,” Nigel West, Juan 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 is a highly regarded interviewer. Paul is author of the reader submitted Q&A column: WW2 Brain Bucket. The Brain Bucket answers readers questions on all things regarding the Second World War. Paul has served as Managing Editor for TGNR since March 2015. Prior to TGNR, Paul has a background in American National Security and American Foreign Policy.

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