Joan Pujol Garcia

GARBO THE SPY, a film by Edmon Roch. A First Run Features release.

Joan Pujol Garcia (14 February 1912 – 10 October 1988) deliberately became a double agent during World War II, known by the British codename Garbo and the German codename Arabel. Pujol had the distinction of being one of the few people – if not the only one – to receive decorations from both sides during World War II, gaining both an Iron Cross from the Germans and an MBE from the British.

After developing a loathing of both the Communist and Fascist regimes in Europe during the Spanish Civil War, Pujol decided to become a spy for the Allies as a way to do something “for the good of humanity”. Pujol and his wife contacted the British and American intelligence agencies, but each rejected his offer. Undeterred, he created a false identity as a fanatically pro-Nazi Spanish government official and successfully became a German agent. He was instructed to travel to Britain and recruit additional agents; instead he moved to Lisbon and created bogus reports from a variety of public sources, including a tourist guide to England, train timetables, cinema newsreels, and magazine advertisements. Although the information would not have withstood close examination, Pujol soon established himself as a trustworthy agent. He began inventing fictional sub-agents who could be blamed for false information and mistakes.

The Allies finally accepted Pujol when the Germans spent considerable resources attempting to hunt down a fictional convoy. The family was moved to Britain and Pujol was given the code name Garbo. Pujol and his handler Tomás (Tommy) Harris spent the rest of the war expanding the fictional network, communicating at first by letter, later by radio. Eventually the Germans were funding a network of twenty-seven fictional agents.

Pujol had a key role in the success of Operation Fortitude, the deception operation intended to mislead the Germans about the timing and location of the invasion of Normandy near the end of the war. The false information Pujol supplied helped persuade German intelligence that the main attack would be in the Pas de Calais, keeping two armoured divisions and 19 infantry divisions there for two months after the Normandy invasion.

Early life

Pujol was born in the Catalan city of Barcelona, Spain, on 14 February 1912 (or possibly 28 February 1912) to Juan Pujol, a Catalan who owned a factory that produced dye, and Mercedes Guijarro Garcia, from the Andalusian town of Motril in the Province of Granada. The third of four children, Pujol was sent at age seven to the Valldemia boarding school run by the Marist Brothers in Mataró, twenty miles from Barcelona; he remained there for the next four years. The students were only allowed out of the school on Sundays if they had a visitor, so his father made the trip every week.

His mother came from a very strict Catholic family who took communion every day, but his father was much more secular and had liberal political beliefs. At age thirteen, he transferred to a school in Barcelona run by his father’s card-playing friend Father Mossen Josep, where he remained for three years. After an argument with a teacher, he decided that he no longer wished to remain at the school, and became an apprentice at a hardware store.

Pujol engaged in a variety of occupations prior to and after the Spanish Civil War, such as studying animal husbandry at the Royal Poultry School in Arenys de Mar and managing various businesses, including a cinema.

His father died a few months after the Second Republic’s birth in 1931, while Pujol was completing his education as a poultry farmer. Pujol’s father left his family well-provided for, until his father’s factory was taken over by the workers, around the Spanish Civil War’s start.

Spanish Civil War

In 1931, Pujol did his six months of compulsory military service in a cavalry unit, the 7th Regiment of Light Artillery. He knew he was unsuited for a military career, hating horse-riding and claiming to lack the “essential qualities of loyalty, generosity and honor”.

Pujol was managing a poultry farm north of Barcelona in 1936 when the Spanish Civil War began. His sister Elana’s fiancé was taken by Republican forces, and later she and his mother were arrested and accused of being counter-revolutionaries. A relative in a trade union was able to rescue them from captivity.

He was called up for service on the Republican side but opposed the Republican government due to their treatment of his family. He hid at the home of his girlfriend, but was captured in a police raid and imprisoned for a week, before being freed via the resistance group Socorro Blanco. They hid him until they could produce fake identity papers that showed him to be too old for military service.

He started managing a poultry farm that had been requisitioned by the local Republican government, but it was not economically viable. The experience with rule by committee intensified his antipathy toward Communism.

He re-joined the Republican side using the false papers with the intention to desert as soon as possible, volunteering to lay telegraph cables near the front lines. He managed to desert to the Nationalist side during the Battle of the Ebro in September 1938. However, he was equally ill-treated by the Nationalist side, disliking their fascist influences and being struck and imprisoned by his colonel upon Pujol’s expressing sympathy with the monarchy.

His experience with both sides left him with a deep loathing of both fascism and communism, and by extension Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. He was proud that he had managed to serve both sides without firing a single bullet for either. After his discharge from the Nationalist army, he met his future first wife, Araceli Gonzalez, in Burgos and married her in Madrid; they had one child, Juan Fernando.

World War II double-agent

Independent spying

In 1940, during the early days of World War II, Pujol decided that he must make a contribution “for the good of humanity” (and to oppose the Franco regime) by helping Britain – which, with its Empire, was Germany’s only adversary at the time.

He initially approached the British three different times, including through his wife (though Pujol edited her participation out of his memoirs), but they showed no interest in employing him as a spy. Therefore, he resolved to establish himself as a German agent before approaching the British again to offer his services as a double-agent.

Pujol created an identity as a fanatically pro-Nazi Spanish government official who could travel to London on official business; he also had created for himself a fake Spanish diplomatic passport via fooling a printer into thinking Pujol worked for the Spanish embassy in Lisbon.[26] He contacted Friedrich Knappe-Ratey, a German Intelligence agent in Madrid codenamed “Frederico”, and German Intelligence accepted him and gave him a crash course in espionage, including secret writing, a bottle of invisible ink, a codebook, and 600 pounds for expenses. His instructions were to move to Britain and recruit a network of British agents.

He moved instead to Lisbon, and – using a tourist’s guide to England, reference books and magazines from the Lisbon public library, and newsreel reports he saw in cinemas – created seemingly credible reports that appeared to come from London. He claimed to be travelling around Britain and submitted his travel expenses based on fares listed in a British railway guide. A slight difficulty was that he did not understand the pre-decimal system of currency used in Britain, expressed in pounds, shillings, and pence, and was unable to total his expenses. Instead, he simply itemised them, and said that he would send the total later.

During this time he created an extensive network of fictitious sub-agents living in different parts of Britain. Because he had never actually visited the UK, he made several mistakes, including claiming that his alleged contact in Glasgow “would do anything for a litre of wine”, unaware of Scottish drinking habits. His reports were intercepted via the Ultra program, and seemed so credible that the British counter-intelligence service MI6 launched a full-scale spy hunt.

In February 1942, either he or his wife (accounts differ) approached the United States after it had entered the war, contacting U.S. Navy Lieutenant Patrick Demorest in the naval attache’s office in Lisbon, who recognised Pujol’s potential. Demorest contacted his British counterparts.

Work with MI5

The British had become aware that someone had been feeding the Germans misinformation, and realised the value of this after the German navy wasted resources attempting to hunt down a non-existent convoy reported to them by Pujol.

He was relocated to Britain on 24 April 1942 and given the code name Bovril, after the drink concentrate. However, after he passed an MI5 security check conducted by two MI5 officers (Cyril Mills and Tomás Harris) and an MI6 officer (Desmond Bristow), Mills (who Pujol only ever knew as Mr Grey) suggested that his code name be changed to Garbo, after Greta Garbo. Pujol’s wife and child were later relocated to Britain. Pujol operated as a double agent under the XX Committee’s aegis. Mills spoke no Spanish, and passed his case over to the Spanish-speaking officer Harris. Together, Harris and Pujol wrote 315 letters, averaging 2,000 words, addressed to a post office box in Lisbon supplied by the Germans. His fictional spy network was so efficient and verbose that his German handlers were overwhelmed and made no further attempts to recruit any additional spies in the UK, according to the Official History of British Intelligence in WW2.

Garbo was unique among Britain’s double-agents, having deliberately set out to become one. The rest were enemy agents who had been discovered and turned, which required that they work under guard.

The information supplied to German intelligence was a mixture of complete fiction, genuine information of little military value, and valuable military intelligence artificially delayed. In November 1942, just before the Operation TORCH landings in North Africa, Garbo’s agent on the River Clyde reported that a convoy of troopships and warships had left port, painted in Mediterranean camouflage. The letter was postmarked before the landings and sent via airmail, but was timed to arrive too late to be useful. Pujol received a reply stating “we are sorry they arrived too late but your last reports were magnificent”.

Pujol had been supposedly communicating with the Germans via a courier, a KLM pilot willing to carry messages for cash. This meant that message deliveries were limited to the KLM flight schedule. In 1943, responding to German requests for speedier communication, Pujol and Harris created a fictional radio mechanic to communicate directly. It became the preferred method of communication.

On occasion, he had to fabricate reasons why his agents had failed to report easily available information that the Germans would eventually know about. For example, he reported that his (fabricated) Liverpool agent had fallen ill just before a major fleet movement from that port on the north-west coast of England. The illness meant that the agent was unable to warn the Germans of the event. To support the illness story, the “agent” eventually “died” and an obituary was placed in the local newspaper as further evidence to convince the Germans, who were also persuaded to pay a pension to the agent’s “widow”.

The move to radio communication required that Arabel (and therefore Garbo) be supplied with the most sophisticated text encryption possible by hand. The German codes Garbo used were supplied in turn to the codebreakers at Bletchley Park. Garbo’s encrypted radio reports would be received in Madrid, manually decrypted, and re-encrypted with an Enigma machine for transmission to Berlin. This gave the codebreakers the best possible source material in their attempts to decrypt the code being used for the second leg, having supplied the original text.

Operation Fortitude

In January 1944, the Germans told Pujol that they believed a large-scale invasion of Europe was imminent and asked to be kept informed. This was Operation Overlord, and Pujol played a leading role in the deception and misinformation campaign Operation Fortitude, sending over 500 radio messages between January 1944 and D-Day, at times more than twenty messages per day. During planning for the Normandy beach invasion, it was decided that it was vitally important that the German High Command be misled that the landing would happen at the Pas de Calais.

In order to maintain his credibility, it was decided that Garbo (or one of his agents) should forewarn the Germans of the timing and some details of the actual invasion of Normandy, although sending it too late for them to take effective action. Special arrangements were made with the German radio operators to be listening to Garbo through the night of 5/6 June 1944, using the story that a sub-agent was about to arrive with important information. However, when the call was made at 3 am, no reply was received from the German operators until 8 am. Turning this piece of bad luck on its head, Garbo was able to add more operational details to the message when finally sent and increase his standing with the Germans. Garbo told his German contacts that he was disgusted that his message was missed, saying “I cannot accept excuses or negligence. Were it not for my ideals I would abandon the work”.

On 9 June (3 days after D-day), Garbo sent a message to German High Command that reached Adolf Hitler saying that he had conferred with his agents and developed an order of battle showing 75 divisions in England—in reality, there were only about 50. Part of the “Fortitude” plan was intended to convince the Germans that a fictitious formation—First U.S. Army Group, comprising 11 divisions (150,000 men), commanded by General George Patton—was stationed in the south and east of Britain.

The deception was supported by fake planes, inflatable tanks and vans travelling about the area transmitting bogus radio chatter. Garbo’s message pointed out that units from this formation had not participated in the invasion, and therefore the first landing should be considered a diversion. A German message to Madrid sent two days later said “all reports received in the last week from Arabel [Pujol’s German code-name] undertaking have been confirmed without exception and are to be described as exceptionally valuable.” A post-war examination of German records found that, during Operation Fortitude, no fewer than sixty-two of Pujol’s reports were included in German military high command intelligence summaries.

The German High Command accepted Garbo’s reports so completely that they kept two armoured divisions and 19 infantry divisions in the Pas de Calais waiting for a second invasion through July and August 1944. The German Commander-in-Chief, Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt, refused to allow General Erwin Rommel to move his divisions to Normandy. There were more German troops in the Pas de Calais region two months after the Normandy invasion than there had been on D-Day.[

In late June, Garbo was instructed by the Germans to report on the falling of V1 flying bombs. Finding no way of giving false information without arousing suspicion, and being unwilling to give correct information, Harris arranged for Garbo to be “arrested”. He returned to duty a few days later, now having a “need” to avoid London, and forwarded an “official” letter of apology from the Home Secretary for his unlawful detention.

The Germans paid Garbo (or Arabel, as they called him) US$340,000 to support his network of agents, which at one point totaled 27 fabricated characters.


As Arabel, Pujol was, on 29 July 1944, awarded the Iron Cross Second Class for his services to the German war effort. The award was normally reserved for front-line fighting men and required Hitler’s personal authorisation. The Iron Cross was presented via radio, and he received the physical medal from one of his German handlers after the war had ended. As Garbo, he received an MBE from King George VI, on 25 November 1944. The Nazis never realised they had been fooled, and thus Pujol earned the distinction of being one of the few – if not the only – to receive decorations from both sides during World War II.

After the war

After World War II, Pujol feared reprisals from surviving Nazis. With the help of MI5, Pujol travelled to Angola and faked his death from malaria in 1949. He then moved to Lagunillas, Venezuela, where he lived in (relative) anonymity running a bookstore and gift shop.

Pujol divorced his first wife and married Carmen Cilia, with whom he had two sons, Carlos Miguel and Juan Carlos, and a daughter who died in 1975 at the age of twenty. By 1984, Pujol had moved to his son Carlos Miguel’s house in La Trinidad, Caracas.

In 1971, the British politician Rupert Allason, writing under the pen name Nigel West, became interested in Garbo. For several years, he interviewed various former intelligence officers, but none knew Garbo’s real name. Eventually, Tomas Harris’ friend Anthony Blunt, the Soviet spy who had penetrated MI5, said that he had met Garbo, and knew him as “either Juan or Jose Garcia”. Allason’s investigation was stalled from that point until March 1984, when a former MI5 officer who had served in Spain supplied Pujol’s full name. Allason hired a research assistant to call every J. Garcia in the Barcelona phone book, eventually contacting Pujol’s nephew. Pujol and Allason finally met in New Orleans on 20 May 1984.

At Allason’s urging, Pujol travelled to London and was received by Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh at Buckingham Palace, in an unusually long audience. After that he visited the Special Forces Club and was reunited with a group of his former colleagues, including Colonel T. A. Robertson, Colonel Roger Hesketh, Cyril Mills, and Desmond Bristow.

On the 40th anniversary of D-Day, 6 June 1984, Pujol travelled to Normandy to tour the beaches and pay his respects to the dead.

Pujol died in Caracas in 1988 and is buried in Choroní, a town inside Henri Pittier National Park by the Caribbean Sea.



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