Juan Pujol - Britain’s Master Spy

Juan Pujol – Britain’s Master Spy

Did this unassuming man save the D-Day landings?
Did this unassuming man save the D-Day landings?

Playing Both Sides From The Start

Juan Pujol, the man who would later become Agent GARBO, was born in 1912 to a liberal family in Barcelona. He was conscripted into a cavalry unit when he turned 18 but quickly discovered that a soldier’s life was not for him. 

When the Spanish Civil War broke out in 1936, Pujol was forced into joining the Republican side. He later deserted to the Nationalists after his family were wrongfully imprisoned. But it only took one positive remark about the Spanish monarchy for Pujol to be sent to military prison. By the end of the conflict, he had served in both armies and never fired a shot in anger—a fact he was very proud of. 

Experiencing the depredations of both sides soured Pujol’s opinion of both socialism and fascism. He saw the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany as equally terrible powers and vowed to go against them. His work would be, in his own words, “To the good of humanity.”

German Spy

Knowing he wasn’t cut out for a soldier’s life, Pujol decided to become a spy instead. Before Operation Barbarossa in June 1941, Britain stood alone in Europe against the Axis powers. So, naturally, Pujol contacted the British embassy in Lisbon and asked to be a spy. It didn’t work, and he was rejected on three separate occasions. Not to be deterred, Pujol decided to make the British recruit him instead.


Fabricating a terrifically complex network of lies, subterfuge, and half-truths, Pujol convinced the Abwehr (German intelligence) that he was a fanatical Nazi and Spanish government official who travelled to Britain on business. The Germans were hesitant at first but couldn’t pass up the opportunity to smuggle a friendly agent into London. They gave him cash, invisible ink, the names of their agents in London, and a crash course in espionage. 

But instead of London, Pujol moved to Lisbon. He asked a friend if he could have “love letters” from a “mistress” delivered to his place to circumvent his wife. In reality, this post box was a cover address for spy letters that were supposedly arriving from Britain. Pujol then bought himself a tourist’s guidebook to London and checked out some British magazines from the local library. Armed with these and his creativity, the soon-to-be master spy began turning out bogus intelligence reports at an incredible rate.

Lies and Deception

Pujol intentionally developed a verbose writing style. He would often send daily reports far exceeding 2,000 words but containing very little actual information. Using newsreels, he compiled extraordinarily detailed eyewitness accounts reporting on the activity of certain London businesses. It was all made-up, but the Germans were impressed.

In August, Pujol’s handler in Madrid sent him more money along with instructions to set up a spy network. Pujol’s web of lies grew exponentially. Still in Lisbon, he began “recruiting” pro-Nazi British nationals from across the British Isles. Each one had a complete life story and specific reasons to work against Britain. He eventually constructed a web of 27 fictitious agents and sub-agents, collecting all the money sent by the Germans to pay them all.

But Pujol wasn’t infallible. Never having visited the locations he discussed in his reports, he often made mistakes. On one occasion, he reported an agent of his in Glasgow “Would do anything for a litre of wine.” Luckily, the Germans didn’t pick up on the fact that Glaswegians 1) drink whiskey and 2) don’t use the metric system. 

The Dream Job

In 1942, Pujol made contact with the British embassy and was finally recruited by Mi6 (British intelligence). They had been keeping tabs on him for a while and even believed his bogus reports were genuine! Realizing his potential, they paired him with the brilliant spy Tomas Harris and gave him the codename GARBO. These two then industrialized their production of fake reports. They knew the Abwehr office in Madrid was small, so they filled their reports with inconsequential information to “drown” Pujol’s handler in worthless intel. It worked. From then on, the Germans didn’t bother sending any more agents to Britain, relying solely on Pujol’s network.

To keep his cover, Pujol needed to supply useful information to the Germans at times. Just prior to the Operation Torch landings in North Africa, Pujol sent a letter detailing a large number of troopships painted in Mediterranean camouflage leaving port. After the letter was sent, Mi6 artificially held it up for a few weeks. By the time the Germans got it, the landings had already happened. Nevertheless, they were impressed. The reply to Pujol’s letter read: “We are sorry they arrived too late, but your last reports were magnificent.”

Operation Fortitude

By 1944, the Germans had a tried and trusted spy network operating across the British Isles, or so they thought. Mi6 was lining up the biggest deception of the war: Operation Fortitude and the D-Day landings.

With huge numbers of Allied troops and massive stockpiles of equipment waiting in England’s south, German high command correctly guessed an invasion of France was coming. But they didn’t know where it would be. Hitler believed Pas-de-Calais was most likely, as it is the closest point between England and France. Many of his generals thought otherwise, and it was Pujol’s job to convince them they were wrong.

The so-called Ghost Army, the First US Army Group (FUSAG), was at the centre of the deception. FUSAG was commanded by the famous tank commander George S Patton and supposedly comprised 11 divisions totalling 150,000 men. By scattering small bits of information in his reports, Pujol convinced the Germans that Normandy was a mere diversion and the real attack was yet to come at Pas-de-Calais. In response, the Germans kept 19 infantry divisions and two panzer divisions in reserve. These soldiers were sorely needed at Normandy, and their arrival there may have tipped the balance. 

Astonishingly, Operation Fortitude enhanced Pujol’s reputation for the Germans. They believed he had reported truthfully but was betrayed by some in the Abwehr network. On July 29th, Pujol was told Hitler had awarded him the Iron Cross for his “Extraordinary services to Germany.” Accepting the honour, Pujol replied that he was “truly unworthy.”

Mysterious Disappearance

Following a scare that his cover was blown in September, Pujol disappeared. His fictitious network, run by Harris, continued to supply information to the Germans until the war’s end while the man at the heart of this web of lies made his getaway. Pujol travelled to Angola—then a Portuguese colony—and faked his death from Malaria. He then moved to Venezuela under a new identity and ran a bookshop in anonymity. 

For 40 years, his story remained unknown. In 1984, he was located by British politician and espionage author Rupert Allason, who urged him into the limelight. Pujol met  Prince Philip at Buckingham Palace and was reunited with his fellow Mi6 spies at the Special Forces Club in London.


Pujol’s triumphant return to London, 1984.
Pujol’s triumphant return to London, 1984.

In Caracas, Venezuela, in 1988, the 76-year-old master spy Juan Pujol Garcia died. Awarded both an Iron Cross and MBE (Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire), many regarded Pujol as the spy who saved the D-Day landings and the greatest double agent in British history.

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