Juan Pujol Garcia lived a lie that helped win World War II. He was a double agent for the British, performing so well that they nicknamed him for the enigmatic actress Greta Garbo.
Author Stephan Talty tells the story of this unlikely hero in a new book called Agent Garbo: The Brilliant, Eccentric Secret Agent Who Tricked Hitler and Saved D-Day.
"Pujol was the Walter Mitty of the war," a very imaginative daydreamer, Talty tells weekends on All Things Considered host Guy Raz. "In 1941, he had about as much chance of being a master spy as you and I have of winning the Olympic decathlon this year."
"Pujol had failed in almost everything he'd tried in his 32 years: student, businessman, cinema magnate, soldier. His marriage was falling apart," Talty says. "But in one specialized area of war, the espionage subworld known as the double-cross game, the young man was a kind of savant, and he knew it. After years of suffering and doubt, Agent Garbo felt he was ready to match wits with the best of minds of the Third Reich."
How Agent Garbo became a double agent
"When [the British] didn't pay any attention to him, his plans veered toward espionage. He knew that he had to go to the Germans first, establish himself as a German operative, and then turn double agent.
"But of course, he didn't have the ability to get to London, so he just went back to Lisbon. He pretended he was in London, a place he'd never been to. He didn't even speak the English language. And he started on this self-made, imaginary espionage career.
"The British were terrified. They were like, 'Someone has sneaked past our lines and someone is in the heart of the beast, reporting on us!' because his reports were so believable, even to people in the country he was supposed to be spying on."
How Agent Garbo fooled the Germans
"At the beginning ... he's just reporting movements of different battalions in England. Increasing confidence in himself and giving [the Germans] what he considers chicken feed — little bits of military information that, at the beginning, were completely true. These were nonessential facts the British felt that they could pass on. And slowly, over time, they begin to mix that chicken feet with imaginary information they wanted Germans to believe. So the ration of true to false declined over time and at the end he was giving them 100 percent fantasies.
"He was creating a million-man army called FUSAG, which was going to be sort of the alternative to the real one that landed at Normandy. Normandy would be presented as a feint, you know, provocative first move to get the Germans to attack it, while the real invasion was going to come up the coast at Calais. Pujol was the point of the spear in getting that information across to Hitler.
"There were fake destroyers being created out of rubber, fake airfields cut into the English countryside where real planes landed. [Pujol] was sort of the screen writer for an epic film that was being played out right across England."
Agent Garbo's war-winning lie
"The key memo he sent was on June 9th. This was the day Hitler and the high command were debating whether the Normandy invasion was the real one and whether to send all those reserves from Belgium and France down into Normandy and basically destroy the incoming divisions. And Pujol sent a very long detailed telegram saying "This is the fake, you have to believe me" and those panzer divisions were actually on the road, those troops were on the move, and Hitler sent an order turning them around. This was the key moment in the future of Normandy, in the future of that battle, and Garbo is really the author of that moment."
GUY RAZ, HOST:
It's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.
Some of the heroes of the Normandy invasion in 1944, better known as D-Day, are legion: Eisenhower, General Monty, the 101st, the 82nd and so on. But how about Juan Pujol Garcia? Without him, D-Day may have been a disaster. Author Stephan Talty tells Pujol's story in his new book. It's called "Agent Garbo: The Brilliant, Eccentric Secret Agent Who Tricked Hitler and Saved D-Day." And this is who Juan Pujol Garcia was.
STEPHAN TALTY: He was an ex-chicken farmer. He'd failed as a soldier in the Spanish Civil War. He was managing a one-star dump hotel in Madrid. The one town he did have was this sort of raw imagination. And he had that really since childhood.
RAZ: As you write, he is essentially this nobody. He's running a one-star hotel in Madrid, he has these grand visions of doing something. So he goes to the British embassy at the outbreak of the Second World War, and he offers to be a spy for him and they basically laugh him off?
TALTY: Yeah. He walked in and he sort of said grandly, I offer you my services. And the response was, your services of what? I mean, he was - he had no background. He had no resume to offer. So they sort of laughed at him, basically, and passed him from secretary to assistant consul. Eventually, when they didn't pay attention to him, his plans veered towards espionage. So he knew that he had to go to the Germans first, establish himself as a German operative, and then turn double agent.
RAZ: So after being sort of spurned by the British, he goes to the Germans. He says I am a Nazi sympathizer. I want to be an agent on your behalf. Of course, he really wanted to be a double agent, but he felt he had to prove this to the Brits. He managed to forge a diplomatic passport, what you write, convince the Germans that he was the real deal. What did the Germans do at that point? They say, OK. You're our man. Go to London?
TALTY: They did. But, of course, he didn't have really the ability to get to London. So he just went back to Lisbon, pretended he was in London, a place he'd never been to - he didn't even speak the English language - and he started on this sort of self-made imaginary espionage career.
RAZ: He was writing false dispatches about what was happening in London.
TALTY: He would go to a movie, and there would be a newsreel. And he would see some kind of ship, and he would be able to produce sort of a huge description of what the ship was capable of, what its secret compartments held, things like that.
RAZ: All the while writing these from Lisbon, writing what's happening...
TALTY: All the while writing it from Lisbon, taking great risks. I mean, had the Germans made one check of his sources, he would have ended up in a concentration camp. I mean, Lisbon was accessible to the Germans.
RAZ: In Britain, some of these communications were intercepted, and he was so believable, you write, that the British counterintelligence started looking for this guy. They launched a manhunt in the U.K. trying to find Juan Pujol Garcia.
TALTY: Right. There was supposed to be no Nazi spies, no access spies in England at the time. And all of a sudden, on the airwaves comes this voice saying there's an armada heading for Malta to relieve it. And the British were terrified. They were like, someone has sneaked past our lines and someone is in the heart of the beast, because his reports were so believable even to people in the country that he was supposed to be spying on.
RAZ: How did he eventually convince the British that he was on their side and that they should actually use him, they should sponsor him?
TALTY: Well, it was really that report on the armada going to Malta. This was something that Pujol just created out of thin air, gave very precise details about what was happening. And the British were able to see that the Germans responded with full force. They sent Italian fighter planes. They sent warships to intercept this imaginary armada. So it told the British that this guy had power, that he was believed. And that was very important to them. So they brought him to London, they smuggled him in, and they debriefed him.
RAZ: And that's where they gave him the name Garbo.
TALTY: Right. The greatest actor in the world.
RAZ: And he was sent to work right away. They started to help him create a false network of spies. And this is what he did. He created fake imaginary spies all over Britain. What kind of information does he start to feed to the Germans?
TALTY: At the beginning, he's just reporting movements of different battalions in England, increasing confidence in himself and giving them what he considered chicken feed. Little bits of military information at the beginning were completely true. These were nonessential facts that the British felt that they could pass on. And slowly over time, they began to mix that chicken feed with imaginary information that they wanted the Germans to believe. So the ratio of true to false declined over time. And at the end, he was pretty much giving them 100 percent fantasies.
RAZ: I'm speaking with writer Stephan Talty. His new book is called "Agent Garbo: The Brilliant, Eccentric Secret Agent Who Tricked Hitler and Saved D-Day." He became incredibly valuable in the run-up to the D-Day invasions to the point where you write, I mean, Eisenhower was aware of him. I mean, the high command knew of this guy. What kind of information was he sending to the Germans in the run-up to D-Day?
TALTY: He was creating a million-man army called FUSAG, which was going to be sort of the alternative army to the real one that landed at Normandy. Normandy would be presented as a faint, you know, provocative first move to get the Germans to attack it while the real invasion was going to come up the coast at Calais.
So Pujol was the point of the spear in getting that information across to Hitler. He was giving them reports of huge movements of troops and battalions across England, all pointing towards Dover, which was the natural launching point for an invasion of Calais. There was also - there were fake destroyers being created out of rubber, fake airfields being cut into the English countryside and where real planes landed. So he was sort of the screenwriter for an epic film that was being played out right across England.
RAZ: What's amazing is that two months after the Normandy invasion, the Germans maintained two armored divisions and 19 infantry divisions in Calais waiting for that second attack.
TALTY: Absolutely. I mean, General Eisenhower asked for 48 hours to keep the 15th Army out of his hair. That was really the standard of success for Garbo. But weeks and months later, those troops were just waiting for the real invasion, waiting for Garbo's army to show up.
RAZ: What's absolutely amazing to me is that, as you write, the Germans did not discover this deception until after the war. On July 29, 1944, they awarded him an Iron Cross for his service to Nazi Germany.
TALTY: Yes, they did. I mean, it was a source of endless amusement to Garbo and his handlers. But it was really proof of their success. And he kept that for the rest of his life. I mean, he was so proud of that. That was something that was really supposed to be given to frontline combatants, and here they were breaking their own rules to give it to a spy that couldn't be named elsewhere in their records but that they felt had been a loyal, fanatical supporter of the Nazis, when, in fact, he'd really been the opposite.
RAZ: The irony, of course, is just five months later, in another ceremony, but this one in Britain, he was awarded an MBE - a Member of the British Empire - for his real service to the Allied efforts.
TALTY: Yeah. I mean, I can't think of another spy, especially, who received high accolades, really, from both sides.
RAZ: What happened to Juan Pujol Garcia after the war?
TALTY: It's kind of a tragic story. He was afraid that the Nazis were going to mount reprisals against his family. His wife had really gotten sick of the war in London, gotten sick of England, and the war really broke them up. So he fled to Venezuela to hide out. She went with him for a couple of years but afterwards took the kids back to Madrid. They had three small children by that time. And Pujol lost touch with him. They grew up believing the cover story that he put out, that he had died in Angola or Mozambique in 1948. You know, they believed that for three decades that their father was dead when he was alive and well and living in Venezuela. So he paid a very high price for his service.
RAZ: He died in 1988 in Venezuela. He was running a small gift shop. But he was recognized very shortly before he died.
TALTY: Right. A guy named Nigel West, who's really the dean of British spy writers, made it his life's work, really, to track down the real Garbo. And he found him in Venezuela, brought him back for the 40th anniversary of D-Day, and he walked those beaches where he'd saved so many thousands of lives. And there was a group of veterans, who were standing there with their wives and families, and they turned and embraced, and Pujol, you know, cried his eyes out. But it was really the only thing that meant anything to him. He was really in it to save liberty but also to save lives.
RAZ: That's Stephan Talty. His new book is called "Agent Garbo: The Brilliant, Eccentric Secret Agent Who Tricked Hitler and Saved D-Day." Stephan, thanks so much.
TALTY: Great to be here. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.