This Double Agent Saved D-Day in the Most Extraordinary and Unexpected Way

This Double Agent Saved D-Day in the Most Extraordinary and Unexpected Way

Wyatt Redd - February 26, 2018

This Double Agent Saved D-Day in the Most Extraordinary and Unexpected Way
Juan Pujol Garcia, Wikimedia Commons

World War II was one of the largest conflicts in history. But we don’t often remember how much of the war was actually fought off of the battlefield. Deception and espionage played a huge role in the conflict. And there was no time when it was more important than during D-Day. The D-Day landings were the largest amphibious operation in history. For the operation to work, the Nazis couldn’t know where the invasion was coming. Hiding an operation the size of D-Day would be one of the greatest victories in the history of espionage. And the man who was going to pull it off was Juan Pujol Garcia.

Garcia was born to a middle-class family in Catalonia. He spent his early life trying his hand at a number of different jobs before deciding on a career as a chicken farmer. But his life would soon change forever when the Spanish Civil War broke out. Garcia was quickly conscripted by the Republican side. But he had no reason to love the Republicans. His sister and mother had already been arrested as “counter-revolutionary spies.” So, Garcia quickly defected to the Nationalist side, only to realize that the fascist supporters of Francisco Franco were no better than the Republicans.

Garcia managed to serve his time without firing a single shot for either side and was eventually discharged from the army. But his time during the war left him with a hatred for both fascism and communism. So when WWII broke out and France fell, he saw the British as the only force left to champion democracy in Europe. And hoping to do some good for the world, Garcia went to the British and offered them his help. And though he was the first to admit that he wasn’t a very good soldier, he did think that he would make an excellent spy.

But the British didn’t seem to agree at first, and they turned him away three times. So, Garcia tried a different approach. He went to the Nazis instead. Garcia presented himself to the German intelligence service as a pro-fascist Spanish government official who could operate in London. The Germans jumped at the chance to recruit a spy in Britain and took Garcia on as a spy with the official codename “Frederico.” Garcia received a course in spying, money for expenses, and instructions to head to London and start recruiting British spies. Within weeks, the Germans were getting reports from Frederico in London.

This Double Agent Saved D-Day in the Most Extraordinary and Unexpected Way
Wartime London, Wikimedia Commons

Or so they thought. Garcia was actually in Lisbon. But with a copy of a travel guide to London, he was able to create reports that fooled the Nazis. There were some errors, of course. For instance, Garcia was never able to figure out that the British don’t measure their beer in liters or make sense of the currency. But the reports were so good that they didn’t just fool the Nazis, they fooled the British. When they intercepted some of the reports, they began looking for agent Frederico. And it turns out that’s exactly what Garcia wanted.

This Double Agent Saved D-Day in the Most Extraordinary and Unexpected Way
A German intelligence radio operator, Wikimedia Commons

By 1942, the British intelligence network made contact with Garcia. His case was turned over to Spanish speaking officer Tomás Harris, and together, Harris and Garcia began constructing the network of spies the Germans wanted. Over the next two years, Garcia recruited 27 agents to work for the Germans. There was a Venezuelan living in Glasgow, for instance, and a network of radical Welsh fascists based in Swansea. But what the Germans didn’t know was that none of these agents actually existed, except in Garcia’s imagination.

Even with a network of fake spies, Garcia was one of the German’s best sources of information in London. The British also considered Garcia to be one of their best assets. In recognition of his skills as an actor, they officially gave him the code name “Agent Garbo,” after the famous actress Greta Garbo. And together, Garcia and the British constructed hundreds of intelligence reports for the Germans. The trick was to make them believable enough to keep the Germans interested, but not useful enough to hurt the war effort. So, Garcia’s reports were a mix of false information, true information of little actual value, and, best of all, information that would have been extremely valuable if the Germans had simply gotten it in time.

Of course, that also meant that Garcia had to come up with reasons for why his reports never actually seemed to help the Germans. This required some extra imagination, which Garcia was never short of, and he went to some extreme lengths to explain the delays. Once when a useful report arrived too late, he explained to the Germans that his agent had fallen ill. With the help of the British authorities, a fake obituary for the agent was placed in the local newspaper. And an official government pension was issued to his “widow,” making Garcia’s explanation look believable.

One of Garcia’s greatest successes came just before the Operation Torch landings in North Africa. Garbo drafted a letter from London that told the Germans that a convoy of troopships had left port painted in Mediterranean camouflage. It was a sure sign that the Allies were planning an invasion somewhere in the Mediterranean and would have been enough to help the Germans resist the invasion effectively. That’s why the British made sure that the letter never got to Berlin until it was too late. But the Germans were still impressed. “We are sorry they arrived too late,” his handler wrote to Garcia, “but your last reports were magnificent.”

This Double Agent Saved D-Day in the Most Extraordinary and Unexpected Way
Dummy landing craft used before D-Day, Wikimedia Commons

With the fall of North Africa, the Nazis knew that the Allies would be planning an invasion of Europe, most likely in France. If they could just find out where the planned invasion was coming, they could rally their troops to push it back into the sea. Of course, the Allies realized that fact as well. And so, they launched one of the greatest deception operations in military history to keep the Germans guessing. Dubbed Operation Bodyguard, the operation involved thousands of fake troops, landing craft, and of course, false intelligence reports. And as the Nazi’s best agent, Garcia had a huge part to play in the operation.

This Double Agent Saved D-Day in the Most Extraordinary and Unexpected Way
An inflatable tank used to trick German intelligence, Wikimedia Commons

By the beginning of 1944, the Germans expected that an allied invasion of France was coming. So, they asked Garcia to keep his eyes open and let them know if he uncovered any information about the Allies’ plans. Garcia, of course, was happy to help. And over the next few months, he sent hundreds of messages to the Germans informing them about Allied troop movements. And Garcia’s information was so good that they now had an idea of where the Allied landings were going to take place. Based on his reports and reconnaissance, they were convinced the landings would happen at Calais.

Calais was the most logical place for the landings. It’s the closest point in France to England, and on a clear day, you can actually see one country from the other. And over the past few months, the Germans had learned of massive troop movements near Dover, just across the channel from Calais. According to Garcia’s intelligence and reconnaissance missions that showed hundreds of thousands of tanks, trucks, and landing craft gathering near Dover, the Germans were convinced that this force, the United States First Army Group led by legendary General George S. Patton, was planning to spearhead the invasion.

The only problem was that the First Army Group didn’t exist, except in the German’s nightmares. Their radio transmissions were carefully planned fakes created by the Allies. The landing craft and trucks they observed were made of wood and rubber, and the tanks were inflatable. The Germans had fallen for one of the most incredible military deception efforts in history. And all of it was reinforced by constant reports from Garcia telling the Germans that the First Army Group was real and was about to invade Calais.

But here’s the really incredible part: Even after the Allies invaded at Normandy, Garcia was able to convince the Germans that the real invasion was still coming at Calais. None of the units from the First Army Group had invaded at Normandy, after all. So, the Normandy operations were clearly meant to be a diversion from the real invasion. The bluff worked so well that the Nazis held back divisions from Normandy that might have turned the tide. Two months after D-Day, there were more German units in Calais than Normandy. It’s not an exaggeration to say that Garcia’s work played a huge role in saving the D-Day operations from total disaster.

This Double Agent Saved D-Day in the Most Extraordinary and Unexpected Way
Ships bringing supplies in following the invasion, Wikimedia Common

Even after the landings, Garcia remained one of the German’s top agents. He spent the rest of the war relaying information for the British. It wasn’t until after the war that anyone in Germany figured out what he’d really been up to. And while he feared that the surviving Nazi agents might want some revenge, Garcia had a plan for that too. He fled to Angola, where he faked his own death from malaria. He spent the rest of his life in relative obscurity, running a bookstore in Venezuela. Garcia finally died in 1988 in Caracas, leaving a legacy as one of the most fascinating and successful spies in history.


Where did we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

Agent Garbo. February 2018.

Garbo: The Spy Who Saved D-Day. Tomas Harris, Dundurn Group. April 2004.

Operation Garbo: The Personal Story of the Most Successful Double Agent of World War II. Juan Pujol, Random House. August 2011.