BOOKS OF THE TIMES
By John Gross
Published: September 5, 1986
OPERATION GARBO: The Personal Story of the Most Successful Double Agent of World War II. By Juan Pujol with Nigel West. 205 pages. Illustrated. Random House. $17.95. DURING World War II, British intelligence set up a body known as the Twenty Committee to coordinate its use of double agents. (”Twenty” was a little joke – in Roman numerals it is XX, a double cross.) In 1972 the former chairman of the committee, Sir John Masterman, published a history of the double-cross system in which he singled out for special praise the work of the agent known as Garbo, and since then other accounts of deception during the war have confirmed Garbo’s importance. But until 1984 his identity remained a closely guarded secret.
In May of that year, Nigel West, a British writer who specializes in books about espionage and who had been trying to track Garbo down for more than a decade, established that he was a Spaniard called Juan Pujol, now in his 70’s and living in Venezuela. He agreed to meet Mr. West and subsequently to collaborate with him on ”Operation GARBO,” in which he himself describes his life in Spain while Mr. West recounts his wartime exploits in London.
Mr. Pujol grew up in Barcelona. His father, who owned a dye factory, was a man of strong liberal convictions from whom Mr. Pujol derived many of his own ideas. In spite of this, when he found himself serving on the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War under conditions of extreme hardship, he was naive enough to believe that if he crossed over to the Nationalists he would be left alone to lead his own life. He learned otherwise; his detestation of dictatorship hardened, and after the outbreak of World War II, appalled by the early run of Nazi successes, he decided to offer his services to British intelligence.
At the British Embassy in Madrid, however, nobody seemed interested, and he hit on a more elaborate scheme – he would try to insinuate himself into German intelligence instead, then come back to the British. This time he proved more successful; the Germans rose to the bait, and by the autumn of 1941 he was working for them in England. Or so they supposed. In reality he was living in Portugal, pretending to send messages from London to Lisbon by means of an imaginary courier.
In retrospect it seems astonishing that he got away with it. He knew very little about England at the time, and his reports were full of strange misapprehensions – he was under the impression, for example, that diplomatic missions moved en masse from London to the seaside resort of Brighton during the summer to escape the capital’s intolerable heat.
Nevertheless, the Germans took him seriously – and so, eventually, did the British after their cryptographers, eavesdropping on German radio messages from Madrid, picked up a report about shipping movements that he had concocted and that by pure chance came uncomfortably close to the facts. Once proper contact had been established, he was flown to England and began working for the British Security Service, M.I.5.
Before long he and the M.I.5 officer who supervised him, Tomas Harris, had built up an intricate network of nonexistent agents scattered around the country. They included a disgruntled Gibraltar waiter, a Greek seaman, a tiny group of Welsh Fascists, a talkative G.I. (”following in part the ideas of Randolph Hearst”) and a dowdy secretary in the Cabinet Office who had fallen for Garbo’s charms. The Germans were kept closely informed about these fictitious characters and their equally fictitious findings – so convincingly that they even sent back a report assessing each agent’s performance. Reading about them now, you have to remind yourself every so often that Garbo and Harris made the whole thing up.
By far the most important piece of deception in which Garbo was involved was ”Operation Fortitude,” the scheme for misleading the Germans about D-day. His chief assignment was to bottle up large numbers of their troops by persuading them that the Normandy landings were a diversionary tactic and that the main Allied attack was to be launched farther east, in the Pas-de-Calais area. Despite one or two setbacks, he proved remarkably successful; his disinformation worked its way through German military intelligence to Hitler’s headquarters at Berchtesgaden, and a postwar investigation confirmed that it had had the desired effect.
The aftermath of D-day did nothing to diminish the Germans’ faith in Garbo. They awarded him the Iron Cross, and there is an ugly pathos about the expressions of gratitude that they were still sending him in the very last days of the war. After the war, in fact, he even visited his German contacts in Spain, keeping up pretenses. But it was a risky business – if they had found out the truth, he would have been an all too likely target for Nazi retaliation – and soon afterward he decided to make a new life for himself in South America.
”Operation GARBO” doesn’t answer all the questions it raises, but it makes a gripping story. It also adds a little more to what is known about Tomas Harris, who was by all accounts one of the most interesting personalities in British intelligence during World War II – the son of a wealthy English art dealer, educated in Spain (where his mother was born), an accomplished artist and art historian with a wide circle of fashionable friends.
Those friends included Kim Philby, Guy Burgess and Anthony Blunt. Although Philby was intimately involved with the Garbo case while at M.I.5, there is nothing to suggest that his work on it was connected with his activities as a Soviet spy; even so, ”Operation GARBO” does remind you, if only in passing, that there are mysteries about Philby and Blunt and their associates still waiting to be cleared up.