Agent Garbo: The Brilliant, Eccentric Secret Agent Who Tricked Hitler and Saved D-Day

Agent Garbo: The Brilliant, Eccentric Secret Agent Who Tricked Hitler and Saved D-Day

by Stephan Talty
Agent Garbo: The Brilliant, Eccentric Secret Agent Who Tricked Hitler and Saved D-Day

Agent Garbo: The Brilliant, Eccentric Secret Agent Who Tricked Hitler and Saved D-Day

by Stephan Talty


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From the author of The Good Assassin and Saving Bravo, the real-life spy story of a Spanish farmer-turned-spy who helped defeat the Nazis.

Before he remade himself as the master spy known as Garbo, Juan Pujol was nothing more than a Barcelona poultry farmer. But as Garbo, he turned in a masterpiece of deception that changed the course of World War II. Posing as the Nazis’ only reliable spy inside England, he created an imaginary million-man army, invented armadas out of thin air, and brought a vast network of fictional subagents to life. The scheme culminated on June 6, 1944, when Garbo convinced the Germans that the Allied forces approaching Normandy were just a feint—the real invasion would come at Calais. Because of his brilliant trickery, the Allies were able to land with much less opposition and eventually push on to Berlin.

As incredible as it sounds, everything in Agent Garbo is true, based on years of archival research and interviews with Pujol’s family. This pulse-pounding thriller set in the shadow world of espionage and deception reveals the shocking reality of spycraft that occurs just below the surface of history.

“The book presses ever forward down a path of historical marvels and astonishing facts. The effect is like a master class that’s accessible to anyone, and Agent Garbo often reads as though it were written in a single, perfect draft.” —The Atlantic

“Stephan Talty’s unsurpassed research brings forth one of the war’s greatest agents in a must-read book for those who think they know all the great World War II stories.” —Gregory Freeman, author of The Forgotten 500

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780547614823
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date: 06/11/2020
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: eBook
Pages: 326
Sales rank: 39,780
File size: 7 MB

About the Author

STEPHAN TALTY is the award-winning author of Agent Garbo,Empire of Blue Water, and other best-selling works of narrative nonfiction. His books have been made into two films, the Oscar-winning Captain Phillips and Only the Brave. He is also the author of two psychological thrillers, including the New York Times bestseller Black Irish, set in his hometown of Buffalo. He has written for the New York Times Magazine,GQ, and many other publications. Talty now lives outside New York City with his family.

Read an Excerpt


In the middle of the snowless English winter of 1944, General Dwight D. Eisenhower, the Allied commander overseeing the forthcoming invasion of Europe, was anxious to get the hell out of London. It was January, less than six months before D-Day, and it seemed to him that every Allied officer and VIP in the capital felt personally entitled to barge into his bustling office and bend his ear. The visitors never stopped, interrupting him and his staff, whose typewriters and footsteps and male voices created a constant, purposeful buzz in the rooms at 20 Grosvenor Square. The American ambassador, John Winant, was forever knocking on his door. Churchill was incorrigible. Today—he glanced down at his appointment book—Noel Wild of Ops (b) was due in, the head of an obscure sector in Eisenhower’s sprawling command: deception.

The general had been an early skeptic of deception, the shadow bureau of spies running around the Continent claiming they could fool Hitler and turn the tide of war. General George S. Patton, who much to his own disgust had been drafted into the effort as head of an imaginary one-million-man army called fusag, summed up the initial feelings of Eisenhower—and the current attitude of many other military and political leaders: “This damned secrecy thing is rather annoying,” he wrote, “particularly as I doubt if it fools anyone.”

Eisenhower had changed his mind about deception after witnessing its effectiveness firsthand in the Mediterranean. But in January 1944 he had many actual objects to worry about: destroyers and French railroads and the landing vessels called LSTs, which were maddeningly scarce and threatened to sink the invasion before it began. These very real and important things, not espionage, were what consumed his days.

As he strode through his headquarters, bald, handsome and electric with physical vigor, Eisenhower appeared confident, “a living dynamo of energy, good humor, amazing memory for details, and amazing courage for the future.” His staff loved his relentless optimism, but inwardly and in his private letters to Mamie, the general agonized about what was about to happen. He was smoking four packs of Camels a day, and a journalist would later describe him as “bowed down with worry . . . as though each of the stars on either shoulder weighed four tons.”

If and when the Allies took the beaches of Normandy, Eisenhower hoped to join them. Going to France would return him to an old haunt. He’d spent a year there that few of his visitors knew about, the idyllic seasons of 1928–29 when Eisenhower—somewhat slimmer and with more hair—traveled the roads of Bordeaux and Aquitaine with an army driver, eating picnic lunches on the grass borders of country lanes and grating the ears of the farmers with his rudimentary French before winning them over with a flashing smile. That year at the end of the Roaring Twenties had been one of the best of his life. The career officer had been in France to write a guidebook for World War I battlefields and the graveyards of American troops, austere places where the soldiers’ families came to honor their dead. 

It had seemed a pleasant assignment then, but Eisenhower’s memories of France had lately attained a darker shading: if D-Day wasn’t successful, American cemeteries would sprout around the hills and hedgerows of Normandy like the native wood hyacinths. The French would need acres and acres of rich farmland for the graves of the 101st Airborne alone, more for the young men of the Big Red One; the white crosses would blanket the Norman countryside. Western France would become the graveyard for an entire generation of American GIs, the men that Eisenhower made a point of dashing out to visit every chance he got.

The invasion numbers were daunting. Eisenhower hoped to land five divisions on the first day of the operation. Waiting for him in France and the Low Countries would be fifty-six German divisions. The Fifteenth Army was perhaps the most crucial: it was strung out from Turhout in Belgium (the 1st Panzer Division) to Amiens (the 2nd Panzer Division) and Pontoise in France (the 116th Panzer), place names that Eisenhower knew well. There were ten German armored divisions that were “thought to be held as a centrally controlled mobile reserve, whose function would be to drive any invading force back into the sea before it had time to establish a lodgment.” The Allies would calculate that most of those reserves would be sent to the Normandy bridgehead within one week of the invasion. That one week, however, was critical.

If Noel Wild and his deception outfit failed to deceive the enemy about the true target of the invasion, those German divisions would begin to flow south and attempt to destroy the Allied invasion force on the roads and in the small towns of Normandy. If the deception succeeded, the panzers would stay right where they were, waiting for the “real” landing. But how could that be achieved? Who could disguise the largest invasion force in history from Berlin’s watchful eyes?

Finally, Lieutenant Colonel Wild knocked on the door. He was a “slim, elegant little man” and—though this didn’t impress Eisenhower much—an Old Etonian. The two men chatted for a few moments, then Eisenhower made a very modest request. “Just keep the Fifteenth Army out of my hair for the first two days,” he said. “That’s all I ask.”

Wild saluted and walked out.

His chat with Noel Wild was one meeting among the many that Eisenhower held that day and he probably forgot about it almost immediately. If he thought about it at all, the commander most likely believed his request—forty-eight precious hours free of the Fifteenth Army—was asking too much.

On the same day, approximately two miles from Eisenhower’s frenetic headquarters, a rather ordinary-looking man named Juan Pujol was taking the Underground to work at a nondescript office on Jermyn Street. Though short and thin, Pujol carried himself like a member of the unseated European royalty that had found themselves at loose ends in London during the war. His shoulders were thrown back and a winning smile arced across his lips. The young Spaniard had an almost boyish face, a wide forehead, a prominent nose and a strong chin. The dominant feature of his face were the warm hazel eyes, flecked with green, that occasionally flashed with amusement and hidden depths. Pujol commuted to work every day from his house in Hendon, where he lived with his glamorous but unhappy wife and his two young children.

Dwight Eisenhower was the all-powerful commander of the Allied forces in Europe; every ship’s quartermaster, every tank gunner, every medic was technically under his command. Pujol, on the other hand, was the emperor of an imaginary world. He was the linchpin in the plan to fool Hitler into believing the attack was coming not at Normandy but up the French coast at Calais. His mission was to keep the Fifteenth Army that was causing Eisenhower such deep worry out of the action. Only a handful of men, such as Lieutenant Colonel Wild, even knew who Juan Pujol was; he walked the London streets unrecognized and unprotected. But this brilliant spy, who three years before had been a failed chicken farmer and hotel manager at a one-star dump in Madrid, was the jewel of the Allies’ counterintelligence forces. Churchill avidly followed his adventures; J. Edgar Hoover would one day clamor to meet him. His code name was Garbo; a British officer had given him the name because he considered Pujol “the best actor in the world.”

In his quest to fool Hitler, Garbo was surrounded by a rather bizarre supporting cast that included a handful of other double agents, a mysterious half-Jewish case officer nicknamed Jesus, a vast supply of props and specially trained commandos, his own invented army of some twenty-seven nonexistent subagents, even an advance man who scoured the country looking for places Garbo’s specters could stay while on their espionage missions to Dover and Edinburgh. But mostly, he had the Germans’ confidence. The Führer’s intelligence agency, the Abwehr, believed in Garbo above all others. They were convinced he was their secret weapon inside England, a spymaster who had sent them so many invaluable reports (carefully crafted with MI5’s help), who had recruited so many valuable sources (all pure inventions), and who believed in fascism so fervently that he could hand them the time and place of the invasion. And if Hitler knew when and where Eisenhower would land his troops, the Führer believed that the Nazi victory was assured.

For Eisenhower, Hitler was a cipher, quite possibly mad: “a power-drunk egocentric . . . one of the criminally insane.” Pujol had less experience with military leaders than the American general but more with fascists: he had actually met and fought with them. And he’d spent months trying to get inside Hitler’s mind, to imagine what the German leader was thinking and then, from six hundred miles away, to obscure entire divisions and armadas from the Führer’s eyes. Pujol’s view of Hitler reflected the spy’s Catholic boyhood and the scenes of executions he’d witnessed as a young soldier in the Spanish Civil War. “I had the idea that this man was a demon, a man who could completely destroy humanity.”

That cool January day, Pujol emerged from the Underground station and walked down Jermyn Street. He arrived at his building, ascended the stairs to his office, greeted the young British secretary, Sarah Bishop, who kept the records of his spectral army, and said hello to his MI5 case officer, Tommy Harris, the man they called Jesus, already filling the small room with the smoke of his black Spanish cigarettes. Pujol knew that D-Day, his final test as a spy, was coming, and he was increasingly nervous, even as he looked—like Eisenhower—cheerful and confident.

Pujol had failed in almost everything he’d tried in his thirty-two years: student, businessman, cinema magnate, soldier. His marriage was falling apart. But in one specialized area of war, the espionage underworld known as the double-cross game, the young man was a kind of savant, and he knew it. After years of suffering and doubt, Pujol hoped he was ready to match wits with the best minds of the Third Reich. 

“I wanted to start a personal war with Hitler,” he said. “And I wanted to fight with my imagination.”

Pujol sat down at his desk. Perhaps he asked Sarah Bishop about her evening. Or he exchanged a few words with Tommy Harris about lunch at the nearby Martinez Restaurant, one of their favorite haunts. But despite the close bond between the two, forged over two years of creating intrigues and counterplots spread across Europe and round the world, the enigmatic Harris was keeping not one but two secrets from his star agent: the deception plan that would hide D-Day from Hitler—code-named Operation Fortitude—was in deep trouble. And, even more worryingly, an Abwehr spy in Lisbon had recently revealed that he knew all about Garbo and could soon expose him to the Gestapo, ending his quest once and for all.

Unaware, Pujol began to write a message to the Germans in a beautiful, sloping hand. He was acquainted with secrets. He had a few of his own.

Table of Contents

Cast of Characters vii
Introduction ix

1. Tom Mix in Barcelona 3
2. The Training Ground 11
3. Araceli 22
4. The White City 35
5. The Game 43
6. The Snakepit 55

7. A Fresh Riot of Ideas 65
8. The System 81
9. The Debut 91
10. The Blacks and the Santa Clauses 98
11. The Rehearsal 109

12. The Dry Run 123
13. An Intimate Deception 132
14. Haywire 141
15. The Interloper 153
16. The Ghost Army 167
17. The Backdrop 174
18. The Buildup 186
19. The Prisoner 197
20. The Hours 207
21. The Weapon 223

22. The End 235
23. The Return 241

Appendix A: Organizations 253
Appendix B: The Garbo Network 255
Notes 257
Bibliography 281
Acknowledgments 285
Index 287

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

"The exciting, improbable adventures of a young Spanish spy who managed to become Britain’s most effective tool in deceiving Hitler. A lively, rollicking good read."
Kirkus Reviews

"Epic intelligence coups of WWII unreel in this colorful caper saga. Talty’s Pujol is a captivating character with a talent for operatic confabulation, but Garbo is just the alluring lead in massive deceptions that the author likens to Hollywood productions, complete with rubber tanks, fake ships, and a Montgomery impersonator. The result is a rollicking story of wartime eccentrics and their labyrinthine mind games."
Publishers Weekly, starred "Agent Garbo is the fascinating story of a man whose wit, cunning, and steely nerves made the Allied victory possible in World War II. Stephan Talty's unsurpassed research brings forth one of the war's greatest agents in a must-read book for those who think they know all the great World War II stories."
—Gregory Freeman, author of The Forgotten 500

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