Seventy-five years ago, on D-Day, June 6, 1944, a German agent operating in Britain began sending a series of urgent radio messages to his Nazi spy-masters. They stated that the Allied landings in Normandy were diversions, and the main Allied attack was coming to a zone to the North, the Pas-de-Calais area. The German high command acted on its prize agent’s intelligence and diverted 22 divisions to meet Allied forces in Calais. Hitler awarded his prize agent the Iron Cross for his “extraordinary services” to Germany.
The agent, however, was not what his German masters thought. In reality, he was a British double-agent, working for Britain’s MI5, under the codename “GARBO”. A Spanish businessman, GARBO, whose real name was Juan Pujol Garcia, had become an ardent anti-fascist during the previous Spanish civil war.
After the outbreak of the Second World War, German intelligence recruited him as an agent (codenamed “ARABEL”), finding him useful because he travelled to Britain for business. On his own initiative, Garcia began sending false information about British troop deployments to his German intelligence handlers. British codebreakers at Bletchley Park decrypted Garcia’s messages and soon Britain’s spy chiefs recognized his value. In March 1942, Britain’s foreign intelligence service, MI6, recruited Pujol in Lisbon, and, after moving to England a month later, he was transferred to MI5.
Garcia’s British case officer was a Spanish-speaking wealthy London art-dealer, Tomás (Tommy) Harris, a wartime recruit to MI5. Although an unlikely pairing, Garcia and Harris formed one of the most creative and successful agent-case-officer relationships in history.
Recently declassified MI5 files reveal their phenomenal creativity for disinformation, and relentless daily work, as they wrote and sent false information to Berlin. The official history of British intelligence in the Second World War describes their teamwork as “one of those rare partnerships between two exceptionally gifted men whose inventive genius inspired and complemented each other”.
Together they devised an elaborate fictional sub-network of agents in Britain, supposedly under Garcia’s control, which in total comprised a staggering 27 different bogus operatives. None of them existed: all were figments of the two men’s fertile imaginations. All their fake sub-agents had their own full-life stories, or “legends”, as false identities for deception purposes are known in intelligence agencies, and they all produced “intelligence” that Garcia and Harris delivered to Berlin. The workload needed to maintain this fiction was staggering. MI5 gave Garcia the codename “GARBO” on account of his star quality. He was probably the most successful Allied double-agent of the Second World War.
During the first six months of 1944, GARBO and Harris sent more than 500 messages to the German intelligence (Abwehr) station in Madrid. British intelligence decrypts of German communications at Bletchley Park, codenamed ULTRA, showed that many of GARBO’s messages were forwarded to Berlin marked “urgent”. His disinformation was carefully controlled by MI5’s Double-Cross Committee, known as the “Twenty Committee” because the two letters, double cross, “XX”, were the Roman numerals for twenty. When Churchill first learned about GARBO in 1943, he said that in wartime truth was so precious that it had to be attended by a “bodyguard of lies”.
GARBO was one of the most significant agents in Britain’s broader wartime Double-Cross System, which saw all German spies in Britain captured and many turned into double-agents. Bletchley Park’s ULTRA proved there were no unidentified wartime German agents operating in Britain. As the chairman of MI5’s Twenty Committee, John Masterman, an Oxford don, later put it: “we actively ran and controlled the German espionage system in this country”.
The culmination of GARBO’s disinformation, and those of his fellow British double agents, was operation FORTITUDE, the Allied deception campaign surrounding the D-Day invasion, operation OVERLORD. Before D-Day, GARBO’s fictional sub-agents reported the build-up of a huge US army force in southern England, the First US Army Group (FUSAG), commanded by the formidable General George S. Patton, which GARBO’s “intelligence” claimed was poised to attack Calais. In reality, FUSAG was non-existent: it was the greatest phantom force in military history. It was comprised of inflatable tanks and balsawood huts, all designed to deceive German aerial reconnaissance. Britain’s leading movie production studio, Shepperton Studios, built a huge fake oil storage complex near Dover, designed by Basil Spence, one of Britain’s leading architects, to “supply” FUSAG. After D-Day, a captured German map revealed the location of Allied forces in Britain according precisely to GARBO’s disinformation: it showed (non-existent) US forces pointing towards Calais.
Before the Allied invasion of Fortress Europe on D-Day, British intelligence estimated that it would be impossible to maintain the fiction of an Allied invasion at Calais for more than ten days. In fact, the German high command was deceived so completely that it kept two armoured divisions, and 19 infantry divisions, in the Pas de Calais area throughout the whole of July and August 1944 in anticipation of an Allied invasion force that was never to come. This gave the Allies valuable time to establish their bridgehead in Normandy. The German Commander-in-Chief, Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt, was one of those deceived and even overruled a proposal from Germany’s famed commander, General Erwin Rommel, that his divisions should move from the Pas de Calais to help defend Normandy. As the Official History of British wartime intelligence notes, Rommel’s “intervention in the Normandy battle really might have tipped the balance”.
A month after D-Day, Dwight Eisenhower, who led the Allied Crusade into Europe, stated:
“I cannot over emphasise the importance of maintaining as long as humanly possible the Allied threat to the Pas-de-Calais area, which has already paid enormous dividends, and, with care, will continue to do so.”
At the end of 1944, GARBO received a British MBE award for his efforts, making him the proud recipient of both a Nazi Iron Cross and a British royal award. After the war, he moved to South America, where he lived a quiet life, unconnected with the intelligence world.
GARBO’s story reveals the role that intelligence can have in warfare. Strategic deception, and intelligence more broadly, cannot win wars by itself. However, intelligence can help win wars— from spreading disinformation, lies, to checking whether an enemy believes those lies. D-Day was above all won by the astonishingly brave Allied forces who stormed the beaches of Normandy. However, by convincing Berlin that another Allied force was poised to attack Calais, British intelligence helped to reduce Allied casualties in Normandy.
British disinformation before D-Day had long-term consequences. Unfortunately for British and US intelligence, but fortunately for the Kremlin, some of those working on British deception plans before D-Day were deep-cover Soviet agents. On the eve of D-Day, in May 1944, the KGB “Cambridge spy” Anthony Blunt, working in MI5, provided Moscow with a complete report for MI5’s deception plans for D-Day. The KGB learned D-Day’s lessons well: disinformation targeting an enemy can pay dividends. Russia’s intelligence services today, proud heirs to the KGB, have also not forgotten its lessons. The task for governments and societies today is to separate truth from a bodyguard of lies.
Read more about modern-day intelligence in The Cipher Brief