If you have read The Art of War by Sun Tzu, or even if you have only watched our excellent video about him, you will know that above anything else,
“All war is based on deception”
The story we bring to you today shows exactly that. This is the story of three individuals who through imagination, cunning and sheer cheek were able to fool the secret services of half of Europe at the height of World War II. This is the story of the secret agent codenamed ‘Garbo’ and his associates, and how they brought about the greatest deception of the War.
This is a spy story, so be prepared for lies, double-crossing, mysterious deaths, plot twists and unreliable narrators.
Before I start, I have two requests for those of you who already know the story of Agent Garbo:
Please – no spoilers in the comments section.
Number two, even if you know the story by heart, please give us a chance before you switch off – we may have found a couple of things you didn’t know about one of the characters, and why she deserves to be front and centre.
And as a general warning:
There are plenty of Spanish names in this story, but I will do something different for once. I am going to absolutely nail the Spanish pronunciations, while I will completely botch the English names instead – just for the hell of it.
This is Codename Garbo: The Greatest Deception of World War II.
Let me introduce the first character of this story, a little girl called Araceli Gonzalez Carballo,
[Ara-the-lee – Ara as in “Arab”, the as in “theft”.
Gon-Tha-less – Tha as in “Thackeray”
who was born on the 6th of July 1914, in Lugo, Galicia, North Western Spain,
Her childhood and upbringing were fairly happy and largely uneventful, as she was born into a well-to-do family. As she grew up, Araceli started to attract the attention of boys around her because of her astounding and fierce beauty, which made her look like a film star.
Araceli’s life – alongside the lives of other 25 Million Spaniards [TA2] – changed forever on the 17th of July1936, when the Civil War broke out[TA3] . I realised this is probably the first time we discuss the Spanish Civil War in Biographics, so I am going to cover it very quickly just to jog your memory.
The war pitted the legitimate, Republican government in Madrid against a Nationalist insurgency headed by General Francisco Franco. Both sides were supported by foreign volunteers and governments: the USSR provided aid to the Communist fighters on the Republican side. This Stalinist faction was often at odds with the less extreme elements within the so-called Popular Front which led to infighting most notably in Barcelona and the Catalunya region.
On the other hand, Italy and Germany were ideologically akin to Franco and the insurgents, so they sent units from their Armed Forces to fight on their side. In April 1939 Franco and his Nationalist insurgents claimed victory over the Republic.
The region of Galicia had been quickly taken over by the Nationalists at the very beginning of the war, meaning Lugo would be spared the horrors of being on the front line.
But there was still much to do on the home front. To the surprise of those who knew well this posh and rather spoilt girl, Araceli enthusiastically volunteered in a military hospital in her home town, emptying bed pans, peeling potatoes and above all experiencing first-hand the misery of modern war. She grew more mature after the experience and so she decided to move away from home at the end of 1938.
Her father found her a job as a secretary to the governor of the Bank of Spain, in Burgos, the acting capital for the Nationalists.
It was here, in February of 1939 that she met a young officer. It was love at first sight. His name was Juan Pujol.
You are the Juan I love,
You are the Juan for me.
Our second protagonist was born in 1912 in Barcelona, into a progressive and liberal family. Juan and his brothers grew up influenced by their father’s ideals: freedom, tolerance, love for your neighbour and rejection of violence.
With such an upbringing you would imagine that at the outbreak of the Civil War, the 24 year old Juan would side with the Republicans.
But reality is not so clear cut. Juan did initially serve with the Popular Front in Catalonia during the first months of the war. But he experienced first-hand the violent internal clashes between Republicans, Stalinists and Anarchists, as well as the terror-like tactics used in this struggle. This caused him to desert from the Republican army and after a brief stint as a chicken farmer near the French border, he joined the Francoist side.
He served with the Nationalist until the end of the war, as an Officer in the signal corps. And as a Nationalist officer he met, fell in love and married the beautiful Araceli, or “Araceli la bella” as he used to call her.
Are we going to stay neutral?
The Civil War ended with Franco’s victory and five months later Germany invaded Poland. For several months Germany and Italy tried to enlist Spain’s help in their fight against the Allies, but Franco was no fool and kept out of the war, allowing only a contingent of volunteers to join Operation Barbarossa in June 1941.
But let’s not jump too far ahead.
I am going to rewind back to January 1941, when a beautiful, young lady walked into the German Embassy and managed to arrange a meeting between a delegate and her husband, a veteran of Franco’s Army.[TA6]
I am talking of course about Araceli and Juan. The German diplomat’s name was Gustav Leisner, and he was the chief of the Abwehr for the Iberian Peninsula. The Abwehr was the intelligence service agency of the Wehrmacht, headed by Admiral Wilhelm Canaris.
Juan had a bold proposal for Leisner: he and Araceli would move to Lisbon, then to London, and offer to spy for the Germans.
What was the game of the Pujols? It is possible to speculate that they did not agree with Spain’s neutrality and wanted to do their part in the War. But Leisner did not care about their motives. The spy master was simply too delighted to recruit a couple from a neutral country, who could move freely to Britain. A couple which included a former Nationalist veteran, an officer of the signal corps no less!
Leisner agreed to the deal and assigned agent Federico Knappe
to give Juan a crash course on intelligence work. He was taught how to use invisible ink to write his secret reports, to be sent back to Madrid and Berlin. Juan also learned how to encode his messages, using the Enigma ciphers. Finally, he received instructions on what NOT to do: he and Araceli were not supposed to do any actual spying themselves. Rather, recruit a spy network amongst British and foreign citizens who were sympathetic to the Axis cause.
Everything was set. One last detail was missing: Juan would need a code name to sign his messages. Did he have any preferences? Yes, he had: “Araceli Bella”, or “Arabel” for short.
In July 1941 the Pujols were transferred to Lisbon. After acquiring false papers, they flew to London and set to work. Juan Pujol did not have particular talents, nor education, but he had the gift of the gab and his wife had a charming personality. Very quickly they started recruiting a network of spies, some of them high up the hierarchy of the British Admiralty and the Minister of Information.
The network included also two Venezuelan brothers, Nazi sympathisers who were able to observe the Royal Navy’s movements from Glasgow. In November 1942, they were able to send an advance warning of Operation Torch, the Allied landings in North Africa.
Another notable agent included a Welsh nationalist, the founder of an underground Fascist group called the “Brothers of the Aryan World Order”, operating in Swansea, South Wales.
In the spring of 1944 the Abwehr received the most valuable report so far from Arabel. The long feared Allied invasion of France was on its way. The joint British, Canadian and American forces had created a new Army group called FUSAG, First US Army Group: a formidable force numbering 11 Divisions under General Button.
[subtitle on screen: It was Patton]
FUSAG was amassing in southern England and plans were being finalised for their landing in a location in northern France. Arabel was able to disclose that location, which as we all know was
[editing note: upon saying ‘location’ the screen switches to a map of northern France, slowly zooming towards Normandy, clearly labelled on the map]
[editing note: the camera jerks away from Normandy and pans eastwards to Calais with the sound of scratching record]
Or was it?
At the start of this video I mentioned that this story featured some unreliable narrators. Let me introduce the first one: that’s moi, yours truly, Zymon Warstler.
[subtitle: It’s me again, Simon Whistler]
You see, so far, I have told you the story from the perspective of Leisner and the other spies at the Abwehr. But let’s trace backwards one of the very first reports sent by Arabel from London. The ciphered message folds back up into its envelope, jumps back into the secure briefcase, then into the postal plane and so on until we are in the Pujols room in London, with Juan composing the message at his desk. A cool breeze moves the curtains, allowing us to see outside the window. But what we see is not the Big Ben, nor Piccadilly Circus, and Juan is not munching on some fish and chips. No, what we may see is the Torre de Belem and the Pujols are having breakfast with pasteis de nata
[pass-teh-ees de nuh-tuh]
The fact is, the Pujols had never left Lisbon for London. What was going on?
Let’s rewind even further, to the start of the War in Europe. Even though Araceli and Juan were on the Francoist side at the end of the war, neither of them was fully supportive of the regime. Araceli simply found herself in Nationalist territory, while Juan had switched sides as a reaction to violence in Barcelona. The young couple was concerned about the spread of Nazi ideology throughout Europe and had decided that they needed to take some action.
It is not entirely clear to us how they came to this idea, but in the winter of 1940-1941 Juan approached the British Embassy in Madrid to offer his services as a spy. As we all heard in many a job interview Juan was told “thanks, we appreciate the enthusiasm, but we are looking for someone with more experience”.
What happened next was all thanks to Araceli’s genius. The plan was to approach the Germans instead – which happened successfully in January 1941. And then offer to spy for them. Once Juan had gained their trust, they could then contact the British again and work for them as double agents. Brilliant. Not only they were going to build up some work experience, but they would be able to offer His Majesty’s secret services a valuable skill: a channel of communication with the Abwehr to feed false information.
In July 1941 they settled in Lisbon and never left for London. But what about their spy network? What about the Venezuelan brothers and the Welsh Fascist? What about the detailed reports which earned Juan the praises of the Abwehr?
It was all fake. A fabrication. Hokum. Poppycock. Malarkey. Codswallop. Mumbo-Jumbo.
[subtitle: Simon Whistler has swallowed a thesaurus]
Juan’s gift with words transferred into writing. He was able to compose from scratch more than 400 letters and 2,000 wireless messages, all based on magazines and newspapers available in neutral Lisbon. With the only help of his creativity he was able to create an imaginary network of spies.
To ensure that the Abwehr would trust Juan’s activities, Araceli had another brilliant idea. The Abwehr in Madrid were unaware that she had left with Juan. So she returned to the Spanish capital and met with Federico Knappe.
She broke into tears, saying that her husband had suddenly disappeared. Had he abandoned her, and their new born son? She knew that Juan had met with Federico several times, maybe he could help her finding him? Knappe could not resist the tears of a beautiful young lady and he reassured her: Juan was in London, carrying out a delicate mission on behalf of the Reich and Araceli should be proud of him.
She had the Abwehr in her pocket.
Araceli and Juan were reunited once again in Lisbon and he continued sending his coded messages to his spy masters. Juan’s boldness and sheer cheek got to the point of asking pay raises from the Abwehr, lest his non-existing agents stopped collaborating! The Pujols ended up receiving 20,000 Pounds from the Abwehr. That’s about 1.2 Million US Dollars in today’s money.
Juan came up with the story that he had been offered a job in the Ministry of Information, thanks to some guy called Brendan Bracken, a personal friend of Prime Minister Windsor Chumkill
[Subtitle: That’s Winston Churchill]
Thanks to this job he was able to get access even to the office of the Lord Admiral, Louis Moonbutter.
[Subtitle: It’s Mountbatten]
By February 1942, the MI6 began intercepting Arabel’s messages via Ultra, the decryption programme at Bletchley Park that had cracked the Enigma code. They soon realized that a German agent was based in Lisbon, but pretended to be in London. And he was feeding to the Abwehr false, but credible, information.
Around the same period Araceli planned her next move. In a way, she was the literary agent to Juan’s creative genius. She secured a meeting with their next “client” (with air quotes), the American Naval Attaché in Lisbon, Edward Rousseau.
She produced evidence that Juan had secured the trust of the Germans and told Rouesseau that they were now willing to cooperate with the British secret services. Rousseau contacted the MI6 who were now aware of Arabel’s activities. MI6 agreed to recruit the Pujols, who received another codename: Bovril.
An operation was put in place to smuggle the Pujols to Gibraltar, and then to England. Juan adopted a new look to avoid any chance of recognition: shaved head, glasses and beard.
[Editing suggestion: show on screen the famous photo of Garbo matching this description]
I don’t know about you, but I think he looked great like that. But I may be biased …
Anyhow, the Pujols landed in Plymouth on the 24th of April,1942. At the docks, they were met by the third protagonist of our story, the MI5 handler who would effectively become Juan’s fellow co-author, agent Tomás Harris.
Now, let’s look at the events of 1942 to 1944 from the point of view of the Pujols and the MI5.
Harris christened Juan with his third and final codename. Because of his ability to impersonate so many different characters on paper he was called Agent Garbo, after Swedish actress Great Garbo, considered the greatest at that time.
Pujol and Harris’ strategy was to continue building the Germans’ trust by giving them so called ‘chicken feed’ – which is basically accurate military information but of little to no strategic value. Working together they wrote 315 letters averaging 2,000 words each,They also invented 27 sub-agents, each with full life stories – such as our old friend the Welsh Fascist or the Venezuelan brothers in Glasgow.
According to the Official History of British Intelligence in WW2, the Abwehr became so flooded with reports from the Garbo spy network that they made no further attempts to infiltrate Great Britain.
In November of 1942 Harris and Pujol dared one master stroke to secure the German’s trust once and for all. In anticipation of Operation TORCH, the Allied landings in North Africa, they compiled a report from the Venezuelans in Glasgow: a convoy of warships had been seen leaving port, in distinctive Mediterranean camouflage.
The message was sent by airmail postmarked well before the TORCH landings and timed to arrive too late to provide the German High Command with advance warning. The information was accurate, but useless. Still, the Germans were delighted and communicated back to Garbo:
“We are sorry they arrived too late, but your last reports were magnificent”.
While Juan was writing away in the MI5 offices, Araceli was adjusting to life in London. Which was not easy, considering a second child had been born in the meanwhile. Initially, everything was swell. She got to meet the Duchess of Lent
[Subtitle: you know it’s ‘Kent’]
And even British Prime Minister, Willum Cha-Cha.
[Subtitle: Winston Churchill?]
But soon the long hours spent at home and nostalgia for her country of origin took their toll. In June 1943 Araceli wanted desperately to return to Spain and threatened Tomás that lest she could do so, she would reveal the whole Garbo ruse to the Spanish Embassy.
Juan and Tomás had to act quickly and they concocted another plan. An MI5 officer informed Araceli that Juan had been arrested following a violent altercation with the spymasters, whom he accused of mistreating her. She was blindfolded and driven to Camp 020, the infamous MI5 interrogation centre, where she had a tearful reunion with Juan, who appeared dishevelled and downtrodden, dressed in a camp inmate uniform.
Araceli promised through her tears that she would do her best to cooperate from that moment onwards, if MI5 agreed to release her husband. The cunning plan had been successful. And here is a lesson for all you newlyweds to be, out there
[Subtitle: Looking at you, Morris M.]
There is no marriage crisis that can’t be overcome with the help of an overly complicated plan, a convincing disguise. And an MI5 handler.
In January 1944 Juan received a message from the Abwehr: they knew that the Allies were preparing a large-scale invasion of Western Europe. They needed their best agent Arabel to keep them informed of developments. This set the stage for Garbo’s masterpiece.
It was true of course that a massive landing was scheduled for June 1944, Operation Overlord. The Allies knew very well that its success depended upon fooling the Germans on the exact location of the landing. A parallel operation was put in place to that end, Operation Fortitude, and Garbo would be at its centre.
Between January 1944 and D-Day over 500 radio messages passed from Juan to the Abwehr with the intent of a) conceal the real status of Overlord’s preparations and b) persuade Berlin that the invasion force would land in Calais, rather than Normandy.
The deception was made even more convincing by the invention of a ghost Army group: FUSAG – the 11 Divisions supposedly led by Patton! FUSAG was to be stationed in the county of Essex, East of London, the natural staging ground for an invasion at Calais.
[suggested edit: Map showing Essex and its proximity to Calais]
The Allies even created inflatable tanks and other bogus equipment to fool German reconnaissance aircraft.
The German High Command swallowed Garbo’s lies like chilled Bavarian beer in a hot evening. Normandy’s beaches were well defended, of course, but that was part of the Atlantic Wall system of defence. The majority of the mechanized divisions in Northern France were kept at Calais, ready to repel FUSAG.
D-DAY arrived. On the early hours of the 6th of June 1944 American, British and Canadian forces stormed the beaches of Normandy. The battle was gruesome. On D-Day alone, more than 4400 men died on the Allied side, up to 9000 on the Axis side[TA10] . But it could have been much, much worse.
Upon Erwin Rommel’s insistence, his divisions were ready to move from Calais to Normandy, but he was overruled by the Commander-in-Chief, Marshal Von Rundstedt. Another report from Arabel – or Garbo if you like – had reassured High Command that the attack in Normandy was purely a diversionary manoeuvre. And that the tanks better stay put in Calais, ready for Patton’s arrival!
Juan was so convincing that up until August the Germans kept two armoured divisions and 19 infantry divisions in Calais ready to welcome Patton’s ghost army. But how did the Abwehr react when the Allied never landed in Calais? Here is another Garbo masterpiece: he convinced them that the “diversionary manoeuvre” in Normandy had been so successful that the Calais invasion had been aborted!
On 29 July 1944 Juan received a surprising further message from the Abwehr: he had been awarded the Iron Cross by the Führer himself, for his “extraordinary services” to Germany.
And as one award was not enough, in December 1944, Juan was appointed Member of the Order of the British Empire by the Security Service’s Director General, Sir David Petrie, in recognition of his services.
After the War
Juan, Araceli and Tomás had been at the forefront of an Operation that had guaranteed the Allied victory in Europe – one of those rare cases when, actually, the pen is mightier than the sword.
Juan and Araceli returned to Madrid. Juan became paranoid about the Germans finding about his identity, he feared some ex-Nazis or neo-Nazis could exact revenge. Araceli was more practical. She just walked into the German Embassy in Madrid and collected the last sum due to Arabel which she knew was still waiting for them: 25,000 pesetas, about 20,000 USD in today’s value.
The couple then moved to Lugo and from there to Venezuela. This was Juan’s decision, who was still paranoid about being exposed as a spy. But life in Venezuela did not suit Araceli and the couple grew apart. By 1948, they had formally separated, and Araceli was living in Madrid with their three children, in a penthouse provided by the British Government.
It was there that she received the news that in early 1949 Juan, apparently on a secret mission in Angola, had disappeared and was presumed dead in mysterious circumstances.
His former handler and friend Tomás Harris, had quit the MI5 after the war. In the following years he could never shake off the suspicion of being part of the spy ring known as the ‘Cambridge five’[TA12] – a group of MI5 traitors headed by Kim Philby who were spying on behalf of the Soviet Union. However, there is absolutely no evidence of his involvement. Tomás died in a car accident in Mallorca, Spain, in 1964 – and for once, it seems like there were no ‘mysterious circumstances’ here.
In the meanwhile, in Madrid Araceli had started building a new life for her and the children, working as a guide and interpreter for the British and American embassies. In 1956 she met and fell in love with American entrepreneur Edward Kreisler – a former body double for film star Rodolfo Valentino – now interested in developing the Spanish tourist industry. The two opened a successful souvenir shop in the same year, married in 1958, expanded into art galleries in 1965 … and all the while spying on behalf of the CIA, at least according to rumours collected by newspaper El Pais.
Edward formally adopted Juan and Araceli’s three children, who grew up, and had children of their own. Life just … went on. Francisco Franco died (1975), King Juan Carlos restored democracy, Spain hosted the Football World Cup (1982) …
Then on a September morning in 1984 Juan Kreisler, also known as Juan Pujol Jr heard something on the radio that left him stunned. Juan Pujol, agent Garbo, the greatest Spanish spy, was still alive and had reappeared in Great Britain to formally collect the Order of the British Empire award he had received at the end of the war.
This had been Juan’s final ruse – he had faked his death with the help of British Intelligence, to then return to Venezuela incognito and start again from scratch. He had remarried in Caracas and had fathered three more children. Juan was extensively interviewed by Spanish media, but never gave an explanation to his action, except that he wanted to rebuild a life. Did he have concrete reasons to fear retribution, maybe from ex Nazis escaped to South America? Or maybe it was a way for him to divorce, Pujol-style. After all divorce was illegal in Spain until the 1970s. And one thing we learned about Juan: if he could overcomplicate something, he would.
Whatever the reason for his disappearance, his children in Madrid welcomed him back and built a relationship which effectively, had never really been there. They even flew back to Venezuela with him and met with their half-siblings.
Our story ends, shortly after this reunion. Juan died in 1988, followed by Araceli in 1990, both of natural causes. Juan Pujol “Garbo” is celebrated in espionage literature as one of the great spies, if not ‘The’ Spy of the 20th Century – and I am not going to argue with that.
But Araceli’s exploits have only recently been celebrated – and this is because, being a good spy, she was very good at keeping shtum. So how about we remember both of them as spies of the century?
Before you go, please leave us a comment.And if somebody were to film the story of Garbo, who would be your choice of lead actors?
The only sources I found about Araceli are all in Spanish
Note: the last reference gives a different account of Juan’s wartime adventures as compared to the others. I have stuck to the version form the Spanish newspaper and the MI5 website. From this last reference I got the details that he was a signal corps officer and a chicken farmer.