In 1947, news was released of the death in Mozambique of Joan Pujol, a 35-year-old Catalan. He had died after being bitten by a venomous snake that had slipped into his bedroom.
Born in Barcelona on February 14th 1912 to a well-to-do Catalan family, Joan Pujol García enjoyed a reputation as a playboy in his early years and took a dim view, like many of his class, of the revolutionary events of 1936, doing his best to avoid being called up. After a spell in prison, he was finally enlisted in 1938 and took part without, he claimed, actually firing a bullet in the Battle of the Ebro, the largest battle of the Civil War. At the end of the campaign, with the Republic’s troops in disarray, he deserted and crossed the lines over to Franco’s side. Then, if Pujol had kept to the script of others like him, he would have vanished from history, returning as a victor to enjoy the rapacious fruits of the corruption and theft that fell on the city after its fall to Franco.
Instead, at the end of the war, Pujol travelled to Madrid. He had developed a deep-seated loathing of totalitarianism after seeing the rise of Stalinism in Barcelona in 1937, and after listening to the BBC’s broadcasts he became a fervent anti-Nazi. Then, at some point in 1940, with the Second World War underway, he resolved to help the Allies’ cause and presented himself at the British embassy in order to volunteer his services as a spy. The British were either disinterested or didn’t trust him. Undeterred he offered his services to the Third Reich with the brazen intent of becoming a double-agent for London. The Germans were won over by his ardent Nazi stance, (for Pujol was becoming a consummate actor), accepted him and gave him the codename Arabel.
He then moved to Lisbon, from where, with the help of his wife, he pretended to be in London, and began to weave a fictitious network of spies who allegedly worked for him in the United Kingdom. He knew next to nothing of the country where his agents operated, gleaning all his information from newsreels in the cinemas and from reading the British press in Lisbon’s public library. With the raw material he invented a team of unlikely traitors who worked under him, such as a disgruntled Scouse dock worker, a Welsh fascist and a waiter from Gibraltar. His ignorance caused him to make mistakes such as failing to understand the imperial money system of pounds, shillings and pence and he once claimed that the Scottish dockers were on the edge of revolt after the government had hiked the tax on red wine, stating in a dispatch: “There are people here who would do anything for a litre of wine.” Although, it would take a couple of generations for wine to reach the tables of Clydeside, the Nazis were clearly equally as ignorant and lapped up his reports, steeped in Hitlerian codswallop, of goods shipments across the UK, for which he used the British railway timetables found in the reference library.
After a frustrated second attempt, he finally managed to convince MI6 of his worth after fortuitously diverting a U-boat squadron in the Atlantic away from a merchant convoy and was secretly flown to London in spring 1942. There, under the codename Garbo, he continued to expand his fictitious network, this time with the help of Cyril Bertram Mills, his MI6 controller, who he only knew as Mr Grey. On occasions, an ‘agent’ had to be terminated to cover the deception. The Scouse docker had failed to report on a mayor fleet movement out of Liverpool: he had unfortunately fallen ill just before. Pujol’s Nazi controllers not only fell for the yarn, but agreed to pay his bereaved widow a pension. At its height, Garbo’s imagined network comprised 27 agents to whom Germany paid a handsome $340,000. All of this money, which reached Britain via Switzerland, enriched the coffers of MI6, helping to fund the organisation.
In order to maintain his credibility, many of Garbo’s reports contained genuine information, but were delayed before being sent to Germany to minimise any damage. As the war advanced, Garbo’s disinformation was channelled towards one goal: aiding perhaps the greatest deception in the history of warfare—persuading the Nazis that the invasion of France would be directed against Calais, not Normandy. Entitled ‘Operation Fortitude’, the hoax included a huge ghost army supposedly massed in Kent supported by thousands of mock wooden tanks, while the real troops gathered far to the west. This was backed by a barrage of false information, supplied by Garbo himself. Finally at 3am on June 6th 1944, Garbo tried to contact the Germans to warn them of the Normandy invasion just after it had sailed, thus ensuring it was too late for them to do anything about it. However, the German radio operator had failed to check in at the scheduled time so they did not receive the message until 8am, allowing Garbo to add more details and giving him extra credit for reliability. Seething with apparent rage, he even informed his German contacts of his disgust at the delayed reception: “I cannot accept excuses or negligence. Were it not for my ideals I would abandon the work”. All the while, he insisted that the attack was a diversion: the real invasion was to come at Calais.
By the time the Nazis realised their mistake, it was too late. The Allies has gained a vital foothold. Remarkably, the Germans still trusted Arabel. He told them that the Allies had abandoned their plans for Calais after being surprised how successful their ‘false’ landing had been. They informed him he had been awarded the Iron Cross by the Führer himself for his “extraordinary services” to the Reich. Arabel sent his “humble thanks” for such an honour, for which he was truly “unworthy”. The British were also delighted with their agent and awarded him the MBE, making him one of the very few people to be decorated by both sides during the war. In September 1944, after a scare, Garbo was arrested by the British to cover the operation. He was soon released and went to ground, though his network continued to fool the Germans.
At the end of the war, Pujol arranged a meeting with his German controllers in Madrid where they presented him with the Iron Cross. They also gave him a suitcase of dollars, thanking him tearfully for his incalculable services to the Third Reich. But Pujol feared the Nazis would eventually find out the truth of his duplicity, so he travelled to Mozambique where he faked his own death with the snake, fooling even Mills. From here, Pujol moved to Venezuela where he successfully slipped into anonymity: not even his British controllers nor his wife knew where he was. Although Pujol’s role was a state secret, Graeme Greene, who also worked for MI6 during the war, knew the story and used Garbo as the inspiration for Jim Wormold, the protagonist of Our Man In Havana. Finally in 1981, a BBC documentary team managed to trace him through relatives in Barcelona to his home in Choroní, Venezuela. He was persuaded to return to Britain in 1982 for an emotional reunion with Mills and to collect his MBE from the Queen. Joan Pujol died in Venezuela in his adopted town in 1988.
Nick Lloyd leads Civil War tours in Barcelona with the Centre d’Estudis de Montjuic and runs www.iberianature.com