Garbo the Spy – True Story of a Double Agent who helped change the outcome of WWII

I’m not a great fan of war movies, though I’ve sat through countless documentaries and docu-dramas in order to educate myself in history. This film was a revelation, a story completely unknown to me before – about a man who hated violence and couldn’t shoot, who, by his wits alone, changed the outcome of the war and saved thousands of lives.  A statement by General Eisenhower at the beginning of the film testifies to the effectiveness of his role in deciding the outcome of the war.

Juan Pujol was a middle-class Spaniard who was appalled by the violence and bloodshed of the Spanish Civil War,  and vowed to try to do something about the escalating fascist assault on European society that culminated in WWII. He offered his services to the British, but was at first rebuffed because of his lack of prior experience in either warfare or espionage. To establish his credibility as a double agent, he developed a relationship with the German High Command, selling information about military installations and troop movements that he said he gathered from his network of twenty-seven spies in various Western European countries. In a testament to his persuasive skill, his German handlers never caught on to the fact that his network of spies was entirely fictitious and that he had started working for the British spy agency MI-5 (who gave him the code name Garbo). He had to include enough verifiable true information in his coded messages in order to keep the trust of his German handlers.

His greatest coup (and this was a story I, for one, was completely unaware of) undoubtedly was the elaborate ruse he and his British superiors played at the Normandy invasion. He sent messages to the Germans that the invasion was going to happen in Flanders, hundreds of miles to the North, to allow time for the allied forces to land in Normandy in sufficient numbers. Supported by dummy military equipment and faked troop movements in Southeast England, which would show up on aerial photographs, the German High Command believed their agent and concentrated their forces in Belgium. Garbo even persuaded them that the evidence they were getting of troop ships approaching Normandy was a decoy. If they had been able to station themselves on the beachheads at Normandy, thousands more in the landing parties would have been killed.

After the invasion his cover was blown, and as is customary in such operations, the British erased all records of his existence and name and he disappeared, at first to South Africa (where he supposedly “died”)  then to Venezuela, where he lived for thirty more years under another name, got married and had a family. He finally, in the 1980s,  came out of hiding and was given a public recognition and honor. Though no pictures of him existed from his earlier life, the movie reconstructs his story and we do get to see him a generation later.

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