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Spy v. Spy: How a Double Agent Won D-Day for the Allies

IN The Art of War, Sun Tzu says that of the five classes of spies the most important is the “converted spy,” or double agent, because it is only through him (or her) that true “knowledge of the enemy” can be obtained. John le Carré writes that in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy—perhaps the greatest literary representation of a counterespionage operation—he wanted to capture “the sheer scale of the mayhem that can be visited on an enemy service when its intelligence-gathering efforts fall under the control of its opponent.” Few individuals without rank or office can be more pivotal in warfare than a well-placed operative who has pledged loyalty to one side but secretly serves the other. In his dramatic and entertaining new book, Stephan Talty shows how a single Spaniard, pretending to work for Nazi Germany while actually serving British intelligence, was “the linchpin” of the successful deception campaign to convince Hitler that the D-Day landing at Normandy was merely a feint for a larger arrival in Pas de Calais, a move that allowed the Allied armies to gain the foothold necessary to open up a Western Front and commence the ground war that would help end the Third Reich.

Juan Pujol, who never fought on the front lines, is not a Stephen Ambrose–style war hero. He was, at his core, a con man. Fittingly, it isn’t clear whether he was born on February 14 or February 28 in 1912. In Talty’s telling, which relies considerably (as it must) on Pujol’s postwar remembrances, he was a tenderhearted fantasist who rushed “to help when the neighborhood runt was losing a fight” on his Barcelona block. He was twenty-four at the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, and, unwilling to fight for the Republic, he hid out in his fiancée’s family home until he was arrested and jailed. He escaped from prison and—in an early indication of the topsy-turvy nature of his thinking—decided that the easiest way to flee Spain was to join the Republican Army (under a false identity), get sent to the front lines, sneak over to the Nationalist side, and then make a break for the border. The Nationalists threw him into a concentration camp before he reached the front. Luckily, his father’s connections got him sprung.

As Hitler’s armed forces began their march across Europe in late 1939, Pujol, who was managing a hotel in Madrid, says he heard the call of idealism. “I yearned for justice,” he said, according to the book he co-wrote in 1985 with British spy enthusiast “Nigel West” (the pen name of former Conservative MP Rupert William Simon Allason). “I must do something, something practical; I must make my contribution toward the good of humanity.” He obtained a precious Spanish passport (by providing illicit Scotch to a couple of elderly Francoists) and walked into the British embassy to volunteer for the Allies. He was shown the door. He then turned to the Abwehr—the espionage branch of the German military—with the intention, he would later say, of becoming a double agent for the British. The Germans sent him to Lisbon, where he procured a fake diplomatic visa. Trained in secret ink and ciphering codes, and given $3,000 in cash and the code name “Alaric,” he was told to get himself to London, which was just emerging from the Blitz.

For tactical reasons that are not entirely clear, Pujol ignored his German orders and went back to Lisbon, where his offer to work for the Allies was again rebuffed. So he began delivering phony spy messages to his Abwehr controller in Madrid. In florid language that celebrated “our brave troops who fight in Russia, annihilating the Bolshevik beast,” he boasted of developing a team of sub-agents who were able to feed him intelligence from the British Isles, which was a handy way to make his café-crafted dispatches seem more believable and keep the paychecks coming in.

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In October 1941, British cryptanalysts intercepted Nazi messages referring to a convoy of five British vessels forming in the bay of Caernarvon. (There was no build up in the bay—Pujol had concocted the story.) Stunned to discover that “Alaric” was respected enough to convince the Germans to send forces to meet the non-existent convoy—and trusted enough to avoid blame when empty sea was all they found—the British began a search for him. That didn’t end until February 1942, when the MI6 received a message from a U.S. naval attaché in Madrid about “a Spanish national named Juan Pujol” who “has a story about sending messages to Germans” from Lisbon. If someone was sending fake intelligence to the Germans, the British wanted a part of it.

Smuggled out of Lisbon on a British merchant ship and jetted from Gibraltar to England, Pujol became the star of the Double Cross Committee, the interagency organization that used double agents under British control and code-breaking efforts to communicate misinformation to the Nazi regime. Under the guiding hand of Tomás “Tommy” Harris, the MI5 operative who was his handler, Pujol (code-named “Garbo” because the agency thought he was the best actor in the world) expanded his team of imaginary sub-agents to include twenty-seven individuals—“a whole universe that needed to be constructed and rigorously maintained,” Talty writes. Equipped with a wireless radio to send encrypted messages to Madrid, Pujol was instrumental in the effort to convince Hitler that an Allied force was considering a strike on Nazi-controlled Norway in late 1942, which enabled the Allies to invade North Africa against a smaller German force than they might have otherwise faced on November 8, 1942. 

By January 1944, Pujol, Harris, and their team of fictional agents had joined a massive deception campaign—General George Patton himself participated—to provide unmistakable hints (fake airstrips, wooden airplanes, dummy troop barracks, made-up newspaper stories) that the battle of Western Europe would begin when a large invasion force crossed the narrowest point of the English Channel into France at Pas de Calais. Pujol sent hundreds of messages supporting this deception in the six months leading up to June 6, 1944, when the Allies successfully landed 150 miles away on the Normandy coast.

But Pujol’s great achievement, as Talty shows, was not only in helping persuade the Germans to station the formidable Fifteenth Army at Pas de Calais. It was his role in keeping it there. On June 9, just after Hitler assented to a request from one of his generals to send reinforcements from Pas de Calais to Normandy, Pujol delivered his most important message of the war to Berlin. He told the German command that it was “perfectly clear” that the Normandy invasion was a distraction. After studying Garbo’s report, Hitler reversed the order and sent nine of the ten divisions back to Pas de Calais, ensuring the success of the early stage of the Allied campaign. “The German Fifteenth Army, which, if committed to battle in June or July, might possibly have defeated [the Allies] by sheer weight of numbers, remained inoperative throughout the critical period of the campaign,” wrote Supreme Allied Commander Dwight D. Eisenhower. Before he committed suicide in October 1944, Field Marshal Erwin Rommel called it a “decisive mistake … to leave the German troops in the Pas de Calais.” Juan Pujol was so trusted that the German High Command believed the presence of the German army in Pas de Calais had prevented the invasion force from landing there. He was that good.

But he was only as good as the messages that Harris and the Double Cross Committee were crafting under his name. This is the implicit message of Ben Macintyre’s new book, Double Cross: The True Story of the D-Day Spies, which tells a wider-angled version of the same story. Talty notes that Pujol (who faked his death with MI5 help after the war because of fears about Nazi vengeance and was rediscovered in Venezuela four years before his actual death in 1988) was relieved of the greatest burden of his work—coming up with all those crazy stories—once he arrived in London. Tommy Harris wrote that Pujol “was allowed to supervise and help develop the unique and fanciful espionage organization which had been the creation of his imagination,” but he was no longer the originator of it or even a necessary participant in its promulgation.

Pjuol’s central role in the operation, then, was the creation of those 36 messages that he freelanced from Lisbon in 1941, the well-crafted balderdash that provided him with a steady income at a time when Nazi power was at its zenith. Talty accepts without challenge Pujol’s postwar conception of himself as pure-hearted fabulist eager to start a personal war with Hitler because he “yearned to do good.” But Desmond Bristow, the M16 operative who first debriefed Pujol after his arrival in England, was never entirely “sure of his reasons” for becoming a spy. “Some very strange things happened around Pujol,” he wrote years later. He was getting at something significant about the nature of the double agent. If he’s any good, you never really know who he’s working for.

Peter Duffy is writing a book for Scribner about the German-American double agent who broke up the largest spy ring in American history in 1941.