Why you should care

Spies can change the course of history — just look at Joan Pujol Garcia, who charmed intelligence services on both sides of World War II to fight for a cause he believed in. 

Real-life espionage rarely looks like the movies. And Joan Pujol Garcia, possibly the craftiest spy of all time, was about as far from James Bond as you can get. No martinis. No lighters-cum-pistols. And certainly no bikini-clad triple agents.

Garcia lived through the Spanish Civil War, managing to “fight” without ever firing a gun in a deliberate attempt to avoid killing for someone else’s cause. Professionally, he was also aimless, drifting from one inoffensive job to the next, one day a cinema manager, the next raising chickens.

And then, seemingly without promise and having “failed at almost everything he’d tried,” the Spaniard found inspiration and ambition as World War II got underway.

Garcia was certain a spark would set off a European tinderbox.

In 1939, with Spain in the hands of fascists and Nazi Germany’s war machine rumbling to life, Garcia was certain a spark would set off a European tinderbox. Two years later, with the prospect of fascism spreading throughout Europe, Garcia knew he had to act. Unfit as a soldier, he decided to offer his services for “the good of humanity” to the unlikeliest place in the world for a former poultry hand: the British intelligence services.

BW photo of Britash

British Invasion troops march through a village street on May 28, 1944.

Source Reg Speller/Fox Photos/Getty

Not surprisingly MI5 was unimpressed by the multiple applications submitted by the small, bearded Spaniard and rejected him outright, refusing even to meet with Garcia. But he was undeterred and on a very specific mission to make a difference — but first he needed the British to take him seriously.

Like many employees looking for respect and advancement, Garcia approached the competition, eventually convincing the Nazis that he had been working in England as a Spanish diplomat and was a committed fascist with the vital British links they coveted. Within a year, the Nazis hired Garcia as a valuable asset with insider knowledge of the ‘enemy.’

His masterstroke … was convincing the Germans that the D-Day landings were planned for the Pas-de-Calais, rather than Normandy.

So far, so good. Now he just needed to get the British to take notice. Garcia’s plan was to make the Germans trust him and then secretly send another application to MI5. In the meantime, British intelligence was unknowingly tracking Garcia when they went in search of the “spy” who was communicating so fluidly about England with the Nazis.

The next time Garcia’s application arrived at MI5, the British paid attention. They recruited “Agent Garbo,” launching Garcia into a career filled with fantastical lies that helped shape espionage history.

Keeping a Nazi bullet at bay took ingenuity and imagination.

Pleasing two masters, however, is never easy. Keeping a Nazi bullet at bay took ingenuity and imagination. Garcia had finally found his calling as the ultimate liar, and when his Nazi handler told him to recruit British agents, the double agent invented no fewer than 27 characters to join his crew. He and his British handler then composed more than 300 fictitious reports about Garcia’s agents to send back to the Germans.

But the whole game could have gone badly wrong if Garcia had been scrutinized more closely. He had, after all, never been to England and was basing his geographic lies on Blue Guide to England magazines he found at a local library. But Agent Garbo successfully kept Nazi doubts at bay with his blend of boldness and creativity, passing off incredible falsehoods. His masterstroke and entry into the history books was convincing the Germans that the D-Day landings were planned for the Pas-de-Calais, rather than Normandy.

Garcia recognized that most intelligence organizations were almost as inexperienced as he was. Germany had few real double agents of their own to call his bluff, and the British could feed him information they knew the Germans wanted to hear.

BW photo of full body shot of Joan

Joan Pujol Garcia wearing the medal he received.

The Nazis were so grateful for Garcia’s ever-flowing information they awarded him the Iron Cross — weeks after his real work helped make D-Day a success. And several months later, King George VI declared him a Member of the British Empire, making him the only person to be decorated by both sides.

In a final, Le Carre flourish, Garcia had to fake his own death and move to Venezuela after the war to avoid being hunted down by former Nazis hungry for revenge.

Winston Churchill said, “In wartime, truth is so precious that she should always be attended by a bodyguard of lies.” Garcia realized the value of being one of those bodyguards perhaps more than anyone in his era.

In a war in which the world’s superpowers seemed to be moving all the pieces, Garcia demonstrated that one person can make a huge impact, and that’s no lie.

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