Friday, September 07, 2012

Agent Garbo - book

Agent Garbo the Brilliant, Eccentric Secret Agent Who Tricked Hitler and Saved D-Day, Stephan Talty, 2012, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

This is a Spy tale that while true does read rather like a novel. Not only that, the tale itself is so fantastic you might well believe it is a work of fiction. I confess to finding it hard to believe that German Intelligence was so easily duped by one Spaniard and his almost completely fictional troop of spies and even a million man army that he at one time essentially made to disappear, and who managed to keep Hitler’s troops so confused about the Normandy landing they arrived only after it was too late to effectively prevent it.

What is even more incredible is the main character, a young Spaniard named Juan Pojol, who prior to becoming a double agent nicknamed Garbo (apparently because of his abilities along those lines), had accomplished very little in life, managed to become a spy at all, let alone one of the most successful of WW II. He knew nothing of espionage, but having seen both sides of the Spanish Civil War and becoming disenchanted by both sides, and having come to despise fascism and especially Hitler, decided on his own he should become a spy and work against the Germans. He initially attempted to volunteer as a spy for the British but as he had nothing but good intentions was ignored. He decided that if they were to take him seriously he would have to have at least something to show them he did have information. He then approached the Germans and finally encountered a German intelligence officer that gave him some invisible ink and rather minor instructions, with which he then convinced the British he was real. He was all by himself sending false information to the Germans before the British recruited him as a double agent.

Once he was actively engaged by the British he was given a handler who helped him enormously and worked closely with him throughout the duration of the war. He was allowed to feed just enough true accounts of activities to the Germans that he eventually became one of their most trusted agents. Over time he invented a host of other completely fictional spies who supposedly fed him information from various different locations. He made some serious mistakes a couple of times but somehow the Germans always fell for his explanations and had developed complete trust in him. Once, for example, he sent some extremely important information that was true, but arranged to have it delivered a day late. Garbo (Pujol) was regarded by the Germans with such respect he was awarded an Iron Cross, usually reserved for active troops serving in combat. Pujol’s most important deception, that saved literally thousands of lives, was his role in convincing the Germans the allied attack would occur at Calais when in fact it was to occur in Normandy. He and other British spies convinced even Hitler this was the case even though Hitler himself had been certain they would mount the attack on Normandy and only changed his mind at the last minute because of their successful deception. Some German officers even after the war did not understand what had actually happened.

One of the things I found most fascinating about this book is the discussion of the competence of both British and German Intelligence at the beginning of the war. There is little about the Germans aside from the obvious fact they were not entirely competent, but the British recruitment of spies, at least initially, was somewhat haphazard and brought together a collection of rather odd characters. There was Pujol himself, of course, not a likely candidate for such an important role, but there were others perhaps even more unlikely. Johann Jebsen, son of a wealthy Hamburg shipping mogul, with a monocle and Mercedes-Benz convertible who wore fine suits and dazzled beautiful young girlfriends, his friend Susko Popov, a Serb who became a double agent known as tricycle, a beautiful Peruvian girl known as Bronx, Brutus, a Polish air force officer, and elegant small and somewhat obnoxious man whose real name was David Strangeways, and many, many others: “For years, the intelligence services had been the home of clubbable young society men and veterans of the Indian colonial police force; ‘eggheads’ were looked down upon and rarely hired. Now the British government began signing up academics at a furious clip: historians, linguists and classicists for the spy services, and mathematicians and scientists for analytical jobs like codebreaking. Oddballs, such as the almost unfathomably brilliant Alan Turing, became the order of the day.” Somehow this unlikely group of eggheads managed to win the day.

Pujol paid a price in his family life for his service, at one point faked his death and lived undetected for several years to be eventually found and highly honored. If you like spy tales this is a particularly good one.

No comments: