No. 3133: THE LIAR THAT HELPED WIN D-DAY

by Richard Armstrong

Click here for audio of Episode 3133

Today, a great big liar saves the day. The Honors College at the University of Houston presents this program about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

It's 3:00am on D-Day. As the Allied forces set sail for Normandy, the Germans receive an urgent message from one of their agents in England. It reveals that troops are shipping out to cross the Channel. This information is critical; it means the Germans can deploy their reserve divisions and destroy the Allied troops as they come ashore. The message exposes the biggest secret of the war - and this is all a part of the Allies' plan.

You see, that German agent was a double-agent -one of the most successful in history. He was part of Operation Fortitude, the campaign of deception that was crucial to the success of D-Day. And yet his country wasn't even in the war: he was a Catalan from Barcelona, named Juan Pujol García.


Juan Pujol García Photo Credit: Wikimedia

Pujol was no soldier; his previous military career had been frankly shameful. In the '30s, his family had been mistreated by the Republican side during the Spanish Civil War; he became deeply disillusioned with the Soviet-backed communists. He defected to Franco's Nationalist side, where then he came to detest the fascists. At the end of the Civil War he was proud to have served on both sides without ever firing a shot. Playing both sides seemed to come naturally to him.

But as World War II began, he vowed to help the one country he still believed in: Great Britain. Pujol got himself recruited by the Germans as a spy, and eventually convinced the British to use him as a double agent. He moved to London to work for MI5, the counter-intelligence service. There he posed as a fanatical pro-Nazi, and invented a network of 27 entirely fictitious informants. He fed the Germans hundreds of small pieces of information that seemed to fit together into a larger picture: but he let them draw it. Pujol gained their trust by often feeding them the truth, but too late for them to act on it. Then he would reel them in with lies.

Which brings us back to D-Day. Pujol's message effectively told them the invasion was happening-but this was just bait. The point of Operation Fortitude was to keep the Germans guessing, so that any real invasion might appear to be a mere diversion. The plan was to send a second message a few days after D-Day, saying another larger invasion was coming soon. This would make the Germans pull back their reserves, giving the Allies valuable time to gain ground in Normandy.


Inflatable dummy Sherman tank used to confuse Germans about Allied unit strength in England. Photo Credit: Wikimedia

But at 3am on D-Day, something unexpected happened: the Germans weren't listening. In fact, they didn't respond to Pujol until 8am, two hours after the landings began. Always in character, Pujol knew what to do: he wrote back in great outrage at their carelessness. He actually made them apologize to him.

In the end, the Germans not only swallowed Pujol's misinformation completely, but a month after D-Day they awarded him the Iron Cross. In November, England gave him the Order of the British Empire. And so it was that this ingenious fibber became the only man to win high honors from both sides in World War II.

I'm Richard Armstrong at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

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Pujol, Juan, with Nigel West. 1985. Operation Garbo: The Personal Story of the Most Successful Double Agent of World War II. Random House.

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

The British Intelligence Service MI5 still trades on the success of Operation Garbo, as you can see by the online content on their website: https://www.mi5.gov.uk/agent-garbo.