06/06/2012 11:34 am ET Updated Aug 06, 2012

The Dreamer Who Saved D-Day

As American troops fought their way ashore at Normandy in the inky darkness of June 6, 1944, a young spy waited nervously in London for news. His name was Juan Pujol and he'd played a secret and hugely improbable part in the landings that were now unfolding 130 miles away. How well Pujol had done his job -- tricking Adolf Hitler and his top commanders about the very nature of the Normandy invasion -- would decide whether many of those soldiers lived or died.

None of those soldiers, and no one in the public outside a tight circle of intelligence and political leaders, knew the spy's name, or even that he existed. Now, nearly seven decades after that fateful day, it's time to change that, to add Juan Pujol's name to the roll call of D-Day's prime actors.

In my book, Agent Garbo: The Brilliant, Eccentric Secret Agent Who Tricked Hitler and Saved D-Day (out July 3rd), I try to do just that. Using Pujol's personal letters, declassified British intelligence files and interviews with the spy's family, I've been able to tell Pujol's strange and rather wonderful story for the first time.

Juan Pujol was the Walter Mitty of the war, a nobody who in his 20s failed at one doomed venture after another while dreaming of doing something interesting with his life -- saving Western civilization, if possible. But Mitty, of course, dreamt and did nothing. Pujol decided to risk his neck, and that of his glamorous wife, by actually putting his fantasies into action. This brilliant and eccentric man created a world-class spy called Agent Garbo (so named by MI5 because Pujol was "the best actor in the world") and convinced the Nazis to make them their most trusted agent inside England. Then Pujol went to London and sold the British on the same caper, partially by telling them a bold-faced lie that lay undiscovered for many years. By the time D-Day arrived, Garbo was the greatest double-cross agent of the war, perhaps of all time.

Nothing in Pujol's life up to 1941 pointed to greatness. Exactly the opposite. Pujol grew up in Barcelona, the son of a much-loved, liberal father and a conservative Catholic mother. He was a normal boy except for the Technicolored imagination that nearly ruined his life. Pujol would later claim that his imagination "controlled" his thoughts, like some alien host that forced him to do its bidding. Little Juan spent his boyhood "covered in bandages," because the characters he played obsessively in his father's house (cowboy, deep-sea explorer, war hero) sent him crashing into banisters and through plate glass windows. He was a disappointment to his loving but bewildered family.

By the start of the 1940s, Pujol hadn't changed much. He wasn't a hero. He'd dropped out of school, failed in several businesses and spent the Spanish Civil War in a series of mad adventures motivated by his desire not to kill anyone. When World War II started, he was managing an awful one-star hotel in fascist Madrid, having just married a beautiful and socially ambitious woman named Araceli. His prospects for changing the world were exactly nil.

When the German division began rolling through Poland and France, however, something snapped in this principled, mischievous man. His father had taught Pujol to fight for freedom and individual dignity, things that Pujol saw going up in smoke all along the Western Front. Stung into action, Pujol rebelled against his own crushing insignificance. "I wanted to start a personal war with Hitler," he said later. "And I wanted to use my imagination." He was nothing if not grandiose. Araceli agreed and became his partner, playing a key role in the early parts of the scheme.

Of course, plenty of men dreamt of "starting a personal war" with the Fuhrer and ended up in the concentration camps or dead. How Pujol succeeded where so many others had failed would astonish even the British spy-masters he would soon work for. First he met and charmed a Nazi spy-runner named Federico into bankrolling his adventures, then traveled to Lisbon, the WWII capitol of intrigue, to hook some fish. Running across an envoy with a special diplomatic visa that everyone in Lisbon wanted -- the similarities to Casablanca are inevitable -- he befriended the man, secretly delved into his luggage, photographed the visa, sent his friend packing and then went from shop to shop in Lisbon reproducing the visa exactly, down to the forged stamp.

The Nazis were impressed by his work, as they should have been. People would have killed for that document, and Pujol had produced it out of thin air. He then told the Nazis he was flying to London to spy for them. Instead, he went back to Lisbon and started sending a stream of detailed reports on British armaments, Allied air-fields, massive troop movements and convoys headed toward the besieged island of Malta. That one was so good it caused the Germans to scramble ships and fighter planes to attack the armada.

It must be emphasized: none of these things actually existed, at least not as Pujol described them. But Pujol was a kind of espionage idiot savant; his bulletins were flawlessly executed, except for a few mistakes about Liverpool stevedores drinking wine, mistakes that could have easily gotten him killed. British analysts, when later told that Pujol had never been to England when filing them, refused to believe it. His reports was so precise and convincing that they were convinced he must have seen the things described in them.

Throughout his early career, Pujol was one phone call or one background check away from being executed. He survived on the slimmest of margins. "It seemed a miracle that he'd survived so long," said his MI5 handler later on. Pujol agreed. "It was crazy. I had no idea what I was doing."

Having bamboozled Federico, Pujol set his mind on convincing the Allies that he wanted to work for them. It took him four attempts, and several close shaves, but he was finally smuggled to England, debriefed and allowed to join the game. This was 1942 and British "deception" -- the branch of the war effort that focused on deluding the enemy into taking a specific action -- was young and unruly. The Brits had hired a menagerie of thriller writers, scenarists, eccentrics and weirdos to dream up schemes to fool Hitler and fill out the ranks of the related intelligence fields. When Churchill toured the famous code-breaking center at Bletchley Park, he turned to one officer and growled, "I told you to leave no stone unturned to get staff, but I had no idea you had taken me literally."

Pujol now dreamt larger. He and his handler, the suave and haunted ex-artist Tommy Harris (nicknamed "Jesus" by his peers for his soulful good looks) created an army of fake sub-agents to feed Garbo information. He baked manuals for fighter planes into cakes and sent them to Madrid, made battleships disappear from the Indian Ocean and pop up somewhere else. An advance man scoured the English countryside for hotels his informants could "stay" at, local restaurants they could eat at while overhearing local gossip.

Garbo snared the Germans in scheme after scheme, some of them successful, others not. But slowly he built up the Nazis' confidence in his authority. Churchill read his dispatches at night, and soon even J. Edgar Hoover would clamor to meet the double agent.

There were disasters along the way. One came with Operation Cockade, the 1943 dress rehearsal for D-Day. Garbo sent message after message warning of a possible invasion of France. The Allies hoped the Luftwaffe would show up, attack the empty ships crossing the Channel and be shot out of the sky in a spectacular "Armageddon-of-the-Air." But the caper failed completely. The Nazis failed to send a single plane. "It was an inspiring sight to see everybody doing his stuff to perfection," sighed General Morgan, commander of the entire operation, "except, unfortunately, the Germans."

Less amusingly, hundreds of Frenchmen died in the bombing raids to cover Cockade. They'd given their lives, essentially, for Garbo's mirage.

As D-Day approached, the spy was handed his mission: convince Hitler and his High Command that the real attack was coming at Calais, up the French coast from the real invasion beaches. The attack on Normandy was to be put across as a feint, designed to trick the German army. But Cockade had given deception a bad name among many generals, who believed that Garbo's mission was doomed. How, they asked, do you disguise the largest invasion in human history?

The doubters were convinced that the German High Command would throw their reserves into Normandy, the beaches and inland roads would become charnel houses filled with Allied dead, and the course of the war would be radically altered. Eisenhower asked the officer in charge of deception to keep the German reserves out of the battle for a mere 48 hours.

To seduce and delude the Fuhrer, the Allies, Garbo and a handful of other double agents created FUSAG, a one-million-man-strong army that didn't exist, and pointed it at Calais. George S. Patton was roped in to command it. Theatrical designers and engineers created fake airfields so convincing that British pilots crashed while trying to land on them. An immense oil depot was whipped up out of old piping and parts scavenged from bombed English cities. Camps big enough for thousands of men were created and maintained -- down to the campfires -- by ghost crews. An arsenal of illusion-weapons was sketched and mass-produced. There were convoluted financial schemes to trick the Nazis, a famous impersonation of Monty carried off by a British soldier, an entire alternative reality that came into being. Garbo and his peers essentially co-wrote a Cecil B. DeMille epic and projected it to Berlin.

When June 6th came, Garbo's elaborate plot succeeded beyond his wildest hopes. Months later, Hitler was still holding some of his best panzer divisions in reserve, waiting for Garbo's million-man army to show up at Calais. Garbo and a few other agents had kept thousands of Nazi troops from attacking the Allied forces. Eisenhower was shocked and pleased. When he met Pujol's handler, Tommy Harris, Ike told him: "Your work with Mr. Pujol most probably amounts to the equivalent of a whole army division. You have saved a lot of lives."

The other reviews were perhaps even more glowing. The British spy Anthony Blount called Garbo's coup "the greatest double cross operation of the war." Sir John Masterman, the man in charge of the double-agent system, said that "connoisseurs of the double-cross have always regarded the Garbo case as the most highly developed example of their art." But it was the British historian Roger Fleetwood-Hesketh who put it most succinctly: "His contribution to D-day was indeed stranger than any fiction ... It could not have been done without him ... It was Garbo's message ... which changed the course of the battle in Normandy."

After the war, Pujol's marriage was in tatters, destroyed by his obsessive devotion to the Allied cause. He'd even been forced to run an operation on the beautiful Araceli, who was so homesick that she'd threatened to expose the plot she'd helped dream up. The secret agent fled to South America, fearful that ex-Nazis would hunt him down. In researching my book, I was finally able to detail what became of Pujol after the war -- a story in some ways as fascinating as his earlier exploits. To avoid spoilers, I can say that he died more than once, earned the nickname "The Anarchist" in certain expat circles, left even his colleagues mystified as to his motives, and disappeared even to the children he loved dearly.

Garbo emerged from D-day as the greatest double-agent of the war, perhaps of all time. Had he chosen to, Pujol could have become one of the world's premier scam artists. But his operatic gift for the flimflam was paired with a set of ideals that he described in his letters (always capitalizing the first letter) as "Humanist." It's an old-fashioned term, but Pujol believed in it single-mindedly.

On a day when we honor the sacrifice of thousands of American soldiers, it's perhaps fitting to remember the dreamer who helped save thousands more, and altered the course of the war.