Operation Garbo: The Personal Story of the Most Successful Spy of World War II

Michael S Goodman reads a memoir of an exceptional spy

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Reviewed by: Michael S Goodman
Author: Juan Pujol Garcia and Nigel West
Publisher: Biteback
Price (RRP): £9.99

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If there was to be an award for the most influential spy of the Second World War, then certainly Garbo would receive a nomination.

Born in 1912 in Barcelona, Garbo – now revealed as Juan Pujol Garcia – had a relatively simple and straightforward upbringing. At the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War he was working in a poultry farm north of Barcelona.

Unwilling to take sides in the conflict, Garcia was forced to go into hiding but eventually, using false papers, he volunteered for the nationalist forces. It was from these inauspicious beginnings that Garbo was to become embroiled in espionage and deception.

Garbo’s great value was that he was utterly convincing.

Overtly a German spy, he was covertly an agent for British intelligence, passing everything back to them and employing a mixture of deception and cunning to trick his Nazi masters. He was successful in recruiting and amassing a substantial network of agents and sub-agents: unknown to the Germans, the network would turn out to be complete fiction. Perhaps his greatest achievement, though, was in sowing seeds of doubt as to the actual location of the D-Day landings.

This book was originally published in 1985; this revised version takes into account new archival releases, including MI5’s files on Garbo. The book itself is a mixture of memoir by Garcia and explanatory scene setting by West.

Garcia’s chapters are interesting and reveal something of what motivated him to act as he did; West’s chapters are necessary but overly-detailed and the excessive use of names, codenames, and operational detail are, at times, bewildering. Frustratingly there are no archival references and it is difficult and time-consuming to spot what is new in this edition.

Was Garbo the most successful spy of the war? It is a bold claim, but it is one that is far from easy to dismiss.

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Dr Michael S Goodman is senior lecturer in the Department of War Studies, King’s College London