Title: Operation Garbo: The Personal Story of the World’s most successful Spy of World War II
Author: Juan Pujol Garcia & historian Nigel West
Publisher: Biteback Publishing
Publication Date: 11th August 2011
Paperback: 228 pages
Why did I chose to read the book: I volunteer at the Imperial War Museum and noticed this (and a t-shirt with Churchill imprinted on to the front) in the shop – I’d heard of Garbo after reading a book by Ben Macintyre so it drew my attention to the title.
Where to read the book: In the grounds of the War Museum might be a little too cold now so head to Lisbon a city that during th war was an epicentre for spies and double agents
Garbo was the British codename of Joan Puyol Garcia, perhaps the most influential spy of the Second World War. By feeding false information to the Germans on the eve of the D-Day landings he ensured Hitler held troops back that might otherwise have defeated the Normandy landings. This allowed the Allied push against the Nazis in Europe to begin. Amazingly, Garbo’s cover was never broken and he remains the only person ever to have been awarded both the BritishMBE and the German Iron Cross. After the war Garbo faked his own death and fled to Venezuela with a mistress, where he later opened a book store. Ironically, his family in Spain only found out he was still alive when this book was published, Garbo having failed to realise it would also be translated into Spanish.
I am fascinated by this period of history, after choosing to study the second world war in-depth at university. Unfortunately, my love of the subject didn’t transform into a career but I cling on by volunteering at the Imperial War Museum. It is through this that I was introduced to the double cross network by historian Ben Macintryre who has written a series of books on the active double agents including Agent Zig Zag and the one in question known as Garbo.
This real life espionage adventure story has been written direct from the horse’s mouth as it were by Juan Pujol aka Garbo himself and is peppered with chapters of more specific military nature by historian Nigel West. The first few chapters are from Juan documenting his early life living amongst civil unrest and then war in his home country of Spain. These insights were fascinating as he detailed his elaborate and often unbelievable exploits which at times felt like he must have had a guardian angel watching over him. As his story develops into his quest to work for the British during World War 2 his recounting is entertaining and almost childlike in his daring. His stories back to the German intelligence that there is army and naval troops stationed around the Lake District, Lake Windermere to be precise is absurdly brilliant.
Grounding this somewhat ludicrous memoir is Nigel West’s input which provides the strategic and military side of the British armies plan during the second world war. He introduces and explains the key players in this complex structure from Tommy Harris to Ian Fleming and everyone in between, including Kim Philby and Guy Burgess. It was interesting to discover how West had tracked down Garbo, after he was declared dead so many year ago only to be found alive and well in Venezuela. His chapters in contrast to Juan’s were understandably drier and more factual so concentration had to be at a premium to keep track of what was happening at a certain stage. Although, I found these sections slightly long-winded they did lend a good balance and credibility to the statement that Juan Pujol was the most influential spy during WW2 and that his actions and enthusiasm to serve the British impacted dramatically on the resulting victories.
Overall a further fascinating insight into the agent that was known as Garbo due to his fantastic acting skills and flair for the dramatic. This book also (and my bank balance won’t thank them for this) introduced me to Biteback publishing whose collection of titles has already jumped to the top of the dare I say Christmas list.
Rating: 7 out of 10