I first heard about him ten years ago. It was the 60th anniversary of D-Day and a group of historians were on the radio talking about the bloody events in Normandy that fateful morning. Then one of them mentioned that the Allies would undoubtedly have been pushed back into the sea in June 1944 had the Germans not been tricked by MI5’s Spanish double agent ‘Garbo’ into keeping their best forces in the Calais area, away from the invading troops.
On hearing the word ‘Spanish’ my ears pricked up. I was not used to Spaniards being mentioned in the context of the Normandy campaign. And as a writer on Spain and Spanish themes, my curiosity was immediately piqued.
In a short time I had tracked down most of the books available on this mystery man. British intelligence knew him as ‘Garbo’, the Germans called him ‘Alaric’, but his real name was Juan Pujol, born in Barcelona on St Valentine’s Day in 1912.
The autobiography that Pujol co-wrote with Nigel West back in the 1980s was a fascinating account, detailing how he had fooled the German spy chiefs in Madrid into thinking he was one of their agents, when in fact his loyalties lay with Britain – the only country holding out against political extremism in the early years of the Second World War. After many trials, Pujol had finally been taken on board by MI5 and quickly became the star of their deception team, playing an indispensable role in duping Hitler and German high command about the Allies’ intentions for the invasion of France. But I felt – as many readers of Pujol’s autobiography do – that there were gaps, that things had been left out.
What was more, I felt that this was a tale that spoke about the nature of story itself, and of the complex relationship between ‘fiction’ and ‘non-fiction’. Pujol had pulled the wool over the Germans’ eyes by inventing fantastical plots and a large network of sub-agents and informers through which he could pass disinformation to the enemy. The characters he dreamed up ranged from an Indian poet who had made friends with Welsh Aryan supremacists, to a mistress in the War Office and a waiter from Gibraltar called Fred. As I saw it, by helping secure the Allies’ victory in western Europe, Pujol had created a new truth by telling untruths. It was a perfect example of the pen being mightier than the sword.
And so I delved into the municipal archives in Barcelona – there was much there about Pujol’s family that had never been discovered. The National Archives at Kew also threw up precious material that others had overlooked – including love letters between Pujol and Araceli, his wife and one of the key figures in his incredible story. And I interviewed one of the last people to have known Tomás Harris, Pujol’s brilliant MI5 case officer. A gifted artist and intelligence genius, Harris had been very good friends with Kim Philby, Guy Burgess and Anthony Blunt, and in the past doubts have been raised – but never proven – about whether he was linked to the Soviets.
Most of all, I endeavoured to understand Pujol as a ‘Spaniard’. What he did can be best explained if he is viewed as a quintessentially ‘picaresque’ character – canny, wily, defying everyday definitions about ‘good’ and ‘bad’, innocent in some ways like Don Quixote, yet smart and worldly like Sancho Panza.
The result is that – for me at least – Pujol is no longer the enigma that he was. I have filled many of the holes in his own account, and I have come as close as possible to understanding his intentions – a simple yet extraordinary Spaniard, gifted with a powerful imagination, unhindered by strict definitions of ‘truth’, who ultimately, though telling tales, helped to defeat the Nazis and change the course of history.
Now that’s a story.
The Spy with 29 Names is published by Chatto & Windus