Sunday, January 13, 2013

Agent Garbo: the Brilliant, Eccentric Secret Agent Who Tricked Hitler and Saved D-Day by Stephan Talty

Tangle within tangle, plot and counterplot, ruse and treachery, cross and double-cross, true agent, false agent, double agent, gold and steel, the bomb, the dagger and the firing party, were interwoven in many a texture so intricate as to be incredible and yet true.
-Winston Churchill

Juan Pujol was born and raised in the blood fest that was the Spanish Civil War. He saw his beloved country razed to the ground by the fighting between Franco’s Fascists and the Republicans. He escaped to Portugal where he was determined to fight the horrors of war and those that mongered it. In the 1930’s that was primarily the Nazi’s in Germany. So be it. That would be his target.

After several unsuccessful tries to hire himself out to the British as a spy, he finally hired himself out to the Nazis. Not to help them but to hinder them. He did it entirely on his own. Having never been to England, he persuaded the Spanish branch of the Abwehr (Hitler’s spy organization) that he was living in the UK (when he was really staying in Portugal) and finding out all sorts of highly classified information that he would pass on to the Germans (Heil Hitler!) to help the Nazis conquer the world.

Almost too late, the British MI6 discovered what Pujol was doing and brought him over to the UK where they put him to good use. They gave him all sorts of information to feed the Germans. He was so good at playing the role of a rabidly pro fascist who wanted to help Hitler rule the world that the British named him “Agent Garbo” after the silent screen star, Greta Garbo.

Agent Garbo did not live the glamorous life of James Bond. He spent the entire war in an office answering the questionnaires the Germans gave him and making sure that his misinformation was convincing and effective. He developed a whole network of spies underneath him. They lived in South America, Africa, Scandinavia and throughout the UK. These spies were men and woman who each had their own name, history, family life, were all pro Hitler and had plenty of information to give to the Germans. The only thing they had in common was that none of them existed.

Garbo and his collaborator, the artist Tommy Harris, kept meticulous records of each invented spy, who knew what, where they were living, occasionally “killing” one off when necessary.

Garbo’s finest hour came when his “spies informed him" that the next big invasion was going to be in Calais and Scandinavia, thus splitting up and diverting the German army and keeping Normandy-the actual invasion venue- unprotected. If it wasn’t for this successful deception, the Allies probably wouldn’t have won the war.

Stephan Talty gives us a look inside the life of this fascinating man. His personal life is as colorful as his professional one. He married a hot blooded woman from Barcelona who supported him for most of the war until she tired of the loneliness and social isolation. Then she almost began to pose a threat to MI6 and their work.

Talty describes many of Garbo’s deceptions in colors that would be at home in a movie. The book is as enjoyable as one and more so because it’s true.

The only fault I find with Talty’s book is that he seems to be so enamored with his subject that he is stingy with crediting anyone else with helping the war effort.

Although Ben Macintyre in his book, “Operation Mincemeat” generously scribes about all the people who helped Britain’s espionage system, even including Nazi officials who were secretly helping England by passing on information they knew to be false, Talty would have us believe that Agent Garbo single-handedly won the war for the Allies.

This diminishes the credibility of what is otherwise an exciting and informative read.

After the war, Garbo disappeared. A report came from Africa that he died from disease. Another author, Nigel West, with the help of some of Pujol’s family was able to trace him to Venezuela and reunite him with some WWII war veterans. Talty gives a satisfactory follow up and conclusion to a remarkable man and- to most of the world- an invisible war hero.

I borrowed this book from the library.

Kindle $9.24

Other reviews and links:

Operation Mincemeat


Brian Joseph said...

Sounds like a great book.

I find that that the flaw that you mentioned here happens somewhat commonly. A biographer falls too deeply in love with their subject. They lose some objectivism and sometimes distort certain aspects of the story.

Sharon Wilfong said...

Brian: Yes, it's interesting. I've been following and contributing to a discussion on LinkedIn about Authorial intent. One needs to consider the worldview of the writer in order to understand their writing.

Phyllis Winn said...

wow. wow, wow....loved reading your review, Sharon!
thank you.

Sharon Wilfong said...

Glad you liked it, Phyllis. This one's in the library too if you want to get it.

Man of la Book said...

Where do you find all these wonderful books.
This one is right up my alley.

Sharon Wilfong said...

Zohar: I read the Wall Street Journal and they have great book reviews. I've become aware of a lot of books I want to read thanks to that publication.