Agent Garbo

Some of you already know how this story goes, what it’s about, and where it ends. I promise you, I’m not going to tell you anything you haven’t heard already. But you should read it anyway, because it’s still a really good story. And then you should keep reading because I have complicated feelings about a story that’s so good happening when it happens and how and how much it sucks that it happened.

For the rest of you, let me tell you about the man who was the greatest Nazi spy of World War 2, as a bit. Let me tell you about Juan Pujol Garcia, Asset Bovril and Agent Garbo.

Content Warning: This article is going to clown on the Nazis a bit and then it’s going to get heavy. Don’t worry, Garcia comes out of it fine, it’s just, you know, Nazis as a subject matter. I mean, not fine fine, he did die in 1988, but like, you know what, just click the ‘more.’

We all go through a political transformation throughout our lives. I, for example, started out pretty right wing and at this point I think billionaires should be mulched for the good of civilisation.

In Juan Pujol Garcia’s case, he started out as a member of Spain’s upper-middle class, with family that owned land like farms and factories. During the Spanish Civil War, when that stuff got seized by the Republican army, he took on a position we can only describe as ‘liberal’ at this point; he was against Extremism in all its forms. But Juan Pujol Garcia was not to settle into a life of obstinate Yangposting, he wanted to put his life to some use, and so it was in the 1940s he resolved to be a spy for the British against the Nazis.

And the British told him no.

Most of us would regard that as something of a setback, but not Juan Pujol Garcia. Instead, he opted to start sending bullshit to the Nazis without another government taking case of his safety and assuring him some measure of support. A sort of gig economy spycraft — and equipped not with a phone, but rather a bloodyminded determination to sell secrets about the events of British military movements to the Nazis. Events that, you may remember, he could not have been there for, but it’s okay, because he was also lying.

But what, did he just start pumping information into a folder and sending it to berlin like ‘TO: THE NAZIS, C/O BERLIN?’ No no no. To get set up, he first pretended to be fiercely pro-Nazi, and got recruited by the Abwehr, the Nazi’s espionage wing. They gave him a course on Espionage, some invisible ink, a pile of money and sent him off to infiltrate Britain, a task he took to with only some slight alterations. Like he didn’t go to Britain — instead he went to Lisbon, which the keen eyed amongst you may notice is in Portugal, not in England.

Still, the man was dedicated, and he got to work.

For two years, Juan Pujol Garcia generated completely fictional accounts of what was happening in Britain, based on things he could get about what was going on in Britain. Except because he was in Lisbon, he was getting all his information about Britain and the British events he could from magazines, tourist pamphlets and reference documents he could get in Lisbon’s public library.

Now, one might imagine that this means the information was a little sketchy, a little fictional and: Yes. It was. His work was riddled with mistakes that you would notice if you lived in Britain. Things like making change wrong or referring to Glasgow as part of England, or using metric measurements to refer to local things. But his superiors didn’t notice them, and they were too delighted with his success at recruiting a network of spies — a network that quickly grew in scale and scope to one of the largest and most sprawling canons with mistakes and crossreferences and consistent character writing that resulted in, amongst other things, his communique from Lisbon being intercepted by the actual British secret service who then launched a hunt in their own ranks to try and find this guy.

Look, this guy’s work was so full of black-and-white trolling that it was basically the first Homestuck.

It wasn’t until 1942, when America entered the war that Juan Pujol Garcia finally made a contact that understood the scope of what he was doing. After telling America what he was doing – without support – they contacted the United Kingdom government and let them know that one, they had a spy on their side so good that he could get the German navy redirecting troops pursuing a convoy of boats that absolutely did not exist, and two, he hadn’t been recruited yet. This led to MI5 picking him up, transferring him to Britain and finally giving him some form of support — and a code name.

They called him Agent Bovril.

(At first.)

When he had access to the British government’s tools, though, the man’s ability for fabulism skyrocketed. Particularly, he was able to recruit other MI5 spies to help him write the letters he was sending back to Germany, which increased his throughput and made the entirely fictional reality he was dumping in blocks on the Nazis into an even more clearly realised, scaled-up kind of paper cinematic universe.

You might not be surprised to learn that I put out a lot of words in a day. I write constantly, as my main method of communication, talking with friends, and engaging with my public platforms like this one, or my educational ones. I write a lot. I have the benefit of typewriter and word processor to do this though, and in the 1940s people did not. So if I tell you that he was producing hundreds of letters around 2,000 words each, across a voluminous cast of characters, understand that a lot of those were hand written and maintained entirely by information coming out of his head and with the support of one MI5 agent.

There were other events in this – because he was working with the British government now, they could do dirty tricks like post-mark sent materials to make it look like it was mailed earlier than it was; which meant he could send a detailed, factual report about a thing that happened too late for it to change anything, and the Nazis receiving it would see it as proof that the information source was good, but the information was held up in transit. Similarly, when he ‘missed’ something, he claimed his source fell ill – and the British government released a newspaper obituary for this source in the paper local to the area. That’s standard stuff, right?

Well, Bovril then persuaded the Germans to pay for the fictional person’s fictional widow’s pension.

Agent Bovril produced so much work and was so good at it, that MI5 reclassified his codename – something more befitting ‘the greatest actor of the age.’ No longer Agent Bovril (meat paste) – he was upgraded to Agent Garbo, after Greta Garbo.

Juan Pujol Garcia’s entirely fictional spy network was so extensive, and so reliable, for so long, that the Nazis stopped trying to recruit spies in Britain. But they weren’t happy with the postal delays, and wanted to opt to shift over to radio transmissions for information. And they’re not going to just let you send unencoded broadcasts, what are you stupid?

So they sent him the tools to encode his work with an Enigma machine. Not an Enigma machine proper, but rather, because he had access to the plain text of his message, and then the info got encoded and sent, that meant that the British had access to a meaningful way to attack the Enigma machine code system. Which, you know, aside from just also getting them to believe complete fucking nonsense.

He was involved in Operation Fortitude, which you may remember from footage of people throwing around blow-up tanks and trucks. It involved such tight timings as making sure to call when radio operators were asleep or in the bathroom, so ‘first’ messages with vital details got missed, and delivering real information mixed in with nonsense. Garbo was so good at playing the Nazi that he bailed up the receivers for failing at their jobs, keeping them on edge because he was providing Such Good Information and they assumed because he was an asshole, it had to be their fault. Like they were in some kind of cult of fear and death or something, I guess.

This dude faked being arrested by the government to explain a hole in communication when he didn’t want to give real information to the Nazis. He was the dream, he was the soldier, he was the idealist.

He was such a good Nazi spy he was awarded the Iron Cross.

There’s more to his story, after the war; a life spent lying about who he was and hiding from authorities because of the very real fear he’d be caught by remaining Nazis. He faked his death, divorced his wife, and wound up living a quiet life in a bookstore, and was only found again by the authorities in the 80s when someone dialled every single name like his in the phonebook in Spain to check.

There are times when I write an article that starts out as somewhat grand, or at least, more elaborate, and then when I sit down to the writing I have to pare away things I can’t confirm as true. Since I don’t always have sources for things on hand conveniently, that can result in having to turn to convenient sources online to at least find things that we can attest happened. Sometimes this makes the story more interesting, such as when an article about the Rubsign as an attempt to patent a brand resulted in learning some buck-wild things about Nazi super science, and sometimes it just proves what I already knew about a flim-flammer flim-flamming. In a few cases, a story needed to be pared down until there wasn’t any there there and the result was an article getting scrapped. The article on Velikofksy from just last week had to get pared down viciously as I found that there were a lot of things about his positions that my dad had shared with me that I couldn’t verify without the books, and it seemed unfair to make fun of the dude for positions I remembered my dad remembering. Instead, what that article resorted to was talking about just what I could easily and reliably verify — which means that, when all is said and done, the article is a bit of a summary of a wikipedia page.

It’s that route I have to walk down again and what makes it more complicated in this case is that the figure in question was subject to a host of absolute nonsense that was deliberately made hard to believe. The Official Secrets act of World War 2 gets involved, just like with our friend Jasper Maskelyne, and huh, I do spend Tricks Month talking about the Nazis a lot.

I guess it’s important to me to share stories about how Nazis weren’t just murderous fascistic assholes they were also paranoid and stupid, and stupid as a byproduct of their ideology and their worldview. The Nazis were vicious and cruel on an industrial scale but their belief in their superiority made them in ways, remarkably easy to fool.

I bring this up because while on the one hand, it’s important to remember that the Nazis, perpetrators of the Holocaust, were directly responsible for a dreadful machine that commmitted a sin the likes of which we do not have words, a thing that is not and cannot be a metaphor for anything else, but also at the same time they were a bunch of assholes who sucked ass. You don’t have to admire their efficiency or their ruthlessness or them running the trains on time or anything like that.

What I guess I’m saying is hey, we’ve all had some fun laughing at the Nazis today. And that’s good, and we should, because they were stupid dipshits. But they were a bunch of stupid dipshits and cruel on a scale we seldom see and which the world may literally never have the means to express again. There is nothing admirable about them; they were not even good at being ruthless, because they imagined themselves too smart to be fooled.

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