Juan Pujol Garcia: The WWII double agent who secretly controlled the war

This eccentric Spanish spy received medals of honor from both the Nazis and the Allies. How did he do it, and why?

Juan Pujol Garcia was instrumental in ensuring the success of the Allied invasion of Europe on D Day and, by extension, the Allied victory of the Second World War. But his actions during the war aren't widely known. Despite being a little-known figure in history, Garcia is one of the few, if not the only, individuals in the war to receive both an Iron Cross from Hitler and an MBE (a Member of the Order of the British Empire) from King George VI. His lack of fame might seem unjust, but a famous spy is kind of an oxymoron.


Arguably, Garcia would become one of the most important figures in World War II, but prior to the war, he hadn't amounted to much in his life. Mostly, he was a chicken farmer in Spain. He tried and failed to run a variety of businesses, including a managing a cinema. When the Spanish Civil War broke out, he deserted the Republican army to join the Nationalists, only to be imprisoned when he expressed sympathy for the monarchy.

When World War II broke out, he was running a dumpy, one-star hotel in Madrid. He had been a mediocre soldier and had admitted he was ill-suited to warfare; so his motives for approaching the British to offer his services are unclear. The British seemed to think that a military deserter, ex-chicken farmer, and failed businessman would not be of much use in the war and turned him away. However, Garcia was determined to participate in the war, and he would repeat his request to the British on three separate instances, only to be refused each time.

Juan Pujol Garcia in the 7th Light Artillery uniform prior to the Spanish Civil War. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

A self-made spy

In what might be one of history's greatest examples of unearned confidence, Garcia decided that in order to build a resume as a spy, he should gain the trust of the Nazis and feed them misinformation from within. At that time, the Spanish government was sympathetic to but unallied with the Nazi government, and it was easy to make contact with the German army.

He tricked a printer in Portugal into thinking he was a Spanish government official working at the local embassy and obtained a diplomatic visa, which he used to bolster a false identity as a Nazi supporter who regularly traveled to London on diplomatic business. Considering that Garcia spoke no English, this was a particularly bold lie.

The Nazis, however, bought Garcia's fabrication. They provided him with a crash course in spycraft, gave him £600 (equivalent to around $42,000 US today), and sent him on his way to London to recruit a network of spies. Without any English skills and with a fake passport, Garcia went to Lisbon, Portugal, instead.

Garcia had gotten what he wanted. He had gained the trust of the Nazis and was in contact with them. But now he had to supply them with misinformation. By combining publicly available information from newsreels, magazines, and tourists guides, Garcia fabricated seemingly realistic reports of life in London and British activities, ostensibly fabricated by an entirely fictional spy network he had accumulated in London. These reports weren't perfect, of course: at one point, he described how Glaswegians would do “ anything for a litre of wine," which is very much not the Scottish beverage of choice.

Despite all of this, his mocked-up reports were widely believed. They were so thoroughly believed that the British, upon intercepting the reports, launched a nationwide manhunt for the spy who had infiltrated their country. At the time, there were supposed to be no Axis spies in Britain, so this was very disconcerting news for the Allies.

Gaining the trust of the Allies

The trick that made the British believe in Garcia's value as a spy occurred when he invented an entirely fictional British armada in Malta that the Axis responded to in full force. Despite the nonexistence of an armada, the Nazis continued to trust Garcia's information. With his bona fides established, Garcia was finally able to convince the British of his value in 1942.

Working with British intelligence, Garcia invented 27 fictional sub-agents from whom he attributed the various pieces of intel that he cobbled together into coded, handwritten reports he sent to the Germans and later over the radio.

Garcia's reports consisted of a mixture of misinformation; true but useless information; and true, high-value information that always arrived too late. For instance, he provided accurate information on Allied forces landing in North Africa in a letter postmarked before the landings but delivered afterwards. The Nazis apologized to Garcia for failing to act on his wonderful intelligence in time.

To account for why he failed to provide key information he would ostensibly have access to, Garcia needed to fabricate a variety of different excuses. When he failed to report on a major movement of the British fleet, Garcia informed his Nazi counterparts that his relevant sub-agent had fallen ill and later died. Bolstered by a fictional obituary in British papers, the Nazis were obliged to provide the fictional man's fictional widow a very factual pension. To support Garcia's spy network, the Nazis were paying him $340,000 US (close to $6 million today).

The troops, tanks, and equipment used to overthrow the Nazis in Europe arriving at Normandy after D Day. Without Juan Pujol Garcia's spycraft, the success of the invasion would have been much less certain. Photo c/o Wikimedia Commons.

Exploiting the Nazis

Garcia's greatest moment came to during Operation Overlord, which began during the invasion at Normandy on D Day. Having built up trust with the Nazis over the course of the war, Operation Overlord represented the opportunity to exploit that trust.

Through a flurry of reports, Garcia convinced German High Command that an invasion would take place at the Strait of Dover (which Hitler believed to be the case anyhow). In order to maintain his credibility, Garcia told the Nazis to wait for a high-priority message at 3 AM: this was designed to provide the Germans with information on the actual target, Normandy, but just a little too late to prevent the invasion.

In a stroke of luck, the Nazis missed the 3 AM appointment and didn't respond until later that morning. Garcia chastised his handlers for missing the critical first message, saying “I cannot accept excuses or negligence. Were it not for my ideals, I would abandon the work."

With this extra layer of credibility, Garcia invented a fictional army—the First U.S. Army Group—led by General Patton himself and consisting of 150,000 men. With a combination of fake radio chatter and—no joke—inflatable tanks, German High Command was convinced of the presence of an army stationed in south Britain. Garcia convinced the Nazis that this was the true invasion and that Normandy was a diversion. Two Nazi armored divisions and 19 infantry divisions were withheld at the Strait of Dover in anticipation of another attack, allowing the invading force from Normandy to establish a stronger position in France. Without these extra troops, the Axis failed to beat back the Allied invasion.

By inventing a fake army and controlling the flow of information to the Nazis, Garcia ranks among one of the most influential figures of the war. His identity as a double agent was never revealed until decades after, which might explain why so little is heard of him. To be safe, he faked his death from malaria in 1949 and moved to Venezuela to run a bookshop.

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New fossils suggest human ancestors evolved in Europe, not Africa

Experts argue the jaws of an ancient European ape reveal a key human ancestor.

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  • The jaw bones of an 8-million-year-old ape were discovered at Nikiti, Greece, in the '90s.
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Homo sapiens have been on earth for 200,000 years — give or take a few ten-thousand-year stretches. Much of that time is shrouded in the fog of prehistory. What we do know has been pieced together by deciphering the fossil record through the principles of evolutionary theory. Yet new discoveries contain the potential to refashion that knowledge and lead scientists to new, previously unconsidered conclusions.

A set of 8-million-year-old teeth may have done just that. Researchers recently inspected the upper and lower jaw of an ancient European ape. Their conclusions suggest that humanity's forebearers may have arisen in Europe before migrating to Africa, potentially upending a scientific consensus that has stood since Darwin's day.

Rethinking humanity's origin story

The frontispiece of Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863) sketched by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

As reported in New Scientist, the 8- to 9-million-year-old hominin jaw bones were found at Nikiti, northern Greece, in the '90s. Scientists originally pegged the chompers as belonging to a member of Ouranopithecus, an genus of extinct Eurasian ape.

David Begun, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and his team recently reexamined the jaw bones. They argue that the original identification was incorrect. Based on the fossil's hominin-like canines and premolar roots, they identify that the ape belongs to a previously unknown proto-hominin.

The researchers hypothesize that these proto-hominins were the evolutionary ancestors of another European great ape Graecopithecus, which the same team tentatively identified as an early hominin in 2017. Graecopithecus lived in south-east Europe 7.2 million years ago. If the premise is correct, these hominins would have migrated to Africa 7 million years ago, after undergoing much of their evolutionary development in Europe.

Begun points out that south-east Europe was once occupied by the ancestors of animals like the giraffe and rhino, too. "It's widely agreed that this was the found fauna of most of what we see in Africa today," he told New Scientists. "If the antelopes and giraffes could get into Africa 7 million years ago, why not the apes?"

He recently outlined this idea at a conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

It's worth noting that Begun has made similar hypotheses before. Writing for the Journal of Human Evolution in 2002, Begun and Elmar Heizmann of the Natural history Museum of Stuttgart discussed a great ape fossil found in Germany that they argued could be the ancestor (broadly speaking) of all living great apes and humans.

"Found in Germany 20 years ago, this specimen is about 16.5 million years old, some 1.5 million years older than similar species from East Africa," Begun said in a statement then. "It suggests that the great ape and human lineage first appeared in Eurasia and not Africa."

Migrating out of Africa

In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin proposed that hominins descended out of Africa. Considering the relatively few fossils available at the time, it is a testament to Darwin's astuteness that his hypothesis remains the leading theory.

Since Darwin's time, we have unearthed many more fossils and discovered new evidence in genetics. As such, our African-origin story has undergone many updates and revisions since 1871. Today, it has splintered into two theories: the "out of Africa" theory and the "multi-regional" theory.

The out of Africa theory suggests that the cradle of all humanity was Africa. Homo sapiens evolved exclusively and recently on that continent. At some point in prehistory, our ancestors migrated from Africa to Eurasia and replaced other subspecies of the genus Homo, such as Neanderthals. This is the dominant theory among scientists, and current evidence seems to support it best — though, say that in some circles and be prepared for a late-night debate that goes well past last call.

The multi-regional theory suggests that humans evolved in parallel across various regions. According to this model, the hominins Homo erectus left Africa to settle across Eurasia and (maybe) Australia. These disparate populations eventually evolved into modern humans thanks to a helping dollop of gene flow.

Of course, there are the broad strokes of very nuanced models, and we're leaving a lot of discussion out. There is, for example, a debate as to whether African Homo erectus fossils should be considered alongside Asian ones or should be labeled as a different subspecies, Homo ergaster.

Proponents of the out-of-Africa model aren't sure whether non-African humans descended from a single migration out of Africa or at least two major waves of migration followed by a lot of interbreeding.

Did we head east or south of Eden?

Not all anthropologists agree with Begun and his team's conclusions. As noted by New Scientist, it is possible that the Nikiti ape is not related to hominins at all. It may have evolved similar features independently, developing teeth to eat similar foods or chew in a similar manner as early hominins.

Ultimately, Nikiti ape alone doesn't offer enough evidence to upend the out of Africa model, which is supported by a more robust fossil record and DNA evidence. But additional evidence may be uncovered to lend further credence to Begun's hypothesis or lead us to yet unconsidered ideas about humanity's evolution.