Deceiving the Enemy, Fooling Ourselves: Garbo at War

By Robert M. Citino
8/4/2010 • Fire for Effect

I spent some time a few posts ago deflating our enthusiasm for secret agents, undercover missions, and deception operations.  Sure, these things are exciting to read about, but they have a very high SNAFU factor, they often fail, and they sometimes backfire completely. And even if they don’t blow up on you, they wind up being oversold in the literature, with their impact on operations often completely overblown. 

Even the “poster child” for this sort of thing, Juan Pujol Garcia, the Allied double agent code-named “Garbo” for the convincing way he played his role as a Nazi agent in Britain, was probably less important than a lot of people have thought.  His story is irresistible, certainly.  He didn’t just lie to the Germans on Britain’s behalf, he put together a veritable network of lies, concocting no fewer than 27 faux agents for whom the Germans paid good money during the war.  In the end he got both a German Iron Cross and a British MBE–surely a unique phenomenon.  His falsified reports usually get credit for pulling enough wool over Hitler’s eyes to convince the Führer that the Allied landings in Normandy were only a diversion, leading the German high command to keep 15th Army stationed in the Pas De Calais rather than committing it to battle to the south. 

That’s the story we’ve been hearing for a long time, and if it’s true, then Garbo played a key role, indeed, in the eventual Allied victory.  Unfortunately, we’re starting to have our doubts. The most recent book on the topic, Mary Kathryn Barbier’s D-Day Deception:  Operation Fortitude and the Normandy Invasion, offers a convincing argument that giving all the credit to Garbo, or even the larger deception operation called Fortitude, is too simplistic.  She makes the basic point that Allied bombing of the French transportation network had so disrupted German communications and logistics, that 15th Army probably wasn’t going to be able to get to Normandy in anything resembling a timely fashion, no matter how badly the OKW might have wanted to shift it.  Moreover, the Germans clearly believed from the start that the invasion would come in the Pas de Calais.  It did make sense:  the Pas de Calais was the direct route to Germany, rather than the more circuitous one from Normandy.  Thus, a more reasonable judgment is that Garbo’s deception, at best, was able to “reinforce preconceptions in the mind of the enemy”, rather than change Hitler’s mind completely.

I’ve been thinking about why we like these stories so much.  Is it because modern, industrialized war–and World War II was the epitome–is so large, so bureaucratic in nature, so impersonal, that we need to believe that one man made all the difference?

Next week:  a corpse goes to war.

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