Deceiving the Enemy, Fooling Ourselves: Garbo at War

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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8 Responses

  1. Sensemaker

    “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?”

    Well spoken, Robert. People, perhaps particularly Americans, do want to believe that one person made a difference so we tend to overestamate the influence of a single person. This is certainly not limited to military matters:

    Edison did not invent the light bulb, he improved and existing lightning system.

    Watt did not invent the steam engine, he significantly improved existing systems.

    Schliemann did not discover Troy. Using pretty unscrupulous methods helped create publicity and finance excavation of the place where pretty much everyone thought it would be if it had existed.

    Elliot Ness had very little to do with the eventual defeat and incarceration of Al Capone. However, during a very dark time for Chicato’s law enforcement he did manage to bring the message to law abiding citizens that not all cops were corrupt and that it was possible to stand up against organized crime and win.

    Rosa Parks was a member of an organisation fighting against segregation. She was not the first to engage in civil disobedience of this form. She was, however, the first to plead not guilty because the law she had broken was unconstitutional.


  2. Luke Truxal

    Funny you should post this blog right now. I just read a quote from Curtis LeMay who said all deception missions that were used by the 8th Air Force were pointless and ineffective. Although he may have a little bias because he did lead the deception portion of the Schweinfurt-Regensburg mission.

  3. Eric Weider

    Clearly the Allies used many methods to deceive and delay an effective German reaction to Normandy…to rely on only one method would have been crazy. The fact that the Allies were successful in implemeting several methods is a testament to how good they had gotten by 1944 in deception and planning…but it doesn’t take away one bit from the brilliance and brashness of what Garbo achieved. He is way up there in the pantheon of great spies.

  4. Rob Citino


    You’re on firm ground here. A LOT of people agree with you. Maybe I’m wrong–it happens!


  5. Luke Truxal

    I guess this does come down to not putting all of your eggs in one basket. The bombing of the transportation and rail networks may have eliminated the need for deception operations. The Germans know they can’t react very rapidly with Allied air power, but do the Allies know that?

    It seems to me when you look at it from the Allies side how can you be certain the strategic bombing of France worked? That’s putting a lot of faith in a concept that had not lived up to its lofty expectations so far. So why not use a lot of deception just to be on the safe side. It seems that when planning an operation of this magnitude it is better to be safe than sorry.

    I guess what the debate is over is the effectiveness of such spy games. In my opinion effective or not if you have the ability to add that extra variable put it into play.

  6. E.Dale Rodman

    I am a survivor of Exercise Tiger (Apr 29, 1944). It was a training exercise but was also used as a deception for D-Day. Advance Information was given to the Germans through the double agents.The purpose was to make the Germans believe they would given advance warning when the invasion begin. The ploy worked, but resulted in the loss of over 1500 lives when German E-Boats attacked the naval convoy, sinking two landing craft and damaging another. Because the Americans and English were using different radio frequency it caused the English Destroyers and Shore battery to open fire on the allied Ships. This resulted in the sinking of more landing craft. To cover-up the English part a Cover-up was made. The altered documents show only the sinking of ships sunk by the Germans and only 629 killed.

    I have been researching and collecting material since 1987. Stories from other survivors contradict the written record. I was part of a 13 man detachment aboard a LST. Ten men were killed.. The company record list only 5 killed. In all 28 from my Company were killed, records list only 18. I have written MY STORY and will be happy to send you a copy.if you are interested..

  7. Mollypitcher

    La ruse de guerre has existed for all time and should be used in whatever manner or means may be possible at the moment…and that includes secret agents. In today’s world where “hero’s” too often take the form of cardboard or cinema’s animated unreal figures, it is difficult for many to believe that at one time in history, one man or woman could in fact, make a difference….and often did!


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