The Ace of Spies and Other Significant Espionage Figures
The Ace of Spies and Other Significant Espionage Figures

The Ace of Spies and Other Significant Espionage Figures

Khalid Elhassan - December 20, 2019

The Ace of Spies and Other Significant Espionage Figures
Juan Pujol Garcia as a conscript in 1931. Wikimedia

13. WWII’s Most Important Spy

No spy had a greater impact on WWII than Juan Pujol Garcia (1912 – 1988). An eccentric Spaniard, Juan Pujol hoaxed the Germans with fictional spying out of a sheer desire for adventure and excitement. That hoax grew into the greatest double-cross operation of the conflict, and played a significant role in ensuring Allied victory on D-Day and in the subsequent Normandy Campaign.

Juan Pujol hated fascists, so when WWII began, he decided to help the Allies “for the good of humanity”. However, when he offered his services to British intelligence, he was rejected. Undeterred, he posed as a Nazi-sympathizing Spanish government official and offered his services to Germany’s military intelligence service, the Abwehr. The Nazis accepted, and ordered him to Britain, where he was to recruit a spy network. Pujol had neither the means nor the desire to do any such thing, so he simply faked it.

The Ace of Spies and Other Significant Espionage Figures
An Abwehr radio operator. Pintrest

12. Fabricating a Spy Network

Instead of going to Britain as instructed by the Abwehr, Juan Pujol went to Lisbon. From there, he made up reports about Britain, using content culled from public sources, embellished and seasoned with his own active imagination, then sent them to his German handlers as if he was writing from Britain. The Germans whose entire spy network in Britain had been arrested in the war’s opening days, were starving for information. So they eagerly swallowed Pujol’s fabrications, and begged for more.

Pujol obliged by inventing a network of fictional sub-agents and used them as sources for additional fictional reports. Intercepting and decoding secret German messages, the British realized that somebody was hoaxing the Germans, and upon discovering it was Pujol acting on his own, they belatedly accepted his offer of services.

The Ace of Spies and Other Significant Espionage Figures
Juan Pujol Garcia and his wife were whisked to Britain after British intelligence belatedly accepted his offers of help. History

11. Agent GARBO, the Nazis’ Favorite Spy

Juan Pujol Garcia was whisked to Britain, given the codename GARBO, and put to work building up his imaginary network to benefit his German handlers. The original hoax was transformed into an elaborate double cross operation that carefully fed the Germans a massive amount of often true but useless information, mixed in with half-truths and falsities.

The flood of reports from Pujol and his steadily growing network of fictional sub-agents transformed him, in German eyes, into their most successful spy in Britain. The moment for cashing in on that trust came during the buildup to D-Day and the subsequent Normandy campaign. The ultimate aim was to convince the Germans that the Normandy landings were just the first in a series of planned invasions, with an even bigger one planned against the Pas de Calais.

The Ace of Spies and Other Significant Espionage Figures
Juan Pujol-Garcia (Garbo), disguised. National Archives Blog

10. Cashing in on the Carefully Crafted Double Cross

To cement Juan Pujol Garcia’s credibility with the Abwehr, British intelligence had him send a message alerting the Germans to the invasion a few hours before its commencement. It was a carefully calculated risk, as Pujol’s handlers figured that by the time the warning worked its way from German intelligence to commanders in the field, the invasion would have already taken place. Thus the warning would have done the Germans no actual good on the ground, but still, enhance Pujol’s reputation with his German handlers.

They then went in for the kill: building upon the years of trust, Pujol informed the Germans that the Normandy landings were diversionary. The real blow, he informed them, would fall upon the Pas de Calais a few weeks later.

The Ace of Spies and Other Significant Espionage Figures
D-Day landings. Stripes

9. The Double Cross Pays Off

Juan Pujol’s carefully crafted lies, coupled with other Allied deception measures whereby a fictional First US Army Group, under the command of George Patton, was massed across the English Channel opposite the Pas de Calais, worked. The Germans were convinced during the crucial weeks of June, 1944, to keep powerful formations in that region, rather than rush them to Normandy to help destroy the vulnerable Allied beachhead.

By the time the Pas de Calais formations were finally released, it was too late. The Allies had amassed sufficient forces in Normandy to not only defeat German attacks, but to then go on the offensive, break out of the beachhead, and sweep across and liberate France within a few months.

The Ace of Spies and Other Significant Espionage Figures
Juan Pujol Garcia was decorated by both the Germans and British. Barbara Picci

8. Decorated by Both Sides

Juan Pujol Garcia ended up decorated by both sides. He earned an Iron Cross from a grateful Germany, plus a Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) from an even more grateful Britain. After the war, fearing reprisals from the Nazis, he faked his death in Angola in 1949, then moved to Venezuela, where he ran a gift shop and book store.

The Ace of Spies and Other Significant Espionage Figures
Juan Pujol Garcia in later years. Half Arsed History

Pujol led an anonymous life until 1984, when he agreed to be interviewed for a book about agent GARBO. When the story of his deeds finally came out, he was received at Buckingham Palace, and was lionized in Britain. On the 40th anniversary of D-Day, he traveled to Normandy to pay his respects to the dead. He died in Caracas, four years later.

The Ace of Spies and Other Significant Espionage Figures
Alfred Redl, left, one of the twentieth century’s most fascinating spies. Amazon

7. When the Spy Catcher is a Spy

Austro-Hungarian Alfred Redl (1864 – 1913) rose through that empire’s officer ranks to become chief of counterintelligence from 1900 to 1912. In that capacity, he was in charge of tracking down and rooting out traitors and spies.

In a twist no one at the time saw coming, Redl was himself a traitor and a spy. He betrayed his country and sold its secrets to its main rival and likeliest future enemy, Tsarist Russia, whose chief spy in the Austro-Hungarian Empire he became. It is suspected that he also spied for both the French and Italians in exchange for money.

The Ace of Spies and Other Significant Espionage Figures
Austro-Hungarian soldiers. YouTube

6. Background of a Traitor

Alfred Redl was the son of a railway clerk, and was born into a poor family in the Galician province of Austria-Hungary, in what is now Ukraine. Wealth and family connections were the usual prerequisites back then for joining the Austro-Hungarian Army’s officer ranks and advancing. Redl had neither, but he had been precocious from an early age and was highly intelligent, which enabled him to secure a commission.

He had a talent for languages, and his facility with Russian got him assigned to the intelligence branch. There, Redl impressed his boss, General von Geislingen, whose protege Redl became. In 1900, Geislingen promoted Redl and made him his deputy, placing him in charge of the Austro-Hungarian Empire’s counterintelligence corps. Redl quickly gained a reputation for innovation in what had been a disorganized and backward branch, streamlining the system, and introducing new technologies such as the use of recording devices and cameras.

The Ace of Spies and Other Significant Espionage Figures
Alfred Redl’s hapless boss and patron, General Arthur Geisl von Gieslingen. Wikimedia

5. Entrapment and Blackmail

Alfred Redl had a secret: he was gay, in an era when homosexuality was a taboo fatal to both social standing and career prospects. Russian intelligence learned of Redl’s homosexuality, entrapped him in a compromising position, and caught it on camera. They then blackmailed him into turning traitor, and sweetened the extortion with the offer of money in exchange for secrets. Redl accepted, and in his first major act of treason, handed the Russians Austria-Hungary’s war plans in 1902.

When word reached the Austrians that the Russians had a copy of their war plans, General von Geislingen tasked Redl with finding the traitor. Redl covered his tracks by unmasking minor Russian agents who were fed him by his Tsarist spymasters, and by framing innocent Austro-Hungarian officers with falsified evidence. That enhanced his reputation within the Austro-Hungarian establishment as a brilliant head of counterintelligence.

The Ace of Spies and Other Significant Espionage Figures
Alfred Red’s successsor, Colonel Maximilian Ronge, who unmasked his predecessor’s treason. Wikimedia

4. Unmasking and Undoing

Over a period of eleven years, Alfred Redl sold the Russians Austria-Hungary’s secrets including mobilization plans, army orders, ciphers, codes, maps, reports on road and rail conditions. His treason finally came to an end because of sloppiness by his handlers. In 1912, Redl’s mentor, von Geisl, was promoted to head an army corps and took Redl with him as his chief of staff. Postal censors working for Redl’s successor in counterintelligence intercepted envelopes stuffed with cash and nothing else. However, the envelopes had registration receipts tracing back to addresses abroad that were known to be used by Russian and French intelligence.

A sting operation was set up, the envelopes were delivered under surveillance, and Redl showed up to claim them. Arrested, he confessed to treason, and requested that he be left alone with a revolver. His request was granted, and after writing brief letters to his brother and to von Geisl, he committed suicide.

The Ace of Spies and Other Significant Espionage Figures
Harold Cole mugshot. Daily Mail

3. The Triple Agent

English jailbird Harold Cole (1906 – 1946) served in the British Army during WWII, then in the French Resistance, before he betrayed both by working as a double agent for the Germans. During his extraordinary wartime career, he lied and conned his way across France, joined the Nazis, and spied and snitched on the Resistance, resulting in the arrest and execution of many.

Cole was a dirt bag from early on. By his teens, he was already a burglar and check forger. He was no criminal mastermind, however, and kept getting caught: by 1939, Cole had served multiple stints in prison. When WWII began, he lied about his criminal history to enlist in the British Army, and was sent to France. Promoted to sergeant, he was arrested for stealing money from the Sergeants’ Mess to splurge on prostitutes. He became a POW in May, 1940 when the Germans captured the guardhouse where he was jailed.

The Ace of Spies and Other Significant Espionage Figures
Resistance fighters arrested by Germans and collaborationist French police. Getty Images

2. Joining and Betraying the French Resistance

Harold Cole escaped German captivity and made his way to Lille, where he got in touch with the French Resistance. He convinced them that he was a British intelligence agent sent to organize escape lines to get stranded and fleeing British military personnel back home. At first, Cole actually helped the Allied cause, escorting escaped personnel across Nazi-occupied territory to the relative safety of Vichy France, from which they slipped into Spain and a ship back home.

He also embezzled from the funds intended to finance those operations to pay for a high society lifestyle of nightclubs, pricey restaurants, expensive champagne, fast cars, and faster girls. When his thefts came to light in 1941, the Resistance arrested and locked him up. While they deliberated what to do about him, Cole escaped. On the run from the Resistance, he turned himself in to the Germans, gave them 30 pages of Resistance member names and addresses, and became an agent of the SS’ Sicherheitdienst, or SD.

The Ace of Spies and Other Significant Espionage Figures
Harold Cole in disguise. Daily Mail

1. Triple Cross

Over 150 Resistance members were arrested because of the information that Harold Cole gave the Nazis. At least 50 were executed, and Cole was present during the interrogation and torture of many of his former colleagues. When the Allies liberated France in 1944, Cole fled in a Gestapo uniform. He turned up in southern Germany in June 1945, claiming to be a British undercover agent, and offered his services to the American occupation forces. Triple crossing, he turned against the Nazis, hunting and flushing them out of hiding, and murdering at least one of them.

The British eventually arrested Cole, but he escaped while awaiting court martial and fled to France. There, French police received a tip-off revealing his whereabouts in a central Paris apartment. On January 8th, 1946, they crept up a staircase to seize him, but their heavy tread gave them away. Cole met them at the doorway, pistol in hand, and was killed in the ensuing shootout.


Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading

BBC News Magazine, January 8th, 2014 – The Woman Who Tracked Down a CIA Mole

Daily Mail, June 30th, 2017 – The Worst Traitor of All: How an East End Jailbird Lied and Cheated His Way Across France, Joined the Nazis and Condemned 150 Resistance Fighters to Death

Encyclopedia Britannica – Alfred Redl, Austrian Military Officer

Lockhart, Robert Bruce – Ace of Spies (1984)

Macintyre, Ben – Agent Zigzag: The True Wartime Story of Eddie Chapman, Lover, Betrayer, Hero, Spy (2007)

Macintyre, Ben – Double Cross: The True Story of the D-Day Spies (2012)

New York Times, January 27th, 1995 – How the FBI Finally Caught Aldrich Ames

Rose, Alexander – Washington’s Spies (2006)

Sadler, John – Spy of the Century: Alfred Redl and the Betrayal of Austria-Hungary

Seaman, Mark – Garbo: The Spy Who Saved D-Day (2004)

Spartacus Educational – Sidney Reilly

Spence, Richard B. – Trust No One: The Secret World of Sidney Reilly (2003)

Wikipedia – Harold Cole

Wikipedia – Israel Beer