In the middle of the snowless English winter of 1944, General Dwight D. Eisenhower, the Allied commander overseeing the forthcoming invasion of Europe, was anxious to get the hell out of London. It was January, less than six months before D-Day, and it seemed to him that every Allied officer and VIP in the capital felt personally entitled to barge into his bustling office and bend his ear. The visitors never stopped, interrupting him and his staff, whose typewriters and footsteps and male voices created a constant, purposeful buzz in the rooms at 20 Grosvenor Square. The American ambassador, John Winant, was forever knocking on his door. Churchill was incorrigible. Today—he glanced down at his appointment book—Noel Wild of Ops (b) was due in, the head of an obscure sector in Eisenhower’s sprawling command: deception.
The general had been an early skeptic of deception, the shadow bureau of spies running around the Continent claiming they could fool Hitler and turn the tide of war. General George S. Patton, who much to his own disgust had been drafted into the effort as head of an imaginary one-million-man army called fusag, summed up the initial feelings of Eisenhower—and the current attitude of many other military and political leaders: “This damned secrecy thing is rather annoying,” he wrote, “particularly as I doubt if it fools anyone.”
Eisenhower had changed his mind about deception after witnessing its effectiveness firsthand in the Mediterranean. But in January 1944 he had many actual objects to worry about: destroyers and French railroads and the landing vessels called LSTs, which were maddeningly scarce and threatened to sink the invasion before it began. These very real and important things, not espionage, were what consumed his days.
As he strode through his headquarters, bald, handsome and electric with physical vigor, Eisenhower appeared confident, “a living dynamo of energy, good humor, amazing memory for details, and amazing courage for the future.” His staff loved his relentless optimism, but inwardly and in his private letters to Mamie, the general agonized about what was about to happen. He was smoking four packs of Camels a day, and a journalist would later describe him as “bowed down with worry . . . as though each of the stars on either shoulder weighed four tons.”
If and when the Allies took the beaches of Normandy, Eisenhower hoped to join them. Going to France would return him to an old haunt. He’d spent a year there that few of his visitors knew about, the idyllic seasons of 1928–29 when Eisenhower—somewhat slimmer and with more hair—traveled the roads of Bordeaux and Aquitaine with an army driver, eating picnic lunches on the grass borders of country lanes and grating the ears of the farmers with his rudimentary French before winning them over with a flashing smile. That year at the end of the Roaring Twenties had been one of the best of his life. The career officer had been in France to write a guidebook for World War I battlefields and the graveyards of American troops, austere places where the soldiers’ families came to honor their dead.
It had seemed a pleasant assignment then, but Eisenhower’s memories of France had lately attained a darker shading: if D-Day wasn’t successful, American cemeteries would sprout around the hills and hedgerows of Normandy like the native wood hyacinths. The French would need acres and acres of rich farmland for the graves of the 101st Airborne alone, more for the young men of the Big Red One; the white crosses would blanket the Norman countryside. Western France would become the graveyard for an entire generation of American GIs, the men that Eisenhower made a point of dashing out to visit every chance he got.
The invasion numbers were daunting. Eisenhower hoped to land five divisions on the first day of the operation. Waiting for him in France and the Low Countries would be fifty-six German divisions. The Fifteenth Army was perhaps the most crucial: it was strung out from Turhout in Belgium (the 1st Panzer Division) to Amiens (the 2nd Panzer Division) and Pontoise in France (the 116th Panzer), place names that Eisenhower knew well. There were ten German armored divisions that were “thought to be held as a centrally controlled mobile reserve, whose function would be to drive any invading force back into the sea before it had time to establish a lodgment.” The Allies would calculate that most of those reserves would be sent to the Normandy bridgehead within one week of the invasion. That one week, however, was critical.
If Noel Wild and his deception outfit failed to deceive the enemy about the true target of the invasion, those German divisions would begin to flow south and attempt to destroy the Allied invasion force on the roads and in the small towns of Normandy. If the deception succeeded, the panzers would stay right where they were, waiting for the “real” landing. But how could that be achieved? Who could disguise the largest invasion force in history from Berlin’s watchful eyes?
Finally, Lieutenant Colonel Wild knocked on the door. He was a “slim, elegant little man” and—though this didn’t impress Eisenhower much—an Old Etonian. The two men chatted for a few moments, then Eisenhower made a very modest request. “Just keep the Fifteenth Army out of my hair for the first two days,” he said. “That’s all I ask.”
Wild saluted and walked out.
His chat with Noel Wild was one meeting among the many that Eisenhower held that day and he probably forgot about it almost immediately. If he thought about it at all, the commander most likely believed his request—forty-eight precious hours free of the Fifteenth Army—was asking too much.
On the same day, approximately two miles from Eisenhower’s frenetic headquarters, a rather ordinary-looking man named Juan Pujol was taking the Underground to work at a nondescript office on Jermyn Street. Though short and thin, Pujol carried himself like a member of the unseated European royalty that had found themselves at loose ends in London during the war. His shoulders were thrown back and a winning smile arced across his lips. The young Spaniard had an almost boyish face, a wide forehead, a prominent nose and a strong chin. The dominant feature of his face were the warm hazel eyes, flecked with green, that occasionally flashed with amusement and hidden depths. Pujol commuted to work every day from his house in Hendon, where he lived with his glamorous but unhappy wife and his two young children.
Dwight Eisenhower was the all-powerful commander of the Allied forces in Europe; every ship’s quartermaster, every tank gunner, every medic was technically under his command. Pujol, on the other hand, was the emperor of an imaginary world. He was the linchpin in the plan to fool Hitler into believing the attack was coming not at Normandy but up the French coast at Calais. His mission was to keep the Fifteenth Army that was causing Eisenhower such deep worry out of the action. Only a handful of men, such as Lieutenant Colonel Wild, even knew who Juan Pujol was; he walked the London streets unrecognized and unprotected. But this brilliant spy, who three years before had been a failed chicken farmer and hotel manager at a one-star dump in Madrid, was the jewel of the Allies’ counterintelligence forces. Churchill avidly followed his adventures; J. Edgar Hoover would one day clamor to meet him. His code name was Garbo; a British officer had given him the name because he considered Pujol “the best actor in the world.”
In his quest to fool Hitler, Garbo was surrounded by a rather bizar...