In 1953 I started work with the Shell Company of Venezuela in its Caracas head office at the end of Avenida Vollmer in San Bernadino. It was a pleasant place to work and my office had a fine view of the Avila mountain that provides the backdrop to Caracas.
It also was far removed from Shell’s operations in the western part of Venezuela.
In 1955 my bosses decided I should learn what oil was about from the grass roots, so they transferred me to the center of their production operations in Lagunillas on the east coast of Lake Maracaibo.
Arriving in Lagunillas, a chap from the personnel department showed me my accommodation. This was a room in the “bunkhouse,” a long and narrow wooden building for the male bachelor employees, built on stilts with staircases at either end that led to an outside corridor.
It had an uninviting appearance, somewhat run down, and I was not surprised to subsequently learn it had been constructed in the 1920s.
Rest in peace: Pujol’s gravesite in Choroní, Aragua State, Venezuela. Inset, the cover of the book he wrote with Tomás Harris, “Garbo: The Spy Who Saved D-Day.”
I lived at one end and at the other lived a Spaniard. He was short, stocky and always neatly dressed – dapper, you might say. He must have been in his early 40s and seemed quite an ordinary sort of person.
We had a nodding acquaintance and did not meet all that often because he was not in the mainstream oil business, but gave Spanish lessons to expats and their spouses. Like most Catalans, he had a choice vocabulary, and an expat told me he had learned some phrases from Pujol that were colloquially most useful.
Our conversation, when we crossed paths, rarely went beyond, “¿Qué tal, cómo estás?” He was considerably older than I, and we had different friends but occasionally I saw him in the club and we had a drink together.
My Spanish acquaintance did not speak about his past, though rumor had it he had spent the war years in England. I, too, had spent those years at school in England and could not fathom why anybody should have chosen to go there of all places with the bombings, food rationing and other hardships.
This was partially explained, however, by further rumor that said he had to leave Spain because he was extremely anti-fascist and at odds with the Franco regime.
After having done the rounds of several oil camps I returned to Caracas, but this time to Shell’s new and larger offices in Chuao. In 1971 the powers that be transferred me to Lagunillas once more, this time as the financial controller.
Since my previous stay, considerable new construction had taken place in the Shell camp area, and on the camp’s perimeter there was now a hotel and a commercial center with several shops.
One Saturday I entered a shop that sold books, papers and magazines – in English as well as in Spanish since many of his customers came from the nearby oil camp – plus small electrical goods and gifts. I chose the present I wanted and went to pay for it.
Imagine my surprise on seeing my Spanish acquaintance of former years behind the counter.
He obviously did not recognize me (I was 15 years older and 20 kilos heavier), and I suppose I felt a little embarrassed – and, to my everlasting regret, I did not make myself known.
The years passed and my family and I came to live in the United Kingdom. It was June 6, 1984, and we were watching a TV program commemorating the Normandy landings 40 years earlier, when suddenly I saw a face I recognized among those who were being honored – it was none other than my old acquaintance from Lagunillas, Juan Pujol, as large as life on the screen!
They referred to him as “Garbo,” and said he was the double agent who fooled the Germans into thinking the Allied landings would take place much further north around the Pas de Calais. He is a hero and was being feted as such – his fame was such that he had a special audience with the Duke of Edinburgh at the latter’s invitation.
The British government awarded Juan Pujol the MBE in 1945 at the end of the war, but at the time he had gone into hiding and only emerged in 1984 to receive it.
The award has always seemed to me very little recognition for a man who did so much for the Allied cause. The Germans were far more generous: They awarded him the Iron Cross. I think the British government should have awarded him the equivalent civil decoration.
Juan Pujol’s story was this: He spoke no English when he arrived in England, so he was given a controller, Tomás Harris, from MI5, who spoke fluent Spanish. Pujol and Harris were so successful deceiving the Germans that the latter decided there was no need to recruit any more spies in England.
One of the ploys devised by Pujol and Harris was to send accurate information to the Germans, though ensuring it arrived just too late to do anything about it.
On one occasion, the Germans were so pleased with his reports they congratulated him with the message: “We are sorry they arrived too late but your last reports were magnificent.”
Their finest coup was in 1944 with Operation Fortitude. “Garbo” and Harris convinced the Germans the landing at Normandy was only a diversion and that the main attack would come further north in the Calais area. The Germans hung on to two armored divisions and 19 infantry divisions in the Pas de Calais instead of sending them to Normandy.
This single deception meant the Allied forces met less resistance on the beachheads and saved numerous lives.
Several books have been written about Garbo, including “Operation Garbo” by Pujol himself and Nigel West. The latter is a well-known writer on espionage, security and the secret service. He is also known for bringing, and mainly losing, libel suits against various publishers and the BBC.
A Day to Remember
You may wonder why Juan Pujol went to live in Lagunillas, a relatively remote oil town. He was sent there by British Intelligence to be safe from German retaliation. The intention was he should live in Lagunillas in anonymity and he did so until it was thought everyone had forgotten about the war.
Juan (Joan in Catalán) Pujol was born in Barcelona, Spain, on Feb. 14, 1912, but after the war he lived the rest of his life in Venezuela, a country he grew to love. He died in Caracas in October 1988 at the age of 76, and was buried in Choroní, Aragua State, his wife’s birthplace and where the couple had been living.
I feel humbled to have met a man who did such extraordinary things and yet kept them to himself for so many years.
In London we have blue plaques that are placed on the houses and buildings where famous people lived. The bunkhouse in Lagunillas was demolished years ago, but it is a pity there is no memorial to Juan Pujol in Venezuela other than his gravestone. Many Venezuelans do not know who he was nor that he was one of the most successful double agents of World War II.
This is just a small tribute to Juan Pujol. History will confirm he was an extraordinary man, for few people can have helped the Allied cause more. Who can say how many lives he saved by his actions?
The anniversary of the Normandy landings is this month, June 6 – an appropriate time for Spaniards, Venezuelans, Britons, North Americans, Australians and all who fought against the Axis powers to honor his memory.
Oliver L. Campbell was born in 1931 in El Callao, Venezuela, where his father worked in the gold mining industry. He spent the World War II years in England, then in 1953 returned to Venezuela and worked with Compañía Shell de Venezuela (CSV). He spent 15 years in the oilfields and ended up as company financial controller.
Upon nationalization of the oil industry he went to Petróleos de Venezuela (PDVSA) as its head of finance. In 1982 he returned to England and was the finance manager of the British National Oil Corporation prior to its privatization.
He then worked as an oil consultant and retired in 2002 after 50 years in the oil industry.