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Romanticized in Hollywood through the James Bond and Jason Bourne film series, spies have long captured the public imagination. The idea of traveling the world with any identity, unlimited resources, and the ability to slip away from any situation makes spies seem like real-life super heroes. In real life, most spies possess two traits, the clearance to access secret information and the ability to blend in with a crowd.

Here are a few things you might not have known about spies.


28. From Russia, With Love

George Koval was a Russian spy who managed to infiltrate the Manhattan project during WWII and steal America’s nuclear secrets. He single-handedly provided critical technology for Russia’s nuclear arsenal and accelerated their atomic program by at least four years, if not more. It wasn’t discovered he was a spy until 2002, which means he was a pretty good spy.

Facts about spies

27. The Anti-Mime

Sarah Edmonds, a white Canadian woman, working for the Union Army during the American civil war, managed to infiltrate Confederate territory in Virginia disguised as a black man. She was known as a master of disguise.

Facts about spies

 

26. Good Dog!

Sergeant Stubby was a WWI American war dog who was promoted to sergeant for single-handedly catching a German spy who was mapping out Allied trenches. His promotion meant he outranked his owner who was just a lowly corporal. No. YOU sit.

Facts about spies

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25. Like Herding Cats

In the 1960s, the CIA spent $20 million on a project called “Acoustic Kitty” where a microphone and radio transmitter was implanted into a cat. The project was abandoned when they realized that cats don’t care at all about geopolitics.

Facts about spies

24. Giving Hitler the Bird

Cats weren’t the only animal spies. Back in WWII, automatic cameras were attached to homing pigeons to conduct aerial surveillance of German positions.

Facts about spies

23. L-Roh-L

The word “lollapalooza” was used by American soldiers in the Pacific to identify Japanese spies, who would mispronounce it. It was used because even Japanese spies that have had extensive english language training would likely not have practiced saying this word.

Spies Facts

22. The Spy Who Loved… Beaver Tails

Marius A. Langbein was a WWII German spy who was sent to Halifax to spy on North Atlantic convoy movements. When he arrived, he moved to Ottawa, and gave himself up to Canadian authorities. He was found not guilty and allowed to stay because he didn’t actually do any damage to Canadian interests. Unless you count all the poutine he demolished.

Facts about spies

Items used for tradecraft

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21. Trojan Tree

In 1917, Germans built a 25-foot tall, armor-plated, fake tree and stationed a soldier in it for months to spy on Allied artillery positions. To sneak the tree in place the Germans had to cut down and replace a real tree while artillery was firing, so Allied forces wouldn’t hear the axes. Even after taking the German position, Allied soldiers didn’t notice it wasn’t a real tree for seven months.

Facts about spies

20. Nice Try, Hitler

Gevork Andreevich Vartanian was a 19 year old Soviet Armenian spy who thwarted Operation Long Jump, a plot concocted by Hitler to assassinate Stalin, Churchill, and Roosevelt at the Tehran conference in 1943.

Facts About Spies

19. License to Drive… and That’s It

James Bond was based on a real spy named Wilfred “Biffy” Dunderdale, an MI6 agent stationed in Paris who was friends with Ian Fleming. Dunderdale was known for his appetite for the finer things which is said to be inspiration for bond’s taste. Of course, “Dunderdale, Wilfred Dunderdale,” doesn’t have quite the same ring to it.

Facts About Spies

18. Butterfly Effect

Robert Baden-Powell was a British intelligence agent stationed in Malta who posed as a butterfly collector and hide the plans of military installations in his drawings of butterfly wings.

Facts About Spies

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17. Dude Looks like a Lady

Chevalier d’Eon was a French spy, diplomat, and lady-in-waiting who infiltrated the court of Empress Elizabeth of Russia. It was only after her death in 1810 that it was discovered she was, in fact, a man.

Facts About Spies

16. Don’t Turn That Dial

The Lincolnshire Poacher was a powerful shortwave radio station that began broadcasting in the mid-1970s, presumably to send messages to operatives in other countries. It was believed to be operated by British intelligence and amateur radio enthusiasts traced its origin to a Royal Air Force base in Cyprus. It stopped transmitting in 2008. Or did it? Yeah. It did.

Facts About Spies

The presumed Lincolnshire Poacher broadcast site.

15. Saddammit

Saddam Hussein refused to allow nuclear inspectors into Iraq because he insisted that they were secret American spies. Turns out, he was right, and the US totally apologized and… they did what now? OH. Oh.

Facts About Spies

14. Dr. No

In 1963, it was discovered that Kim Philby, who was the head of the anti-Soviet division of MI6, was in fact a Soviet spy. MI6 never caught him and he escaped to Russia without having to break his policy of never ever confessing.

Facts About Spies

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13. Early Retirement Ain’t All It’s Cracked Up To Be

Ex-Russian spy Alexander Litvenenko published an expose of Russian intelligence before fleeing to the UK in 2000. Six years later, he mysteriously died of radiation poisoning despite the largest known source of radiation near him being his microwave oven.

Facts About Spies

12. Monkey See, Monkey Die

Legend has it that during the Napoleonic wars, a French ship ran aground in Hartlepool, England and the sole survivor was a monkey wearing a French soldier’s uniform. The Hartlepool residents captured the monkey, tried him for espionage, and hanged him as a spy. The English either have a high opinion of monkeys or a low opinion of the French.

Facts About Spies

11. Nice Catch!

The first spy satellites still used conventional film which had to sent to earth for processing. Engineers created a system where satellites would eject the film canisters which would fall from orbit, and then upon entering the atmosphere would be caught in mid-air by specially designed airplanes.

Facts About Spies

10. The Keys to Success

Snooping technology has been invented where the keys pressed on a keyboard can be determined just by the sound they make. They can probably also tell if you’re only typing with one hand. Just sayin’.

Facts About Spies

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9. The Americans

In 2010, Tim and Alex Foley discovered that their parents were actually Russian spies after their Cambridge, Massachusetts home was raided by the FBI. Their parents, Donald and Tracey Foley, were actually Andrei Bezrukov and Elena Vavilova and not, as they were led to believe, Canadian. So now the boys have no idea which hockey team they’re supposed to root for.

Facts About Spies

8. Weaponized Sex

Margaretha Zelle Macleod, better known by her stage name, Mata Hari, used seduction to her advantage in order to either, depending on who you believed, pass French secrets or fake French secrets to the Germans. Either way, she was believed to be a German spy, sentenced to death by a French court, and seductive until the end, blew a kiss to her firing squad before they did their duty.

Facts About Spies

7. Tricky

CIA clerk Sharon Scranage was seduced by a Ghanian agent named Michael Agbotui Soussoudis who worked his relationship with Scranage to acquire a list of all CIA employees in Ghana. This security breach is believed to have led to at least one dead CIA informant.

Sharon Scranage

Sharon Scranage (left) in custody

6. A Recipe for Victory

Before she became famous for her culinary artistry, Julia Child served as a research analyst for the US Office of Strategic Services, the WWII US intelligence agency helping the Allied forces cook Hitler’s goose. The OSS is said the be the precursor to the modern CIA.

Facts About Spies

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5. Those Nazis were Jazzed

Famous jazz artist Josephine Baker used her celebrity status to support the French resistance during WWII. She would report on the identities of French Nazi supporters, recount conversations overheard form German officers in her audiences, and smuggle secret documents written in invisible ink on her sheet music.

Facts About Spies

4. Right in Charlie’s Chocolate Factory

Famous children’s author Roald Dahl was reportedly a James Bond-ian super spy who slept with countless high society women while living in US, gathering intelligence for the British.

Facts About Spies

3. Writer, Sailor, Soldier, Spy

Ernest Hemingway was a failed KGB spy recruited in 1940. His codename was Argo. He was apparently willing to help, but not particularly useful. We never liked his books either.

Facts About Spies

2. With Friends Like These

When British intelligence agent Freddie Scappaticci infiltrated the IRA, he bolstered his credibility by murdering many IRA enemies including a few fellow British agents. These killings propelled him to the head of IRA’s internal security force.

Facts About Spies

1. Espionage as a Second Language

North Korea has abducted Japanese, Malaysian, Chinese, Italian, and French citizens and forced them to teach their respective languages and cultures at North Korean spy schools.

Facts About Spies

Sources: 1 2

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