Mark Twain once said that "truth is stranger than fiction," and when you look at the lives of real spies it becomes clear just how correct that statement is. Jumping out of trains, breaking into Nazi concentration camps and attempting assassinations with longbows might sound like something out of your typical Bond film, but all of these are events that actually took place.
Sound awe inspiring? Then read on and learn about some of the most incredible and unbelievable modern-day (and very real) spies from the last century.
10. Juan Pujol
In fact, all of this was true, except for one crucial detail: Pujol’s true loyalties were with MI5, where he was codenamed ‘GARBO.’ Pujol was extremely effective at tricking Berlin thanks to his creativity and attention to detail. He fabricated not only documents, but complete lives, adventures and stories for all of the 27 fictitious agents who he had ‘working’ for him.
Although Pujol commonly fed the Germans factual information in order to maintain his cover, he provided them with disinformation when it mattered the most. And it never mattered more than it did on June 6, 1944, AKA ‘D-Day.’ In order to maintain his cover, Pujol sent advance warning of the Allies invasion but not with enough time for the Germans to do anything about it.
After the D-Day invasion, Pujol told the Nazis that critical attacks were still to follow along the coast in Pas de Calais. No such attacks were inbound but the diversion was enough to ensure that the Germans could not offer their best defence to Normandy.
9. Eddie Chapman
Although Chapman claimed he was willing to use his knowledge of explosions to commit sabotage for the Germans because he wanted to return home, a British Intelligence officer who worked with him more accurately said it was because Chapman ‘loved an exciting life.’
Aided by Jasper Maskelyne, a stage illusionist, Chapman successfully tricked the Germans into believing he was on their side by pretending to carry out his mission, which was sanctioned by MI5. He raided a factory, created an explosion large enough to blow off its roof, smashed holes in its windows, and netted the factories roof with camouflage. All of this was done to steal gelignite.
The full story of Eddie Chapman is so unbelievable that you would honestly think you were hearing about James Bond instead. A BBC documentary on Chapman is available on YouTube.
8. Nancy Wake
Wake sheltered men on the run from the Germans and helped others escape, offering clothing, money and falsified documentation. Eventually she was arrested and beaten for four days. She didn’t reveal anything to her captors though and her loyalty to the Allied forces sealed her trust with them. The British agreed to train her and induct her as an SOE agent.
Wake happily admitted to killing a lot of Germans; some with nothing more than her bare hands. After the war ended she was given medals from Britain, the United States and multiple awards from France. Both her willingness to keep on fighting and her legacy lived on for many years after. In fact, she lived until the age of 98, only recently passing away in 2011.
7. Forest ‘Tommy’ Yeo-Thomas
What did agent White Rabbit do that was so incredible it formed the basis for one of Britain’s most notable fictional characters?
Yeo-Thomas lied about his age to join the U.S. army at age 16 and went to fight in the First World War. Later he joined the Polish army and fought against the Soviet Union. When he was captured in 1920 he killed the guard by strangling him to death and then escaped to France.
Later, Yeo-Thomas joined Britain’s SOE (Special Operations Executive). He parachuted into France not once, but three times. There he was captured and tortured by the Gestapo in Buchenwald concentration camp, although he managed to escape and report back to Winston Churchill.
According to the book, ‘Churchill’s White Rabbit: The True Story of a Real-Life James Bond,’ there are remarkable similarities between Yeo-Thomas and Bond. Not only are many of Bond’s exploits based on the work carried out by Yeo-Thomas, but so is his personality. Yeo-Thomas had very particular attitudes and experiences with women, which transferred right into Bond’s demeanour.
Yeo-Thomas took on the identities of his enemies, jumped from trains, strangled guards and put on disguises to evade detection. All of these are mirrored by James Bond.
6. Patrick Dalzel-Job
In 1940, Patrick Dalzel-Job was single-handedly responsible for leading the evacuation of the Norwegian fishing town, Narvik. In direct contravention of British orders, Dalzel-Job evacuated around four to five thousand women and children.
Fleming met Dalzel-Job in 1944 and after learning of his exploits, Fleming made Dalzel-Job a commando in his unit, 30AU. Dalzel-Job’s impressive feats continued from there because in April of 1945 he captured sixteen high-speed German submarines.
In addition to his commonly defying authority, Dalzel-Job could ski backwards, parachute and undertake other numerous extreme activities that any filmgoer has watched Bond perform.
In an interview, Dalzel-Job revealed that Fleming had once confided that he was indeed a role model for James Bond. However, Dalzel-Job never made much of a fuss about it. Somewhat ironically, Dalzel-Job actually disapproved of agent 007, calling Bond’s life “far too dramatic.”
5. Eli Cohen
The Military Intelligence knew that Cohen had fluent Arabic and Syrian heritage and spoke Modern Hebrew fluently. They recruited and dispatched him to Argentina where he became ‘Kamel Amin Tha’abet,’ a wealthy Syrian businessman. Cohen operated under the cover story that he only wanted to return to Syria and bring down Israel in the process. He hosted extravagant parties and quickly gained favour with important Syrian government and military officials. Thanks to the information he obtained, he was able to radio Israel vital information about Syrian operations.
One of his most important warnings was about the Syrians attempting to divert the headwaters of the Jordan River, which if successful would have cut-off Israel’s water supply. He was able to obtain this information by befriending some of the top contractors responsible for the job.
All and all, Cohen was hero of Israel. Unfortunately, as recently as 2008, his remains were never returned to his home country and his burial place remains unknown.
4. Kim Philby
Philby’s deception earned him great stature with MI6, for a while anyway. He was promoted to the head of counterespionage following World War II. He used the knowledge this post gave him to warn the U.S.S.R of an Allied plan to send fighters into Albania in 1950, which in turn ensured the Allies defeat.
In 1955 Philby was released from his duties at MI6, as he was under too much suspicion. Michael Smith, the author of ‘Six, a history of MI6,’ says that Philby was ultimately responsible for the deaths of countless MI6 agents and the failure of many missions.
In the end, after he moved to Moscow, Philby was disappointed by what he saw. When he saw poverty everywhere, it was the evidence he needed to finally realize that the vast promises of communism’s success was a lie. His son, Tommy Philby believes that Kim eventually thought communism was wrong.
3. Robert Hanssen
During his tenure at the FBI, Hanssen dropped packages with secure information for the KGB on over 20 separate occasions. The information contained more than two dozen computer discs and 6,000 pages of classified important material. Altogether, he received over $600,000 from the KGB for his efforts.
Even more bizarrely, Hanssen’s wife of 34 years never knew that her husband had been spying for the Russians, at least not the true extent of what he had been doing. In an interview with The New York Times, Bonnie Hanssen says she once caught her husband attempting to cover up papers in their basement. However, he simply told her that he was feeding the Russians false information. When he resumed spying for the KGB in 1985, Bonnie had no idea what her husband was up to.
Hanssen was a trained counterintelligence specialist and perhaps that was why he was able to spy for the KGB, so successfully, for so long.
2. Tommy Sneum
Tommy Sneum was a man who could perform incredible stunts while evading the Nazis, and sleep with a huge number of women at the same time.
Just how unbelievable was Sneum? For one thing, he planned to use a longbow in an attempt to assassinate Heinrich Himmler, the head of the SS. Although his plan was not carried out due to Himmler falling ill and not showing up, Sneum carried out other exploits worthy of the 007 title.
Sneum hated the Nazis and fought against them relentlessly. When he was 22 he was a flight lieutenant in Denmark’s Fleet Air Firm. High command ordered Sneum and his servicemen to not fight the Germans when the marched across the Danish border in 1940, but Sneum elected to disobey orders and take on the Germans alone.
After the German occupation of Denmark, Sneum noticed mysterious towers appearing on his home island of Fano and assumed that they were to detect British bombers flying over the country. He set up his own resistance network to get the information back to Britain and when he succeeded, the British felt the information was so impressive that they arrested Sneum on suspicion of being a double agent.
The book, ‘The Hornet Sting’ tells the full extensive tale of Sneum’s incredible life.
1. Witold Pilecki
He spent two and a half years in Auschwitz, smuggling out information about their methods of interrogation and execution. Getting inside was the tricky bit because his Polish commanders believed the place to be nothing more than a POW camp. By September 19, 1940 however, Pilecki was rounded up and brought inside.
To make matters even worse, Pilecki was at Auschwitz during its worst periods. He witnessed not only its construction, but the growth of the camp, plus the building of the ovens, gas chambers and crematoria.
During his time at the camp, Pilecki organized a network amongst the prisoner population with a goal of keeping up morale, distributing food and clothing, smuggling camp intelligence outside and more. He called his network the Union of Military Organization, known as ZOW by the Polish.
In April of 1943, Pilecki escaped from Auschwitz alongside two other prisoners and eventually made his way back to Warsaw after the Krakow command remained suspicious of him.
Pilecki continued his spy work for years to come. He created a cover as a supply manager on a construction site in 1945 where he carried out intelligence duties for the II Corps, who passed his information onto the Polish government-in-exile.
Sadly, Pilecki was arrested by communist authorities on May 5, 1947. He was tortured, interrogated and sentenced to death soon after. The exact location of his remains is unknown, although there is a tombstone with an empty grave in the Powazki Military Cemetery in Warsaw.
Images used in this post are from the Wikipedia commons, public domain.