Espionage played a crucial role during the Second World War. Spies and covert operatives were extensively deployed by every major power across the front, including the USSR, USA, Britain, and Germany. Apart from the usual listening jobs and assassination missions, these agents were also responsible for training local resistance movements in the occupied regions, as well as preparing the battlefield before major offensives.
10. Operation Greif
As the war progressed, Otto Skorzeny earned a reputation as one of the most dangerous and effective operatives in Europe. Working directly for Adolf Hitler, he rescued Mussolini from a fortified mountain-top hotel in Italy, shortly after he was overthrown and arrested by Italian authorities. In another case, Skorzeny successfully kidnapped the son of the Hungarian regent, Admiral Horthy, and used him to force Hungary to remain in the war.
His most audacious mission was infiltrating allied positions during the last phases of the war in Belgium. Known as Operation Greif, its primary objective was to kidnap or kill General Dwight D. Eisenhower, using the large offensive at Ardennes as cover. It was a poorly-planned operation and the agents on the ground were quickly captured by the allied forces, mostly due to their poor English.
9. Operation Animals
Operation Animals was actually a series of operations carried out by allied spies and local resistance fighters across occupied Greece. Some time in June, 1943, coordinated attacks began on communication lines, railways, and other infrastructure under German occupation, making it seem like the allied army was about to invade.
Only, there were no plans to attack Greece before securing the Italian peninsula. The mission was actually a part of a large-scale deception operation aimed at distracting the Germans from the oncoming assault on Sicily, called Operation Mincemeat. It mostly worked, too, as it forced the German high command to tie down some of its best units in Greece instead of sending them to reinforce Sicily, including the 1st Panzerdivision. Operation Animals played an important role in the outcome of the war on the European front, as it was directly responsible for the Italian surrender on September 3, 1943.
8. Operation Rype
On March 24, 1945, an American covert unit was airdropped somewhere in Snasa Mountains, kicking off the only US-led operation of the war in occupied Norway. The members included Norwegian-speaking Americans, Americans of direct Norwegian descent, and Norwegians that had somehow found themselves in the US due to various reasons.
Working with the local resistance force, the primary objective of this unit – codenamed Rype – was to make life difficult for the retreating German force, as the war was now in its final stages. They largely succeeded, too, as the group was responsible for sabotaging multiple railway lines and other evacuation routes used by the Germans. To honor their contribution to the war, the Norwegian Home Guard unit stationed in the Trøndelag region was recently renamed to Task Force RYPE.
7. The Duquesne Spy Ring
The Duquesne Spy Ring was named after and led by Frederick “Fritz” Joubert Duquesne – a South African-born operative working for Germany in the run-up to the war. Based out of New York, the operation involved at least 33 other spies, making it one of the largest spy operations uncovered on US soil.
It was an elaborate, spread-out operation, though we’re still not sure about the extent of information passed on to Nazi Germany in the time it was active. Duquesne, who had previously spied for Germany in the First World War, was a difficult agent to pin down, as he was expertly able to change identities and go silent for extended periods of time to avoid arrest. He was at times a journalist, film publicist, fictional Australian war hero, and even an advising game-hunter to President Theodore Roosevelt.
6. Operation Anthropoid
Reinhard Heydrich was a high-ranking official in the Nazi regime, and one of the main architects of the Holocaust. Working as the head of the Gestapo and other military police organizations in Germany, he created the dreaded Einsatzgruppen; death squads specializing in counter insurgency and large-scale ethnic-cleansing campaigns that followed the German advance east. He’d never stand formal trial for his crimes, as Reinhard Heydrich was one of the few SS officials assassinated by resistance forces much before the end of the war.
Operation Anthropoid was carried out by two Czech operatives, Jozef Gab?ík and Jan Kubiš, on May 27, 1942. At the time, Hydrich was stationed in Prague as the governor of one of Czekhoslavakia’s occupied provinces, which he ruled with an iron fist. While the initial attempt wasn’t outright successful, as the gun used by one of the agents jammed, a grenade thrown under his car left Hydrich with serious injuries. He succumbed on June 4, making it one of the most high profile assassinations of the entire war.
5. The War Against Trains
Throughout the war in Europe, there was a concentrated effort by partisan forces in many occupied countries to sabotage the railway network. The Soviet high command even had a formal word for it, Operation Rail War, which directed partisan units in Belarus to attack the railway network in order to support the upcoming Soviet offensives in Ukraine and Belarus.
In fact, the operation is now a formative part of Belarussian history of the war, and is still taught in schools as a major achievement by Belarussian partisans. Hundreds of thousands of miles of railway lines were destroyed during the operation, which severely hampered the German ability to reinforce its positions in the east. In the west, too, partisans in occupied countries like Norway, Italy, and Greece specifically targeted railway lines and carriages to thwart the Axis war effort, to varying degrees of success.
4. Operation Fortitude South
Operation Fortitude South was the main deception operation in the larger Operation Bodyguard – a continent-wide espionage effort to hide the Normandy landings. While the Germans knew that the main Western Allied Force was about to attack somewhere, they had no idea where, thanks in large part to multiple intelligence and counterintelligence operations by British and American operatives.
Fortitude South was primarily aimed at forcing the Germans to concentrate their firepower in the Calais region near the Dover Strait – the most likely site for a potential amphibious invasion from Britain – instead of Normandy. One of the mission’s many phases was a sub-operation called Quicksilver I, when a whole fake army group called the First United States Army Group was created, complete with dummy aircraft, tanks, and other fake military equipment that looked like a real military force from the air. The operation was so successful that even after the D-Day landings had started, Hitler refused to move reinforcements there for about seven weeks, as he waited for an invasion that would never come.
3. Operation Gunnerside
Operation Gunnerside was one of the most audacious covert operations of the war, as it involved a small group of agents attempting to infiltrate a highly-protected and fortified German-run power plant in Norway. The target was a hydroelectric plant in Vemork just outside the town of Rjukan, which produced most of the world’s heavy water. For the uninitiated, heavy water is a form of water with special properties that could be used in the production of nuclear weapons, making it one of the most highly-prized compounds in the world at the time.
Beginning on February 16, 1943, nine Norwegian commandos made their way through minefields, frozen cliffs, and heavy snowfall to reach the plant. The actual operation was carried out on February 27, resulting in the complete destruction of the heavy water production cells at the facility. According to estimates, Germany lost more than 500 kilograms – or about 1,100 pounds – of heavy water due to the sabotage, setting its nuclear program back by months – if not years – and allowing the allies to gain a crucial advantage in the nuclear arms race.
2. Richard Sorge
Richard Sorge was a German journalist and member of the Nazi party since 1933. In 1938, he was stationed in Tokyo as the main adviser and press attaché to the German ambassador, Eugen Ott. In German and Japanese circles, Sorge was seen as a devoted member of the Nazi party, even if in reality, nothing could be further from the truth. Sorge was in fact a staunch communist since the First World War, and had even participated in the Spartacus League uprising during the short-lived German revolution of 1919.
From his recruitment in 1925 to his arrest by Japanese authorities in late 1941, Richard Sorge would prove to be perhaps the most valuable asset in the global Soviet intelligence network. In May, 1941, he correctly reported that the Germans were about to launch a full-scale invasion of the USSR on June 20, which was only off by two days or so. In August of the same year, his report on Japanese plans to attack targets in the Pacific – specifically Pearl Harbor – and not the USSR allowed Stalin to move a large part of his force out of Manchuria and into the Russian heartland. Thanks to those reinforcements, Russia was able to overturn its precarious position in the Battle of Moscow and drive the German force into retreat, which would prove to be a major turning point of the war.
1. Red Orchestra
The Red Orchestra was only one of the many resistance groups active against the Nazis in Germany and nearby countries, though it was by far the most successful. From 1933 to 1942, when it was finally busted, spies, informants, and other covert operatives from the group were involved in various operations against the Nazi regime, including providing shelter to local Jews and documenting Nazi atrocities to send them to media houses abroad.
Due to their name, the group has often been associated with the USSR and its sprawling intelligence network across Western Europe at the time, though in reality its members came from many sides of the political spectrum. After it was busted by German authorities in 1942, most Red Orchestra members were either executed or sent to various concentration camps across Germany, bringing a tragic end to one of the most daring espionage efforts of the war.