Some people choose to become spies out of patriotism; others do so in pursuit of financial reward. Whatever their individual motivations might be, the risks can be considerable. Governments tend to react badly to having their secrets stolen. Anyone accused of being a spy faces the possibility of a lengthy prison sentence or even execution.
This list delves into the murky world of international espionage, taking a closer look at some of history’s most influential spies, and others who were rather less successful.
10. Carl Hans Lody
As a German naval reservist who spoke fluent English, Carl Hans Lody seemed like the ideal recruit to send to Britain to report back on Allied shipping movements. In August 1914, just days after the outbreak of World War One, he left for the Firth of Forth in Scotland. Unfortunately for him he’d received almost no training and was not naturally gifted in the art of espionage.
The British became aware of Logan’s activities almost immediately after his arrival, when he mailed an un-coded message to a mailbox the British were monitoring. Rather than arrest him the British chose to let him go about his work, largely because most of the information he was sending back to Germany was just plain wrong.
Fearing that the British were onto him, and with his landlady increasingly suspicious of her guest, Lody fled to Ireland on September 27, 1914. He was rounded up by police just days later. Lody had been travelling under the alias of Charles Inglais, but this didn’t survive first contact with the authorities. On being searched Lody was found to be carrying copies of the letters he’d posted to his handlers in Germany, and one of his jackets was even tagged with a Berlin tailor’s ticket bearing his real name.
There was no doubt that Lody was a spy, but the British faced a curious legal conundrum. They had signed up to the Hague Convention of 1907, which suggested that Lody could not be charged since he had been apprehended gathering information outside the “zone of operations.” The British sidestepped this hurdle by instead charging Lody with treason, which itself was legally dubious since Lody was not a British citizen.
Lody’s bravery and charm endeared him to his captors, but he was none the less sentenced to death by firing squad.
9. Lewis Costigan
It’s more-or-less part of a spy’s job description that they should avoid doing anything to reveal their true allegiances, even if, like Carl Hans Lody, they aren’t always entirely successful. One American soldier of the Revolutionary War, Lewis Costigan, took an entirely different approach, somehow succeeding in hiding in plain sight for years.
Costigan’s orders were to spy on the British and report back on their strength in New Brunswick, New Jersey. He was soon apprehended, not least because he was still wearing his uniform. This did at least have the benefit of persuading the British to try him as a soldier, rather than execute him as a spy.
Having served two years detention in New York City, Costigan was released on parole on the condition that he promised not to escape and re-join the Continental Army. Still wearing his army uniform, Costigan found himself free to wander at will around the city gathering information from British soldiers.
Despite the valuable information he was providing, in September 1778 a deal was made that should have seen Costigan exchanged with British prisoners held by the Americans. However, Costigan chose not to leave. The authorities overlooked him, and the inhabitants of the city were apparently so accustomed to the enemy soldier strolling around the city that nobody though anything much of it.
Having made fools of the British, who had been spectacularly lackadaisical about security, Costigan eventually decided he had pushed his luck far enough, and in January 1779 he made a successful break for American lines.
8. Major John Andre
Shortly after the Lewis Costigan debacle, the British appointed Major John Andre as head of their espionage network in New York.
Andre proved to be charismatic, cultured, intelligent, and it seemed extraordinarily lucky. In 1780, just a few months into his new job, he was approached by an acquaintance with reports that a senior American general by the name of Benedict Arnold was prepared to defect. Not only that, for the sum of £20,000, worth around $5 million in today’s money, he would aid the British in capturing the strategically vital fort at West Point. This would cut off the American forces in New England and had the potential to change the course of the entire war.
The offer was genuine, but the details needed to be discussed in person. In September 1780 Andre set off for a clandestine meeting with the American commander. Things quickly went wrong. The ship in which Andre had travelled up the Hudson River came under fire from American troops, forcing the crew to retreat and leaving Andre stranded ashore deep in enemy territory.
Benedict Arnold provided Andre with a horse, civilian clothes, a fake passport, and written instructions on how to capture the fort at West Point. Unfortunately for Andre this proved to be somewhat incriminating when he was picked up by American soldiers a few days later.
For a time it seemed Andre might get lucky, as the initial plan was to send him to Benedict Arnold. This changed when Arnold’s treachery became suspected and he fled to join the British. Andre argued that he had acted as a soldier, but the Americans tried and hanged him as a spy.
Benedict Arnold himself went on to lead British troops against his countrymen and is remembered as perhaps America’s most notorious traitor.
7. Edith Cavell
Edith Cavell could easily have avoided World War One. When hostilities began in 1914 she was already 49-years-old and safe from harm in England, where she was visiting her mother.
Nonetheless, she was the most senior nurse in Belgium, and she never hesitated in rushing into danger to offer what help she could.
Belgium was soon overrun by the advancing German Army, and Cavell’s hospital was placed under the jurisdiction of the Red Cross. When it came to treating the wounded she made no distinction between German and Allied soldiers. Cavell believed everyone to be equally deserving of care, but she didn’t consider herself to be a neutral in the most terrible war the world had yet seen.
The courageous nurse began helping injured British, French, and Belgian soldiers to escape to safety through Holland just as soon as they were well enough to travel. The police soon became suspicious, but Cavell refused to flee, leading to her arrest in August 1915.
In addition to aiding Allied soldiers, Cavell was accused of being a spy who had smuggled intelligence back to Great Britain. The British authorities vehemently denied this charge, but history suggests the German’s were justified in their assessment.
Cavell was found guilty of treason and sentenced to death. She met her fate with unflinching bravery: “I have seen death so often it is not strange or fearful to me. I must have no hatred or bitterness for anyone.”
6. Stephanie Rader
Born in 1915 Ohio into an impoverished family of Polish immigrants, Stephanie Rader couldn’t even speak English when she first attended school. Despite this handicap she learned quickly and not only graduated but received a scholarship to study chemistry at Cornell, one of the most prestigious universities in the world.
Eager to serve her country she was amongst the first few recruits accepted into the Women’s Army Corps in 1942, quickly rising to the rank of captain. However, it was with the fall of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union’s occupation of much of Eastern Europe that Rader’s particular skillset came into demand.
In addition to her courage and intelligence Rader spoke fluent Polish, and in late 1945 she became one of only two American spies operating in Soviet-occupied Poland. Her task was to report on Soviet troop movements and smuggle documents between Warsaw and Berlin.
It was on one such journey that she was intercepted by border guards, who accused her of being a spy. Fortunately, Rader had sensed danger and disposed of incriminating documents just moments earlier. The suspicious authorities placed her under surveillance, but she escaped with her freedom and earned a reputation as one of America’s most successful Cold War spies.
5. Francis Walsingham
In January of 1559 Elizabeth I was crowned Queen of England. She would rule over a land deeply divided along religious lines. Elizabeth was a Protestant, and many of her Catholic subjects wished her dead. All of them would have preferred to see Elizabeth’s cousin, Mary Queen of Scots, claim the throne.
Elizabeth appointed Francis Walsingham with the task of unearthing plots and protecting her from assassination. She had chosen well. Walsingham was intelligent, ruthless, and utterly devoted to his cause.
Walsingham set about creating the most sophisticated spy network the world had ever seen, even creating a specialist codebreaking team. Very little of note happened in England without Walsingham hearing of it, and his network of spies stretched into every royal court in Europe.
Armed with this knowledge Walsingham successfully thwarted several plots against his queen. None the less, he recognized that while Mary Queen of Scots still lived she presented the greatest threat to Elizabeth’s rule, even though she had been imprisoned since 1567.
Walsingham’s spies kept a close watch on Mary, who had no idea that her coded messages smuggled to the outside world were being intercepted and deciphered. In 1571 Walsingham got the break he had been waiting for. A message was sent to Mary, possibly by Walsingham himself, suggesting that Elizabeth be assassinated. When Mary went along with the plot, the trap was sprung.
Mary was accused of treason. Her defense was that Walsingham was a spy and therefore not to be trusted. She even claimed he had manufactured evidence against her, which may or may not be true. Walsingham replied that he was an honest man who had only ever done his duty. Despite her protestations of innocence Mary was executed, and Walsingham is remembered as the greatest spymaster of his age.
4. Virginia Hall
In 1932 Virginia Hall was forced to have her leg amputated after being shot in a hunting accident. She learned to walk again with the aid of a wooden prosthetic she affectionately named “Cuthbert”, but when she applied to become a diplomat, she was told that only the “able bodied” would be considered. However, her handicap didn’t prevent her becoming one of the most successful and daring spies of World War Two.
When war broke out in 1939 Hall was in Paris, and she volunteered to serve as an ambulance driver before making her way to Great Britain following France’s defeat in 1940. Fluent in French, German, and Italian, Hall’s talents led to her being recruited by Britain’s Special Operations Executive. Having taken a crash course in explosives, sabotage, and hand-to-hand combat, she crossed the English Channel to train and coordinate the French Resistance.
Hall wreaked so much havoc that the Gestapo named her the most dangerous woman in France. Klaus Barbie, the Nazi officer tasked with hunting her down, reportedly complained: “I’d do anything to get my hands on that limping Canadian bitch.” Hall was actually American, but Klaus’s sentiment was no doubt an accurate, even if his information wasn’t.
Whatever torture Barbie may have had planned for Hall, he never got to put it into practice. In the winter of 1942, with the Nazis closing in, she fled on foot across the snowy Pyrenees Mountains into Spain. This would be a grueling journey for anybody, but to accomplish the feat on a wooden leg was nothing short of extraordinary.
In 1944 Hall returned to France once again to help prepare the way for the Allied invasion of Western Europe. Her primary role was to report back on German positions and troop movements, but her team is also credited with destroying several bridges, downing telephone lines, and killing more than a hundred German soldiers.
3. Alfred Redl
In 1914 the Austro-Hungarian Empire covered more than 400,000 square miles and numbered amongst the great powers of Europe. By the end of 1918 the empire had been destroyed forever, ripped apart in the cataclysm of the First World War. One man played a major part in bringing down this empire of 52 million people.
Alfred Redl was a senior member of the Austro-Hungarian military. He specialized in tracking down enemy spies, and he seemed to be very good at it. He made use of new technologies, such as establishing a fingerprint database, and personally uncovered several enemy agents.
These successes and innovations bought Redl a reputation as a brilliant counterintelligence officer, but he was hiding a dark secret: Redl was a double agent who’d been passing information to the Russians for more than a decade.
Redl had been handsomely rewarded, but his luck eventually ran out. In 1913 the authorities intercepted a large sum of money, which had been posted from an address known to be used by Russian intelligence agencies. Understandably keen to find out who the intended recipient might be, the Austro-Hungarians returned the package and waited for it to be collected.
When Redl was caught red-handed he needed to conjure up with a brilliant cover story to explain away his predicament. Unable to do so, he was instead handed a revolver and invited to commit suicide.
Much of the damage had already been done. When the European powers went to war, Redl’s treachery ensured that Russia entered the conflict armed with detailed knowledge of Austro-Hungary’s roads, railways, military strength, deployment timetables, and war plans. The Austro-Hungarian forces, who were badly equipped, badly led, and badly trained to begin with, could hardly afford to give away such an overwhelming advantage.
2. Anatoliy Chepiga and Alexander Mishkin
On March 4, 2018 the quiet English city of Salisbury found itself at the heart of a chemical weapon attack. Sergei Skirpal, a Russian spy who had defected to Britain, and his daughter were found slumped unconscious on a bench.
The pair received rapid medical treatment and were lucky to survive, particularly when it was revealed they had been poisoned by a nerve agent called Novichok. This is believed to be one of the deadliest nerve agents ever developed, and so far as is known it has only ever been produced in Russia.
Within a matter of days, the British Government named their suspects as two Russian spies, Anatoliy Chepiga and Alexander Mishkin. Unfortunately, by then the pair were already safely back in Russia, where they appeared on state-run television insisting they were merely tourists who had travelled to the UK to visit Salisbury Cathedral. They were, they claimed, particularly attracted by the cathedral’s clock, which is one of the oldest of its type in the world. That they had been captured on CCTV in the vicinity of Skripal’s house was purely coincidental.
This unconvincing defense became even more untenable when Alexander Mishkin was revealed to be a doctor working for the Russian military intelligence service. His accomplice, Anatoliy Chepiga, has been identified as a highly decorated colonel working for the same organization.
1. Lee Soo-Keun
Born from the chaos of the end of World War Two, North Korea still numbers amongst the world’s youngest nations. However, enough time has passed for millions of North Koreans to lose their lives to war, famine, and the brutal cruelty of their own government.
Thousands of North Koreans have attempted to flee the country. The most common route is to slip quietly across the border to neighboring China, but a handful of escape attempts have been far more dramatic.
In 1967 Lee Soo-Keun was Vice President of North Korea’s Central News Agency. Soo-Keun used the privilege of this position to secretly contact the Americans and enlist their help in breaking him out of the country. The plan was not a subtle one. Soo-Keun dived into a United Nations car at the Joint Security Area in the demilitarized zone. As North Korean soldiers opened fire, the driver accelerated and crashed through a wooden security barrier in a hail of bullets.
Lee Soo-Keun was one of the highest profile defectors ever to reach South Korea, and the South Koreans welcomed him as a hero with more than 50,000 people flocking to a rally held in his honor. Unfortunately, this happy state of affairs did not last long. In 1969 the South Korean Government arrested him, accused him of being a spy, and had him hanged.
It seems this judgment may have been far too hasty. In October 2018 a South Korean court ruled that Soo-Keun’s confession had been obtained under torture and there was no evidence to support the claim that he had been a spy after all.