If popular media has taught us anything it’s that the glamorous life of a secret agent seems to be filled with sexy women, tuxedos, martinis, expensive gadgets and heart-pumping excitement. Somehow we doubt that most secret agents get to live this type of life. Still, amidst the everyday wire-tapping, boring surveillance, and analytical analysis that most agents likely do, there are tales of truly heroic, crazy and out-of-this-world espionage that have surfaced over the years. Lives have been saved. Political systems have been altered. Wars have been (or could have been) averted. Here are ten real-life tales of espionage that are stranger than fiction.
10) The Great Locomotive Chase
During the Civil War a Union soldier (and former smuggler) named James J. Andrews came up with a rather crazy idea. He was going to steal a train from the Confederacy and drive it north in a rather early form of technological espionage. He pitched this idea to his superior officer Major General Ormsby Mitchell who must have thought it was a good plan because he approved the action. So Andrews traveled to Georgia and made off with a train called the General. He fled north, destroying the tracks behind him. He pulled it off, but unfortunately he was captured and incarcerated for his crimes. Still, it was one impressive feat.
9) The Cambridge Five
During the 1950s, at the height of the Cold War era, a rather interesting group of individuals turned up in the British government. They were highly educated and many were highly-placed. All of them were Soviet spies. The group of five included notable dignitaries like Kim Philby, who was actually the head of British intelligence operations in Washington and was knighted. Philby managed to escape to the Soviet Union with two of his counterparts, Donald Maclean and Guy Burgess. A fourth member of the Cambridge Five, Anthony Blunt, was discovered and captured and the government used him for information. There was an alleged fifth member of this group who presumably attended the university in the 1930s with the other four men, but he was never discovered.
8) Chi Mak Steals Secrets
Some of us have a lot of patience, but compared to Chi Mak we’re just a bunch of amateurs. Mak immigrated to the United States in the 1970s. He patiently went through the process of legalization and eventually became a naturalized citizen in 1985. He became employed by a defense contractor called Power Paragon while working as an engineer. It was a life many would have loved to have. There was just one little problem; Mak was a Chinese spy. He used his position to steal military and industrial secrets and send them home to China. The FBI finally caught up with Mak and despite claims that he’d done nothing wrong Mak was eventually convicted and sentenced to 24-1/2 years in prison. His family was also incarcerated when they were caught fleeing the country with encrypted CDs containing sensitive information.
7) Nathan Hale Gives His Life
During the revolutionary war, at one of the most critical junctures, General George Washington was in need of a volunteer to travel into dangerous territory and learn where the British were to attack. That volunteer was Nathan Hale. He ventured behind enemy lines during the Battle of Long Island in order to report enemy troop movements. On September 12, 1776 Hale was ferried across the island knowing he was committing treason. He was captured and hanged by the British for his crimes, but during his trail he uttered one of the most famous quotes ever given when he said, “I only regret that I have but one life to give for my country.” He died a hero.
6) Fritz Joubert Duquesne – Super Spy
Duquense’s life reads like a kick-ass James Bond novel. He was born in South Africa and fought against the British occupation, but was eventually captured and imprisoned. He seduced the daughter of a prison guard in order to escape, then fled to England to enlist in the British army so he could presumably cause havoc from the inside. On his return to South Africa he learned the British had committed some horrible sins on his family. In response, he recruited some men and attempted to blow up the whole of Cape Town to get his revenge against his British oppressors. He was captured before he could pull off his plan but somehow escaped again. Then things got really crazy. Duquense exacted his revenge on the guy who killed his sister, faked his own death, was captured a third time and escaped yet again. He worked as a freelance spy for the Nazis (he really didn’t like the British) and formed the Duquesne spy ring. He was eventually tried in the largest espionage conviction in US history.
5) Belle Boyd Steals Union Secrets
Belle Boyd was thrown in prison after shooting a Union soldier who broke into her house and tried to raise the Stars and Stripes – so how’d she become a spy? Well, Belle was a rather comely young girl of seventeen. She flirted and charmed the guards who were keeping her locked up in her house and used her skills to extract secrets from them. She then passed these secrets along to Confederate officers through her slave girl. She also spied on Union meetings taking place in her father’s hotel in Fort Royal and then passed through enemy lines with false papers to report what she’d heard. Boyd played a pivotal role in Confederate reclamation of Fort Royal. She was eventually captured after being turned in by her lover, but actually survived the Civil War and lived on to the age of 56.
4) Operation Argo
Since being turned into a movie this tale is now rather famous, but at the time the extradition of six Americans from an embassy in Iran was a highly dangerous affair. After the American embassy was overrun six Americans sought shelter with Canadian representatives. There was no way to get them out of the hostile country. American CIA agent Tony Mendez conceived a plan to put on a fake science fiction film and travel to Iran on a movie scouting mission. With fake passports the six Americans would pose as a Canadian film crew and with any luck fly safely home. Despite several close calls the plan worked seamlessly and the American’s were returned home safe and sound.
3) Eddie Chapman Almost Kills Hitler
Eddie Chapman was a criminal and in prison when the Nazis liberated his prison island and recruited him. He worked as double agent for both Germany and then England once his German superiors believed him to be genuine. German handlers gave Chapman missions and he reported them to his English authorities. All was well with the world – but then something big came up. He was given a mission to blow up a British factory. Working with British Intelligence they faked the sabotage of the factory and Chapman was rewarded with a front row seat at a Nazi function. He would be feet from Hitler, so naturally he devised a plan to kill him, knowing it would cost him his life. Unfortunately, Winston Churchill denied Chapman the opportunity and didn’t approve the plan. But don’t cry for Chapman, he may not have been a hero but the Nazis loved him so much (even if they didn’t know he was betraying them) that they gave him tons of money and even a yacht.
2) Mata Hari Kills 50,000 Men
Mata Hari was a performer and born with the name Margaretha Zelle. She had the luxury of having dual citizenship so she could traverse borders without complications during World War I. Hari made herself famous by performing as an exotic dancer and courtesan. She eventually began working for French intelligence and then the Germans – but the Germans fed Hari false information on purpose, knowing it would get back to the French. Then the French found out she was working for the Germans and all hell broke loose. Eventually her cover was blown (most believe by the Germans) and she was arrested for espionage. The French claimed she was responsible for the deaths of 50,000 soldiers and promptly shot her.
1) Richard Sorge – The Spy Who Knew it All
Sorge was a Russian spy who worked under the guise of a journalist in Germany in the 1920s. He then bounced around as an intelligence officer for Russia working in China, Britain, and Japan. Sorge correctly predicted the Nazi invasion of Russia and knew of the Pearl Harbor attack months ahead of time. Unfortunately, Stalin ridiculed his intelligence officer and mocked his reports on when Operation Barbarossa would take place. Sorge had the last laugh. He managed to gain critical information that Japan was not going to attack Russia – allowing Russian troops to redeploy to the west where they were needed during the Nazi invasion. This little tidbit basically allowed Russia to turn the tide in their war against Germany and may have single-handedly prevented Germany from beating Russia. Sorge was captured and tortured, but never broke or even admitted to working for any particular country. It only took until 1964 for the Soviets to fully honor Sorge.