The illicit notion of ‘espionage’ may be something associated with Cold War antics and twentieth century conflict, but professional eavesdropping has likely been taking place for as long as humans learned the invaluable art of deception. As long as there has been politics and a struggle for power, there have been those employed to know what’s happening behind the scenes at every event. While we may see the life of a spy as a gun-carrying, jet-setting one, the reality for most – it seems – is somewhat more mundane: reading what you’re not supposed to, passing confidential information to people outside the loop, and generally remaining as unremarkable as possible in order to get away seamlessly with subterfuge.
Our top ten list is a look through history at some of the world’s best spies and the impact they had on the world around them. The years cited in our rankings indicate the length of time these spies were active in the field, varying from a couple of years to almost a lifetime. Some tragically lost their lives in the line of duty, yet many went undetected or managed to escape to greener pastures, away from the long arm of the law. With the list running from Tudor England to the present day, we’ve narrowed our story of spies to just 10 of the most prominent, well-recorded spies. But of course, perhaps best spies altogether are the ones we’ve never heard of, and who may in fact be right under our noses as we speak. If a career full of acknowledgements and praise is what you are after, then the life of a secret agent is most definitely not for you. If, however, you’re something of a code-breaker, then perhaps this list may serve as guidance for future operations…
10. Sir Francis Walsingham: 1567-90
The first contender on our list demonstrates that while we may see spying as a firmly twentieth century occupation, espionage has in fact been in the arsenal of almost every government in some form or another throughout history. Case in point, here, is Sir Francis Walsingham – a graduate of law whose studies and travels abroad ended up placing him as Queen Elizabeth I’s right hand man for information.
Walsingham began his operations by keeping tabs on the foreign spies in London: Elizabeth and her Catholic rival Mary Stewart, Queen of Scotland both saw themselves as Queen of England, and Walsingham, as a Protestant sided, with Elizabeth, daughter of Anne Boleyn and Henry VIII. Although he was a diplomat for most of his professional life, Walsingham is credited with thwarting any attempts on the Queen’s life and is credited with pushing the Queen towards the execution of Mary Stewart. As he was on the winning side, Walsingham remained a life-long servant of the Queen, dying in 1590. Despite his service and his title, records suggest Walsingham did not have great wealth (he wrote that he’d be leaving great debt behind upon his death) suggesting that his loyalty was not mercenary.
9. Belle Boyd: 1861-64
Belle Boyd lived a surprising and eventful life in every sense of the word. As part of a long line of powerful Southern families, Boyd’s father was a Confederate soldier and when the battle came to Boyd’s doorstep at the age of 17, she began her career as a Confederate spy. The well-dressed Boyd was known as “La Belle Rebelle” to Union soldiers, and she frequented their camps to gain information as well as acting as a courier between divisions. She was arrested several times and finally imprisoned in Washington D.C. where information continued to be smuggled to her. She eventually fled the US with the help of a particularly smitten Union Naval officer, to whom she was later married in England where she wrote her memoirs. After her husband’s death she returned to the United States, marrying another Union man, only to divorce him sixteen years later for a much younger man. She died in poverty at the age of 56 in Wisconsin.
8. Sidney Reilly: 1900-1918
The image of the modern spy is built around that of Sidney Reilly and many have suggested that he even inspired writer Ian Fleming in creating James Bond. Reilly was born Sigmund Georgievich Rosenblum to a Jewish family in Odessa, Russia in 1874. He attended school, but was largely self-taught and fluent in numerous languages. After emigrating to Brazil, Georgievich came in contact with British explorers with whom he returned to England. The soldiers suggested he join the intelligence services.
Reilly, as he then became known, gained a permanent position in the naval intelligence unit and was dispatched to Russia, amongst other places. A notorious womaniser, his future wife’s husband was found dead in suspicious circumstances – and it has been theorized that Reilly posed as the doctor who signed the death warrant. Reilly was then free to marry his lover, who coincidentally also inherited her deceased husband’s £800,000 fortune. Despite being an accomplished spy, all did not end well for Reilly: After plotting in 1918 to overthrow Lenin’s Bolshevik government with the help of the Latvian army, Reilly received a death sentence from his native Russia. When Reilly returned to the Soviet Union in 1925, he was arrested and executed.
7. Fritz Joubert Duquesne: 1914-1943
If you ever wondered what exactly it entails when a spy “goes rogue,” then Fritz Joubert Duquesne’s life pretty much explains it. As a South African, Duquesne developed a fierce hatred of the British after the atrocities of the Boer War – in which his family were imprisoned in a concentration camp and his sister was murdered. On a one-man operation, Duquesne initially got himself into the British army stationed in South Africa, and set about destroying their operation from the inside.
When he found his family land decimated and his sister dead, however, he set his sights on Lord Kitchener – the head of British operations during the war. Although this failed, he did not give up, even faking his own death and feigning paralysis (under a different name) while biding his time.
When the Second World War broke out, Duquesne sided with the Nazis, purely – it seems -to get back at the British. He masterminded the infamous “Duquesne Spy Ring,” which was finally destroyed by US intelligence after the bombing of Pearl Harbour. Duquesne had thirty-three spies on US soil, the largest roundup of foreign spies in United States history. He was sentenced to eighteen years in prison, and died in 1956.
6. Ruth Kuczynski: 1930-1950
While Duquesne was a one-man operation gone wild, Ruth Kuczynski was part of a long lineage of Soviet espionage. Both her siblings – and her mother – were Soviet spies, but Kuczynski surpasses all of them, considered by many to be the greatest female spy ever.
Born in Germany in 1907, her first mission was to Shanghai in 1930, gathering intelligence for the Soviets. Her guises included posing as a journalist and later a bookseller; she’s even rumoured to have had affairs with several spies. After receiving further training in Moscow, Kuczynski was dispatched to Switzerland in 1938 under the code name “Sonia.” There she began to ‘denounce’ the Soviet Union and her Communist beliefs, but this was in fact part of her detailed cover operation. She married one of her lovers, the British man Leon Beurton, under Soviet orders: Obtaining UK citizenship by marriage allowed Kuczynski to relocate to the United Kingdom.
Interestingly, Kuczynski’s nanny revealed her employer’s espionage activities to authorities, but the allegations weren’t taken seriously. With Kuczynski’s father positioned in the America, information was passed between the two regarding Klaus Fuchs, who helped develop the atomic bomb. Suspicion eventually did fall on Kuczynski but although questioned, no charges were ever brought against her. She fled in 1950 to East Germany where she became a writer, publishing children’s stories and her autobiography. She was decorated by the Soviets for her services to the nation.
5. Melita Norwood: 1934 – 1970s
Continuing with the trend of successful Soviet women, Melita Norwood was one of the longest serving Russian spies to go undetected in the United Kingdom. The daughter of a Latvian father and a Communist mother, it might be surprising that Norwood went undetected to the British. Norwood became secretary to the director of an atomic research centre in the UK, and she passed information on the research to the Soviets right up until the 1970s.
She’s also rumoured to have recruited several other spies based in the United Kingdom, one of whom it’s alleged continued to work until 1981. Although she retired from service in the 1970s, Norwood had to maintain her cover in rural England for the rest of her life. That was blown in 1999, when newspapers traced her whereabouts, photographing her leaving her local Co-Operative supermarket. The scandal that resulted led to the nickname “The Spy who came in from the Co-Op”. Initially the British government tried to play down Norwood’s role as an informer, and no charges were ever brought. Subsequent investigations by historians revealed the extent of her activities, naming her as one of the most significant operators in the Soviet’s network. She died in 2005 at the age of ninety-three.
4. Harold “Kim” Philby: 1929-1963
With the nickname “Kim” – after writer Rudyard Kipling’s spy hero – Harold Philby was in many ways the quintessential Englishman of his time. Born in India during the days of the British Empire, Philby was educated in Westminster and later Cambridge, where he studied history.
It was at university that Philby was first approached by Soviet intelligence officials – and so began his fateful career betraying his native land. Working by day as a journalist covering foreign affairs, Philby travelled extensively in Europe. Serving as the German correspondent for the British Press during the Second World War, Philby was able to pass information to the Soviets, who at that time were allied with Britain. As the war progressed, Philby gained the trust of British intelligence officials and dutifully passed his secret findings to the Soviet Union – information the British had of course been keeping from Russia.
After the war Philby was miraculously put in charge of monitoring Soviet espionage efforts by the British government, and this is when things really began to kick off. He was moved to Washington by MI6 and even tipped to lead the Foreign Service, but during background checks on Philby suspicions began to grow. He was recalled to London but continued working for the service. In 1955 the New York Sunday Times published allegations that Philby was indeed a Soviet spy, something both he and the British government strongly denied. Relocating to the Middle East, Philby worked part-time for MI6 while continuing his now well-respected career as a journalist. It was only when a Soviet spy defected to the C.I.A. in 1961 that the circle began to close in. This spy cited that Philby was one of five senior spies recruited at Cambridge, known now as the “Cambridge Five.” Realising the danger, Philby defected to the Soviet Union, where he lived until his death in 1988.
3. Virginia Hall: 1941-45
Virginia Hall was one of a group of often overlooked spies during World War II that contributed significantly to the war effort. Virginia was born in America, but educated in Europe, and she lost part of her leg during a hunting incident. Hall was living in France when it was invaded by the Germans and she fled to London, where she volunteered with the war effort.
She joined the Special Operations Executive (SOE) where her multi-lingual skills meant she could be planted behind enemy lines as a spy. Hall was parachuted to Occupied France, where she gathered information which she transmitted back to London. Hall became so infamous that she appeared on the Gestapo’s most wanted list as “the limping lady” because of her missing leg. She fled to Spain where she continued her work for the SOE and was decorated as a Member of the Order of the British Empire in 1943 as well as receiving a Distinguished Service Cross in 1945 – the only one awarded to a civilian woman. After the war she returned to her native America, working for the C.I.A and specialising in French parliamentary affairs. Hall died on Bastille Day, 1982.
2. Oleg Gordievsky: Soviet Spy / Double Agent, 1974-1985
The most recent of our spy stories, Oleg Gordievsky’s story continues right up to the present day. As a Soviet agent, Gordievsky had worked in Denmark in the 1970s before being transferred to the London bureau. As he grew weary of the Soviet regime, he made contact with British intelligence back in Denmark and with that, Gordievsky became a double agent.
Protecting his new-found British ties, he continued to work for the KGB until in 1985, when they grew suspicious. He was recalled to Moscow where he was interrogated at length. He denied all charges, but suspicion around him grew. The British smuggled Gordievsky back over the Finnish border in the boot of a car but he was sentenced to death in Russia for being a double-agent: He has remained in the UK since his escape.
The tale doesn’t end there though: In 2006 another Russian double agent, Alexander Litvinenko, who had been working for the British and Spanish secret services, died in London from radiation poisoning. Litvinenko and Gordievsky had been friends. Then in 2008, Gordievsky himself was the victim of what he sees as a Russian hit on his life which left him seriously injured. Unperturbed however, Gordievsky continues to speak out against his homeland, frequently making appearances in the British press.
1. Anna Chapman: 2009 – 2010
The most recent entry on our list and, while certainly not the most effective or enduring spy, one who caused one of the hugest media frenzies of any other. Dubbed a ‘real-life Bond girl’, this stunning spy became a celebrity after her secret agent activity came to light.
Russian-born Anna Chapman was part of a Soviet family – her father worked in Kenya as part of the Soviet embassy. A student of economics, Chapman moved to England in her early 20s, where she worked in banking and married a British citizen. She later moved to New York, where she worked in real estate, but in 2010 the attractive, professional Russian was arrested by the FBI. It emerged she had been a member of the ‘Illegals Progam’, a group of Russians who were reportedly carrying out ‘deep cover’ operations in the U.S. It has been reported that the arrest was triggered when it emerged Chapman had been getting too close to a senior member of Obama’s cabinet through a ‘honey trap’ operation. Chapman was sent back to Russia as part of a ‘spy exchange’ operation in 2010.
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