Real life spies aren’t going to be popping up on our big screens anytime soon, and let’s be honest, we’ll never know the names of the best ones. But there are a few real life spies who have made it into popular culture. Let’s take a look at our top five.
The cloak and dagger world of espionage has been immortalized on the silver screen, but in many ways the real thing can be far more interesting. Sidney Reilly
Sidney Reilly is one of our favorite real life spies because he most embodies the film spies we know and love. In fact, author Ian Flemming lists him as the inspiration for James Bond.
His career as a spy began for Scotland Yard’s Special Branch working against Russian interests, but he’s said to have worked for Germany, Russia, Japan, and the UK.
He was active at the turn of the 20th century and seemed to have his finger in nearly every significant European event around that time. The Russo-Japanese War, The Red Terror, The Great Game all had Sidney Reilly’s fingerprints all over them.
Reilly was in Manchuria working as a double agent for both British and Japanese intelligence during the Russo-Japanese War. He provided details of Russian troupe movements and stole defense plans for the Japanese. All while surveying the Caucasus’ oil deposits for the UK as part of The Great Game, a sort of colonialist economic battle between the British Empire and the Russian Empire.
Working for the UK during the Kaiser’s military expansion prior to WW1, Reilly stole various weapons plans and spent months behind the lines plotting troop movements during the war. He is even said to have stolen an advanced magneto - a device that provides electrical power in a plane to ignite the air and fuel mixture. The magneto came from a downed German airplane during an air show in Frankfurt, swapped it for an alternative, took detailed drawings and then swapped back the original without being noticed.
He was later involved in espionage during the Russian Bolshevik revolution, and was even involved in an assassination attempt against Lenin himself. After this, he was forced to go on the run and escape Russia.
After barely escaping Bolshevik Russia with his life in 1918, he was enticed back for a final mission in 1925 from which her never returned. He was executed in a Moscow prison that same year.
Alrich Ames was one of the real life spies we wish he had never gotten the job. He started his spy career at the CIA. But his work as a double agent for the KGB led to him being regarded as the spy who has done the most damage to US interests. Aldrich gave up information that led to the deaths of at least ten double agents, and directly compromised over a hundred CIA operations in the Soviet Union.
He was paid a reported total of $4.6million for the secrets he sold to the KGB, charging between $20,000 - $50,000 per meeting where he gave up “virtually all Soviet agents of the CIA and other American and foreign services known to me"
A mole inside the CIA was suspected when agents began getting captured and executed at an alarming rate. The CIA initially suspected another former agent, but when operatives began disappearing that this agent would have known nothing about, the focus swung to Ames.
Ames lived an extravagant lifestyle off the money made selling US secrets, and it was this lifestyle that eventually lead to his capture as the FBI started looking into his finances. It was discovered he had luxury cars, a mansion paid for in cash, premium credit cards, and expenses well in excess of the $60,000 per year the CIA paid.
He has been recorded in interviews stating that he was motivated by greed and was well aware that the operatives he gave up were liable to be arrested, interrogated and even killed by the KGB. He was eventually captured and sent to prison for life without the possibility of parole.
Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were American communists who worked secretly for the KGB and were responsible for passing nuclear secrets to the Soviets in the years following WW2 and into the Cold War.
Julius worked as a US army engineer and had access to sensitive and critical technologies such as guided missiles and radar. During this time, he was able to smuggle secrets to the Russians via radio for years before being fired for being a member of the communist party.
The most successful espionage operation of all time was the theft of secrets that led to the Soviet Union developing nuclear weapons. Julius Rosenberg recruited many operatives to the KGB including his wife and brother-in-law. They passed information on nuclear bomb tests to the Soviet Union and were instrumental to their development of The Bomb.
A conspirator, Sergeant David Greenglass later confessed to his espionage and gave up the Rosenbergs, who were later executed in 1953. Greenglass was jailed for 10 years for his involvement, but avoided execution due to his cooperation.
There was a lot of controversy surrounding their executions, with everyone from Einstein to the Pope asking for clemency. Many years after their execution, documents were declassified showing Julius was indeed responsible for forming spy rings and passing information, Ethel’s involvement was minimal.
The Cambridge Five
The Cambridge five were a group of Soviet spies working for British intelligence before, during, and after WW2. The years following the great depression saw the British financial markets plummet, and many intellectual institutions questioning the validity of the established economic system. This was the perfect hunting ground for the communist party, who sought to recruit high level and highly educated agents to their cause.
The Cambridge Five got their name because they were all converted to Marxism when they were studying at Cambridge prior to the war. Their names were Anthony Blunt, Guy Burgess, Donald Maclean, Kim Philby, and John Cairncross.
They all pursued successful careers in the UK government and actively passed secrets to Russia from the 1930s to the 1960s. In 1951, Burgess was dismissed from the Secret Service and became aware of a counterintelligence operation that could have identified him and Maclean, so they fled to the USSR.
In the Soviet Union they were called the Magnificent Five and were known as the ablest group of foreign assets in KGB History. Not surprising really as they passed many thousands of documents during their decades long period of operation. The Cambridge Five became heroes of the Soviet Union, receiving medals and accolades. Kim Philby was even depicted on a stamp
None of the spy ring were ever prosecuted for their espionage, and most defected to the USSR after the war. The public only started to become aware of these spies as they defected throughout the 50s and 60s.
One of the most mysterious and captivating spies in history is Margaretha Geertruida MacLeod, better know by her stage name Mata Hari. Everyone thought that she was just a captivating Dutch exotic dancer and for high ranking political officials and military officers. But she was also a spy for France and Germany during WW1.
Margaretha MacLeod could speak fluent German, French, Italian, Spanish, and Malay and following her time in the then Dutch East indies she created the character Mata Hari for herself. Mata Hari made her career in the Belle Époche and had several high profile affairs that made her wealthy and gave her some very powerful friends.
Her dancing career took her to Germany where she was reported to have been recruited by a member of the Kaiser’s security services and paid 20,000 francs to spy on allied military officers. Accused of causing the deaths of causing the deaths of 50,000 French soldiers because of the information she passed to the Germans, Mata Hari was put on trial and executed by firing squad in 1917.
She and apparently refused a blindfold, preferring instead to blow a kiss at the firing squad in defiance before being killed. Many believe she was innocent of espionage and maintain that the French needed a scapegoat on which to blame their failures on the battlefield following a series of mutinies and defeats by the Germans.
Whether a femme fatale, a devious minded exotic dancer who seduced men into giving up military secrets; or a convenient scapegoat for the French military to blame their poor performance. Mata Hari has become the stuff of espionage legend and is one of the most famous spies of all time.
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