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Spies In WWII

Today, many people enjoy the feeling of security that comes from knowing that intelligence officials are hard at work monitoring communications and gathering information to keep us safe. Security professionals have been doing this type of work as long as communication technologies have existed, but a lot of modern national intelligence strategies are based on work done during World War II.

Value of Spies in World War II

During World War II, countries wanted as much information about their enemies as possible. Knowing what their enemies were up to gave them advantages and could even save lives. Much of this information came from spies. Secret agents worked as part of a larger network to uncover secret or sensitive information.

Where Did Spies Come From?

Often, people already living or working in an enemy country were recruited to become secret agents, if they could be convinced to share documents or other sources of information.

Motivations for Spying

While it might seem strange, there were many reasons a person would choose to spy on their own country.

Some disagreed with the policies of their governments.
Some felt loyalty to another country.
Some opposed the idea of war altogether.

Double Agents

Sometimes, a spy from one country could even be convinced to switch sides. This process was a favorite tactic of the British, who managed to recruit many German spies into their own ranks. This way, the British could gain valuable information about German tactics and plans as well as pass false information back to the Germans.

Use of Gadgets

When many people think about spies, they picture in their minds TV and movie secret agents using spy gadgets like cameras hidden in a shoe or recording devices that look like ordinary pens. These ideas do actually have some basis in fact. World War II-era spies did use gadgets, often everyday objects that were hollowed out and then used to transport documents. Even coins are known to have been used in this way.

Female Agents

While military work was largely limited to men, spying was not: Women, too, served as secret agents. Spying was one of the few ways women could directly participate in the war effort. Historians continue to uncover the ways that women served their countries in the fields of counterintelligence and national security during this era.

Intelligence Agencies

The popular image of the spy also includes the agencies that support their secret work. Spying is the result of careful organization involving lots of people. In many ways, the intelligence agencies of each country have functioned just like any other government offices. Intelligence agencies follow policies and procedures and handle lots of reports. Each country had its own intelligence agency during World War II.

    • Germany’s intelligence agency was called the Abwehr.
    • Great Britain’s Security Service included the famous MI5 and MI6.
    • The United States had the Office of Strategic Services, or OSS, a forerunner of today’s Central Intelligence Agency and Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Notable Secret Agents During World War II

    • Morris “Moe” Berg was a professional baseball player with a career batting average of .243 who studied languages at both Princeton and Columbia. During World War II, Berg collected intelligence on Germany’s atomic bomb program for the OSS.
    • Graham Greene, a British novelist who wrote several well-known thrillers set in the world of secret service, spent the war working for MI6 in several African countries, searching for contraband hidden on ships bound for Germany
    • Josephine Baker, an African-American dancer and entertainer, used her celebrity as coverage for numerous espionage missions throughout Europe during the war, particularly on behalf of the French Resistance.
    • Roald Dahl, author of beloved children’s literature including Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, spied for the British in Washington, D.C. The results helped persuade the United States to join the war as an ally of Great Britain.
    • Julia Child, the original TV celebrity chef, served in the OSS, conducting research and managing documents. Her husband Paul, also an OSS duty officer, was later stationed in Paris, where the Childs first experienced the cuisine she helped popularize in the United States after the war.
    • Arthur Goldberg, who later sat on the Supreme Court and was U.S. ambassador to the United Nations in the 1960s, spent the war as a front-line OSS operative in Europe.

World War II History Resources