A spy or double agent, whatever you call them one thing is clear, is that they played an important role in history. Additionally, spies often faced extreme dangers while working undercover for their beliefs and country. To commemorate their achievements, we have compiled a list of the most famous spies in history.
Let us take a look at The 10 Most Famous Spies In History.
1) Melita Norwood- A British communist who famously spied for the Soviets
The first on our list of famous spies is Melita Norwood, who was a spy for the Soviet Union. She was a long-time member of the Communist Party who wanted to bring communism to Eastern Europe. Norwood essentially feared a world where the United States and Western Europe held unchallenged nuclear power.
Thus she began her spying career in the 1930s. She was instrumental in stealing nuclear secrets and passing them along to Kremlin. Although her employers were suspicious of her, they never investigated her, due to the sexist belief that women cannot be “good spies”. Because people underestimated her, she went on to work as a spy for the Soviet Union for nearly four decades!
She popularly became known as the “the spy who came in from the Co-Op” because of the shopping bags she was carrying when her true loyalty was exposed at the age of 87. After being exposed her initial reaction was that she thought she had gotten away with it. Ironically, she had because the government declined to prosecute her.
2) Sir Francis Walsingham
Sir Francis Walsingham a.k.a the ‘Spymaster’ was principal secretary to Queen Elizabeth I of England. At the time, the Protestant royal Queen Elizabeth was facing continuous threats to her life and reign. To counter these threats Sir Francis Walsingham, built up an extensive intelligence network.
Walsingham, a staunch Protestant wanted to erase Catholicism by any means. He used his network to wipe out and expose Catholic priests and conspirators. In the end, his efforts were instrumental in the execution of Queen Elizabeth’s Catholic half-sister Mary, Queen of Scots in 1587.
3) Sidney Reilly- The famous Ace of Spies
Sidney Reilly, famously dubbed as the “Ace of Spies” is rumoured to have spied for at least four different great powers! Reilly studied chemistry in Vienna, before going to Brazil. There he met British Army officers who recommended him to the British Intelligence in London.
For many years he was a part of the British Secret Intelligence and carried out numerous missions on their behalf. Reilly is most famous for his involvement in a counter-coup against Lenin in September 1918. However, due to the plot’s failure, he was subsequently sentenced to death by the Soviets. Although he escaped his sentence that time, he was arrested and executed on his next visit to Russia in September 1925.
4) Harold “Kim” Philby
Harold “Kim” Philby was a double agent who attended Cambridge University from 1929 to 1933. At the time, the Soviet Union was actively recruiting students as spies. Philby was one of the recruited students. Thus he began spying for the Soviets in the 1930s and would continue to do so for nearly 30 years!
During his long career, he was successful in securing both British and American secrets at the highest levels of government. And is said to be accountable for the deaths of numerous agents.
He was finally confronted in January 1962 and was offered protection in exchange for information about the Soviet spy network. He agreed and was questioned for 3 days but never taken into custody. After the third day, he defected to Russia and stayed there until his death. Due to his efforts, he is deemed as the most famous Soviet spy of the Cold War period.
5) Mata Hari- Deemed as one of the most famous female spies of the 20th century
Margaretha Geertruida Zelleis a.k.a ‘Mata Hari’ was an exotic dancer and double agent. During the outbreak of World War I, she began touring all over Europe. Consequently, she had numerous high-level military officers as lovers. However, at the time she was also working as a spy for Germany.
Subsequently, in February 1917, she was arrested by French authorities and charged with espionage. Mata Hari was accused of revealing sensitive details of the Allies’ new weapon, the tanks, leading to the deaths of thousands of soldiers. She was subsequently sentenced to death. During her execution, she famously refused to be blindfolded before being shot to death by the firing squad. Although most of her life is riddled with fact and fiction, she is deemed as one of the most famous female spies of the 20th century.
6) James Armistead
James Armistead was an enslaved man who worked as a double agent during the American Revolution. Armistead volunteered to the army under Lafayette in 1781 and subsequently started working as a spy for the Patriots. He posed as a runaway spy and infiltrated the British Intelligence.
As Armistead was a native Virginian, the British received him without suspicion. Additionally, they put him to work under the command of the notorious turncoat, Benedict Arnold. As a spy, he relayed critical information to Lafayette and deceiving intel to the enemy. Subsequently, the intelligence reports from Armistead were instrumental in helping to defeat the British during the Battle of Yorktown.
7) Nathan Hale
Nathan Hale is often regarded as a symbol of patriotism for his work during the Revolutionary War. When George Washington asked for volunteers to spy for the Patriots, Hale courageously stepped forward. Hale was essentially assigned to go behind enemy lines and gather information.
Disguised as a Dutch schoolmaster, he successfully did so for several weeks. However, he was discovered by the British. He was subsequently convicted and executed as a spy on September 22, 1776. Nathan Hale is famously remembered for his last lines where he states that “he regrets he has only one life to give for his country”.
8) Frederick “Fritz” Joubert Duquesne- One of the most notorious and famous spies in history
A master of disguise, Duquesne went by many aliases, fictionalized his identity and background on various occasions and worked as a con man. He essentially worked as a spy during 3 wars: the second Boer war and both the world wars.
During the Boer war, he was nicknamed “Black Panther” and during World War II he worked under the code name DUNN. As a German spy, he gathered human intelligence, operated a spy ring, and carried out several sabotage missions. Additionally, he was captured many times over the years but managed to escape every time.
The FBI finally caught up with him in 1941 and he was arrested along with 32 other members of the Duquesne Spy Ring. Subsequently, their conviction went down as the largest espionage conviction in the history of the United States.
9) Virginia Hall
Virginia Hall was a famous female spy during the World War II, who carried out several missions for the Allies. Hall lost her left leg at the age of 27, however, she did not let her disability stop her. She went on to join the ambulance corps in France at the beginning of World War II. It was then that she met a spy and subsequently got in touch with the British Intelligence. After limited training, she was sent into Nazi-occupied France in 1941 where she posed as a reporter from the New York Post.
Code named Marie and Donna, Hall constantly changed her appearance. Additionally, as a spy, she was responsible for conducting espionage, sabotage and reconnaissance in occupied Europe against the Axis powers. The Nazis soon got the wind of her activities and were determines to hunt her down. They nicknamed her Artemis and the Gestapo deemed her “the most dangerous of all Allied spies”. However, they could never catch her.
10) Oleg Gordievsky
Oleg Gordievsky was initially a London resident spy for the KGB. However, he switched loyalties and started working as a double agent for the British Intelligence. Gordievsky was instrumental in averting a nuclear war and exposing various Soviet spy rings in Britain.
Ultimately it was an American double agent, Aldrich Ames who sold him out to the Soviets. Gordievsky was recalled back to Russia for questioning. However in a daring rescue plan, the British helped him escape. Subsequently, Russian authorities sentenced him to death in absentia.