Covert operations carried out by Allied and Axis powers during World War II included some truly astonishing enterprises. Not all of these WWII secret missions were successful (in fact, several were abject failures), but they all involved remarkable ingenuity and/or extraordinary bravery. Some WWII covert operations required the focused activities of a few highly skilled individuals, others involved entire armies intent on changing the course of the conflict. However you slice it, though, they were all pretty nuts.
The World War 2 secret operations on this list cover all major players, and the European and Pacific theaters, of the conflict. Some of these operations shifted the course of things, others were desperate attempts to do just that as the conflict neared its conclusion. Read on to learn about some lesser-known secret operations from the Second World War.
Operation Gunnerside Crippled The German A-Bomb Program
In February 1942, nine men parachuted into the vicinity of Vemork, Norway. They were Norwegians specially trained by British Special Operations with plans for blowing up a Nazi-controlled heavy water plant in Vemork. Heavy water was a crucial element in the production of plutonium, an ingredient for the nuclear device Hitler's scientists were feverishly attempting to build. It was the only such facility in the world.
The heavily fortified, remote plant was impervious to bombing; it could only be taken down on site, which required scaling a 500-foot-high cliff in the middle of winter and infiltrating a heavily guarded basement laboratory. The nine Norwegians, led by 23-year-old Joachim Ronneborg, did just that, successfully detonating explosives that shut down the facility. The destruction of the Vemork plan was crucial in German Armaments Minister Albert Speer's decision to halt attempts to produce an atomic device.
Operation Mincemeat: The Man Who Never Was
In 1943, British intelligence was asked to help conceal Allied intentions of invading Sicily that summer. Germany and the Allies were involved in a high stakes deception/guessing game to determine just exactly where the first European attack would occur. British intelligence officers came up with the idea of Operation Mincemeat, a plan to disseminate false information by allowing the Germans to "accidentally" discover faked top secret documents.
To carry out Operation Mincemeat, the British acquired the cadaver of homeless man Glyndwr Michael, transforming him into "Major William Martin." By the time a submarine crew pushed Michael/Martin's body gently into the water off the coast of Spain, he was handcuffed to a briefcase stuffed with falsified military documents and mundane items.
Information concerning a supposed upcoming invasion of Greece was included in an official letter between two British generals. The British hoped Spanish authorities would turn this material over to German intelligence, and it would make its way up the chain of command, which is exactly what happened. Hitler had already decided Greece would be the next Allied objective. Based on info recovered from the British corpse, he diverted men and equipment to Greece. When the Allies invaded Sicily on July 10, they were met with minimal resistance.
Heroic Czech Resistance Executed Operation Anthropoid
In September 1941, Reinhard Heydrich, a high-ranking Nazi official and primary architect of the Holocaust, was named Reich Protector of Bohemia and Moravia (formerly Czechoslovakia). He immediately declared martial law, began executing political prisoners and intelligentsia, and deported the sizable Czech Jewish community. The Czech government, exiled in London, decided to assassinate Heydrich.
On December 28, 1941, after extensive training by British intelligence, two Czech agents, Jan Kubis and Josef Gabcik, as part of Operation Anthropoid, were successfully parachuted into Czechoslovakia. They spent several months perfecting a plan with local resistance fighters. On May 27, 1942, Kubis and Gabcik waited along Heydrich's usual morning route to the Nazi's Prague headquarters. The Reich Protector arrogantly rode in an open Mercedes convertible, thinking an attack by local citizens was inconceivable.
As Heydrich's vehicle slowed at an L-shaped curve, Gabcik pointed a machine gun at Heydrich, but it misfired. Heydrich ordered his driver to stop so he could shoot Gabcik when Kubis tossed a grenade, which detonated near the car's right fender. Both agents escaped and Heydrich, initially thinking he was uninjured, passed on June 4.
Kubis and Gabcik were betrayed by a resistance member and perished heroically, on June 18, after a gunfight with the Gestapo at a Prague church. The pair was played by Jamie Dornan and Cillian Murphy in the 2016 film Anthropoid.
The Nazis, The World's Oldest Profession, And Operation Kitty
Kitty Schmidt ran the most luxurious brothel in Berlin when Hitler came to power. Uncomfortable with the Nazi regime, Schmidt transported cash to British banks via Jewish refugees she helped escape Germany, with plans to leave herself. In June of 1939, she fled, but got no further than the Dutch border, where she was detained by the SD, the Nazi central security agency.
From there, Kitty was taken to Gestapo headquarters, where she was interrogated by Walter Schellenberg, chief of the SD. Schellenberg presented her with a choice: she could go to a concentration camp or keep her brothel open so the Gestapo could spy on its prestigious clientele. Kitty agreed to the latter. The brothel was quickly bugged and reopened. Nazi agents throughout Berlin sent unwitting foreign diplomats and military personnel to the salon and told them to use the code words "I come from Rothenburg."
Marks sent to Kitty by the Gestapo, identified by the above code words, were handed a book containing photos of 20 specially trained women, whose job it was to debrief the subject, in more ways than one. This scheme operated until 1943 when Allied bombings damaged the building housing the brothel beyond repair. Kitty survived WWII and lived with her secret until her passing in 1954. Schellenberg was tried as a war criminal but, because of his extensive knowledge and cooperation (and poor health), only spent two years in prison.