The Wildest WWII Spy Stories You'll Ever Read

It's not surprising that a global conflict like World War II generated so many amazing spy stories. Espionage has always been a business marked by deceit, betrayal, and frequently, death. The fate of a captured spy is usually brutal, and even relatively benign entities like the Allies dealt harshly with such individuals. Still, their treatment was relatively kind compared with the Nazis.

These stories include heroes and villains, loyalists and traitors, and the greatest WWII spies who were motivated by duty, principle, or just plain money.

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  • The White Rabbit Couldn't Be Contained By Nazi Prisons

    Forest Frederic Edward Yeo-Thomas (who went by F. F. E. Yeo-Thomas) was not your typical cliché espionage agent, photographing documents in the early morning hours behind the embassy doors of some darkened office. After serving for two years in the UK's Royal Air Force, he requested even more hazardous duty in occupied France, serving as a liaison between the French government in exile and the Resistance.

    On his third mission in February 1944, Yeo-Thomas was betrayed to the Gestapo and badly mistreated. After numerous escape attempts, he was transported to Buchenwald concentration camp in Germany. He survived eight more months of abuse, escaped from a work detail, and eventually lead other POWs to freedom in the final days of the war. 

    Yeo-Thomas is recognized by the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography as “among the most outstanding workers behind enemy lines whom Britain produced.” He is also credited as the inspiration for Ian Fleming's spy who is famous worldwide: James Bond.

  • Krystyna Skarbek, AKA Christine Granville, AKA Miss Poland, Was A Spy And Beauty Queen
    Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    Krystyna Skarbek, AKA Christine Granville, AKA Miss Poland, Was A Spy And Beauty Queen

    Krystyna Skarbek was born in Poland in May 1908. In 1930, she was a runner-up in a Miss Poland contest and was already involved in her second marriage - to writer and politician Jerzy Giżycki - when Germany invaded Poland in 1939. 

    The couple emigrated to London, where Skarbek went to work for British intelligence. She also established a courier system from Poland to Hungary. Fluent in French, Skarbek parachuted into France in 1944 with a new nom de guerre, "Christine Granville."

    She engaged in various intelligence operations, the most famous being an incident in Digne, France, where she tricked the Gestapo into believing her cover story and persuaded them to release two other captured agents, despite the fact that her picture was on wanted posters all over the German headquarters.

    Despite being awarded the Order of the British Empire and the George Medal from the UK and the Croix de Guerre medal from France, Skarbek was cut loose by the British government after the war, could not return to Communist Poland, and fell upon hard times. Employed on the housekeeping staff of a cruise ship, she was living in a hotel in 1952 when a rejected suitor, Dennis Muldowney, stabbed her to death. Muldowney was ultimately hanged, and Skarbek was buried in London.  

  • Wilhelm Canaris Worked To Bring Down Germany From The Inside
    Photo: Bundesarchiv, Bild 146-1979-013-43 / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0 DE

    Wilhelm Canaris Worked To Bring Down Germany From The Inside

    Imagine for a moment if, during wartime, it suddenly came to light that the head of the CIA was actively working to undermine the American government and military. That's exactly what happened in Nazi Germany when Wilhelm Canaris was appointed the head of the Abwehr, Germany's military intelligence, in 1935. Initially a fervent supporter of Hitler, his attitude transformed after personally observing atrocities in Poland and receiving numerous reports of SS extermination squads operating throughout the Eastern front.

    Canaris began to assemble a group of like-minded opponents to Hitler in both the Abwehr and the military. He was involved in several plots to kill the Führer, but was wily enough to avoid direct responsibility. Canaris also undermined the Nazi government when sent to Spain in 1940 to compel General Francisco Franco to join the Axis, instead hinting strongly that this would be a bad idea and Franco should remain neutral.

    Hitler abolished the Abwehr in February 1944.

    After the July 20, 1944, plot to terminate the Führer failed, Canaris was quickly implicated by others who were tortured, or by association with conspirators who had committed suicide. He received severe detention and repeated torture, but refused to admit guilt. In early April of 1945, a German military officer discovered Canaris's diaries and notes in a safe in the Abwehr's former headquarters, which spelled out his deliberate attempts to recruit others to oppose the regime. Infuriated, Hitler ordered his execution. 

    Canaris and several other co-conspirators from the Abwehr were hanged on April 9, 1945, at Flossenburg concentration camp.   

  • Odette Hallowes Survived By Claiming Kinship With Winston Churchill
    Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    Odette Hallowes Survived By Claiming Kinship With Winston Churchill

    Odette Sansom Hallowes was born in France in 1912. She married an Englishman and moved to Britain in the early 1930s, where she was eventually recruited into the Special Operatives Executive and sent back to occupied France. She worked as a courier before her arrest by the Gestapo. 

    Tortured in the notorious Fresnes Prison near Paris, Hallowes underwent multiple interrogations but refused to reveal the whereabouts of other agents in her network. Her defiance was rewarded with a transport to the Ravensbrück concentration camp.

    Condemned to months of beatings and isolation, she somehow convinced the Germans she was a relative of Winston Churchill. Ultimately, Fritz Sühren, the camp commandant, personally drove her to American lines and surrendered, still believing that her supposed status would save his neck. He was wrong. Hallowes testified against him and other Ravensbrück prison staff in 1946. 

    She is the first woman to receive the George Cross, instituted in 1940 by Britain's King George VI for participating in “acts of the greatest heroism or of the most conspicuous courage in circumstances of extreme danger.”

  • Americans And Germans Combined To Form The Red Orchestra To Fight The Reich
    Photo: German Resistance Memorial Centre / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    Americans And Germans Combined To Form The Red Orchestra To Fight The Reich

    Harro and Libertas Schulze-Boysen (pictured) were committed anti-Nazis who formed an espionage ring referred to by the Gestapo as the Red Orchestra after an investigation determined the group was "singing" to Soviet Russia. Both Harro and Libertas came from upper-class German backgrounds, Harro the son of a decorated naval officer and Libertas, the daughter of German nobility.

    Through his family connections, Harro secured a position in the Reich Air Ministry in 1934, but he and Libertas organized an intellectual circle of like-minded individuals that included a member of another prominent German family, Arvid Harnack and his American wife Mildred.

    By the late 1930s, their private opposition to the Axis powers had morphed into actual espionage, with valuable information passed along to both the American and Soviet governments, including a warning concerning the 1941 invasion of the Soviet Union, which Stalin ignored. 

    Libertas, through her position in the German film industry, was assembling graphic evidence of German war atrocities. This information passed by radio through Soviet agent Leopold Trepper into Brussels, where a Trepper operative foolishly transmitted from the same location for a week. Gestapo counterintelligence electronically located Trepper's group in 1941, arrested them, and decoded the names and addresses of the Schulze-Boysens, among many others by mid-1942.

    The Gestapo watched throughout the summer, identifying other members of the ring. Finally, on August 31, 1942, Harro was arrested at the Air Ministry. Libertas attempted to flee by train but was arrested on September 9. They were tried, convicted, and condemned on December 19, 1942. Because Goering and Hitler were especially outraged by such a betrayal by the upper class, Harro, Arvid Harnack, and other male defendants would be executed by a new, painful, and more degrading form of execution: hanging at the execution chamber at Plotzensee Prison. 

    Female defendants like Libertas would be spared this fate: instead, they would die by the current method already in place: the guillotine.

    The Schulze-Boysens and Arvid Harnack were executed within minutes of each other, three days before Christmas 1942. Mildred Harnack would initially receive a prison sentence, but Hitler refused to endorse this punishment. The Wisconsin native was retried and then executed at Plotzensee on February 16, 1943.

  • Children's Author Roald Dahl And James Bond Creator Ian Fleming Met As British Spies

    Roald Dahl (pictured) enjoyed a high-profile career as an author, screenwriter, and critic best known today for his children's books. However, less well known is that he also was involved in British military and intelligence efforts during WWII. He saw action as a fighter pilot in Libya and Greece, suffering a fractured skull and other injuries after crashing in the North African desert. After officially downing at least five Axis aircraft over Greece, persistent blackout headaches forced Dahl's reassignment to Britain.

    He was eventually sent to Washington DC, as an assistant air attaché at the British embassy. He was bored by the administrative details of his job, but became involved with British novelist and propagandist C.S. Forester in composing what was essentially propaganda encouraging American enthusiasm for the war in Europe. Dahl also became the eyes and ears for prominent members of the British government, including Prime Minister Winston Churchill; the intelligence-gathering usually involved the outlook and attitudes of US President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

    For a time, Dahl worked with another British intelligence officer - James Bond creator Ian Fleming. After the war, Dahl began his long literary career, which included James and the Giant Peach (1961), Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (1964), Fantastic Mr. Fox (1970), and Matilda (1988). He also wrote the screenplay for the 1967 film You Only Live Twice, based on the James Bond novel of the same name.