This page features a miscellany of Spy Stories. Most will be true; some are fictional, but based on actual events. The aim is to provide an interesting selection of topics, all with a common theme of espionage and counter-espionage.
With the centenary of the First World War, a good deal of general material has been published, but very little of it has been about the Secret War, the war in the shadows, where we can find some of the bravest and the most treacherous characters on both sides of the conflict.
There have been some interesting books published recently, but they tend to be academic and focus on specific issues,. SPYSTORY.net intends to cater for all levels of interest, and to make the subject accessible to a much wider audience.
After a brief introduction, each story can be read in full either online or by downloading and saving the PDF. Ideal if you want to save it for reading later offline.
KAREL ZBYTEK - Traitor or Patriot?
He was dubbed the 'Czech Kim Philby', and during the 1950s and 60s, he was responsible for the arrest and deaths of many of his countrymen who, with the support of MI6 (the UK's Secret Intelligence Service), were sent by the Czech Intelligence Office in London to spy in their Communist homeland. His story has still not been told in the West in any detail but, thanks to the declassification of Czech Communist archives, the facts are beginning to emerge.
SPYSTORY is working on presenting an account of this dark episode from the Cold War. Our attention has been attracted to Zbytek because of his connections with the town of Folkestone in Kent (the Cecil Cameron story is also partly based in Folkestone). What was this connection? The arch spy ran a bed and breakfast establishment during the early '60s in Westbourne Gardens, which was intended to be used to train MI6 agents. Watch this space for the full story. Planned publication in December 2016.
Secret Writing, (or how to read between the lines)
Above: An apparently innocent music score sent by German Spy Courtenay de Rysbach to German intelligence in Norway. when tested by British Counter-intelligence, secret writing was revealed. Early secret inks were created from lemon juice.
Above: Alongside the picture of the fresh lemon, is one of a 100 year old specimen, used by British intelligence during WW1 in its testing laboratories.
The greatest challenge for spies through the ages has been communication. You have discovered some critical piece of intelligence, but you are deep in enemy territory in the days before electronic transmission by wireless or satellite. One of many methods devised was the use of secret writing,, sometimes called invisible writing. During the First World War, this was the method favoured by German spies operating in Britain. The basic principle was to write an apparently innocent letter to a 'friend' or 'relative' in a neutral country, such as Holland, Portugal or Spain, but to hide within that letter a hidden message with the secret information.
British counter-espionage operations included a substantial postal censorship organisation, run jointly between the Post Office and the secret services.
For more information, click HERE . Opens a PDF article in a new window.
The Wire of Death;
the Electrified Fence between Belgium and Holland
Above is a section from a German WW1 map showing the eastern end of the deadly 200 km fence erected by Germany in the spring of 1915. Guard towers, electrical relay stations and crossing points are clearly visible. The fence was intended as a barrier to prevent Belgians, French and others living on the occupied zone from fleeing to neutral Holland, many with the intention of joining national armies, ready to fight to recover their homelands. During the first months of the war, there was also a steady stream of British soldiers who had, through injury or misadventure, become separated from their units, and found themselves in occupied territory. Another group of escapees were German soldiers, men who preferred the idea of internment in Holland to the danger of combat.
The final group seeking to cross the Belgian-Dutch border were British secret agents, the men and women who had collected the precious intelligence so desperately need by the British and Allied armies on the Western Front.
Above: The body of an unsuccessful passeur, whose journey to freedom ended on the deadly fence
Above: Map showing one of the many routes by which agents sought to cross the frontier between German occupied Belgium and neutral Holland. Note that the two agents mentioned are known simply by numbers.
Above: Gadgets were developed to defeat the electric fence. This wooden frame, which separated the wires and through which an agent might carefully climb, could fold flat to help avoid detection during a search by border guards.
LA LIGNE ÉLECTRIFIÉE SUR LA FRONTIÈRE HOLLANDO-BELGE (1915-1918) by Chef d’escadron Olivier LAHAIE. Guerres mondiales et conflits contemporains , 2008/1 n° 229, p. 55-77. DOI : 10.3917/gmcc.229.0055. (PDF)
ZONE DE MORT by Laurent Lombard. (Book)
- Dodendraad.org is a website devoted to the history of the electrified fence. Highly recommended.
Was Nurse Edith Cavell betrayed by Britain during WW1?
Edith Cavell was a British nurse who was working in Belgium when the country was overrun by the German army in August 1914. She could have escaped to the safety of England but chose to remain to look after the soldiers and civilians caught up in the conflict. Soon, together with a group of Belgian patriots, she was involved in arranging for the escape of Allied soldiers trapped behind enemy lines. This escape network expanded to include Belgian men who wished to join their army to fight the invader. Unsurprisingly, Nurse Cavell and her colleagues
Read the full story. Click HERE to open PDF
Ask someone to name a famous spy film and James Bond will be the likely answer. He was a product of Cold War espionage, alongside the less glamorous George Smiley and Alec Leamas. Spy films have always been popular, recent examples being Bridge of Spies and, on TV, Spooks. With the exception of John Buchan's The 39 Steps, few films from the WW1 period have survived the passage of time. Some seem very dated now, but others are both atmospheric and well made.
The film, Fraulein Doktor was based on a real character, a woman based in neutral Holland who was head of the feared German Spy School in Rotterdam. Even today, her true identity remains debatable.
British Intelligence tells the story of German spies at the heart of the British army in France in 1917 and at home, where the government has been penetrated. It is the job of Counter-Intelligence to find and stop the most able German spy.
For ten years before the outbreak of the First World War, the country had been gripped by Spy Mania, an irrational belief that we had been overrun by a silent and secret army of German spies and soldiers who awaited the word from their Kaiser to rise up and destroy Britain from within, thereby laying the country open to invasion. Fed by lurid 'real life' stories, the phenomenon became so pervasive that it led to a government inquiry. The report to the Committee of Imperial Defence in 1909, though riddled with errors and speculation, led to the creation of the Secret Service Bureau, the progenitor of today's Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) and Security Service (MI5).
Above: Poster for the 1979 film, based on the book by Erskine Childers, The Riddle of the Sands. Less well known perhaps is Phillips Oppenheim's book The Great Secret. First published in 1908 it is a pacey spy thriller in which the Englishman hero smashes a German plan to destroy the Royal Navy as a prelude to invasion, and where 300,000 German clerks and waiters working in Britain have all been armed with rifles. Click on either image to open the book, which can be read online or downloaded.
Click HERE to open a PDF giving a fascinating overview of SPY MANIA, including secret MI5 files!
I WAS A SPY by Marthe McKenna
Above: The cover of McKenna's book. Photo of Marthe McKenna. British record of McKenna's WW1 medal award.
This book by a Belgian woman working for British Military Intelligence during the First World War, was republished in 2015. But it can be read free of charge on the internet. With a foreword by Winston Churchill, the book is full of atmosphere and gives a fair idea of the life of a British Agent working behind the German lines. Embellished in places, as a rare example of an Agent's life written in English, it is a 'must read'.
Click HERE to read the book online
The story of Mata Hari remains one of the most misunderstood and misreported of all time. That she was a spy for Germany during the First World War is just about the only incontrovertible fact. Whether or not she was an effective or successful spy, whether she was a double agent, also working for the French, and the circumstances of her execution in 1917, remain subjects surrounded by myth and legend. There is not even a consensus about just how attractive she was.
Britain's National Archives and French Archives have recently released many documents about Mata Hari and we have assembled an account of her life and death, including several of those documents.
To read more click here to open a PDF