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Reasons for Espionage in WW II

Updated on June 20, 2012

I want to be a Spy!

When you think of spying James Bond springs to mind, living a dangerous life filled with fast cars, beautiful women and gadgets to help you achieve your goal, it is the kind of lifestyle that we all dreamed about as children and we all hoped that one day it would be us making the world a safe place again for all mankind.

During World War 2 spying on the enemy was common place, and although Movies and Television make it look like a glamorous and exciting career, the reality of espionage could be quite the opposite.

Being a spy in wartime was a dangerous occupation, working in enemy territory with the knowledge that at any minute you could be caught, being caught as a spy in wartime meant you would be tortured before being put to death, execution usually by firing squad was your reward.

Some spies though rather than face torture, which may lead them to disclosing information to captors, would commit suicide.

World War 2 Enigma Machine Collection

a display of German Enigma Machines
a display of German Enigma Machines | Source

Why Was Espionage Necessary?

During wartime knowing your enemy's next move would give you a major advantage, knowing that the enemy were planning to attack a certain place, at a certain time gave you the opportunity to prepare your defences, regroup your troops or even plan a counter attack.

Transport and Supplies

Espionage was also a way to disrupt transportation spies would parachute or fly into enemy territory, in specially constructed gliders. Blow up train lines, bridges and create havoc with the enemy's transportation system slowing the enemy down and preventing supplies from moving freely, these spies were usually aided by resistance fighters whose country had been occupied by the enemy.

Code Breaking

Spies were often used to intercept secret codes and to steal code books carried by officers, knowing the codes that were being used to send messages was a major advantage keeping you one step ahead of the enemy and it meant false information could be sent to your enemy to mislead and confuse them which would have given you some valuable time to reconsider any plans.

British spies in WW II, in an operation called "Ultra" pulled off a major coup when they cracked the German Enigma code, which is said to have shortened the war in Europe by 2 years.

Industrial Espionage

Industrial espionage was also carried out during WW II. Munitions factories were often the target, not only would agents try to steal designs and plans for new weaponry but they would also try to disrupt production by sabotaging machinery, slowing the race to get arms to the armed forces. Another way that an agent would work in a factory was to try to ensure that when production was in full flow, that the finished products would be sub standard making them unsuitable for use in the field of battle.

Natural resources were also targetted by secret agents, they would attempt to sabbotage food production, iron production, coal production and of course fuel supplies, anything that would hamper the enemy, slow down production and prevent much needed supplies getting to the front line.

Newsreel about German Saboteurs & Spies in the U.S. during World War II

Operation Bernhard

During World War II the Germans came up with a plan to disrupt the British economy, codenamed "Operation Bernhard" the idea was to forge British £5, £10, £20, and £50 bank notes and circulate them around Britain.

The plan was to rely on the greed of the British people and the German air force (Luftwaffe), German planes would fly over Britain and scatter the notes, hoping that instead of people handing them in to the authorities, they would spend them which would lead to over spending in the British economy again leading to a sharp rise in interest rates.

Although the plan to infiltrate Britain with the counterfeit notes never actually came to fruition some of the money was laundered and used by German spies and the German High command to purchase goods from some of Britain’s Allies.

Over £130 million was said to have been counterfeited between 1939 and 1945 most of which ended up at the bottom of Lake Toplitz.

The plan was also aimed at the United States in 1945, but scrapped before full production was started.

The movie the counterfeiters was based on Operation Bernhard.

WW II Matchbox spy camera


Spy Tools Gizmo's and Gadgets of WW II

A spy just would not be a spy without gizmos and gadgets to help them in their endeavors and during the Second World War, there were plenty of options.

Concealed Weapons

Most spy tools during the war were weapons hidden in everyday objects such as shoes, which concealed a knife blade in the sole, cigarette cases, which exploded when opened. There were grenades concealed in hollowed out lumps of coal and garrotes concealed in shirt collars or even in neckties. There were pens containing tear gas and even poisoned gas and small guns concealed in cigarette pouches.

Getting Around

A smokers pipe that could actually be smoked held secret compartments with a map and a small compass inside, camera's concealed in matchboxes and cigarette lighters, maps made of silk normally stitched into the lining of jackets, and even motorbikes which could be folded up to fit into a parachute bag.


The most important tool a spy had was Short Wave radio, without it getting messages back home with important information would be almost impossible.

Although rather bulky, radio's concealed in suitcases were carried by agents, there were normally well hidden by the agent and only used when required, radio signals were easily traced and agents were often captured during a transmission.


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    • HereToHelp2012 profile image


      6 years ago

      Very interesting, i found the fact they had motor bikes that fold up, which fit into a parachute bag really awesome.

    • pconoly profile image

      Pamela K Conoly 

      6 years ago from Fort Worth,Tx.

      This is so interresting because my Dad was in that war and knowing that they did not have the technology that we do now ,but yet, they managed to do so much good! Not discounting all of the many thousands of lives that were lost. A lot of them came home too! My Dad was one of them. Im just saying its interesting to think about and so much controversy! It literaly changed the whole world!

      Great article!

    • algarveview profile image

      Joana e Bruno 

      6 years ago from Algarve, Portugal

      Hi, Jimmy, very interesting, I always had that glamourous notion about the spying business, it's all on the movies, if you ask me... This hub is very interesting because it gives us a different perspective and it has some facts which I had no idea of, such as the matter of the counterfeit money... Voted up and interesting and sharing! Have a great day!

    • GoodLady profile image

      Penelope Hart 

      6 years ago from Rome, Italy

      Brave people. Good that you outlined just how brave they were and what amazing work they did. Fabulous tribute to their bravery, thanks. It is so important to remember how selfless the spies were, how hard it was for them and their loved ones.

    • joanveronica profile image

      Joan Veronica Robertson 

      6 years ago from Concepcion, Chile

      Congratulations on an excellent Hub. Very interesting for me, as my father had something to do with counterspionage during WW2. I just might write about it soon!

    • Donna Sundblad profile image

      Donna Sundblad 

      6 years ago from Georgia

      Interesting. I enjoy WWII history. Would you believe on the news this morning they were saying we have more spys in this country now than we did during the cold war.

    • Just Ask Susan profile image

      Susan Zutautas 

      6 years ago from Ontario, Canada

      I would love to have any one of the cars used by James Bond :)

      Interesting hub.

    • jimmythejock profile imageAUTHOR

      Jimmy the jock 

      6 years ago from Scotland

      Thanks Cardissa, your visit is appreciated,and your comment made me laugh. It could be fun jet setting around the world being nosey and stealing secrets lol.....jimmy

    • Cardisa profile image

      Carolee Samuda 

      6 years ago from Jamaica

      That was fun, I found the plan for upsetting the British economy most amusing because I actually think it was a very foolish idea. I mean, if I saw money falling from a German plane I would be The Germans are known for hatching the most bizarre plans ever! LOL LOL LOL

      I love spy movies. James Bond is my fave and I have most of them on DVD. I think I would enjoy being a spy too!


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