8 True-Life Spy Stories Beyond Any Imagination
8 True-Life Spy Stories Beyond Any Imagination

8 True-Life Spy Stories Beyond Any Imagination

Stephanie Schoppert - September 22, 2016

Spies have always been a necessary part of any country’s self-defense. The best way to know what the enemy is up to or even what your allies are up to, is to get a close up and personal look. For these spy stories of the 20th century, the full story might not yet be known. Some of these stories have guesses or assumptions to fill in the gaps, but the best spy stories are the ones that the public never truly finds out about. For all we know the best spy stories of the 21st century could be happening right now.

Eli Cohen Infiltrates the Syrian Military

8 True-Life Spy Stories Beyond Any Imagination

Eli Cohen was an Israeli spy working for Mossad to infiltrate Syria. Mossad created an elaborate cover story for him that was so convincing that he was able to gain access to the highest levels of the Syrian military for four years. His information and his efforts in Syria were instrumental during the Six Day War when Israel was able to soundly defeat her enemies.

Eli Cohen was a part of Israeli counterintelligence but he grew bored of the work and decided to apply for Mossad. He was rejected until a few years later when Mossad picked him for an assignment that no one on their current roster was the right fit for. Eli would infiltrate the Syrian military.

His cover was that of a Syrian businessman who moved to Argentina but who was ready to return to Syria. As the first part of his cover, Eli moved to Argentina in 1961. He moved to Damascus, Syria in early 1962 and immediately took up the same social life that he had been living in Argentina. He went to cafés and discussed politics. He held parties at his home where the alcohol and women were plentiful. Eventually important men in Syrian military and politics began spending their time at Eli’s home and under the influence of alcohol they shared their secrets.

Eli became a source of advice for men in the Syrian military. In one instance he was taken to the fortresses at Golan Heights. Eli mentioned that the soldiers were languishing in the heat and suggested that large trees be planted to give them shade. This would allow Israeli planes to know exactly where to drop bombs during the Six Day War, allowing them to take the Golan Heights in just two days.

In 1965, the Syrian military suspected a high level mole. They traced radio frequencies to Cohen’s apartment and took him into custody. He was later hanged.

Sidney Reilly and the Lockhart Plot

8 True-Life Spy Stories Beyond Any Imagination

Sidney Reilly was “the” spy. He was not only considered the first super spy of the 20th century but he also provided the inspiration for Ian Fleming’s James Bond. He was the precursor to the British MI-5/MI-6 and today much of his life is so shrouded in mystery and legend that few people know the truth. While there are many stories of Sidney’s exploits and aliases, few are as daring or as well-known at the Lockhart plot.

The Lockhart plot was a supposed plan by the British government to assassinate Vladimir Lenin. The British government denies any involvement in a plot against Lenin, but 90 years later the documents regarding the Lockhart plot remain sealed under the Official Secrets Act. This leads many historians to believe that the Lockhart plot and Sidney Reilly’s daring espionage really happened.

In 1918, the Russians had pulled out of the war, which left the Allies with an influx of Germans on the Western front. The British wanted the Russians back in the war and decided that the only way to do that was to get rid of Lenin. Robert Bruce Lockhart hatched a plan to overthrow the Bolshevik government and get Lenin out of power. He teamed up with Sidney Reilly who had established a reputation as an agent for the British Intelligence.

Sidney drew up plans for military officials who would take over after the Bolsheviks were taken out of power and started conducting secret meetings with anti-Bolsheviks in Russia. On August 30th Fanya Kaplan shot Lenin three times and badly wounded him. The Cheka used the assassination attempt as proof of a grand conspiracy and rounded up anyone was suspected to be involved in the coup attempt. Reilly was implicated in the plot, many of his associates were arrested but Sidney managed to escape and make his way back to Britain. But he was sentenced to death by the Russians if he was ever caught.

Olag Penkovsky and the Cuban Missile Crisis

8 True-Life Spy Stories Beyond Any Imagination

Olag Penkovsky was an agent working for the British and the United States to gather information on the Russians in the 1960s. It was largely because of his information that the Cuban Missile Crisis happened. Olag Penkovsky was a GRU officer who defected in order to provide information to the British and the U.S. that would prevent a nuclear war.

In 1961, Olag convinced a British spy Greville Wynne to set up a meeting between him and two British intelligence agents and two American intelligence agents. The British became the main handlers for Penkovsky but they shared pertinent information with the Americans. It was through Penkovsky that the Americans and British learned that the Russian nuclear arsenal was much smaller than was previously thought. He also supplied information that the Soviets did not yet have operational guidance or fueling systems.

In 1962 the Soviets believed that they could hide nuclear weapons in Cuba and that they would not be detected by the Americans until it was too late. However, Penkovsky provided the British and in turn the U.S. with detailed plans and descriptions of the nuclear launch sites in Cuba. It was only because of this information that American U-2 spy planes could get pictures of the launch sites and be able to identify them. Penkovsky was arrested soon after proving the information which kept Kennedy from having inside information during the tense 13-day standoff of the Cuban Missile Crisis.

The fate of Penkovsky is unknown. The Russians claim that he was shot and cremated. Others believe that he was a double agent and ended his mission and retired somewhere in Russia. Another account claims that Penkovsky was cremated alive as an example to others. The truth about Penkovsky remains unknown with some believing he was a plant to convince the Americans that the Soviets missile arsenal was not as advanced as it was. Others swear that he was a genuine defector.

Robert Hanssen the Worst U.S. Security Breach of the 20th Century

8 True-Life Spy Stories Beyond Any Imagination

Robert Hanssen is considered one of the most damaging double agents in U.S. history. While working for the F.B.I. he contacted the Russians several times willing to sell state secrets. He is believed to have earned over $1.4 million in cash and diamonds during his 22 years of contact with the Soviets. Despite being reported numerous times as a possible double agent, Hanssen was never investigated until the F.B.I. obtained proof of his deception.

Robert Hanssen worked for the Soviets during three separate periods. He started in 1976 when he contacted them about selling secrets. He informed the Soviets of American spies as well as FBI tapping and surveillance. He stopped in 1981 but then contacted the Russians again in 1985 asking for $100,000 to continue his espionage. Robert Hanssen was very deliberate in his spying, choosing all of his dead drop points and never letting the Russians know his true name. He operated under the code-name Ramon Garcia.

From 1986 to 1991 Hanssen continued to provide the Russians with lists of American double agents. He also told the Russians about a tunnel that the Americans built under the Russian embassy in order to be able to spy on them. In 1992 Hanssen started to take more risks in getting information to the Russians while trying to avoid suspicion within the FBI. However, throughout his career others had reported suspicions of Hansson but the FBI never investigated.

Unable to find the mole on their own the FBI finally caught Hansson when they paid a former Russian KGB agent $7 million to obtain the information. The agent turned over a file that implicated Hansson to the CIA and FBI. They monitored him and were finally able to catch him during a dead drop in 2001. His was convicted of 13 counts of espionage and is currently serving 13 life sentences.

Kim Philby the U.S.S.R.’s Most Successful Double Agent

8 True-Life Spy Stories Beyond Any Imagination

Kim Philby was the most successful double agent of the Cold War. Not only did he provide his Russian handlers with valuable information but he also lived out his life without either side killing him. He was a member of what was called the Cambridge Five, men from Cambridge who were willing to betray the British to the Russians.

Kim recruited by double agent Guy Burgess to join MI-6 in 1940. Kim was good at his job and with the support of other high ranking double agents he was able to quickly rise through the ranks of MI-6. By the end of World War II he was made head of counterespionage operations for MI-6. His job was to stop Russian subversion in western Europe although he himself was responsible for a great deal of it. With his new position he betrayed a number of agents to the Russians which cost them their lives.

In 1949 he took yet another promotion as Chief liaison for information between the British and U.S. services. He moved to Washington and learned of a plot by the Americans to send anticommunist bands into Albania in 1950. This would have spelled defeat for the Albanians but Kim Philby warned the Russians of the plot and all of the incoming forces were captured. The failed mission cost 300 lives.

When Guy Burgess and Donald MacLean (another Russian double agent) came under suspicion, Kim Philby was able to warn them. They defected to Moscow before being taken in by MI-6. After Burgess and MacLean defected, the suspicion for a double agent fell on Kim Philby. He was removed from MI-6 in 1955 and eventually settled in Moscow in 1963. He spent most of his time in Moscow under house arrest as the Soviets feared that he might leave and betray them to the British. He died at the age of 1988 to a hero’s funeral in Moscow and several medals were awarded to him posthumously.

Fritz Joubert Duquesne the Master of Disguise

8 True-Life Spy Stories Beyond Any Imagination


Fritz Joubert Duquesne’s life reads like an elaborate spy series. He was a German spy who had numerous aliases around the world. He was captured 3 times by the British, once by the Americans and once by the Portuguese and each time he managed to get away. One escape led to him becoming an American citizen and Teddy Roosevelt’s adviser in big game hunting.

During the Boer war, Duquesne would be captured and imprisoned by both the British and Portuguese. One escape ended with him joining the British army and attempting to sabotage British installations from the inside. He was found out and captured but managed to escape and flee to the United States. In the U.S. he became a journalist and the personal shooting instructor to Teddy Roosevelt. In 1914 he was approached by the Germans and signed on to become a German spy.

Duquesne was first sent to Brazil where he was responsible for disrupting the traffic of ships who were not loyal to Germany. He was responsible for sinking 22 ships while operating under at least 3 different aliases. When one of his accomplices was captured by the British and gave up Duquesne, he fled Brazil. He returned to Europe where Germany had him board the HMS Hampshire in Scotland posing as a Russian Duke. Once on-board with Lord Kitchner he signaled the Germans to blow up the ship. The target, Kitchner, died and Duquesne escaped on a raft.

He returned to the U.S. masquerading as an Allied war hero when he was arrested on fraud charges. He faked paralysis for 2 years while in prison. Then he disguised himself as a woman, cut through the bars of his cell and climbed over the wall and out the prison. His spy activities continued until he was finally arrested, convicted and kept in prison for the Duquesne Spy Ring. He was sentenced to 18 years in prison at the age of 64, but released after 14 due to ill health. He died at the age of 78.

Agent Farewell the Disillusioned Communist

8 True-Life Spy Stories Beyond Any Imagination

Vladimir Vetrov (or Agent Farewell as he was called by the French DST) was not the greatest spy of the 20th century, but his information was instrumental in stopping the Soviets from stealing important technological secrets from the West. He betrayed his country for purely ideological reasons and not money which may have been why he was so successful. However, in the end he caused his own downfall.

Vladimir studied electronic engineering in college in the U.S.S.R. and then joined the KGB after graduation. He was sent to France as a Line X officer part of Directorate X which was a program geared toward stealing Western technological secrets. After five years in France he returned to Moscow where he was promoted in Directorate X to where he was evaluating all information that was coming from Line X officers around the world.

It was around this time that he started to lose faith in the communist system and decided to begin working with the DST (Direction de la Surveillance du Territoire). In 1981 and 1982, Vetrov gave up over 4,000 documents to the DST, including the names and covers of 250 Line X agents around the world. He gave up all the details of the Directorate X program. It was based on his information that 47 agents were removed from France, and more than 100 more were expelled from other Western countries.

In early 1982, the French told Vetrov to go silent out of fear that he would be discovered for doing too much at once. This sent Vetrov into a depression that caused him to drink excessively. He ended up stabbing his mistress while the pair were together and then stabbing a man who knocked on his car window (believing his cover had been blown). He was sentenced to 12 years in prison for the crimes. While he was in prison the Soviets realized that he was a double agent and executed him in 1985.

Virginia Hall the Limping Lady Who Tripped up the Germans

8 True-Life Spy Stories Beyond Any Imagination

Virginia Hall was an American spy during the second world war who managed to be such a successful spy that she was code-named Artemis by the Germans and was placed on their most wanted list. She had a lust for adventure and a gift of languages which led her to join the foreign service. Her first assignment was in Turkey where she suffered a hunting accident. She was shot in the leg causing it to be amputated and replaced with a wooden leg that she named Cuthbert.

She was in France at the start of World War II and she made it out of France into England in order to join the British Special Operations Executive. There she received expert training in all aspects of espionage and counterintelligence. The SOE sent her back to France where she became the first female SOE operative in the country. There she developed agent networks, recruited French men and women for safe houses and hatched plans to free prisoners of war. She became known as “the limping lady” and the Gestapo were always desperate to capture her.

With the Gestapo closing in she managed to get to Spain, but she was imprisoned at the border for trying to enter without papers. She was able to secure her freedom through smuggling a letter to the American Embassy. Once free she decided to join the Office of Strategic Services (the precursor to the American CIA). They sent her back into occupied France where she worked undercover to coordinate parachute drops and report German troop movement. When the Americans landed in France she led resistance fighters to perform sabotage missions against the Germans as they retreated.

After the war she worked in Venice for a period collecting intelligence on the communist movement before starting a career with the CIA in 1951. She served with the CIA for 15 years with a wide range of agency tasks including supporting resistance groups in countries that were behind the Iron Curtain.