Sharp suits, the gift of the gab, concealed guns and gadgets so hi-tech that they haven’t even been invented yet. These are all the sorts of things we all associate with secret agents. But is this image of suave spy just too cool to be true? Although many of us might have been fooled into thinking that these undercover characters exist only in the world of spy novels and action packed Hollywood blockbusters, there have been plenty of badass secret agents throughout history. You might not recognise their names (which, I guess, would mean that they did a good job) but these incredible stories of espionage are sure to leave you shaken and stirred.
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5. Sidney Reilly
When it comes to secret agents, they don’t come much more badass than Sidney Reilly. Born as Sigmund Georgievich Rosenblum to a Russian Jewish family in 1874, he was always a few steps ahead of the rest; he even taught himself to fluently speak several foreign languages. As a young man, Sigmund moved to Brazil where he met and befriended a group of British explorers. He moved to England with his new found friends, who, impressed by his wit and intelligence suggested that he joined the intelligence services. Sigmund Rosenblum soon became Sidney Reilly and worked his way up through the ranks to gain a permanent role as a spy in the naval intelligence unit and was dispatched to locations around the world. It’s no wonder that James Bond author, Ian Fleming, was said to have based his famous hero on Reilly. There was also a dark side to this notorious ladies’ man, as the husband of the woman he loved was found dead and many believed that it was Sidney who posed as a doctor and dealt him the final blow. Sadly, the secret agent’s luck eventually ran out. After he unsuccessfully tried to overthrow Lenin’s Bolshevik government in 1918, Reilly was sentenced to death and was finally caught and executed by the Soviet Union in 1925.
4. Juan Pujol Garcia
Juan Pujol Garcia was a double agent you definitely wouldn’t want to double cross. In the ultimate act of undercover espionage, Garcia worked as a spy for Britain under the codename Garbo and for Germany under the name Arabel. After seeing the horror of the Nazi regime in Europe, Pujol contacted British and American intelligence agencies in an attempt to land a job as a spy as he said "for the good of humanity". They both turned him down. But as he was not one to take no for an answer, the crafty Spanish spy created a brand new identity for himself as a huge Nazi fanatic and was soon working as a secret agent for Germany. Pujol’s first assignment was to travel to Britain and come back with information, but instead he headed to Lisbon and worked tirelessly to create a huge amount of false reports to throw the Germans off the trail. When the Brits found out about his act of deceit, Pujol was snapped up as a spy and was soon working as Garbo. He spent the rest of the war providing Germany with bogus information and false leads which lead to the Nazis wasting valuable time, money and effort. At the end of the war, he was the only person to receive both an Iron Cross from Germany and an MBE by Great Britain.
3. Vera Atkins
In the male dominated world of World War II, one woman rose to become one of Britain’s most important undercover agents working in the France. Vera was a Romanian Jew and first started working as a secretary in the French Section of the Special Operations Executive but worked her way up through the ranks to become an assistant to the head of the whole department. After that Vera became a special intelligence officer and a Flight Officer in the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force. By 1944, her role was to recruit British agents in occupied France and to put them forward for hard-core commando training. As well as this, Vera was in charge of a group of thirty-seven elite female spies who would work in various undercover roles such as couriers, telephone operators and entertainers- all this while continuing to work as an agent herself. Vera was quite a character, well known for her sincerity, integrity and superhuman photographic memory. She was also recognisable thanks to her trademark victory rolls and tailored skirt suits. Definitely one of the most badass undercover agents in history.
2. Chevalier d'Eon
The unbelievable story of Chevalier d’Eon, whose real name was Charles-Geneviève-Louis-Auguste-André-Timothée d’Éon de Beaumont (quite a mouthful) involves French kings, Empresses, a spy in drag and a war. Although it might sound like something out of a Shakespearean screwball comedy, this wild tale is totally true. Chevalier was a French diplomat, soldier and spy who, after fighting in the seven year war of the 18th century, was hired by the king to join a top secret network of spies known as the Secret du Roi. When King Louis instructed this motley crew to go to Russia and spy on Empress Elizabeth and the Habsburg Monarchy, they were met with a big problem. Only women and children were being allowed to cross the border and access Russia. D’Eon had always been noted for his delicate, feminine features and so was elected to pass as a woman and enter. Sure enough, posing as Lady Lea de Beaumont, the cunning spy managed to land himself a job as Empress Elizabeth’s lady in waiting.
1. Ruth Kuczynski
Widely regarded to be the most badass female secret agent of all time, Ruth Kuczynski lived one hell of a life as a Soviet spy. Ruth was born in 1907 to a whole family of spies. Her parents and both siblings worked as undercover agents for the Soviet Union, meaning the chats they had over holidays and family get togethers were probably much more interesting than most of ours. Her first mission was to Shanghai in 1930, at the age of 23, where she gathered secret information for the government under the guise of working as a humble bookseller. After this, Ruth was sent to Switzerland where she created a false identity as part of a detailed operation, her codename was Sonia. It is said that Ruth had affairs with several other spies, but she married the Englishman Leon Beurton under the orders of the Soviet government in order to obtain UK citizenship. Ruth’s nanny in London did alert the authorities to her suspicious secret agent activities, but the warning was ignored and she continued to pass important information back to the communist government. Later in life, she was forced to flee to East Germany where she lived out the rest of her days as a writer of children’s books.
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So there you have it. Five of the coolest and most covert secret agents of all time. Maybe their tales have inspired you to go and find yourself a job as a top secret spy. Maybe you already are one. In any case, their stories show that incredible undercover agents don’t just live in action films, they could be all around us.