12 Unbelievably Daring Real-Life Spies

By: Wes Walcott
Silhouette of a man in hat against screen window.
Many real-life spies have been tasked with missions that are just as dangerous as anything their fictional counterparts would tackle. Maciej Toporowicz, NYC / Getty Images

We’ve read about them in books and see them in movies all the time but is the the world of espionage and secret agents really as flashy and exciting as Ian Fleming would have us believe? Well, perhaps not in all respects, but many real-life spies have been tasked with missions that are just as dangerous as anything their fictional counterparts would tackle. And, unlike in the movies, when real spies are captured, they aren’t left unattended while some elaborate scheme involving a slow moving laser is assumed to have taken care of their execution. Nevertheless, after reading about a few of these daring real-life spies, you might find that a few of them have much more in common with James Bond than you might have expected.


12. Dušan Popov

A big source of inspiration for Ian Fleming and his spy novels, Dušan Popov was a Serbian-born double agent who worked for MI6 during World War II. In addition to charming exotic women and going on dangerous missions, Popov became famous for warning the FBI as early as August 1941 that Japan was planning an attack on Pearl Harbor. Unfortunately, his warning went unheeded since FBI Director Edgar Hoover mistrusted him. Popov died in his home in France in 1981 at the age of 68.


11. Tony Mendez

Even though Tony Mendez didn’t normally work in the field himself, he was considered a master of disguise for crafting all the documents, costumes, and personas that his fellow spies would need to travel undetected behind enemy lines. His skills were so impressive that he was able to make an Asian man and a black CIA agent look like two ordinary white businessmen to avoid being suspected by Laos counter-intelligence.

Mendez most successful operation is now also his most famous thanks to the Oscar-winning cinematic treatment that Ben Affleck gave it in the 2012 film Argo. In the late 1970’s he had the ingenuity to come up with a fake movie production and use it as cover to help exfiltrate a group of American and Canadian ambassadorial hostages from Iran.


10. Mata Hari

Margaretha Geertruide MacLeod was a Dutch exotic dancer who went by the stage name Mata Hari. During World War I, the French Army recruited her as a spy, thinking that she would have many contacts from her days as a dancer and courtesan. She agreed to use her seductive methods to gather intelligence from German commanding officers, however, she was arrested by the French authorities in 1917 after they allegedly intercepted communications that identified her as a spy for the Germans. She was imprisoned, found guilty of espionage, and executed by firing squad in Paris. Yet, Mata Hari’s espionage activities remain a matter of debate, chiefly because the evidence used against her was vague and circumstantial. But according to many historians, she was likely a double agent working for the Germans. An account of Mata Hari’s life can be found in the biography Femme Fatale: Love Lies, and the Unknown Life of Mata Hari.


9. Odette Hallowes

Oddly enought, Odette Hallowes became an SOE agent purely by an accident. In 1942, after mistakenly sending a postcard offering her services to the war efforts to the wrong government office, she was called in by the Special Forces of the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry (FANY) and trained as an SOE agent. Later that same year, Hallowes was sent to work with the French in Nazi-occupied France. However, soon after reaching France, her and her supervisor, Peter Churchill, were captured by the Nazis. The pair managed to avoid execution though thanks to some quick thinking on Hallowes part. She realized that if the Germans believed that Peter was the nephew of British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and she his wife, they would be looked upon as valuable bargaining chips that were not to be harmed. Evidently, the plan worked as both of them survived the war. Hallowes later became the only living woman to be awarded with the George Cross — one of the highest honors given in the UK.


8. Klaus Fuchs

A German nuclear physicist who fled to Britain in 1933 after the Nazis came to power, Klaus Fuchs worked on the top-secret British atomic bomb project, codenamed “Tube Alloys.” Shortly thereafter, he began working for the Soviet military intelligence agency GRU before heading to the United States in 1943 to join the team of scientists working on the Manhattan Project. In 1949, the Americans began suspecting him of espionage. The next year he was arrested and imprisoned after it became apparent that he was leaking information to the USSR. According to reports, Fuchs was motivated by anti-Nazi feelings and a complicated view of how best to achieve postwar equilibrium. He was also said to have been an extremely academic and gentle man who once drew a diagram of the workings of a spin-washer on a prison laundry receipt to demonstrate its workings to his fellow prisoners.

After spending 14 years locked up, Fuchs was released in 1959 and deported to East Germany where he died in 1988. Though it’s unclear how greatly Fuchs’ espionage impacted the Soviet atomic bomb project, he did supply American and British intelligence agencies with important information that helped expose other Soviet spies such as the American born Rosenbergs.


7. George Blake

Dutch born George Blake began his career as a spy during World War II. In 1950, he infiltrated Seoul as a British agent but was captured by North Korean authorities and held captive for three years. During his time in prison, Blake became a communist and defected. Unaware of his change of heart, Britain welcomed Blake home as a hero when he was released in 1953 even though by that point he had officially become a double agent. He handed over details of more than 40 MI6 agents to the Soviets, essentially destroying the intelligence agency’s network of contacts in Eastern Europe.

Blake’s espionage activities weren’t exposed until 1961, after which he was sentenced to 42 years in prison. However, after serving just five years, he escaped and prison and fled to Moscow where he has supposedly been living ever since. In 2007, Blake was awarded the Order of Friendship by Vladimir Putin.


6. Henri Dericourt

French pilot Henri Dericourt fled France and joined the Special Operations Executive (SOE) in Britain in 1942. As an SOE agent, he was then sent back to France to arrange secret aircraft landings and transportation of other SOE agents. But after several British agents and French resistance fighters were arrested by the Gestapo, the SOE began to suspect that there was a traitor in their midst. Whether Dericourt was actually the suspected double agent remains a mystery to this day. Though he was arrested in 1946, he was acquitted after two years and later died in a plane crash in 1962. However, since no body was recovered from the wreckage, there are some who believe that Dericourt faked his own death and that he’s really alive somewhere living a different life under a different name.


5. Virginia Hall

Virginia Hall was an American volunteer working in Paris when World War II broke out. After France’s surrender, she escaped to Britain where she joined the Special Operative Executive (SOE). Not long after, she was sent back to France and worked as a correspondent for the New York Post while she helped to coordinate the activities of the resistance in Vichy. Hall was allegedly regarded by the Germans as “the most dangerous of all Allied spies” and appeared on the Gestapo’s “most wanted” list as “the limping lady” — referring to the fact that she had shot herself in the foot in 1932, eventually resulting in her lower leg being amputated and replaced with a prosthetic limb. She named her wooden leg Cuthbert, and used it to hide numerous documents over the course of her spy career.

When the war was over, Hall joined the CIA and worked as an intelligence agent until her retirement in 1966. She died in 1982 at age 76.


4. Sidney Reilly

Nicknamed “The Ace of Spades” by his peers, Sidney Reilly is said to be one of the main sources of inspiration for Ian Fleming’s James Bond. It’s thought that he was a spy for as many as four nations and, much like the famous fictional spy, he was quite the Casanova and and liked to regale audiences with stories of his extraordinary life. However, being that it was his job to be a master of lies and deception, exactly how many of his extravagant exploits are actually true is a matter of dispute. What’s not disputed, however, is that Reilly was a part of some of the most daring spy operations the public world has ever become aware of. In 1918, he was famously involved in a British-backed plot to assassinate the Soviet leader Lenin and overthrow the Bolshevik government. Though the plot failed, Reilly amazingly managed to escape but not without earning a Soviet government death sentence in absentia, which was finally carried out when he was captured after returning to help overthrow the Soviet regime in 1925.


3. William Stephenson

Like Sidney Reilly, William Stephenson provided Ian Fleming with a lot on inspiration for his James Bond stories. In fact, Fleming himself once wrote, “James Bond is a highly romanticized version of a true spy. The real thing is … William Stephenson.”

Stephenson was a Canadian soldier, airman, businessman, inventor, spymaster, and the head of British intelligence for the entire western hemisphere throughout World War II. His greatest achievement was founding and running the spy training facility known as Camp X. It was there that he trained potential secret agents in subjects like “assassination and elimination,” earning the camp its nickname as “the school of mayhem and murder.”

As head of the British Security Coordination, Stephenson passed British scientific secrets to President Franklin D. Roosevelt which earned him a position as one of the President’s special advisors and led to him contributing to the setup of what would later become the CIA. Stephenson is also largely credited with changing American public opinion from a largely isolationist stance to one of increasing support regarding America’s entry into World War II.

2. Oleg Penkovsky

When the U.S. discovered Russian missile silos off the coast of Cuba, the Cold War heated up pretty quickly. Thankfully, the nuclear stand-off was de-escalated and we didn’t blow the planet to smithereens, but things could have been much worse if the Americans never discovered those weapons — and the only reason they did was thanks to the work of Oleg Penkovsky.

Codenamed HERO, Penkovsky was a colonel with Soviet military intelligence who remained active in the field for decades and risked his life countless times leaking secrets to both the Americans and the British. But because the CIA believed he was constantly being watched, transmission of the sensitive materials proved extremely difficult. As it would happen the CIA was probably right. After shining a light on the Cuban missile situation, Penkovsky was apprehended by Soviet authorities, questioned, and shot.

1. Richard Sorge

Richard Sorge was a German-born Soviet spy who became a passionate communist while recovering from an injury he sustained in World War I. During Wold War II, he operated out of Japan and provided the Soviets with vital information regarding the intentions of both Japan and Nazi Germany. From the intelligence gathered by Sorge, the Soviets learned that Japan wasn’t planning an attack on Russia, but the Germans were. It’s even thought that he reported the impending Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, although the message may have never actually reached the Allied forces.

The information supplied by Sorge was thought to be so valuable that he could have been almost single-handedly responsible for halting the Nazis advance in 1941. Which is probably why Ian Fleming referred to him as “the man whom I regard as the most formidable spy in history.” Sadly, when Sorge was captured by Japanese forces, Stalin refused to secure his release, resulting in his execution in 1944. 20 years later, in 1964, Sorge was posthumously awarded the Hero of the Soviet Union distinction, the highest honorary title one can receive in the Soviet Union.