Top 10 famous spies of all time

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Updated on 11 May, 2012 at 12:35 pm


They are recalled as the decision makers of any warfare, deadly hunters of big games and handsome assassins with intuitive brutality. They became the textbook definition of a daredevil by their outstanding missions behind the enemy lines. This page of Topyaps, unpacks a gripping introduction on the action-packed lives of ten remorseless, shrewd and ever-dashing spies in world’s history.

10. Richard Sorge (1895 – 1944):

Son of a German mining engineer, Richard Sorge was born in a suburb of Imperial Russia. In August 1919, he gained a Ph.D. in political science from the University of Hamburg and very soon became a spy for the Soviet Union. Sorge adapted the cloak of a journalist and traveled across European countries to evaluate the hypothesis of communist revolts. To collect confidential informations about the Nazi Party, he was sent to Japan by the Soviet intelligence agency, GRU. He again posed himself as a journalist and joined the Nazi Party in Tokyo which helped him to intensify his roots of “loyalty” in the German embassy. After becoming an entirely trustworthy person of embassy, he provided the Soviet Red Army with accurate informations about Battle of Moscow, Pearl Harbor attack, Anti-Comintern Pact and the German-Japanese Pact. The most important piece of information of this spymaster concerns the Battle of Stalingrad, one of the bloodiest battles in history of warfare. On suspicion of espionage, he was arrested in Tokyo on October 18, 1941. Even under extreme torture, Sorge denied his any kind of connection with the Soviet Union. Finally, on November 7, 1944, he was hanged in Sugama Prison. According to Larry Collins, an American writer, Sorge’s great espionage mission in Japan prevented the victory of Nazi Party in the World War II and thereby assured the dimension of today’s world.

9. John Andre:

This charming and artistic spy boy was born on May 2, 1750 in a wealthy merchant family of London. Extremely influenced by the glamor of military life, he joined the British Army at the early age of 20 and became a lieutenant after four years in the 23rd Foot regiment. Before becoming a major in 1778, he was kept in a prison of Pennsylvania for almost one year as a prisoner of war. During his stay of nine months in Philadelphia, he shocked the Americans by looting the house Benjamin Franklin, John Andre ransacked scientific apparatus, musical instruments, books and some confidential documents of Franklin. Due to his prudence and resourcefulness, he, very soon became the most loyal supporter of General Henry Clinton, contemporary British Commander in Chief. Fond of Andre’s versatility, Sir Clinton appointed him to coordinate the activities of British Intelligence. The handsomest success came into the bag of Andre, when he compelled American General Benedict Arnold to surrender his West Point fort to the British for £20,000. On September 20, 1780, Andre met Arnold to collect the bundle of secret documents but was captured by American militiamen while crossing the American held territory. During conviction, he appealed General George Washington to execute him by firing squad but for spying on American soil, he was hanged at Tappan on October 2, 1780.

8. Robert Hanssen:

This undercover agent is credited for plotting the worst intelligence disaster in the history of United States. Hanssen was born on April 18, 1944, in Chicago, to a family of blended German and Danish-Polish blood. After completing his MBA in accounting and information systems, he joined the Chicago Police Department as an expert of forensic accounting but later joined the FBI as a special agent on January 12, 1976. Driven by the lust for money, Hanssen offered his services for the Soviet intelligence agency, GRU. Gradually, he penetrated the secrecy parameters of FBI and passed the GRU, a substantial amount of confidential informations. In the entire timeline of espionage, his biggest help to the Soviet Union was disclosing the hidden characteristics of Dmitri Polyakov. Polyakov was an effectual officer of GRU, secretly working as an informant of CIA. Hanssen continued taking risks and transported the informations of almost every activities of FBI to the GRU and KGB. After facing frequent failure in its counter-intelligence mission, the FBI formed a mole-hunting crew which primarily placed Hanssen under day-and-night surveillance. After collecting massive information about Hanssen’s unethical business with GRU, the FBI finally arrested him on February 18, 2001. After conviction, he was sentenced to life in prison along with a solitary confinement for 23 hours a day in Florence.


7. Sidney Reilly:

Best known as the “Ace of Spies” throughout the history of espionage, Sidney Reilly was the person who inspired Ian Flemming to conceptualize the fictional secret character of James Bond. This charismatic and debonair playboy was born on March 24, 1974, in the family of an influential Irish merchant seaman of the Russian Empire. With an exceeding command in different languages and extravagant skill in the single-hand marksmanship, he arrived London in December 1895 with the pseudo name Sigmund Rosenblum. In 1897, he suspiciously murdered Reverend Hugh Thomas and later married Reverend’s youthful wife, Margaret Callaghan. During his brief visit to Paris, he met William Melville, the first Director General of MI5. Extremely influenced by Reilly’s expertise, Melville handed him the charge to maneuver “The D’Arcy Affair.” William Knox D’Arcy, founder of an Anglo-Persian Oil Company had got a significant concession on oil rights and was about to sell it to the French de Rothschilds. Reilly started his manipulative tricks on D’Arcy and got success in terminating the negotiation of this right with French authorities. Later, this right was handed to the British Admiralty. In 1909, he was sent to Germany by the British Intelligence Agency to slip the weapon plans from German Kaiser. Once again, he disguised himself as a Baltic shipyard worker and accomplished the theft by strangulating the foreman of office. This master player of most daring plots was finally captured by the Soviets in September 1925, on Finnish border. According to British intelligence documents, he was executed on November 5, 1925, in a forest near Moscow.

6. Giacomo Casanova:

I will begin with this confession: whatever I have done in the course of my life, whether it be good or evil, has been done freely; I am a free agent. An insatiable womanizer and a man of contents, Casanova was born in 1725, in Venice, which was then ruled by religious conservatives. A law graduate from the University of Padua and a top-notch gambler by profession, Casanova was first approached by his friend, de Bernis, contemporary Foreign Minister of France to raise funds for the state by adapting any mean. With the quality of his supernaturalism, he, very soon raised a large fortune by fooling high-profile socialites. His espionage capability was widely admired by the state authorities when he succeeded in selling the state bonds at only 8% discount in Amsterdam, the then financial capital of Europe. This success helped him is achieving the peak of fortune but very soon he was arrested for loosing much of his wealth on his ‘Wanderlust.’ But this manipulative nerd managed to escape to Switzerland with cover name Chevalier de Seingalt. Later, he was appointed as a spy in Venice to dig the hidden informations of commerce, morals and religion. This man of far-ranging intellect died on June 4, 1798, at the age of 73.

5. Nathan Hale:

Considered as the most reverend figure between spies, Hale was born in 1755 in Connecticut. He was a significant member of the literary fraternity of Yale College. After the commencement of Revolutionary War in 1775, Hale was appointed as a first lieutenant in the Connecticut militia. While serving as a captain, he commanded a small unit of rangers in 1776, defending the New York City. In this mission, he successfully guided his troops to rescue a ship from the hold of British man-of-war which was full of provisions. In the Battle of Long Island (one of the biggest battle of American Revolutionary War), New York City was captured by the British forces. Amid the warfare, Nathan Hale, decided to intrude the enemy lines to report on the movements of British troop. On September 12, 1776, he put on civilian clothing and crossed the Long Island Sound by travelling in a small boat. During the entire event, a partial portion of Manhattan was set to fire which was an attempt of American wreckers to prevent the city from the hands of British. Unfortunately, his mission was discovered by the British and he was captured. According to all sources, on September 22, 1776, Hale was hanged somewhere near 66th Street and Third Avenue. It is said that before the hanging, he uttered this line — “I only regret that I have but one life to give for my country.”

4. Aldrich Ames:

The biggest traitor in the history of Central Intelligence Agency, this exotic and much more civilized brainiac was born on May 26, 1941, in River Falls, Wisconsin. Before graduating from the George Washington University, he performed some clerical jobs for the CIA. Initially patriot, Ames gave his best to intrude into the Communist DEV-GENC organization after receiving not-so-satisfactory remarks for the CIA officials, he went low and considered quitting the CIA. However, he, later gained some positive reviews and was placed on an extremely sensitive position of SE division which was handling the counter-intelligence activities of the Soviet Union. A mercenary by nature, Ames demanded the Soviet intelligence for $50,000 in order to exchange some secret informations of the CIA which was quickly accepted by the Soviets. From then, this agency mole, started a lifestyle well beyond the means of a CIA officer. This loyal pet of the Soviet Union was responsible for the failure of at least a hundred intelligence missions of the United States along with execution of at least ten top-notch sources of the CIA. Finally, CIA focussed on this spy and after gathering some horrible evidences, Aldrich Ames was charged with spying for the GRU and KGB. Currently, he is serving life imprisonment (without parole) in the high-security prison of Allenwood, Pennsylvania.

3. Klaus Fuchs:

Famous for penetrating the Manhattan Project, this atomic spy was born on December 29, 1911, in Russelsheim, Germany. In 1937, he earned a Ph.D. in Physics from the University of Bristol and due to his extensive research on quantum mechanics, he secured the position of a teacher at Edinburgh. Despite outbreak of war, he was granted the citizenship of Britain and started his work on the “Tube Alloys”, an atomic bomb research project of England. After the eruption of war between Nazi Germany and Soviet Union, Fuchs realized that the Soviets had a right to know about the ongoing secret project of Britain and thus became an active member of the GRU. An expert of the fissionable core of plutonium bomb, he provided Alexander Feklisov, a Soviet spy, the general sketch for developing a hydrogen bomb and the progress of United States and Britain in this technology. By disclosing the production rate of U-235 and plutonium in America, Fuchs eased the way for GRU to compute the exact number of atomic bombs in United States. He, finally came on the radar of the British intelligence agency, when his cipher messages were cracked by the Venona Project. Venona Project was a secret collaboration of the intelligence agencies of Britain and U.S. to decode the messages sent by the Soviet intelligence agencies, using the method of cryptanalysis. After confiscating his British citizenship, he was sentenced to imprisonment of fourteen years. After release, he was emigrated to East Germany where he served as the Deputy Director of Institute for Nuclear Research. He died on January 28, 1988, in Dresden.

2. Belle Boyd:

Also known as the “Cleopatra of the Secession”, Isabella Marie Boyd was born on May 9, 1844, at Martinsburg, Virginia. With the characteristic of a  reckless tomboy, this Confederate spy of the American Civil War was fond of living a care-free life from her early age. According to historical evidents, on July 4, 1861, the Confederate flag hanging outside her home was snapped by a band of Union Army soldiers. Infuriated by this act, she gunned down a soldier on the spot. After this incident, local officers started a sharp track on her activities. It is said, that Captain Daniel Keily, one of the officers, was charmed by this lady of stunning beauty and started revealing the secrets of his military. Eliza Hopewell, Belle’s slave, conveyed these messages to Confederate Officers in a hollowed-out watch case. In May 182, she was eavesdropping General James Shields and his staff through a knothole of the door of her father’s hotel. There she came to know that the strength of Union Army will be reduced significantly at Front Royal as general Shields was ordered to move towards east. To inform the Confederate officers about this opportunity, she ran a long way ahead to meet Col. Turner Ashby. The Confederate forces utilized this golden chance and advanced on Front Royal. For this daredevil act, she was awarded the Southern Cross of Honor and was made elected captain. Later, she became a popular actress of England and also began giving inspiring lectures on her life of espionage. On June 11, 1900, she died of a heart attack in Kilbourne City, Wisconsin.


1. Mata Hari:

And here comes the granny of all spies. A woman’s envy and a passionate lust of a man, this fascinating German spy was born on August 7, 1876, in Netherlands. Originally known as Margaretha Geertruida Zelle, this lady of sheer determination married Rudolf John MacLeod, a prominent Dutch Colonial Army Officer, on July 11, 1895. Due to the violent and alcoholic nature of her husband, this relationship was permanently called off and she switched to an another Dutch Officer, Van Rheedes. Known for her breathtaking classical beauty and exotic gestures, she adopted her stage name “Mata Hari” during her struggle time in the modelling arena. In 1916, this dangerous seductress was offered a huge cash by a German diplomat to extract secret informations from the French officials. Her consistent movements to France and Netherlands via Spain and Britain aroused the attention of French authorities. Once, she was arrested and was inquired at length by the Assistant Commissioner of New Scotland Yard for her alleged involvement in counter-espionage. Later, she was released due to the lack of solid evidences. In January 1917, a German message was intercepted by the French intelligence which was being transmitted from Madrid to Berlin. In this message, the German military officials were admiring the helpful contributions of a German spy of code name H-21. The French intelligence agents verified that H-21 was Mata Hari and thus she was immediately arrested. She was convicted for her role in the execution of at least 50,000 French soldiers and finally on October 15, 1917, she was executed by the firing squad.

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