10 Ways Secret Intelligence Was Gathered In The Past

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A large part of every conflict is gathering information about the other side. Throughout history, people have had to formulate crafty methods to get the vital intelligence they needed. The stories about how and what they did make for an interesting perspective of the past.



10Ham Common Torture


Recently, controversy has centered around the use of torture—or “enhanced interrogation”—to get information from suspected terrorists. But it’s not a new tactic.

As part of World War II’s Operation Fortitude—the plan to deceive the Germans about the D-day landing location—the SIS (British Intelligence) held 19 German agents in a cellar in a home in Ham Common. The German agents were “turned” into double agents through sleep deprivation and gross physical and mental abuse that was in direct violation of the Geneva Convention.

Subsequently, they began to share information about the German military while sabotaging the Nazis at the same time. They told the Abwehr (German Intelligence) that the invasion would land in Pas de Calais rather than Normandy Beach. These German agents continued to cooperate with the SIS until the end of the war.

9World War I Sardines


World War I was the start of several intelligence and counterintelligence activities by world powers. One ingenious method by the Germans was the use of sardine shipments.

Ludovico Zender was a native of Lima, Peru, and the son of Norwegian immigrants. In 1914, he arrived in Glasgow as a “tradesman.” Zender ordered a large shipment of Norwegian sardines in 1915, claiming to be taking them back to Peru.

However, the telegrams sent by Zender went to Oslo, a known drop site for German intelligence. Zender’s operation was exposed because it was the wrong season for sardines. In actuality, his telegrams were descriptions of British shipping movements disguised as sardine transactions. Zender was convicted of espionage and executed at the Tower of London in 1916—the last spy to be executed there during World War I.

8Silver Bullets


During the American War of Independence, both sides devised brilliant techniques to smuggle information back and forth. One technique was writing on tissue paper and stuffing the message into small objects like hollowed buttons, quills, or small silver balls resembling musket balls. These objects could easily be swallowed if the messenger was caught.

In 1777, British spy Daniel Taylor was entrusted with delivering a message from General Henry Clinton to General John Burgoyne. It was stuffed inside a silver ball the size of a cranberry.

When Taylor was caught by an American sentinel, they observed him swallowing an object. They forced him to consume tartar emetic to vomit up the bullet. “Out of his own mouth,” he was convicted as a spy and hanged.

7Musical Spies


In medieval times, most elite musicians made money by touring and performing in the courts of royalty. Since they were thought of as entertainers and nothing more, they were the perfect candidates to become spies.

Such was the case of spy Pierre Alamire, a celebrated musician and composer of beloved choir books, who was recruited by Henry VIII’s adviser Cardinal Thomas Wolsey (pictured) in 1515. Alamire was to gather information about Richard de la Pole, a loyal Yorkist during the War of the Roses who later allied with the French to wage war against the English.

Alamire traveled to Metz, France, where Pole was living. In a strange twist, Alamire became a double agent and began passing information to both courts. He was no longer trusted by the English and, after 1516, never returned to England.

6Pancho Villa’s Mormon Cowboy


During the Mexican Revolution, Pancho Villa was forced to find friends at every turn to stay one step ahead of those who wanted him dead. One unlikely ally was a Mormon trader named Jess Taylor. Villa’s enemies were known to raid Mormon colonies in Mexico, stealing supplies and holding captives for ransom.



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