The Most Famous Real Life Spies in History


Last updated on March 8th, 2023

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In today’s history lesson we’ll delve into the stories of the most famous real life spies. Find out about the Cold War spies that duped nations, the most famous female spies, and of course the John Walker spy story.

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There are some human feats in history that sound unbelievable when read. Things that could not possibly be true. The treacherous (or in some cases, brave) acts of these prolific masters of disguise will leave you open-mouthed at the sheer audacity.

Leaving the fictional spies that we know and love so well, looking like schoolboys, these real-life secret agents have pulled off some of the most outrageous tales of espionage in history.

For as long as we can remember, undercover agents have shaped our world. Power struggles and espionage go hand in hand. From victories and defeats to death and destruction, spies have always played an important role.

Whether the Second World War, Cold War or the battle for a royal throne, the greatest leaders need spies and defectors for insider information.

Unassuming individuals in positions of trust, who risk everything to pass on secret information – actions that carry punishment by death or in more recent times a prison sentence long enough to stop you ever setting foot on free ground again.

Why do it? That is the golden question.

Read on to discover the daring feats of these daring individuals.

From the greatest double agents to the world’s greatest spies, check out this round-up of the most famous, audacious real-life spies of all time.

John Walker: Most Famous Real Life Spy in America

Famous for selling the plans, training, and location of the U.S Navy for almost twenty years, John Walker led one of the most dangerous spy rings in history which could have wiped out the U.S. Navy if the Cold War had ever moved beyond words.

Who was John Walker?

Joining the navy to escape the threat of a prison sentence for theft, Walker soon became a Chief Warrant Officer, a leading advisor with specialist technical knowledge.

From 1968 to 1985, John Walker double-crossed the U.S. Navy and recruited his son and other members of his family as well as a colleague, to aid his antics. According to the Independent Online, John’s treachery “represented the most damaging leak in the history of the U.S. Navy”.

most famous real life spies_john walker
John Walker

Spiraling into debt when his bar failed to succeed in 1968, Walker made a drastic decision to sell his top-secret radio cipher to the Soviet Union. Arriving at the Soviet Union’s embassy in Washington, in person, he sold his US Naval codebreaker and arranged to work as a spy for the Soviet Union for around $2,000 per week.

Useless without the accompanying code-breaking equipment used on Naval ships, John’s sale is thought to be the reason that the USS Pueblo was hijacked and captured one month later by North Korea.

Sold on to the Soviet Union, Moscow could now decode all US naval communications – a staggering win, particularly because this was during the Cold War.

For the next five years, Walker continued to sell vital information about the Navy’s plans, tactics, training, and resources, putting the U.S. military in serious danger if the Cold War had ever turned into actual physical warfare.

Interrupted by a job transfer in 1973, Walker duped Jerry Whitworth (who worked in communications), into passing information to him instead, telling Whitworth that it was to help Israel.

After eight years of espionage, the cracks were beginning to show and John’s superiors were becoming increasingly suspicious of the number of mistakes that he had on his record, so Walker quickly retired.

Becoming a private investigator, he then convinced his son and older brother (who were in the navy) to steal the information for him instead.

When his wife (now divorced), phoned the FBI to tell them that her husband was a spy – they didn’t believe her at first.

John Walker was arrested in 1985, after leaving top secret information in the woods for Russian intelligence officers. His son was found to have a locker full of classified documents when arrested on board his ship. Reports suggest that Walker’s actions did significant damage to national security. 

As a result of John Walker, the U.S military completely changed and upgraded their security, introducing new technology after Walker was sent to prison. The impact of John’s treachery meant that the Soviet Union were able to study and track the U.S. Navy for almost twenty years. One of the consequences was that they were able to stop the U.S. Navy from detecting Soviet submarines when they discovered the method that the military used to find them.

John Walker and his brother both died in prison serving life sentences. His son received a reduced sentence of 25 years as part of John’s plea bargain.

Without a doubt, one of the most famous American spies of all time.

Mata Hari: Most Famous Female Spy in History?

most famous real life spies_Mata Hari in 1906
Mata Hari in 1906

The powers of female persuasion are notorious – when harnessed for the purposes of wartime espionage and intrigue -they become epic. Mata Hari and Virginia Hall, both vie for the title of the greatest female spy, for their daring deeds during the First (Hari) and Second (Hall) World Wars.

The difficulty lies in differentiating between fact and fiction when it comes to the wartime escapades of Mata Hari. The problem is: was Mata Hari really a spy or was she a scapegoat for the defeated French?

Having reached the end of a dizzying ten-year career as a dancer who liked to shock in 1915, Mata Hari spent her time working the high-society social scene in Paris.

Born in the Netherlands in 1876, and having lived in Indonesia as a Captain’s wife, Hari was well-off with friends all over Europe, when the First World War broke out. As someone who was Dutch, Mata was still able to travel across Europe even though the world was at war.

Although living in Paris, Mata criss-crossed Europe during the war, whilst socializing with powerful men, which made some people view her with suspicion.

In 1916, desperate to see her injured boyfriend who had been blinded on the Western Front, Hari asked officials for permission to visit the Front.

Seeing an opportunity for useful espionage, French intelligence offered Hari a large sum of money to obtain information about the German military from the top of Germany authority – the Crown Prince, whom Hari had danced for in the past.

What happened next is still not clear, but resulted in the death of Hari as a traitor to the Allies.

In 1917, French Intelligence intercepted a German major’s telephone call to Berlin about the advantages gained from a German spy, who had offered to sell information about the French (the spy sounded exactly like Mata Hari).

However, the fact that the Germans knew that the French could break the code used for the phone call, might suggest that all was not as it seemed.

Mata Hari was arrested and killed by firing squad in 1917 for being a traitor to the allies. Solid evidence of her espionage was never found.

If this is true, then surely she would be the greatest female spy of all time, working at the highest levels of both warring sides during the First World War.

However, there are so many questions and conflicting aspects to the story, that it may be better to look elsewhere for someone whose story is proven to be to be completely true.

Thus, Virginia Hall wins the title of the greatest female spy of all time. According to the Smithsonian Magazine, the Gestapo were said to have named her ‘the limping lady’ – ‘the most dangerous of all Allied spies’.

Recommended Article: Don’t miss our guide to the cleverest hidden flasks next!

Virginia Hall: American Second World War Spy

most famous real life spies_Virginia Hall receiving medal
Virginia Hall receiving the Distinguished Service Cross

Having lost her leg in a hunting accident in 1932 whilst working at the American Embassy in Poland, at the age of 26, Virginia had a wooden leg from the knee down, which meant that she had to give up her plans to work as a U.S. diplomat overseas.

However, when the Second World War broke out she made a bold move and became the first female in France, working for the S.E.O., a special branch of the British Paramilitary. Using the cover of an American journalist, Hall built up the French Resistance and assisted the stranded allied soldiers in occupied areas of France. When the Germans finally took control of the rest of France, she escaped to Spain on foot through the Pyrenees mountains. Continuing her efforts in Spain, she was awarded an MBE by the British in 1943 for her work.

Despite being at the top of the Gestapo’s wanted list, Hall went back to France to continue her work a short while later, this time as an American spy, disguised as an elderly lady.

Her work included training three battalions of the French Resistance, organizing missions to sabotage and capture the enemy and keeping the allies up to date with the movements of the German army by radio. To the anger of the Gestapo, she was never captured.

After the war, she was awarded the second highest U.S. military award and worked for the CIA for the rest of her life.

Clearly the work of the world’s greatest female spy.

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Aldrich Ames: The Greatest Cold War Spy

most famous real life spies_Aldrich Ames mugshot
Aldrich Ames mugshot

By managing to spy from within the CIA, Aldrich Ames has to be the greatest cold war spy. As a CIA case worker, he is said to have given up the names of more U.S. undercover agents than almost any other spy in history.

After a number of concerns over his excessive drinking, in 1983, Ames was moved to a new role in the Department of Operations where the CIA ran their covert work against the Soviet Union.

Blaming a costly divorce from his wife later that year Ames began working as a Soviet spy in 1985. Pocketing $50,000, he gave up the details of ten wanted operatives working in the Soviet Union.

Then carried on working for the Soviet Union and the CIA.

For another nine years.

Yes, Ames continued to work on CIA secret operations for the Soviet Union, whilst all the time giving up the details of the same covert operations to the Soviets who killed them off in droves. In nine years he managed to amass a grand total of $4.6 million for his treachery.

When it looked like he might be found out he got the KGB to put the CIA off the trail by planting information that the mole was in another office. The investigation there carried on for a year. In 1993, the CIA finally twigged that Ames’ spending was way beyond his salary and he was arrested in 1994.

In nine years, Ames had: shared information about 100 U.S. intelligence operations, caused the deaths of U.S. sources and enabled the KGB to feed fake information to the CIA, some of which had even been included in reports to U.S. presidents.

A feat hard to separate from Robert Hanssen, who worked for the FBI and sold secret government documents- about warfare and weapons- to the Russians for 22 years from 1979 to 2001. He is now serving 15 life sentences in federal prison.

Ames was imprisoned for life.

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The Rosenbergs: The Most Prolific Russian Spies

most famous real life spies_The Rosenbergs in 1951
The Rosenbergs in 1951

When it comes to Russian spies, the most famous tale of espionage has to be that of the Rosenbergs. Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, an American couple with two sons, were the last people that you would suspect of spying for the Soviet Union in the 1950s.

At the center of a spy ring that reported to the KGB, and included Ethel’s brother and an American chemist, they gave the Soviet Union information about America’s secret engineering projects including the creation of a nuclear weapon and the development of radar, sonar and jet propulsion engines.

Former members of the American Communist party, both received the death penalty in 1953.

The Spy with 29 Names: The Most Audacious Second World War Spy

The world’s most daring spy has to be, the spy with 29 names. The dare-devil Second World War Spanish secret agent had so many aliases that it is hard to know which one was his real name.

Thought to have originally been called Juan Pujol, he is credited with being the reason that the allies were able to pull off D-Day whilst he led the German high command on a wild goose chase. Amongst other outrageous wartime escapades that saw him working at the very top of the Nazi leadership, he even managed to dupe Hitler. It is said that without him, the allies would not have won the war when they did.

Definitely the most audacious spy of World War Two.

So there you have it, the risky antics of the world’s famous spies that definitely do leave you completely speechless.

Have we missed someone? Is there another daredevil that you think should be on this list? Leave a comment down below- we would love to know!

How’s your spy game? Don’t miss our guides to the top spotting scopes and monoculars of the year!

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Extra image sources:

Mata Hari:, Public Domain

Virginia Hall: Making an Impact: Virginia Hall. The People of the CIA. CIA Official Website, Public Domain

Aldrich Ames: Federal Bureau of Investigation, Public Domain, Link

The Rosenburgs: By Roger Higgins, photographer from “New York World-Telegram and the Sun” – Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. New York World-Telegram and the Sun Newspaper Photograph Collection., Public Domain

Photo of author


Thomas S.

With a background in government supply and a keen interest in emerging technologies, I have developed a passion for the realm of stealth technology. My expertise lies in analyzing the latest advancements in spy gadgets and high-tech products, with a particular focus on those available to the public that offer a modern-day James Bond experience. Through my work, I strive to uncover the most cutting-edge innovations in the field and provide valuable insights to fellow enthusiasts and industry professionals alike.

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