Spy Gadgets of World War II


TV, film, games and literature may have led us to believe that all those weird and wonderful gadgets employed by spies and secret agents are purely a work of fiction. However, we’ll be looking at some of the real tools that helped agents out behind and within enemy lines.

OSS Espionage Kit

The Office of Strategic Services (OSS) was a United States intelligence agency formed during World War II, and was the predecessor of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). They worked behind enemy lines for the United States Armed Forces, and their duties also included propaganda, subversion and post-war planning. Because of the nature of their work (espionage and sabotage), they required highly specialized equipment, such as silenced pistols and submachine guns.

Black Joe—Coal Grenades

The “coal torpedo”, as it was also named, was invented by Capt. Thomas Edgeworth Courtenay of the Confederate Secret Service. Originally, it was a hollow iron casing (to look like coal), that was intended to be shoveled into the firebox of Union steam transportation ships, where it would explode. While Courtenay had approached the British War Office to further refine his idea, they turned him down. However, both the American OSS and the British SOE used forms of his original explosive during World War II.

Coal bomb with instructions of useMuseum of World War II Boston

When German commandos came ashore on Long Island as part of Operation Pastorius, they carried plastic explosives designed as coal to use against coal-fired electrical engineering plants. Another coal torpedo was given to the British double agent Eddie Chapman to sabotage the merchant ship City of Lancaster.

Playing Cards and Board Games—Escape Maps

While at the disposal of the OSS, means of showing prisoners escape routes were surely more in need of a way to escape their captors. There were a number of ways to send these maps to prisoners. Cloth maps were sometimes hidden in special editions of the board game Monopoly that were sent to prisoners of war camps. These kits also include foreign currency, compasses and other items to aid in prisoner escape. This was all made possible because, thanks to the Geneva Convention, prisoners were allowed parcels from their families and relief organizations.

A selection of the kit agents may have used. World War II: The Definitive Visual History

One could find escape maps on decks of playing cards, too. U.S. and British intelligence agencies joined forces, creating the “map deck”. The maps were hidden in between the thin layers that formed the sides of the cards. These decks, when soaked in water, became easier to peel, revealing the map. Due to the secrecy being so high surrounding the decks, not much is known about them to this day.

Gills—Underwater Breathing

The idea of an underwater breathing apparatus was developed in 1939 by Christian J. Lambertsen, dubbed the Lambertsen Amphibious Respiratory Unit. It had been rejected by the U.S. Navy but the OSS showed interest. Lambertsen demonstrated the device in a pool at a hotel in Washington in 1942. The OSS bought the concept and hired him to lead the unit. He later renamed the device to SCUBA (becoming “scuba”). However, this was not the same scuba as we know today.

Limpet Mine

A naval mine that was able to be attached to vehicles by magnets. Called “limpet” due to its similarity to the sea snail that clings tightly to rocks and other surfaces, a swimmer or diver can attach the device to a vehicle/magnetic surfaces. It had an anti-tampering component and could also be attached to a moto to detonate after a certain distance.

Cecil Vandepeer Clarke wearing an early version of the limpet mine on a keeper plate in the position used by a swimmer. The National Archives UK

One of the most impressive uses of the limpet mine was in Operation Jaywick during World War II. In September 1943, 14 Allied commandos from the Z Special Unit raided Japanese shipping in Singapore harbor. They placed the mines on several Japanese ships and then found safe ground. When the mines detonated, the limpet mines damaged or sunk seven ships, compromising over 39,000 tons between them.

Hit and Miss—Destroy Hitler’s Moustache

Not all ideas were winners, however. One such plan was to create synthetic goat dung loaded with anthrax as part of PROJECT Capricious in 1942. By using flies, the government hoped to infect German troops in Spanish Morocco in an attempt to stop Spain from joining Axis powers.

Other, interesting kit that may have worked better. World War II: The Definitive Visual History

Another plot was to introduce estrogen to Hitler’s food in the hopes of eliminating his trademark soup strainer (moustache) and affecting his baritone voice. A more deadly plot included hiding a capsule containing mustard gas in flowers to cause blindness among Nazi generals inside the German High Command Headquarters.

Other Gadgets

Cigarettes laced with tetrahydrocannabinol acetate (Indian hemp). The compound works similarly to morphine and was used as a possible none-lethal incapacitating agent as part of the Edgewood Arsenal experiments. When given to someone, the cigarette would bring about uncontrollable chattiness.

Knives concealed within shoes, lapels, pencils, sleeves and coins. Cameras small enough to fit into a match box; a cigarette case which exploded upon opening. Suicide pills (L-pills) hidden in necklaces or rings.