History's most infamous female spies

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Anna Brech
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Women make "bloody good spies" because they have good emotional resources and are able to multi-task, according to a female MI6 agent interviewed by The Times this week.

"We are quite good at multi-tasking. We are quite good at tapping into different emotional resources. You can get into a lot of places," the agent - referred to simply as "Lisa" - told the paper.

She added that it was also useful for her to be married with children, as "they [the terrorists] have mothers, sisters, daughters."

Here, we investigate the extraordinary real life stories of some of history's most notorious female spies. These are the women who sacrificed all - their freedom, children and in some cases, their lives - to gather information in dangerous, do-or-die situations.

From an amputee who escaped the Nazis on foot through snow-clad mountains to the mother executed for meddling with US nuclear secrets, read on for the most awe-inspiring and shocking accounts of female espionage:

Words: Anna Brech, Photos: Rex Features

Mata Hari: Shot for spying on the French

Mata Hari was the stage name for Margaretha Zelle, a Dutch-born exotic dancer who began her career in Paris in 1905. Her sensual near-nude routines were an instant hit and she drew in audiences of thousands across Berlin, Vienna, Madrid, conducting many affairs with military and political figures along the way. With the outbreak of war in 1914, Mata Hari's many international connections brought her to the attention of the French authorities as she continued to travel around Europe. The exact nature of her spying activities are unclear: she claimed she was paid to spy for the French in Belgium, but was said to have turned double agent after agreeing to pass on information to a German consul. It was British intelligence that finally unmasked "evidence" of her spying and on her return to Paris in early 1917, she was arrested and convicted of being a German spy. At her execution in October that year, Mata Hari, aged 41, refused to wear a blindfold and spent the last few seconds of her life gazing steadfastly at the firing squad. Many still contest her guilt, with theories suggesting she was a victim of a media frenzy and vague - or at worst, fabricated - evidence.

Virginia Hall: Escaped the Nazis on foot with an arificial leg

Wanted by the Gestapo as one of the most dangerous allied spies, American agent Virginia Hall worked Churchill's Special Operations Executive (SOE) in Nazi-occupied France in World War II. She lost her lower leg in a hunting accident in 1933 and began using a wooden prosthetic leg christened Cuthbert. Snapped up for her fluency in French and German at the beginning of the war, she entered Vichy France under the cover of an American reporter in 1941 and helped to organise the resistance there by aiding downed fliers, providing supplies for opposition publications and acting as a courier for other agents. In late 1942 when the Germans took direct control of the whole of France, Virginia was ordered to leave - a feat she could only manage by hiking through the snow-clad Pyrenees mountains to Spain, prosthetic leg in tow. She then returned to France to train and arm guerrilla groups under the auspice of the CIA, constantly moving around to avoid detection by Nazis - who by this point had issued wanted posters and rewards for the so-called "limping lady." She disguised herself as an elderly peasant goat-herder while gathering information ahead of the crucial D-Day invasion in June 1944. After the war ended, Virginia was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross "for extraordinary heroism in connection with military operations against the enemy.''

Ethel Rosenberg: Executed by the US for passing on nuclear secrets

In one of the most sensational espionage cases of recent US history, Ethel Greenglass Rosenberg and her husband Julius were Communists who were executed by electric chair in 1953 after being convicted of passing on information about the construction of the atom bomb to the Soviet Union. They were implicated in a US-led spy ring in 1950, following a painstaking investigation by the FBI. By the time of their trial on conspiracy to commit espionage charges in 1951, their two young children had been taken into care. Throughout their detention, the couple refused to incriminate others in their network, despite immense pressure. Others weren't so stoical and the key testimony against Ethel came from her brother and sister-in-law, David and Ruth Greenglass, who described how she had typed stolen atomic secrets from notes provided by David.

Summing up the case, chief prosecutor, Irving Saypol, declared: "This description of the atom bomb, destined for delivery to the Soviet Union, was typed up by the defendant Ethel Rosenberg that afternoon at her apartment at 10 Monroe Street. Just so had she, on countless other occasions, sat at that typewriter and struck the keys, blow by blow, against her own country in the interests of the Soviets."

Ethel and Julius were found guilty and sentenced to death. Both remained on death row for 26 months, and it was intimated that they could have received a lesser sentence had they provided evidence against others. They were eventually executed in June 1953, amid widespread outrage and controversy. Many saw the couple as scapegoats of anti-Semitism and McCarthyism with Nobel prize-winner, Jean-Paul Sartre, calling the case "a legal lynching which smears with blood a whole nation." Still more pointed to the saga's innocent victims - the Rosenbergs' two orphaned children.

Nancy Wake: Killed an SS sentry with her bare hands

One of the most decorated Allied servicewomen of World War II, Nancy Grace Augusta Wake was known to the Gestapo as "The White Mouse" for her ability to evade detection and capture. The New Zealand-born heroine joined the French Resistance in 1940 but was forced to go into hiding after her network was betrayed. She continued to work undercover and once cycled more than 500 miles through several German checkpoints to replace codes that her wireless operator had been forced to destroy during a raid. Later in the war, she joined the Special Operations Executive (SOE) and was parachuted back into the Auvergne region of France to provide guerrilla groups with arms. Her compatriots praised her strength and courage, two qualities she needed in abundance when she killed an SS sentry with her bare hands to stop him raising the alarm during a raid. After the war ended, Nancy was awarded the George Medal, the US Presidential Medal Of Freedom, the Médaille de la Résistance and three Croix de Guerres from France. She also discovered that her husband had died at the hands of the Gestapo in 1943, having refused to reveal her whereabouts.

Anna Chapman: Extradited from the US for deep cover spying

Anna Chapman - known as Russia's "flamed-haired beauty" and "sexy spy" - made international headlines last year as the most glamorous member of a ring of deep cover agents arrested in the US. An economics graduate with a taste for the high life, Anna was born in the industrial southern Russian city of Volgograd (then Stalingrad). She moved to Manhattan in early 2010 aged 28 with the apparent aim of using her good looks and connections to infiltrate high-end social and political circles. Fluent in English and with an IQ of 162, she was well-placed to send sensitive information back to the Kremlin. However, the FBI arrested Anna, along with nine other members of her deep cover cell operating out of the US, in June 2010. At one point the redhead agent was facing a possible a life sentence for espionage, but managed to avoid this thanks to a high-profile spy swap between Russia and the US - the first of its kind since the end of the Cold War. Back in Russia, Anna maintained her celebrity status. As well as receiving one of Russia's highest medals for espionage, she also appeared on the front cover of the Russian edition of Maxim magazine (sporting lace and a revolver) and now stars in her own documentary TV show.

Violette Szabo: Fought off the Germans to the last bullet

Violette Szabo was an undercover British agent reputed to be the best shot within the Special Operations Executive (SOE) and described by fellow agent Odette Churchill as "the bravest of us all." Devastated by the death of her husband - which came just months after their daughter Tania was born in 1942 - she volunteered for duty in France. On her second parachute drop to outskirts of Limoges in June 1944, she joined the efforts of a local resistance network to sabotage German communication lines. Her group was traveling in a car when they came across unexpected German roadblock and a gunfight erupted. Violette gave cover to her group leader, putting up fierce resistance with her Sten gun and reportedly fighting until her ammunition ran out. She was captured and taken Gestapo Headquarters where she was tortured but gave nothing away. She was later transported to the notorious Ravensbrück concentration camp and was executed in 1945, at the age of 23. After the war, Violette's daughter Tania collected the George Cross her mother was posthumously awarded by the King. Her extraordinary story was documented in the film and book Carve Her Name with Pride.


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Anna Brech

Anna Brech is a freelance journalist and former editor for Her six-year stint on the site saw her develop a vociferous appetite for live Analytics, feminist opinion and good-quality gin in roughly equal measure. She enjoys writing across all areas of women’s lifestyle content but has a soft spot for books and escapist travel content.