Crafty Gadgets and Famous Spies of WWII

James Bond truly isn’t the only legendary spy out there.

The Imperial War Museum of London proudly displays the gadgets used by famous spies during the World War II in tribute to the heroes themselves.

Spy gadgets, often seen by many only in James Bond films, can now be viewed by the public in the museum. The gadgets were used by spies of the Special Operatives Executive during the World War.

The highly skillful men and women of the SOE faced danger and placed their lives on the line of their work. They employed every means including the use of devious devices to get vital information necessary to cripple the enemies and win the war.

The Imperial War Museum of London pays tribute to the great men and women of SOE during the same month of the death of Ferguson Smith. Smith, a Cold War spycatcher, was a legend since WWII to the Cold War. He died last September 15 at the age of 98.

The Mirror UK News reports how Amanda Mason, curator, reveals the tricks in using the gadgets in display in the Imperial War Museum.


1. Rodent Bombs

Rodent bombs were basically dead rats filled with explosives. The trick was to place the rats in factories near enemy camps and bases. Once the factory workers discover the rats, they would throw them to the fire and the rodent bombs would explode.

The original plan, however, was discovered by the Germans according to Amanda Mason. But, the rodent bombs became a scare that the Germans would leave them untouched to rot spreading diseases.

2. Biscuit Tin Radio

Wireless in Huntley and Palmer biscuit tin

Communication was very crucial to pass on vital messages to and from the operatives.

“The SOE had a team dedicated to making radios and other gear look like everyday objects. The more ways you had to communicate, the more ways you had to get your message out,” said Amanda.

To make the radio look inconspicuous, they hid it in a 2-pound Huntley & Palmer biscuit tin. They were sent to agents active in the resistance in France in 1944 by way of parachute.

3. Pipe Pistol 

'pipe' pistol

The British spies planned to use the pipe pistol but never got around creating more than just the prototypes. The pipe pistol was supposed to be used by British Home Guard or “Dad’s Army” against enemy paratroopers.

The idea of a pipe pistol is simply clever. Back in the day when pipe-smoking was a hype, no one would think that this object would conceal a weapon. The pipe pistol could serve the dual purpose of a pipe for smoking tobacco even when loaded and a lethal weapon which could fire .22 caliber bullets through its stem.

4. Bicycle Charger

Melissa Thompson looks round the new spy galler

Another practical scientific application of mechanical energy to charge generators, the bicycle charger was employed to power batteries of radios by the resistance in France. The bicycles were attached to generators. When pedaled, the generator could store electricity for various uses.

“If you’re operating in countryside with no way to charge the batteries a bike could be used as a dynamo,” said Amanda.

5. Spike Letter Box

hollow spike letterbox

Another crafty innovation, the spike letter box was used to conceal secret messages. The messages would be rolled into the hollow stem of the spikes and placed inconspicuously into the fence.

“There were so many ways spies used to keep in touch depending on what happened to be available to them in any situation,” said Amanda.

The resistance agents operating in France really found useful value in concealing their messages in an everyday object.

8. Compass Fly Button

compass, fly-button

This brass fly button did come in handy for Captain David Smiley in his missions in the Middle East and North Africa. The button can be used as a compass.

The “magnetic items which would point north: compasses in buttons, pencil clips and even magnetic fly buttons” was given to Smiley by magician Jasper Maskelyne in 1943.

9. Messages in Washing Lines

A washing line near a terrace house in Manchester FMman

Among the exhibited gadgets is a washing line with clothes hanging on it including a handkerchief, eiderdown, lace and a pair of pants.

To a normal viewer, the washing line is pretty much a normal site. But to the resistance spies, it would have a whole different meaning.

“The resistance would use washing lines to convey secret messages. In this case the first letter of each object spells HELP. Spies used many different ways of sending coded signals,” explained Amanda.

10. Overshoes

Overshoes, Decoy Sneakers

SOE agents were careful not to leave any tracks including their shoe prints. The prints of their military boots would alarm their enemies. To disguise their tracks, they would use rubber over shoes shaped as soles making it looked like the footprints were made by barefooted locals.

“But like a lot of special inventions that were made, we don’t know how many of them were actually used and tried out in the field. Some never made it,” said Amanda.

11. Counterfeit Documents

Fake passport for Hitler

Fake documents were highly important to complete the false identities of spies. The fake documents should be able to pass enemy scrutiny.

“The SOE had a whole team of specialist forgers making fake papers. They used the most up-to-date information so they always knew what kind of new identification was required. They were really skilled in their work,” Amanda explained.

An exhibit shows a fake passport for Adolf Hitler. Everything would have been fine from his occupation as “painter” to his distinguishing feature is “a little moustache”. The only downfall of this fake document is the red “J” stamp. The “J” is the Nazi mark for a Jew identified for persecution.


1. Forest Yeo-Thomas 

The spy who hailed from London, Thomas came to be known under the code name White Rabbit. Known as the “bravest of the brave”, he was the character that Ian Fleming brought to life in his famous James Bond work.

As a spy, he was captured and tortured in Nazi Buchenwald concentration camp. However, his capture did not deter his spirit nor his work. He escaped along with evidence that helped convict 22 war criminals.

2. Nancy Wake

The spy who hailed from New Zealand, Wake came to be known as White Mouse. Her spy work is the inspiration of the film character Charlotte Gray. She did liaison work for the Allies and the resistance in Southern France.

On one occasion, she cycled for three days without stopping to warn Britain of an impending German attack.

3. Eddie Chapman

Eddie Chapman was born in Co Durham in 1914. As a safecracker, he was jailed in Jersey by the Nazis. He was freed under the pretext of working as a spy for the Nazis in England.

He fed wrong information to the Nazis. He even convinced them that a Mosquito Bomber Factory had been “destroyed”.

4. Juan Pujol Garcia

The Spaniard Garcia was born in 1912 and came to work as a spy for the Allies during the World War II. Codenamed as Garbo, he became one of the most famous double agents. Among the fake intelligence information that he sent to the Nazis was that the D-Day landings of the Allies would be at Calais. As it turned out, the landings were in the beaches of Normandy.

He was such a convincing Nazi that he was awarded an Iron Cross by the Germans. At the same time, he was also an awardee of Britain’s MBE.


Siegphyl is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE