At clueQuest, we have seen some of the greatest spies of our time. Mr Q, the leader of our intelligence agency has a nose for finding the best secret agents. Speaking of which, we’re getting quite busy saving the world, so we can always use some help both from rookie agents and seasoned spies. If you’re up for the challenge, browse our current missions and join the agency!
In the meantime, to prepare you for what it takes to be part of our international secret organization, we thought you might get inspired by these three mind-blowing (and true) spy escape stories of agents who operated long before we were an established agency ourselves.
Regardless of whether they worked for the good guys or for the bad guys, these spies’ bravery, resourcefulness and endurance earned them world fame - which is not something that one would normally seek in this line of work.
The Norwegian spy who took trekking to a whole new level
Sven Somme was a fisheries officer and a spy for the Norwegian resistance against German occupation during World War II. He photographed strategic German military bases and units in Norway, hid the tiny microfilms under stamps on letters and sent them to the Allied forces.
Unfortunately, Somme got caught one day when German soldiers noticed the sun reflect on his camera lens as he photographed a U-boat base from the shore of an island. He quickly hid his camera under a rock as German soldiers started to run towards him, firing their guns.
As they approached, he told them calmly he was just bird-watching. He alsmot got away with this excuse, but by the time he made his way back to the pier to get off the island, two soldiers were already waiting for him - his camera had been found.
He became a prisoner of Nazi Germany, with the grave prospect of imminent execution by firing squad. However, he was not immediately thrown in a prison cell. Instead, he was held captive on a German ship, surrounded by the ice cold sea. When the ship docked overnight, he waited for the guard to fall asleep and made his escape. He managed to successfully walk past five armed guards without sparking any suspicion - the guards had simply assumed that he was a normal civilian.
Equipped only with normal ‘office’ shoes, Somme took to the snowy mountains for safety and that’s where his escape story really began. Within an hour of his escape, the Germans realised that their prisoner was missing. 900 soldiers with sniffer dogs were sent after him to pick up his trail.
Although his chances were looking slim, Somme was a Norwegian who knew a thing or two about trekking in harsh mountain conditions. He climbed through steep ravines and walked upstream through rivers to get rid of his pursuers. Occasionally, he would even jump from one pine tree to another in order not to leave any footprints behind.
Despite all odds being against him, Somme continued this arduous and impossible journey for 200 miles (imagine walking from London to Manchester through inhospitable mountains, danger and snow), without giving up.
But high up in the mountains, the freezing temperatures got worse and worse and his limbs went numb with frostbite. Luckily, he was found by a friendly family who provided him with supplies and a pair of mountain boots in which it was then much easier for him to make it cross the border to Sweden.
Sven Somme was truly an incredible agent that would have given even Bear Grylls a run for his money. So here’s our agency’s unanimous verdict about his escape merits, on a scale of 1 to 10:
Daring 10 Difficulty 10 Ingenuity 6 Perseverance 10
The British double agent who owes his prison escape to knitting needles
One of the most infamous escapes from a British prison is that of George Blake who was serving a 42 years sentence after being exposed as a Soviet double agent in the 60’s.
During his 5th year of imprisonment, he managed to escape from Wormwood Scrubs prison in West London along with two other inmates. Despite his severe crimes against Britain (his activities irrevocably compromised the Eastern European network of MI6 by exposing his own colleagues to Russia), Blake managed to ingratiate himself with some of his inmates who concluded that his 42 years sentence was too harsh and inhumane.
He must have possessed quite exceptional people and manipulation skills to make friends in prison who would eventually help him escape. From that point, it was all about teamwork and coordination (a good practice, by the way, to keep in mind during your own upcoming missions...)
Blake and his helpers managed to smuggle in walkie-talkies that allowed them to communicate with each other during appropriate times of the day. They waited for the weekly film showing when most of the guards and inmates were in the TV room. Blake seized the opportunity to break a window near his cell. He then climbed through the opening, slid down the roof and ran to the perimeter wall where a friend from outside threw over a ladder made of rope and knitting needles.
Yes, knitting needles. Either the man who helped him had an unconventional hobby to calm his mind and conscience in-between helping cold war criminals like Blake, or an unsuspecting grandmother became a vital accomplice to a prison break. We shall never know…
Although Blake suffered a heavy fall and broke both his wrists while climbing down the wall, he managed to escape. Another friend drove him to a safe house. He then spent a couple of weeks changing locations until he eventually managed to evade authorities and escape to the Soviet Union. He is now 95 and lives in a pine forest with his second wife, not far from Moscow.
Our scores for George Blake’s escape:
Daring 10 Difficulty 8 Ingenuity 8 Perseverance 5
The American agent whose escape plan inspired a Hollywood movie
In 1979, six Americans were hiding in the home of the then Canadian ambassador in Tehran, following Iranian revolutionists breaking in into the US embassy. More than 60 other less lucky embassy workers failed to escape in time and were being held captive whilst conflict was boiling.
Tony Mendez, a CIA agent, was in charge with securing the safe return of the six American citizens the Iranians were unaware of. Since there was a high risk that they would be eventually discovered, Mendez had to come up with an ingenious escape plan.
To begin with, he needed to put together a convincing cover story for himself and a valid excuse for him to travel to Iran that would withstand scrutiny. He also needed to take into account that the six people he wanted to rescue did not have any training in or experience with covert operations.
Spoiler alert: if you like spy movies (or films starring Ben Affleck) and you didn’t watch Argo yet, skip the following paragraphs. Otherwise carry on reading. :)
Mendez came up with a quintessentially American idea: he and the hostages would pretend to be part of a location management team for an upcoming science fiction movie, similar to Star Wars which was a big cinema success at that time. The story was set in a fantasy world featuring, among other things, an exotic bazaar. That’s how Tehran came into the picture.
So Mendez set up a company, hired a scriptwriter and he even informed American movie magazines of the upcoming film to generate buzz and make his cover credible.
He eventually flew to Tehran and met the 6 hostages at the Canadian embassy. They had only 48 hours to prepare for hostile interrogation techniques and to learn and remember key facts about the film. They then made their way to the airport with fake Canadian papers, during the early morning hours, when the majority of the airport’s security personnel on shift were either asleep or not paying enough attention.
Luckily, they managed to get on a plane to Switzerland and the rest is now history.
Without a question, this story is one of Mr Q’s favourites due to the detailed planning that went into it and the unconventional ideas that saved lives. Therefore, the award for the most clever spy escape goes to… Tony Mendez!
Daring 10 Difficulty 10 Ingenuity 10 Perseverance 5
Fun fact: the most highly trained spies in history were not human
That’s right. Ravens delivering and retrieving objects, pigeons warning troops against ambushes, cats eavesdropping on human conversations and dolphins detecting submarines are all part of a universe only a few know of.
“We never found an animal we could not train,” said a former trainer of dolphins from the Navy.
As a matter of fact, at clueQuest, we have first hand experience with animal spies... actually animal-human hybrids, to be more precise. Mr Q himself and our arch-nemesis, Professor BlackSheep, continue to exist in this form due to a rather unfortunate accident that occured in one of our labs a while ago... but that is a different spy story.
The details of this accident remain a mystery. However, we are soon preparing a new expedition to the lost lab so keep an eye on our comms for more details if you want to join us in discovering what went on exactly.
Over and out.