Timeless World War 2 Lessons, by T.W.

After recently reading a number of books on intelligence, subterfuge, spying, and survival in World War 2, I have been led to compile a list of lessons that we can draw on today.

Preparation is Key

The best spy masters and espionage groups built up networks of contacts around strategic areas before the invasion or war. This allowed one to gain information without being seen as suspicious. If your spy doesn’t know the language thoroughly, errors in translation lead to disaster. A few weeks in language school is rarely enough, but that’s what many operatives received during World War 2 because there were too few people fluent in critical languages to avoid sending poorly trained people out. World War 2 exploded in part because the British waited for an expected internal coup to kill Hitler, many of which failed, instead of building up their defenses in the interim. This added to the severity and duration of the war. Today, we should learn the lesson to prepare for the worst while hoping for the best, instead of putting all our faith in someone else taking the risks to solve the problem. Those who stocked up on supplies before the war were in a stronger position than those who relied on markets day to day. They were less desperate for essentials and able to barter for what they needed, as long as they weren’t condemned for hoarding and saw their supplies confiscated. Having a hiding place for the stored goods well before shortages begin is far more secure than being seen stocking up during the frenzy.

Who to Choose, Who to Trust

Never use a politician in a spy or espionage ring. It risks the politicization of information, such as targeted leaks to improve one’s situation or suppressing details of failure to make oneself look good but hurting the overall objective. The people forced to retire early are the ultimate insiders to the organization’s current members and may be financially strained or angry enough to work with a rival group to gain information by leveraging those contacts. A proactive group identifies those who have valuable knowledge and disaffection with the government and lures them into spying before the other side does. Anyone who brags that they are a spy cannot be trusted to be one, though there is the remote chance the person is doing so to improve their cover by seeming to boast idly. Applying strict standards of ideological or national purity can drive out many who can support your movement but aren’t radicals. The Jewish espionage groups in World War 2 formed by kids who weren’t allowed in variation national resistance groups come to mind. Applying strict moral standards to your crew, especially at the lowest level, can hurt information gathering and espionage. For example, rules that say you can’t talk to smugglers and former convicts for information can prevent you from learning what is going on in the underground or black market.

On Human Nature and Human Resources

Reward sources and supporters, and where possible protect them. The U.S. made a major mistake after pulling out of Iraq and Afghanistan by giving refugee status to Muslim Syrian refugees while neglecting to give refuge to Iraqis and Afghanis who risked their lives to be translators for American troops. Likewise, the neglect of the Pakistani doctor who found Osama Bin Laden and silence by the federal government as to his imprisonment and torture has destroyed potential information sources in the entire Middle East (and the unspoken reason why Western polio workers started to be killed en masse after Bin Laden’s death). However, people who became spies for the money are prone to becoming double agents for even more money. It is the little details that can get someone captured. For example, many criminals on the run today are found through their girlfriends or wives who make contact with friends and family to let people they know hear that they are safe; her contact with them then leads the authorities to him. Many events occurred because someone received intelligence warning of an event and didn’t believe it. Per the book Burn After Reading: The Espionage History of World War 2 by Ladislas Farago, Colonel Oster informed Norway of the impending Nazi invasion, which the Norwegian military attaché refused to believe; this is one case in point. The invasion of Norway, though, occurred on the day Colonel Oster said it would. Spy networks are as often filled with unwitting dupes as willing friends and mercenaries who act for money. Be careful of people who would join a movement so they can use it for revenge or abuse of people they don’t like. Spy rings in place too long become lazy and complacent. Those created in the 1920s were often incapable of acting with speed and effectiveness during the invasions of the late 1930s and 1940s. Sun Tzu pointed out that one could scheme with women, and World War 2 certainly saw prostitutes used as information sources, with the Germans even taking over a brothel and having specially trained girls sent to entertain high ranking men and elicit information from them. This is why people who used such sexual services were seen as having a strike against them after World War 2 when applying for security clearances. On a side note, the sexual promiscuity of homosexuals was another reason for disqualifying them, and the lowering of these standards in the name of political correctness is why Bradley Manning (Chelsea Manning) was in a position to leak the information he did. The lesson to learn from this is that those who bed hop with either gender generally cannot be trusted with secrets, but they can be used to get information by those willing to exploit pillow talk.

Propaganda and Getting the Word Out

The appearance of strength can be as important to defense as the actual defenses. It is more important if it deters an attack that the defenses might not stand against. Here’s a quote from Burn After Reading– “All secret services have special branches whose war time job is to concoct lies and to spread useful rumors.” Spreading useful rumors is easier and often safer than coming up with new lies that can be traced back to you. Under slander laws in many jurisdictions, you can be prosecuted for lying to officials or intentionally spreading negative lies about others, but repeating rumors is neither a lie nor slander since you’re not the source. In the same book, Burn After Reading, the best propaganda was often a variation of what the enemy already used. For example, when the German soldiers received pamphlets with a list of French whorehouses, a pass good for one free service per day and locations where they could get condoms and treatment for STDs, the pamphlets were copied exactly and distributed through Germany with a note to women that this is how well their men were treated.

The Importance of Leadership

The British have kept the identity of their head of MI5 secret for years, even in the person’s obituary. The secrecy of the organization is iron clad and strictly maintained. Any effort you want to keep secret needs that secrecy strictly maintained from the top down to have a good chance of succeeding. The quality of an espionage group depends on the quality of the people in charge of them. Bureaucratization of intelligence services in World War 2 hurt efforts that needed secrecy as much as they needed creativity. Underlings afraid to report bad news to a superior are as likely a cause of misinformation at the top as deliberate feeding of bad information by spies. This is due to a leadership problem.

Know How to Know Someone Is On Your Side

World War 2 included a large number of wireless transmitters and mobile operators. The British learned who a number of German wireless operators were and trained their own people to imitate the German’s style of tapping out Morse Code, so that the Germans receiving the broadcasts thought they were talking to the real German operatives in England. This can be seen as a precursor to someone hacking your Facebook page or getting your phone and sending messages while pretending to be you; as long as they are a good enough imitation, they pass as you until they make a mistake or fail to show up for an in-person meeting. Relying entirely on digital communications to talk to someone makes it both easier for the communications to be monitored and someone to impersonate your contact, if not be a fake one altogether. Don’t assume that the person on the other end is who they say they are, much less trust them unconditionally without verification. Agent provocateurs may lead rebellions to identify the partisans for roundup and execution. An entire OSS team was caught by the Nazis in Slovakia and killed this way. Mao’s Hundred Flowers Campaign to let people air their grievances against the Communists publicly in a show of tolerance before arresting them and killing them was another. It can be difficult to identify provocateurs, but if the era of openness is too good to be true, it is. Likewise, a plainly visible website and invitation-only forum as the perfect place to start discussing grandiose plans with people who you’ve never met is also a mistake. Some people play both sides to stay safe. For example, some people cozened up to the Nazis to stay safe while hiding Jews or feeding intelligence to the resistance. That can make it hard to know who to trust, but it should be understood so that you don’t rule out someone who plays nice with a rival in order to protect family or hide illegal activities.

Hiding in Plain Sight

Those who have a legitimate excuse for their activities have the best cover. For example, during World War 2, Japanese spies were designated junior diplomats to have an excuse for their radio transmitters. However, the spies didn’t socialize like the higher ranking ones. Looking like you are no one can get you farther than pretending to be someone. Many spies have gotten far by pretending to be dullards, like Mary Bowser in the Confederate President’s house. The best way for a group to meet is somewhere they are inconspicuous. People in uniform meeting at an alma mater, younger people at a social venue, and so forth avoid suspicion. According to the book Masquerade by Seymour Reit, gun emplacements were hidden in old wooden shacks, bridge abutments, tool sheds, innocent shops, and one as a marble war monument. Try to hide things in plain sight by building around them or integrating them into the landscape. Otherwise, use the unused spaces that might otherwise be neglected, like the newly dug subway line in London turned into an assembly line for war manufacturing during World War 2.

Intelligence and Analysis

Recommended courses of action on what to do per intelligence reports tends to be vague as a compromise between various conflicting sources of information. That is unless the reports are used as an excuse to take a desired course of action, which fits an existing plan or agenda. In that regard, detailed recommendations in response to an intelligence report where other recommendations were vague are like the standard liberal response to a mass shooting to outlaw the types of guns and registration of owners that they have always wanted. Beware of recommended actions that they’ve always insisted upon. During World War 2, people who escaped a raid were often caught because a calendar with a doctor’s appointment was discovered or notes with the next time and place of meeting. The little details could give them away. Information gathering doesn’t have to be a cloak and dagger affair. Hair dressers at an Italian salon frequented by officers’ and officials’ wives were trained to ask leading questions to get information for the Allies. Code breaking and cryptography didn’t negate the need for observations on the ground and information not in the reports. Code breaking can yield tactical information in advance of an attack like the location of the fleet, but it doesn’t yield much strategic information. Code breaking may be done by people who don’t know the language, when it is a matter of piecing together the puzzle. Human archeology is based on the idea that people have left behind a lot of trash throughout their history. You can find useful information in documents and other items thrown away. However, it is even better to pay the janitor to save papers from destruction and deliver them to you. People like to talk. The skill intelligence needs is how to ask questions to gather useful information without arousing suspicion. Intelligence will be faulty and full of mistakes, both due to misinterpretation and deliberate misinformation. Balance sacking your best people for mistakes that aren’t their fault and tolerating faulty sources with lots of excuses or good connections.

Technical Details

The best way to undermine a monitoring or analysis group is with a deluge of information. This is why businesses that want to hide incriminating information send thousands of pages of documentation, to be seen as complying with discovery orders while minimizing the risk that incriminating information is found in time to be used. Data in the modern age is easily modified or corrupted. True information comes from those on the ground or in the know. You cannot simply rely on databases to find the truth, when it is so easily altered or destroyed. During World War 2, a simpler version of this was creating false paper trails for fake identities. If you need to disarm a bomb and have little else at hand, douse it in water. You have a good chance of shorting out something electrical and stopping it. Due to the extensive monitoring via many nations’ intelligence organizations, the old fashioned methods of sending messages are again the most private. A letter is unlikely to be opened and scanned and read by a government official, though such orders can still be used by the Post Office. Written messages sent within harmless packages are unlikely to be read or reviewed. It isn’t as fast as a text message or phone call, but it is far more secure.


While technology and science have advanced, basic human nature hasn’t changed, and techniques and problems from earlier eras are just as workable today. Learn from the lessons of the past so that the mistakes aren’t repeated.