• Ages 7 to 9 (KS2)
  • Age 9 to 11 (KS2)
  • Age 11 to 14 (KS3)

Gadgets and Disguises

IWM expert Ngaire shares stories of real life spies and the invaluable role they played during the Second World War. Ngaire will show us the ingenious gadgets and disguises they used to help them complete missions in enemy territory, without getting caught!

What would it be like to be a top secret spy?

Part of the Adventures in History series, created during the lockdown of Spring 2020.

Ahoy! Welcome on board, welcome back again, come on in. I'll put this deck down and make us a little bit more space. Come aboard, funny things decks because once it's lowered and back in position it looks just like a flat wooden floor and yet not all is what it seems to be and underneath lies something quite unexpected. My name is Ngaire I work at the Imperial War Museums. Normally the museum would be open, and I would be telling you stories there but while the doors are closed and you're at home and I'm at home and here we are on board my boat, I thought that I would share stories which like the deck here are about things that are not always as they seem at first glance. So, under this deck is concealed quite a big compartment and in there is a pretty large engine. It's not even an engine meant for a boat; it was designed for an American truck. Quite what my boat is doing with a Second World War American truck engine, well that's a whole different story and revealing stories is part of my usual job at the museum. But while the museum is closed, doesn't stop us taking our imagination in through the doors and if we were there, we'd see all sorts of fascinating and important objects.  

I want to take you to a seemingly unimportant looking suitcase. It looks quite old; it looks very much like a suitcase. Yet open the lid and concealed, hidden inside, is a fully operational radio and this radio was used by spies on highly dangerous missions to send vital messages back to London. In the Second World War, much of Europe was invaded by the enemy army and because of that in London, a secret organization was founded it was called the Special Operations Executive - SOE. Their instructions were to set Europe ablaze. It was to help resistance movements in those occupied countries to fight the enemy and hopefully bring about the end of the war and their freedom. The resistance were made up of brave men and women who wanted their land to be free once more. The headquarters of the Special Operations Executive were in London quite near to Baker Street Underground Station. However, their operations were global, so our stories today are international and very secret. So back to our suitcase, well that started life inside the headquarters of the Special Operations Executive and in there were lots of scientists working to create gadgets and clever tools that our spies in disguise could use when they were dropped into enemy territory. So, we've got our suitcase concealing a radio or it might be a tube of toothpaste with a secret compartment for hiding codes or messages inside. It might be one of my favourites - so you're going on your mission, you're going to be landing on the enemy shore by boat and when you step ashore, anyone on your trail - anyone suspects that spies are landing there are going to see the tread of your boots and it's going to give you away - so one of the things that scientists came up with was a rubber foot and you would pop that on the bottom of your boot, lace it on, so when you step ashore the prints you make in the sand look like the heel and the toes of bare feet. No spies to be seen here! This is just someone who went for an early morning paddle! Very ingenious. Or what about the cork that had whittled out a secret compartment into which you could actually put some microfilm? This could then be smuggled back to London the film developed with vital intelligence about where the army was and what the enemy was up to. Highly ingenious. And how do I know about all of these secret tools? Well inside the Imperial War Museum we have a very large book collection and believe it or not one of those books was a catalogue made by the scientists of SOE.  

So, you're a spy preparing to go on mission, you would look through the catalogue and identify what you might need to take with you. There were photographs of these inventions, underneath was a description of what each one did, how it worked, how big it was, how heavy it would be to carry.  I think my favourite is the parachutist water suit Mark 5. Now the attention to detail of this catalogue is also quite astonishing. So, you're flicking through, and you get interested in catalogue number H S 69 - invisible ink - and the note at the bottom of the page is that if ordering this you need to tell the scientists which country your mission will be based in, where are you writing letters from, because they need to match the ink to the correct ink that would be used in that country. Rather remarkable. But you've got to make your spies blend in, they cannot stick out. So, for that reason there was also a fabric workshop which fitted and made the right types of clothes for the right sorts of fashions that were correct for the country that you were going into. If you've been overseas, you'll know that different countries have different clothing, different climates require different things to be worn and so the fabrics have to be matched, it had to look like it fitted you and it also had to look old - that ended up too shiny new in this outfit as well and things like buttons and belt buckles were absolutely correct. Or if you were going in as some sort of military person in disguise that your badges on your uniform were the right ones for the country that you would be operating in. Not only that but think of our suitcase - it's got to have the right labels, the right packaging on it for the country that you're supposedly living in all the time, and you might need your identity cards in your paperwork. So, they were printing experts also working at the headquarters of the Special Operations Executive as well. 

Now it's no good having all of these incredible gadgets and secret tools, if you haven't got men and women brave enough to put their lives at risk, be dropped into enemy territory to carry out these missions one of these people was Ben Cowburn. He completed four successful missions in France, and he was there to disrupt the enemy from operating efficiently. So, one of his biggest successes was that he managed to get a consignment of itching powder to a launderette where enemy uniforms were being washed and put into the uniforms. Now if that makes you giggle just imagine being a soldier on guard duty or trying to do your job patrolling and you've got this unbearable insatiable urge to itch and scratch. It makes doing your job quite tricky and that's exactly what Ben was aiming to do, disrupt the enemy from going about their jobs as much as possible. The spies in disguise also had radio call signs and code names and Madeleine and White Rabbit were two of those.  

Now of course White Rabbit is not how Forrest Frederick Edward Yeo-Thomas introduced himself when he first parachuted into France - that would have been quite suspicious! He instead was carrying an identity card that revealed him to be a Francois Yves Thierry, an ordinary French citizen living in Arras a small town in north-western France. His codename White Rabbit was useful for fellow spies and members of the resistance to identify that he was who they were looking for. His job was to try and bring together small groups of resistance fighters into one big better organized secret army. The resistance were ordinary men and women who are now living in occupied Europe and wanted to risk their lives to try and bring freedom back to their land. Now on one of these missions his codename of White Rabbit was also quite useful to tell the SOE headquarters back in London he'd arrived safely. So, using a BBC broadcast were the words inserted 'the White Rabbit is in his hutch' and those that needed to know knew that you Thomas had landed successfully, and the mission was on. Forrest Yeo Thomas - White Rabbit –completed two successful missions and returned to Britain safely after both of them. One of those returns was quite scary when unexpectedly some quite senior enemy officers boarded the train that he was on going through France and so he hid himself in a coffin! Now one of the reasons I find Yeo-Thomas such an extraordinary character is not only does he risk his life and complete these two successful missions but somehow, he achieves an interview with Winston Churchill and puts across his point and I think that Churchill must have found him quite a fascinating character because he listened to him and he agreed that he would sort out more resources for the resistance in France.  

Now what about Madeline? Who was she? Well, that was the codename of Noor Inayat Khan. She was born in Moscow in Russia to an Indian father and an American mother. When she was a little girl, her family moved to London and then on to Paris, the capital city of France. So that when the Second World War breaks out, she chooses to return to Britain, and she volunteers - joins up - with the Women's Auxiliary Air Force. Now her talents do not go unnoticed, particularly her ability to speak perfect French and she's soon snapped up by the Special Operations Executive. In the same year that White Rabbit is dropped into France, 1943, Noor is also dropped along with her radio. Remember that big bulky suitcase that looks like an unassuming suitcase containing a radio? That's what she is never, ever without because she is going to be a wireless operator getting that vital intelligence and messages to London. Now what I need you to understand is the weight of Noor's radio that she's carrying around with her. This is my radio here onboard the boat and I carry it around with me when I go off to clean my teeth and it's light, it's portable, it's meant for carrying around. What I need you to understand it this is as far removed from Noor's radio as it's possible to be and I've thought about how I can try and get across to you the weight of hers. So maybe you've got some scales in the bathroom at home and you could put objects on until you get to about thirteen point two kilograms - that's the weight of the radio that Noor is carrying. I popped along to the onboard gym and found some plates. Now this plate weighs two point five kilograms, I've got a second plate that weighs two point five kilograms and together five kilograms is quite heavy. I would need another three of those plates and that would give me almost the weight of Noor's radio. So heavy but remember it's not like a modern suitcase, that she's carrying this weight around in, on wheels to take the load. Oh no, she's got an old single handled suitcase and what she cannot do is look as if she's got an enormous weight hanging within it. It's got to look like a suitcase containing your regular items of clothing and your toothbrush and your passport. So, what she does is carry it in such a way that it doesn't, doesn't raise suspicions. This was going very well until one day she's actually on a train and there are two enemy officers who start to question her, and they want to see inside her suitcase. As cool as anything, Noor places the suitcase between them she opens the lid of course there's her radio. But staying calm she says that this is cinema equipment, it's a camera, it's to do with her job. After a pause, they accept her story, they stop questioning her, they let her go and I find this really remarkable about Noor. Not only has she got that calm ability under pressure, but she also knows the dangers she's operating under. Noor was eventually awarded for George Medal which is one of the highest medals for bravery that can be given.  

Our final story also ends with our spy in disguise getting back to Britain safely but mostly because she herself was not all that she seemed and a slight misunderstanding of the true nature of her identity. In 1939, when the Second World War broke out, Odette Sansom was living in Somerset with her three young daughters. Her husband had joined up to serve in the British Army and she sees an appeal by the British government asking for anyone who has photographs or postcards of the French coast taken before the war, if they could send them in. Now Odette does this, but she also includes the letter saying that she is French born so she speaks fluent French and she lived for a while in the town of Boulogne which is on the French coast and knows it well. This is amazing news to the War Office and eventually she is recruited into the SOE. She's trained up and she is about to go on her mission and meet up with the head of the SOE in France at that time who was one Peter Churchill. An interesting name I think you will agree. Remember that detail! Odette is landed by boat, so she wades ashore, she meets up with Peter Churchill. Unfortunately, she's landed into France at a time when the enemy are really cracking down on the British spies that are operating there. So, Peter and Odette have to move base once but sadly it's not long before they are caught and arrested. They are both taken for questioning, for interrogation. She gives nothing away except one little white lie - Odette tells them that she has married Peter Churchill and the enemy also believe that Peter Churchill must be related to Winston Churchill. This now makes Odette a highly valuable prisoner and it certainly saves her life. She's still imprisoned, and she's put all alone in her cell for quite a while at one point but she manages to survive and in the museum we've got her jacket and when you look really closely at this jacket you can see tiny details of where it's been repaired because it was worn so much, particularly during her imprisonment and this gives us a clue to Odette's survival - she was a really good sewer. Eventually she persuades the camp guards where she's being held to join the sewing group and with her sewing ability, a sewing kit and some scraps of fabric she starts to make rag dolls as a way of focusing her mind, giving her something to start a project that she can achieve. Inside the museum we've got Odette's jacket, two of the rag dolls that she made and just beneath her tiny sewing kit, inside a little tin. And there they're sitting, waiting for the museum to be able to open again, for us to come and visit, and discover their stories and the stories of all the other extraordinary acts of bravery of the spies in disguise during the Second World War.  

Now imagine that you have been identified as a top candidate for a secret mission - what would you take with you? What are you going to land with or set ashore with from that boat that silently drops you off? Is it going to be something to eat on arrival while you wait for the reception party to pick you up? Is it going to be a vital form of communication that's going to enable you to send messages back like our radio hidden in a suitcase? Is it going to be a disguise to help you blend in with the local population. Is it some documentation that has your false identity and a name like Madeline under which you're going to operate? What are you going to take on that mission? And remember, when you've got all those gizmos and gadgets together, they need to be in something like our suitcase that is not what it seems. It needs to be perhaps a cereal box that looks like a cereal box but contains all the things that you need for your mission or a pencil case or maybe a secret compartment in a bag. It would be really fascinating to know what it is you would take on a mission that would help you be a successful spy in disguise. We at the museum love to hear from you so there's anything you want to know more about get in touch via our Twitter or Facebook pages or just in the comments on YouTube below this video.  

Imperial War Museums are a charity and if you think you want to donate and help us tell these stories, then go to our websites and find out how you can do that. Next week you're going to hear from my friend Ed, who has also spent some time in a boat though in part of the ocean that I hope this old boat doesn't ever go to because he is going to talk to you next week along with Ben Shires about life underwater in a submarine. So, thank you very much for listening to all my tales of spies in disguise until next time, farewell. 

Curriculum Links and Learning Objectives

  • KS3/4 - Challenges for Britain, Europe and the wider world, 1901-present.   

  • GCSE - Warfare and British society, c1250-Present.          

  • To explore the roles of spies in the Second World War. 

Family Mission

[Agent Shires] Psst! Secret-agent Shires here: codename Speccy Squirrel and I urgently need your help with this week's IWM Family Mission! Everything that you need to know is written on this piece of paper. What do you mean there's nothing on it? Of course, there is! All you need to do is- what's that? Someone's coming!  

[Ben Shires] That's so weird I could've sworn I just saw someone in my back garden... Anyway, enough of that. I'm Ben shires and I'm here to tell you all about this week's IWM Family Mission. Apparently, it's written on this piece of paper, but it looks blank to me. What's going on? It- hang on that sounded like a knock at the door. I'm just going to get that. 

[Agent Shires] Thank goodness he's gone! Now for this week's mission. Spies like myself have to think on our feet when it comes to inventive methods of deception. From silk maps to inflatable tanks and even fake feet to hide our footprints. I've written your instructions for this week's mission in invisible ink. It's a highly complex solution – a mysterious liquid that disappears when it hits the page and only reappears again under lamplight. It's an incredible liquid I like to call lemon juice. Oh, it's bitter!  

Your mission this week is to create your very own top-secret spy identity card featuring your codename and of course your special skill. All you need is some lemon juice, some plain white paper and something to write with like a paintbrush or a cotton bud. That way your secret identity will remain secret and only you and fellow spies will know to hold it under lamplight, exposing it to heat and revealing all. And yes, before you ask, we spies really do use invisible ink!  

Remember the special agents at IWM have relied all the information for this week's mission over on the website. Well, that's it. Off you go! Good luck and remember: shhh!  

Grown ups! Every week we share a fun challenge on Twitter and Facebook!

This week your challenge is Mystery Messages. Create your top secret identity card using invisible ink and find out your secret code name

Find out the top secret instructions

Explore Further

A woman sits and uses a Typex Mark II cryptograph machine
Third Officer Eillen Wood of Bolton, Lancs operating a Typex Mark II cryptograph machine which codes and decodes messages in such a way that it is said to be impossible for the enemy to break them down. © IWM A 23510

Successfully cracking top secret codes used by Nazi Germany helped the Allies win the Second World War. Find out more about what happened and hear from a veteran who worked for the RAF's code-breaking division.

Watch now >

Video hosted on the BBC Teach website. 

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