The Most Effective Female Spy of WWII

As an 18-year-old deb coming out in Washington society.

As an 18-year-old deb coming out in Washington society.

Amy Elizabeth Thorpe was born on November 22, 1910, in Minneapolis. The family traveled extensively, since her father was a U.S. Marine Corps officer, and by the time they returned to Washington, DC, young Amy had become familiar with a number of foreign customs and manners. Her mother Cora, a social butterfly in her own right, made sure her daughter was invited to all the important parties in the city, usually those attended by diplomats from various countries, and by the time she made her debut in Washington society, 18-year-old Betty Thorpe was beautiful, well-bred and sophisticated, with green eyes and amber-colored hair. She attracted men like a magnet.

Baltimore Sun Announcement

Baltimore Sun Announcement

One of these men was Arthur Pack, second secretary at the British Embassy and 19 years her senior. One thing Amy got from this union, besides a couple of inconvenient children, was British citizenship. This was to help later in her career.

The Packs were transferred to Madrid on the eve of the Spanish Civil War, where Amy immediately became involved helping smuggle rebel Nationalists to safety, transporting Red Cross supplies to Franco’s forces, coordinating the destroyer evacuation of the British Embassy staff from northern Spain, and meddling in diplomatic affairs. Those activities ceased when she was denounced to her Nationalist friends as a Republican spy, apparently by a jealous woman who husband also found Amy irresistible.

In the fall of 1937, Amy Pack boarded the Warsaw Express in Paris to, in her words, “become a member of his Britannic Majesty’s Secret Intelligence Service.” In Warsaw, Pack admitted to her that he was involved with another woman, which gave her the excuse to seek affairs of her own with several men in Warsaw. She quickly fell in with a group of young men working for the Polish foreign ministry, a situation facilitated by her husband. Shortly afterward, Pack suffered a heart attack that landed him in an English nursing home.

In the winter of 1937, she was noticed by Sir William Stephenson of the British Security Coordination, who recruited her to gather intelligence due to her wide network of contacts. While Stephenson never actually suggested that Amy use her sexual prowess to gather intelligence, that was exactly the skill she used, and she took to her new duties with unbounded energy. She later told a biographer of her first official conquest: “Our meetings were very fruitful, and I let him make love to me as often as he wanted, since this guaranteed the smooth flow of political information I needed.”

Among her greatest achievements in Warsaw was her ability to facilitate flow of Polish intelligence on the German Enigma code to Britain. Polish intelligence agents had ambushed a German truck which happened to be carrying an Enigma machine, and after leaving behind incontrovertible evidence that the machine had been destroyed in a fire set about learning its secrets.

When World War II started, Amy Pack offered her talents to the British intelligence service. In 1940, she left her husband and sailed to New York, where she was given the code name, “Cynthia,” and an assignment to set up shop in Washington, D.C. As her cover, she posed as a journalist. Her first major assignment was obtaining the Italian naval crypto codes. She immediately thought of Alberto Lais, now an admiral in the Italian navy, whom she had met and charmed as an 18-year-old debutante. From him she extracted intelligence that Benito Mussolini was convinced that the United States would seize Italian ships operating in the US to use against the Axis, and ordered Lais to sabotage them. Amy coaxed the information out of Lais with ease, but by the time the Americans acted, most of the 27 ships were already destroyed, though a few were saved due to Amy’s intelligence; those that were saved were, as Mussolini feared, commandeered by the US military. Then, before Lais was kicked out of Washington, DC after the sabotage incident, she was able to acquire from him the Italian Navy’s code books, which would be used against the Italians later, particularly in the Battle of Taranto

Cynthia’s next assignment was one that assured her place in the intelligence hall of fame. The Vichy French government, established after France’s collapse in 1940, was vehemently anti-British. Posing as an American journalist, Cynthia phoned the French Embassy in May 1941 and introduced herself to Charles Brousse, the press attaché. Right away, Brousse–49 years old, several times married and anti-Nazi–was besotted with Cynthia.

The relationship began with elicited material and intelligence tidbits. But by July, Cynthia felt confident enough to tell Brousse she worked for the Americans. The French official soon was offering his mistress embassy cables, letters, files and accounts of embassy activities and personalities.

In March of 1942, Cynthia was told that “London would like to have the Vichy French naval ciphers.” Informed of her latest request, Brousse threw up his hands. “Impossible,” he said. “Only the chief cipher officer and his assistant had access to the code room and the cipher books are in several volumes, locked in a safe. Besides, they’re protected by an armed guard and a dog.”

Cynthia decided to try the direct approach. After hiring a safecracker known as “The Georgia Cracker,” Brousse was to tell the embassy guard that he needed a discreet place to conduct an affair and was prepared to pay him to look the other way. The couple would then visit the embassy for several nights to get the guard used to their presence. On the night of the burglary, they planned to slip the watchman a drugged glass of champagne. After that, they would admit the safecracker, go to the ground-floor code room, open the safe, pass the cipher books to a BSC man waiting on the tree-shaded lawn below and then wait for the volumes to be returned after they were photographed.

All seemed to go as planned. The pentobarbital knocked out the guard as well as his dog (whose food had been drugged). The Georgia Cracker coaxed open the old safe, but there was not enough time to remove and copy the books, and the intruders had to beat a hasty retreat. A second attempt, made without the Georgia Cracker, was foiled when Cynthia could not get the safe open, even with the combination.

Entering with Brousse’s key for a final try, the couple had nervously positioned themselves on their usual sofa in the embassy when Cynthia’s intuition told her something was wrong. Impulsively, she arose and removed her clothes. “Have you gone mad?” asked Brousse, looking at his lover, who was by then clad only in a necklace and high heels. She persuaded him to also start undressing. A door suddenly opened, and a flashlight beam stabbed the darkness. As it focused on her, Cynthia quickly placed her slip in front of her.

‘I beg your pardon a thousand times,’ said the watchman. He turned his flashlight aside and, suspicion allayed, returned to his basement room. Cynthia let in the safecracker. The rest was easy. She sneaked the French Navy’s code books out the window of the embassy to a Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) agent waiting outside, who photographed them, then gave them back to Cynthia, who replaced them in the safe. These ciphers were used to great effect when the Allies landed in French-held North Africa in November 1942.

With the United States now in the war, Cynthia worked for the U.S. Office of Strategic Services as well as for the British. She considered herself a patriot. “Ashamed? Not in the least,” she once said in regards to her methods of obtaining intelligence.. “My superiors told me that the results of my work saved thousands of British and American lives….It involved me in situations from which ‘respectable’ women draw back–but mine was total commitment. Wars are not won by respectable methods.”

Arthur Pack committed suicide in 1945 and Brousse divorced his wife soon after, paving the way for Thorpe and Brousse to marry. They settled in a medieval castle on a mountain in France. After enjoying 18 years of a happy marriage, Amy Thorpe Brousse died of mouth cancer, on December 1, 1963. Her husband was electrocuted about 10 years later by his electric blanket.

For more information, check out Amy’s biography, Cast No Shadow, by Mary S. Lovell. Its available at Amazon.

This entry was posted in History. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *