By Jay Holmes
One of the most important, most basic rules of intelligence work is that one must not mix love and work when dealing with any intelligence target. If an agent develops genuine affection for a target, the relationship can become dangerous to one or both of them. In wartime, this rule is even more critical, and if the agent is operating in hostile territory, the rule of avoiding romance is paramount. In spite of that, one agent broke this essential rule in wartime and lived to tell—a remarkable woman by the name of Amy Elizabeth Thorpe.
Amy Elizabeth Thorpe
Thorpe was born in Minneapolis, Minnesota on November 22, 1910. Her father was a US Marine Corps officer, and her mother was the daughter of a US senator. Amy’s father made sure that Amy was well-traveled and educated about foreign cultures. Her mother made sure that she acquired training in the important social graces a woman needed to marry well. I suspect that Amy’s parents had no idea that they were laying the foundations for a very successful career in the dangerous field of espionage.
Along with a suitable education, Amy had a very bright mind. When she was eleven, she published a romance novel titled Fioretta. The book was set in Italy, and the protagonist was a beautiful young girl with a fantastic singing voice who used her talents and charms to free her unjustly imprisoned father. At eleven, Amy likely did not envision that the book would one day help her in an intelligence operation.
When Amy was a teenager, her family moved to Washington D.C. While there, she met one of her admiring readers. That particular fan also happened to be an Italian naval officer by the name of Alberto Lais. He was serving at the Italian Embassy as a naval attaché. Lais developed a platonic relationship with Amy and referred to her as his “Golden Girl.”
At eighteen, Amy was considered one of the most charming and beautiful young women in the District of Columbia. Unfortunately, she was also a touch impetuous, and she entered into an affair with an English diplomat by the name of Arthur Pack. He was nineteen years older than she was, but they married, and in doing so, Amy gained British citizenship. Five months after their wedding, Amy gave birth to a healthy baby boy, but gave the child to a foster family. The marriage was ill-conceived, but Amy and Arthur had a second child, a baby girl, who she turned over to nannies.
In 1936, Arthur Pack was transferred to Madrid, Spain. Spain was on the verge of civil war, and as soon as Amy and Arthur arrived, Amy became involved in dangerous liaisons with the Nationalist movement. When the Spanish Civil War broke out in July of 1936, she began smuggling rebel Nationalists caught in Republican-held territory to safety.
Amy also worked with the International Red Cross to transport supplies to Franco’s Nationalist forces. When the British diplomatic staff and their families in northern Spain were trapped in a combat zone, Amy coordinated a rescue conducted by the British Royal Navy. Eventually, Amy’s position was compromised when she was accused by a jealous woman of being a double agent for the Republicans. Amy left Spain.
In the fall of 1937, accompanied by her young daughter and a nanny, Amy traveled to Warsaw to work for the British intelligence services. At the time, Poland was still neutral and was an important intelligence target for France, Britain, Germany, and the Soviet Union.
Amy was very fortunate in both her professional and personal lives while she was in Poland. On the personal side, her unsuitable husband, Arthur Pack, informed Amy that he was in love with another woman. Amy had to be thrilled at the news. Arthur then became ill and returned to England. On the professional side, Amy was able to establish close relations with young Polish patriots.
Poland had been successful in obtaining commercial copies of the German Enigma coding machine and had done valuable mathematical work in breaking German codes. Amy was able to target important Polish government officials with access to Poland’s code breaking operations. Though these officials were usually married and practicing, conservative Catholics, neither their marital status nor their religion were defenses against Amy’s charms. Amy was able to use her friendly contacts to meet these officials at social events. Then she routinely and quickly moved the new acquaintances from “hello” at the dinner table to “I love you” in her bed. The beautiful and brilliant Amy was one of the most successful “honey pot” operators in espionage history.
Some historians argue that Amy’s contributions in capturing Poland’s “Enigma” work were minimal. Polish patriots did, in fact, later smuggle out an Enigma machine to England after the Nazis invaded Poland. However, Amy’s work at the very least allowed the British to begin organizing their code breaking efforts against the German Enigma system earlier than they otherwise would have, and the value of that should not be underestimated.
Amy traveled to Prague and quickly penetrated the German diplomatic community, obtaining conclusive proof of Hitler’s plans to dismember Czechoslovakia. Then, in the fall of 1938, the British ambassador ordered Amy to leave the country.
In April of 1939, Amy was, for the moment, reconciled with hubby Arthur Pack, who had regained his health. Amy traveled to Santiago, Chile with Pack, where he served as the British commercial attaché. One must wonder if Amy’s departure from Prague the previous fall was based on the usual friction between diplomats and “spooks” operating under diplomatic cover, or if Amy’s estranged husband used his professional connections to have Amy sent back to England.
When the UK entered World War II in 1939, Amy was writing political articles for Spanish- and English-language newspapers in Chile. At the same time, Britain was doing its best to improve its intelligence and propaganda efforts in the Western Hemisphere.
In 1940, the UK’s Western operations were placed under the leadership of a highly skilled Canadian named William Stephenson. Stephenson, like so many other men, quickly developed a strong liking for Amy.
Amy left her (sometimes) husband in Chile and went to New York. Stephenson assigned her the code name “Cynthia” and sent her to the (then) neutral capitol of Washington, D.C. She was given the cover of a journalist and ordered to target the Italian naval cryptologic system.
Amy immediately contacted her old literary fan, Alberto Lais, who by then was an Admiral in the Italian Navy and the Senior Italian Naval Attaché to the US. According to MI-6’s version of the story, Amy quickly charmed the 60-year-old Admiral out of his uniform, his naval codes, and Italy’s plans for scuttling any Italian ships in US ports when the war started. According to Amy, Admiral Lais was disillusioned with Mussolini’s drift toward Nazi Germany, and he and other members of his staff openly cooperated with her. According to the late Admiral’s family and the Italian Ministry of Defense, Amy and MI-6 are fabricators, and the Admiral passed no information to anyone. In any event, the information found its way to British Admiralty hands and contributed significantly to the UK’s many successes in the Mediterranean Theater.
By now, most spies of the honey pot variety would have considered themselves lucky to be alive, but Amy was only getting started. In our next post, we’ll see how Amy used her extraordinary talents and charms to pull off a major intelligence coup and survive while mixing espionage with true love.