On a Spy’s Code

Espionage and sending coded messages is as old as man, almost. The old joke that when God made the third human that a plot was hatched by two of them against the other one has some validity. And finding a way to confidentially pass information gleaned by secrecy became an important part of how to successfully carry out any plot. We know about cyphers, about dead drops, about messages in symbols, and even numbers stations. We’ve talked about some spies in this format (Mata Hari, for example), but this is about a particular spy code in World War 2 that came from an unlikely source.

Sometimes, and especially in this day of high tech, the more low tech a message is, the more secure it can be. That is the case here. The spy in question was a British agent named Phyllis. She had been dropped into Nazi occupied northern France in the weeks and months before the Allied forces invaded Normandy on D-Day, June 6, 1944. Phyllis’s job was the blend into the countryside, to watch German troop movements, listen to local gossip regarding defenses as she sat knitting with the other women, and sometimes flirting with the occupying soldiers in an effort to glean more vital info that could make the difference between success and failure of the impending invasion.

One harrowing experience came when she and some other women were brought into the local police station for questioning. Their movements and activities had aroused the Nazi’s suspicions, and the women were thoroughly searched for any possible evidence that would implicate them in espionage activities. A female policewoman made the women strip to search their clothes for any potential messages or proof of spying. The policewoman noticed that Phyllis had her hair tied up on the top of her head with one of her crocheted pieces, and she insisted that Phyllis take her hair down in case something had been hidden there. Phyllis quickly complied, and she revealed that nothing was in her hair bun. Telling the story years later, Phyllis recalled how scared she was, how terrifying the situation had been, and how the Nazis actually came to finding the information that she indeed had hidden in her hair.

Except the coded messages wasn’t in her hair. It was in the crocheting. In fact, the kitting the Phyllis and the other women did in Normandy contained codes in the knots and the loops and knits and purls within the kitted piece. She used the knitted items to send coded messages about the German defenses to people who had hidden radios, and that’s how the Allies knew which areas of Normandy would be the best to invade in that late spring of 1944.

Yes, one of the best weapons the Allies had in the invasion of Europe was a pair of kitting needles.


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