Cloaks, Daggers and Stamps
Most collectors know stamps have played their part in shaping history. They’ve started wars and celebrated peace; they’ve turned hostilities into bloodbaths, ridiculed political leaders and been used as propaganda. Some, like the French “spy” stamp have been used as a weapon of war. The story goes like this…
The Nazis overran France in the early days of World War II. A French underground, known as the Maquis, formed to stop the Germans. Life for the Maquis was extremely hazardous because the efficient Germans had an excellent counter-espionage system. One of their favorite and most successful techniques for uncovering the Maquis was to send a suspected spy a message, like “Be under the Rhone Bridge Tuesday for dynamiting.” A Frenchman loyal to the Germans would ignore the message or take it to the German authorities. Anyone who acted on the message was automatically assumed to be guilty and executed.
The Nazis were especially brutal and losses of French partisans were staggering. So too were the loses of British and allied soldiers who parachuted in to help the resistance or to gather military information.
British Intelligence realized their problem was unsecured communications. Since reliable communications were vital for effective resistance, they couldn’t stop communicating. What they needed was a foolproof way to tell friend from foe. Taking a page from history, an operator remembered that the British had reproduced German postage stamps to mail anti-German propaganda inside Germany during World War I. Why not try a variation on the theme?
The British chose the 1939 French Mercury stamp, changing it just enough so that those in the know would recognize it immediately while those uninformed would not become suspicious. Namely, more prominent highlights appeared on the left cheekbone, on the neck and over and around the left eye socket of the forgery.
A letter franked with a British-made stamp was to be regarded as official instructions while letters with authentic French stamps would be realized as German traps. If it worked, the underground would be able to communicate effectively with the French post office delivering the letters right under the noses of the Germans – and after they were censored by the Nazis!
The plan was one of the most closely-guarded secrets of the war. Only a handful of people – and only those who absolutely needed to know – realized the stamps were being dropped by parachute along with weapons and supplies. The Germans and the French collaborators never caught on, even though they must have wondered why their traps suddenly produced no victims. In their arrogance, they may have believed they had eliminated most of the resistance movement’s spies. One thing’s for sure, few gave any thought to stamps or stamp collecting during the war.
Ironically, the Roman god Mercury – the fleet-footed messenger of the gods, the god of roads and travel, and the god of crafty, deceptive trickery – is the image on the stamp chosen to pull the wool over the Nazi’s eyes. The entwined snakes around his winged staff protected him on his travels just as the counterfeited French Mercury stamp protected the Maquis and vital wartime messages.
Because the resistance could never be sure when the scheme was uncovered, correspondence was to be destroyed immediately. Mint French spy stamps are scarce and used examples, especially on cover, are extremely rare.