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TURN Spycraft Handbook – Code Phrases

Code phrases are often used in spy circles as a means of granting access and camouflaging sensitive names, targets, locations, and other information in dangerous circumstances. One type of code phrase, called a countersign, consists of a password and a response which often sound like non sequiturs to a casual listener but actually identify and confirm the identity of an ally. In Episode 5, “Epiphany,” Ben and Caleb are summoned to join a secret mission for which the password challenge is “Victory” and the response is “Or death.” The phrase “Victory or Death” is an intriguing part of Revolutionary War history that came from a highly-inspirational source.

In February 1776, 18th century Enlightenment philosopher and author Thomas Paine began publishing a series of 16 pamphlets known as “The American Crisis.” The first pamphlet appeared at a critical time during the Revolution: After several pivotal losses to the British, General Washington knew he needed something robust to rouse and motivate his tattered army. On December 23, 1776, three days before the Battle of Trenton, Washington had the first pamphlet read aloud to his troops on the banks of the Delaware.

The opening lines of the first pamphlet are as follows: “These are the times that try men’s souls: The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like Hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph.” Those words inspired Washington’s watchword for the mission, “Victory or Death,” and one of history’s most important code phrases was born.

During World War II, code phrases were frequently utilized to gain strategic advantage and rally the resistance. For example, the code phrase “John has a long mustache,” broadcast over BBC radio on the night of June 5th, 1944, was the Allied code phrase for Operation Overlord and signaled to the French resistance that the Normandy invasion was going to begin the next day.

Spies and military agents are not the only groups to use code phrases. Many slaves who participated in the Underground Railroad used spiritual songs like “Follow the Drinking Gourd” to mask hidden meanings as they sang while working in the fields. The “drinking gourd” was a coded message for the Big Dipper and the North Star, and gave slaves guidelines for finding meeting places and escape routes away from slave owners.

Whether used to identify clandestine meeting places, mask key military strategies and movements, or identify roads to freedom, code phrases are an essential spycraft tool.

Read TURN: Washington’s Spies Spycraft Handbook – Double Agents >>

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