During World War II, the German army employed a novel type of espionage that they dubbed “Operation Bernhard.” The idea involved Nazi designers creating elaborate printing plates that mimicked British currency, in order to flood the enemy economy with counterfeit bills. Vince Houghton, a curator and historian at the International Spy Museum in Washington, D.C., describes this strategy as economic espionage.
According to Houghton, the plates were impressive in their mimicry. British bills had several protections against counterfeit, including regulated serial numbers, watermarks, and the use of a specific type of paper. The German army printed over eight million fake bills during the war. As Houghton puts it, this tactic “is indicative of intelligence agencies and governments trying to find the edge—the way to defeat their enemy any way possible.” In 1945, the Germans attempted to destroy the evidence of Operation Bernhard in advance of their imminent defeat. The plates and bills were dumped into a deep lake in Austria. The remnants of the operation were only discovered later.
In the video above, Atlas Obscura gets a close-up look at the only surviving plate that retains its intricate design.
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