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Sir Robert Baden-Powell and His Adventures as a Spy

By Bryan Black

My Adventures as a Spy Book

For those of you who didn’t grow up participating in the Boy Scouts of America like I did, Sir Robert Baden-Powell might not be a name you recognize.

Baden-Powell was not only instrumental in scouting becoming of the world’s most successful youth organization, but also authored the first Boy Scout Handbook and wrote of his exploits as a Spy during World War I in the book My Adventures as a Spy. Baden-Powell was an accomplished author, with over 30 books to his credit, but the most intriguing thing about the author was learning about the little known side of him as a Spy. Not only did he serve in the British Military, but saw action behind enemy lines as a reconnaissance officer or scout.


These covert missions as a scout required him to adopt disguises while undercover, hide messages, create diversions, escape capture and slip deep into the world of espionage.

A good spy no matter which country he serves is of necessity a brave and valuable fellow

While the book My Adventures as a Spy is a fantastic read, rich with Baden-Powell’s stories of spycraft, I’d like to highlight one such particular example of a lost skill that’s slowly slipping away, semaphore messages.

Secret Messages and Semaphores

Baden-Powell illustrates how spies he ran used semaphore signaling to code messages that would be hidden inside concealment devices and delivered to him. He also notes that this method of encoding secret messages was made popular during the South African War of 1899, also known as the Second Anglo-Boer War.

Before we get into the encoding Baden-Powell used, allow me to highlight just what semaphore signaling is. Right around the time I had started serving in the Navy back in 2003, the rating of Signalman was being dissolved. Their duties, which revolved heavily around semaphores, were passed to the Quartermaster rate. Along with flag semaphores, Signalmen were responsible for transmitting, receiving, encoding, decoding and distributing messages obtained via the visual transmission systems visual morse code and flaghoist signaling.

Here’s the current flag system for semaphores, as you’ll see, by holding two square flags on short poles in different positions, letters and numbers of any combination are achievable. Their are eight possible directions for each arm and except for in the rest position, the flags do not overlap.


Flags are also colored differently based on whether the signals are sent by sea or by land. At sea, the flags are colored red and yellow (the Oscar flag). On land, they are white and blue (the Papa flag).

Secret Message Encoding

Baden-Powell took advantage of this method of sending secret messages through semaphores to encode secret messages. By using drawings of flag positions, connected by dots, he was able to teach his spies to put together a hieroglyphic drawing that those able to read the semaphore signaling code could decode. This was of course a bit dangerous on it’s own, as you had to hope the opposition didn’t know what they were looking at and couldn’t decipher the semaphore shapes.

My Adventures as a Spy Book

Along with other methods of signaling and leaving warnings as an Intelligence Officer, Baden-Powell would often travel as an eccentric English butterfly-hunter, scouting out enemy fortifications and passing the intel back to superiors.

To hide the sketched fortifications, he’d often work his butterfly-hunter cover for action into the messages he’d pass up the chain. In the example below, Baden-Powell hid his sketching inside a drawing of a butterfly, this would translate perfectly into his cover if he was searched and the drawing was found.

My Adventures as a Spy Book


My Adventures as a Spy is a short, but very interesting look into the life of Sir Robert Baden-Powell and his exploits as a spy during World War 1, I’d highly recommend giving it a read and learning more about the fundamentals of intelligence he discusses.

The book has given me a new appreciation for some old school spying methods employed by the English and how those have translated over to current techniques used today. If you’re a fan of espionage history like I am, you won’t be disappointed with this book.

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  • Elizabeth Hackett

    found it……reading it…..

  • Churba

    That’s not quite true. William D. Boyce founded the BSA, not BP. BP gave his approval, but was not a founder or founding member.

    The BSA is also not the most successful scouting movement in the world – Indonesia’s Gerakan Pramuka takes that title, with 20 million+ Scouts to America’s 2 million, both in rough figures.

    I certainly get that you’re proud – I’m proud of Scouts Australia, even though we’ve comparatively small 65K+ members – but you can’t be doing the dirty to other Scouts like that. You might be third in the world, but that’s something to be proud of.

    • Churba I completely understand your mention of Boyce and brining what he did to America, but Baden-Powell is still listed as a founder “above” Boyce here on the BSA Website:
      I have corrected the article above to mention scouting as a whole being the world’s most successful youth organization. That was certainly my mistake and has been corrected. Thanks for the catch!

    • Churba

      That’s a fair call, I might be wrong – I’m going from memory that’s basically just the story of Boyce and the Unknown Scout, combined with Edward Rowan’s book “To do my best”, which I could certainly be misremembering or misinterpreting. It’s been a long time since I last picked it up, come to think, which makes it all the more likely I’m mistaken.

      No worries, though – the BSA is part of the overall biggest youth organization(The World Organization of the Scouting movement) as well as being impressively large in and of itself, so it’s an easy mistake to make. Had I not gone wondered just how big the BSA was, I’d likely have simply taken it as a given.

    • Churba No worries from my end either 🙂 I certainly did mistake not recognizing BSA’s inclusion in scouting as a whole. As you mentioned it’s impressive no matter how you slice it, the worldwide scouting movement is huge and today’s youth are better because of it. Thanks for your comments!

  • Jared L Kauffman

    I wonder how he would feel about the militant gays trying to destroy his organization?

    • ImJacob

      He’d probably say that you’re a washed-up, old-fashioned Nazi wanker and proceed to club you to death… or at least I would.

  • Jack Timar

    Boy Scouts originally envisioned to be an organization to prepare British youth for military service since Baden-Powell felt they weren’t effective in WW1.
    Of course, over here its turned into a religious recruiting organization.

    • ImJacob

      Ah… a pre-paramilitary front turned religious brainwashing org. Sounds typical!

    • Howard

      Really? And you base your supposition on……..?
      Have you, yourself, ever BEEN a Scout or even involved in the Scouts or ANY Scouting activities?
      Like many “clubs” or organizations, sure, there might (is?) a religious component to the organization but you make it sound like the Scouts are primarily a recruiting venue for collecting young and easily molded minds into a bunch of mindless syncopated nitwits.
      I’d hazard a guess you haven’t been involved with Scouting in any form or if you had, couldn’t hang long enough to LEARN about them or involve yourself in any MEANINGFUL way, whether it was for personal growth or simply the commaraderie and friendship that most participants enjoy and get out of the organization as a whole.
      Speaking of “whole (s)” I’d wager you crawled out of yours just to see your own words in print in an effort to reinforce your own pathetic life. One where YOU are lonely and alone and desiring to drag other, unsuspecting, souls to the depths of your dispare.
      I pity tools like you who cannot see ANY “good” or value in any topic or endeavor in life and must, then, try to drag others down to your level.
      Get a Life, Slick.

    • Heath Morton

      How about Baden-Powell as a British Officer in the second Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902) was the military commander of a beseiged town (Mafeking). Critically understaffed had enrolled the willing assistance of local boys in minor engineering, resupply, information gathering, and all the other things an army needs other than pulling triggers.
      They performed far above his expectations so when he got home he sought to extend the concept, officially starting the Scout Association in 1906. WWI began in 1914. WWI broke Baden-Powells heart with all the destruction and he moved slightly away from the militant aspects.

  • There’s also a free ebook version of My Adventures as a Spy in versions other than Kindles here:

    But also no audiobook version yet.

  • Matt Caron

    Where’d you find it and how much? If you don’t mind me asking. I’d love to give it a read.

  • Matt Caron

    An amazing organization and an even more amazing man!

  • Earl Herman

    As a former Scout Leader and Veteran, I noticed a lot of similarities. It was a fantastic experience. My Son achieved the Rank of Eagle and a lot of interest from the Military.

  • ImJacob

    Steganography is cool!

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