The military is a community just like any other. It has its own social norms—and stigmas. Its own culture—and subcultures. The military intelligence community—and all its disparate and freaky sub-subcultures—is no different: a microcosmic analog of its macrocosmic parent. That microcosm has all the trappings of a culture/subculture, complete with its own lingo, legends, and lore.
What follows is an example of one such nugget of lore. I say it’s lore since I can’t verify it. Doesn’t mean it’s not the truth, it just means *I* can’t tell you it’s the truth. This tale was told to me by an old counter-intelligence warrant officer. This guy had spent the vast majority of his career in Cold War Germany, and of that, a significant portion working in Berlin itself—and elsewhere in-theater.
He was a crusty old CW4 by the time I met him in the ’90s, which meant he went back a few days. A very many ‘few days’. He was fluent in German, and when no one understood what he was saying, he’d just speak English in a German accent—always never funny. Like any good uniformed linguist on the grid, he’d tell dumbass, lang-geek jokes that you’d have to half decipher/half just choke down. (Advanced education and/or experience were always a plus when doing this.) But, as with all salty, crusty old-schoolers, he’d also, occasionally, spill the beans.
One such bean-spillage had to do with the cloak and dagger games of European theater WWII, and just after.
Ever heard a German try to say the word squirrel? Hell, not just Germans, anyone who’s not a native English speaker. They can’t. Like asking an Asian to say, “I love rock ‘n roll.” Ain’t gonna happen. The English word ‘squirrel’ has so many sounds crammed in in such an order as to make the sound structure completely fucky for anyone not raised saying it. There are plenty of videos out there on this. Look ’em up.
So, the yarn this warrant spun was specifically about this linguistic fact. He said that during WWII, the OSS and British intelligence would use this little tidbit as a kind of challenge and password. They’d strike up a convo with their contact—or whoever it was they suspected of being not who they said they were—and angle some kind of Sciuridae-centric shit into the mix.
I imagine it went something like this:
“Great weather we’re having lately, right? Autumn’s a great season. I love when the leaves change and all those…uuuuh…those tree rat thingies…what’re they called? I can’t remember.” <stares intently at suspected German>
And Gerry is all, “Yeah…those things. Boy, I love ’em too. Oh? You mean…yes, of course! The tree rats. Haha. That’s so funny. Yes, I forget words too sometimes. Those are called…uh…squ…<panics inside, looks for way out>…haha…sikiwirreels, of course. Love those little guys.” <knows he’s had, makes a break for it>
From the American OSS to the Army’s Counter Intelligence Corps to the Ritchie Boys to the British MI5/6 and SOE in WWII…and later in post-War/Cold War Europe, the word around the military intelligence campfire is that this tiny little detail is what snowballed into intelligence types being called “secret squirrels.”
Featured image courtesy of neotacticalgear.com
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