Reviews by Alec Chambers

Review of Ronnie, Counterfeit Hero

Ronnie, Art. Counterfeit Hero: Fritz Duquesne, Adventurer and Spy. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1995.

Fritz Duquesne is best known in the intelligence world as a member of New York-based German spy ring led by William Sebold that was broken up by the FBI in 1941. This was the final act in the life of a deeply Anglophobic Boer. He spent much of his life attempting, in his own self-aggrandizing manner, to take his revenge upon the British Empire for its actions against the Boers in the First and Second Boer Wars. This last escapade led to his capture and imprisonment with release only coming when he was too old and infirm to do any damage to anyone. A career during which he had described at one time or another as "the world's greatest adventurer," "the best company in the world," and "one of the most dangerous criminals in the United States" ended when he died in 1956, aged 78, from a stroke whilst being treated for a broken leg suffered in a fall.

Art Ronnie, an experienced print and TV journalist, has produced a carefully researched book in which he patiently tries to scrape the many layers of mythology (most of them generated by Duquesne himself) from the truth to try to find the real Duquesne.

The book is falls into two parts. The first part is a biography of Duquesne before joining the Sebold ring and the second (which takes up about a third of the book) is a thorough telling of the rise and fall of the Sebold ring and of the FBI investigation of it.

Duquesne first came to fame to the Second Boer War where he saw a deal of action but managed to convince others that he had seen a great deal more. He was captured by the British after a failed attempt to destroy Cape Town and escaped from a POW camp in Bermuda to the US. There he used his inventive mind and talent for telling tall tales to spin a Munchausenesque tale of his life and adventures, reinventing himself as often as he had to. This included inventing whole new personae, using bogus and unearned decorations and rank (his personae seem to have suffered from rank inflation, starting as a captain and occasionally reaching colonel) and in one case inventing a regiment. One of the appendices identifies a number of the honors he wore on his uniforms and it is clear that they were not earned for military endeavors. In addition, he claimed unwarranted expertise in many fields, especially in African topics where there were few who could contradict him. Amongst other things, he tried to use his knowledge of game-hunting in Africa to ingratiate himself (unsuccessfully) with then-President Theodore Roosevelt.

Ronnie worked very hard on this part of Duquesne's life and manages to demonstrate that many of his claims are pure invention, and often incompatible with his known whereabouts at the time of the claimed achievement. Duquesne's most spectacular claim, that he played an important role in the sinking of HMS Hampshire which caused the death of Kitchener, gets very short shrift. Even when a clear cut exposure is not possible, the author makes sure the reader has a reasonable doubt.

At this point, one is left with the impression that Duquesne fitted very well into the litany of defective personalities that go into espionage that are cataloged in an outburst by Alec Lemas in John Le Carre's The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. Certainly, his Anglophobia was very deep, but the continuous lying and grandstanding leads one to believe that Duquesne had some interesting psychological disorders. He did feign insanity and paraplegia at one point to escape the attention of the British, who were after him for his role in the sabotage of freighters during World War I, and of US law enforcement.

With the ascent of Hitler to power, the Abwehr under Canaris developed spy rings in the US in contravention of orders from the chancellery. Although they achieved some early coups, such as obtaining the plans for the Norden bombsight, they were compromised almost from the start because the ringleader, William Sebold, was a double agent working for the FBI. The ring was finally rolled up in late 1941 with thirty-three German agents netted and much of Canaris' efforts in the US was brought to nothing, in addition to greatly weakening his influence in Germany.

Ronnie has again been very careful in researching the FBI investigation and includes a great deal of interesting information about the volume of legwork involved in such a case, even when it has such an important internal source. Surveillance technology was primitive in those days and involved some interesting improvisations whilst keeping an eye on Duquesne and the other members of the ring. The care taken in Ronnie's research is shown in the number of factual errors and inconsistencies found in earlier accounts, including Farago's well-known account in the The Game of the Foxes.

The book is an interesting mixture of rip-roaring, although fanciful, adventure tales and careful investigation. Carefully researched and highly readable, it should appeal to a wide range of readers and those readers will not find themselves disappointed.

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