Counterfeit Heroes

medalsThere are two websites in Australia dedicated to exposing military wannabes’, civilians (or sometimes genuine ex-soldiers) who buy and wear medals to which they are not entitled, march in parades (particularly on Anzac Day) and tell heroic stories of their non-existent or grossly exaggerated service.  Some of these fraudsters are so convincing that they have become Returned Services League Branch Presidents before being exposed, other fabulists have written  books about their (or their family’s) mythical exploits.
As might be expected, most wannabes claim to have belonged to super-secret elite, behind-the-lines units.  A common theme is that their operations were so secret they can never speak of them, even decades later.  The wannabes are usually exposed when their stories become contradictory or simply grow too fantastic.  At this point they cannot identify some well-known incident, correctly place a date, or identify the name of someone in their mysterious unit, a secret unit that is naturally, never listed in any Order of Battle.
One infamous and well-known example of this genre was the popular character actor Trevor Howard, who often played craggy war heroes.  On the British television program, This is Your Life he repeated his oft claimed story of having been saved from certain death by another even more famous Hollywood actor after his ship was torpedoed in the Mediterranean during WW2.  To his horror, the other actor then walked on to the stage, but fortunately did not expose Howard.  Howard profusely hugged and emotionally praised him for saving his life.  Actually, it is more likely Howard was so happy because his ‘saviour’ did not expose and embarrass him in front of a huge nationwide audience!  Unlike Howard, David Niven was a genuine WW2 hero, but he was also a good actor and knew the part he was expected to play in this charade.  Howard and his publicists maintained the fiction until the day he died and his widow continued to believe his tales until shown incontrovertible documentary evidence to the contrary.Another class of wannabes are those who have actually served in the military but elect to grossly enhance their exploits.  The strange anomaly that distinguishes this group is that many already boast proud military records, suggesting that the exaggerations and their outright lies fulfill a psychological need to compensate for what they see as an apparent failure to be either as heroic as they could have been, had the opportunity arisen, or because they crave attention. The most common type is the Medal Cheat, who awards himself decorations for service and, inevitably, for bravery.  Recently, the Australian Government has taken an active interest in prosecuting this sad genre of wannabe warrior.
Sir William Stephenson: ‘A Man Called Intrepid’In an article, Behind the Lines: Camp X: SOE Special Training School 103, published in the excellent American magazine World at War, the main character and source for the article’s substance of the article is Sir William Stephenson, a ‘wannabe hero’.  Why Stephenson, a genuine WW1 hero who was awarded a Military Cross, a Distinguished Flying Cross and later knighted by the King in real life, would make wildly false claims of heroism in WW2 will always remain a mystery.Nothing about Stephenson’s life is clear, a point emphasised by the obituarists accounts after his death in Bermuda in April, 1990.  Stephenson falls into the ‘gross exaggerator’ category, yet in WW1 Stephenson had served in the Royal Flying Corps and is listed in official records as an ‘Ace’ with 15 – 19 kills, with eight definitely confirmed.  This score is enough to prove his courage and prowess (not to mention his capability to survive).  For this achievement, Stephenson was awarded two prestigious bravery medals, yet in his biography, his aerial combat score grew to 26 enemy planes — a total that would have placed him in very select company and made him a household name.  Perhaps his remaining in the second-tier of heroic air aces drove him to exaggerate his WW1 record and then go on to mythologize his quiet war during WW2 into one more befitting the notion of his warrior talents.  The reality is that Stephenson’s war between 1939 and 1945 was spent entirely, and very safely, in offices in Canada and the USA.

In A Man Called Intrepid there are tales of four great operations in which Stephenson claimed to have been intimately involved.  All these claims can be easily shown to be totally false.  Stephenson was not involved in the theft of an Enigma encoding machine in dramatic circumstances in Poland, nor did he propose the creation of the mathematical calculator at Bletchley Park to break German codes. The credit for devising and building the first electronic computer, dubbed Colossus, goes to the mathematician Alan Turing and his team[vii].  Furthermore, Stephenson did not take any part in the planning or training of the Czechoslovak agents involved in the assassination of Heinrich Heydrich in Prague in May, 1942.  In his book there is a purported photo of a briefing session at Camp X during the preparations for the assassination of Heydrich. In fact, the assassins never visited Canada and the photo is a still picture from the post war British film, School for Danger!  Fourthly, he was not involved in the capture of German radar equipment during the Dieppe Raid or in any of the other operations he describes.

Despite being unmasked as a fabricator and exaggerator Stephenson was still able to promote a best-selling fictional book of his non-existent WW2 exploits, a book that sold six million copies.  I have my own copy of the book that made him a rich man.

Rules for Counterfeit Heroes

If you feel the need to be a counterfeit hero there are certain rules you need to follow, though Howard and Stephenson were both able to break these rules because their personal standing and respected status inhibited close questioning and scrutiny. However, for the majority of wannabes the following applies:

  1. Never claim to have served in any identifiable unit on the Order of Battle. This is why so many wannabe heroes claim they were involved in clandestine intelligence operations or ‘Dirty Dozen’ super-elite special force units.  This provides a degree of freedom to tell tall tales, as few would have been involved in such operations and only fellow unit members could have have witnessed the alleged heroics. Naturally, fellow operatives cannot be named (for security reasons) and, if pressed, then the best course will always be to declare you have said too much already and say no more.
  2. Never give exact dates.  One well-known wannabe (and published author) has repeatedly claimed to have been involved in events the official war records of naval vessels and military units do not record.  He seriously claims all records have been falsified to cover up his deep cover operations (many of which were naturally carried out alone, deep in enemy territory).  James Bond lives on!
  3. Take care not to award yourself too many medals.  This especially applies to medals for bravery.  It may feel really good to be a highly decorated and clearly courageous hero, but wannabes need to be more modest if they want to maintain cover.  You can say you were recommended for the prestigious XX medal, but because the operation was so secret the XX Minister himself told you they could not award it to you for diplomatic reasons[viii].  Awarding yourself some of the most prestigious bravery medals is more dangerous for the wannabe than any fictitious operation.  Medals for courage have a clear audit trail and citations stating exactly why they were awarded, a path easy to follow even by the most amateur researcher. Each ANZAC Day several wannabes are unmasked because they claim awards for a level of courage that attracts attention.
  4. Be prepared if you are caught out.  In the mortifying event of being cornered and deceptions revealed by someone who is, perhaps, an ex-commando, SASR trooper or genuine deep-cover spy, the wannabe must learn how to turn away, breakdown and emotionally sob, “I can’t talk about it” while hurrying away from the limelight he so desperately sought.

Nigel West lists 17 books written after WW2 by fraudulent ‘heroes’, many of whom apparently genuinely came to believe their own myths.  Stephenson is a classic example of a man seduced by his own lies. Although most counterfeit heroes are more often than not just sadly inadequate people, more to be pitied than prosecuted, the genre shows no sign of declining.  The covert war on terror has opened up a whole new range of deep cover, ‘can’t talk about it’ opportunities for the wannabe’s — and, strangely, with far less risk of being caught than ever before.

The most recent example of a famous person exposed came to light in June, 2015, not long after the death of Sir Christopher Lee, the well-known English actor.  According to some obituaries, Lee served in the Special Air Service (SAS), the Long Range Desert Group (LRDG) and Special Operations Executive (SOE). The truth is that he had nothing to do with any of them and most assuredly never “moved behind enemy lines, destroying Luftwaffe aircraft and airfields.  When asked about his service record Lee was enigmatic.  In 2011 he said: ‘Let’s just say I was in Special Forces and leave it at that.  People can read into that what they like.’  Lee went on to add, falsely, that he was “forbidden — former, present, or future — to discuss any specific operations.”  Christopher was an excellent actor who knew exactly how to play Rules 1, 2 and 4 – and he already had enough real awards to satisfy Rule 3.

One would think the internet’s immense volume of easily found information would make creating a fake life much harder, but the opposite is true. There is now so much information available that constructing a heroic ‘avatar’ (a false internet personality) with dates, incidents, names and places is easier than ever, especially if you obey the rules above.

It is a tough inquisitor who will continue to challenge the sobbing imposter, but it is well worth doing so as confronting them can be a lot of cringe-worthy fun.

Alistair Pope retired from the Australian Army in 1986 as a Lieutenant Colonel.  He served in various postings in Australia, Vietnam, Indonesia and Papua New Guinea and now works as an international project management consultant


Counterfeit Spies – Nigel West, St Ermin’s Press, First Published 1998

A Man Called Intrepid – William Stevenson (no relation!), The Lyons Press, First Published 1976, Last Reprint, 2009

7 thoughts on “Counterfeit Heroes

  • mburke@pcug.org.au says:

    An aunt, bless her generous heart and may she rest in peace, in her middle-aged widowhood fell seriously under the thrall of a British “gentleman” who then proceeded to live with her and mostly off her for many years until his eventual death. She absolutely believed his claim that he was a Colonel in the WWII British Army who had taken part in the Dieppe raid and other dashing campaigns, flown Spitfires at other times and places and won many a fine gong for his exploits. Now, my father was a WWII RAAF pilot in the Pacific Theatre, and I myself was a career RAAF officer, and neither of us could tempt this gentleman to discuss his wartime experiences, trying to clarify the obvious inconsistencies in his legend. He invariably, and very skilfully, avoided the topic (gentlemen don’t, don’t you know), so we never did get to pin him down. But on his death, my poor gullible old aunt had published in their local paper the most gushing obituary, repeating in fine detail all sorts of implausible nonsense. But we never did locate his war medals which allegedly included a DSO, and thus far I’ve had no success in finding any records of his WWII service. But I have confirmed that there is no record of anyone of his name ever having been awarded a DSO, an order of significant status of which awards detailed records are available.

    They’re very sad people.

    • trbailey07@icloud.com says:

      Yes, sad people indeed, but by no means unique to our times: it was Dr Johnson who observed: “Every man thinks meanly of himself for not having been a soldier…”.

      Is it something to do with a hollowness some men feel at never having faced the chance of untimely death, the existential threat of war? A case of ‘Walter Mitty goes to press’, perhaps, with a touch of rank opportunism thrown in? Or do such people merely have too much in common with the common fraud behind bars?

  • bemartin39@bigpond.com says:

    The affliction is sometimes called “believing one’s own propaganda”. Brings to mind certain politicians…

  • nfw says:

    There’s some interesting and sad reading at the Australia and New Zealand Military Imposters group web site: http://www.anzmi.net/. It seems to be down at the moment but when it’s up, my goodness.

  • en passant says:

    I met four impostors during my Army career. Two were civilians and two (surprisingly) were serving officers who were medal cheats. In the first civilian case a well-uniformed and bemedalled Captain turned up at the Mess and was upset to find they had no room booked for him for 5-days. He was not happy and would give the Orderly Room clerk hell on his return to Sydney. As it was a Saturday the Mess Steward found him a Room and he joined us for dinner. From the stories he told he was certainly battle-hardened and I admit I was fooled. He continued to stay at the Mess and on the Monday HE SENT signals off to his unit. He was due to leave on the Wednesday, but was caught out on the Tuesday when he discussed an incident that involved one of his listeners at the bar. He was duly arrested and later charged by the police. It turned out that he was a serial offender, but the Magistrate let him off with a caution!

    When I marched into new posting my Officer Commanding was wearing Vietnam ribbons. Six months later he was not as his boss had suddenly realised that he had never been to Vietnam. No other action was taken and he was still promoted years later. In the second case one of my fellow officers wore a rare medal (which I missed out on being entitled to by being too late to qualify by nine months). I have to say I envied him this rare mark of service. It was only at his funeral that I noted the award was among his ribbons, but was not one of his mounted medals. A cursory check confirmed my worst expectation.

    Unfortunately I know of another case that has never been exposed as the fabulist fits well into the Howard and Lee ‘man of unimpeachable status’ category. One day the inevitable will happen …”

  • Brett_McS says:

    I have heard that “Behind the Lines: Camp X: SOE Special Training School 103” was by a William Stevenson (with a ‘v’), and has been thoroughly discredited. Sir William Stephen (with a ‘ph’) had nothing to do with it. If true, mystery solved.

  • en passant says:

    The bibliography given above agrees with you: “A Man Called Intrepid – William Stevenson (no relation!)” so it is hard to argue with that part, except …

    The biography of ‘Intrepid’ and the stories SteVenson told were those of the faked life of StePHenson and StePHenson promoted the book and received royalties from it.

    There was a recent programme on the cable TV ‘History Channel’ about Camp-X (which StePHenson probably visited) that quoted from SteVenson’s fictional account, mentioning that StePHenson was trained there and repeated some of his counterfeit heroics by supposedly taking part in covert missions in WW2. Zombie myths are hard to kill.

    I was rather taken by the programme recounting the true story of two agents who were trained at Camp-X and later parachuted into France. While on the run they fell in love, barely survived the war and later married and lived happily ever after.

Leave a Reply