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.
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:
- 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.
- 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!
- 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.
- 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