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Superspy killed first at age 12

Fritz Duquesne (Photo: Library of Congress)
Fritz Duquesne (Photo: Library of Congress)

While he went down in history as a German spy, Frederick "Fritz" Joubert Duquesne (1877-1956) was not actually German. He was a Boer, the descendant of Dutch colonists who lived a hardscrabble life on the frontiers of colonial society in modern-day South Africa. Boers are typically thought of as hardy, self-reliant and fiercely independent-minded, and Duquesne certainly lived up to the reputation.
He killed his first man at the age of 12. The victim was a Zulu native who had attacked Duquesne's mother, and whom the young boy killed with his own spear. Other killings on the hard South African veld, the dry, open back country, soon followed. The family was forced to abandon their home in the face of an attack by other tribesmen, and the escape turned into a long gun battle. Duquesne killed several further Impi (Zulu warriors), but he also witnessed the death of his uncle, his wife and their baby. He was sent to study in England a year later.

A Boer family circa 1900 (Photo: Tinus le Roux, colorized)
A Boer family circa 1900 (Photo: Tinus le Roux, colorized)

It should be noted that hard facts on Duquesne's life are often difficult to find. Some of what we know comes directly from him, and while his life was certainly full of adventure, he was also a mendacious storyteller fond of coloring his stories. His time in England is one example of this: some sources claim he studied at Oxford, then at the Royal Military Academy in Brussels, Belgium, but other historians believe he left the country after his studies to go on a world-seeing trip with an embezzler friend.

A young Fritz Duquasne (Photo:
A young Fritz Duquasne (Photo:

What we do know for sure is that Duquesne returned to his birthplace of South Africa in 1899, after fighting broke out over newly discovered gold and diamond deposits. The conflict spiraled into the Second Boer War, which ended with a British victory and the loss of independent Boer territories.
Duquesne learned hunting from his father as a child, and became fascinated with panthers. Now, serving with the Boer commandos against the English, he styled himself as "the Black Panther". He fought in several engagements and was captured in December, 1899, only to escape British imprisonment. He returned to the war and participated in a mission to remove a total of 1.5 million pounds (the unit of weight, not the British Pound) of gold bullion from the country before it could be captured by the British. He was in command of one of the convoys, but a violent argument broke out between the Boers accompanying the gold, which only left Duquesne, two other, wounded Boers, and the native porters alive. Duquesne allegedly hid the gold in a cave, burned the wagons, killed his wounded companions and let the porters go.

Duquesne as a captain in the Boer army, circa 1900 (Photo: Library of Congress)
Duquesne as a captain in the Boer army, circa 1900 (Photo: Library of Congress)

Duquesne resumed fighting, and was eventually captured by the Portuguese after he retreated into Portuguese East Africa (Mozambique today). He was shipped to Portugal, only to escape again. He traveled to Britain and joined the British army under the false identity of an officer to sabotage it from within. While serving with the British, his unit was sent to South Africa and marched through his hometown of Nylstroom. He discovered that his parents' farm was destroyed, his sister had been raped and murdered by English soldiers, and his mother was sent to a British concentration camp. His love for his country turned into an unquenchable hate of England. He decided to kill British chief-of-staff Lord Kitchener, who was responsible for the scorched earth policy the British used against the Boers.

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A Boer commando during the war (Photo: unknown photographer)
A Boer commando during the war (Photo: unknown photographer)

Still disguised as a British officer, Duquesne went to Cape Town and recruited twenty Boers for the assassination attempt, but they were betrayed by the wife of one of them. He was arrested in dress uniform while attending a dinner for the British governor of Cape Colony, and quickly sentenced to be shot. He struck a plea bargain, offering to divulge secret Boer communications codes in exchange for commuting his penalty to life in prison. Later in life, he maintained that he gave the English false codes to confuse them.

Lord Kitchener on a famous World War I recruitment poster (Image: Plakatmuseum Wien)
Lord Kitchener on a famous World War I recruitment poster (Image: Plakatmuseum Wien)

While imprisoned in Cape Town, he used an iron spoon to dig away the cement holding the rocks together in the wall of his cell. He almost escaped one night, but a large stone came loose and pinned him in his escape tunnel until the morning, when he was found by the guard. He was sent to the British colony of Bermuda in the Atlantic, believed to be inescapable due to its stormy weather, shark-infested waters and dangerous reefs. Duquesne promptly escaped in June, 1902 by climbing a barbed-wire fence, swimming 1.5 miles / 2.4 km past patrol boats and spotlights and linking up with local Boer sympathizers.
He traveled to New York City and supported himself by writing adventure stories for the New York Herald and publishing several novels. The war came to an end in the same year, but Duquesne's family was dead and he never returned home again. It was in New York that he eventually met an old enemy, one whom he was previously ordered to assassinate. That man was Frederick Russell Burnham, an American adventurer who served as the Chief of Scouts for the English Army.

Frederick Russell Burnham in 1901 (Photo: Elliott & Fry studio)
Frederick Russell Burnham in 1901 (Photo: Elliott & Fry studio)

In 1910, Duquesne and Burnham found themselves on the same side, fighting for a new and unusual cause: the importation of hippos to Louisiana. The plot, hatched by the New Food Supply Society, was intended to alleviate a serious meat shortage in America, and Duquesne and Burnham ended up as allies for the cause, finding mutual respect between former mortal enemies. Another major supporter was former President Theodore Roosevelt, who became acquainted with Duquesne and made him his personal shooting instructor and hunting companion. The hippo initiative fell just short of passing, but Duquesne stayed in America and became a naturalized citizen in 1913.

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Duquesne as a journalist in 1913 (Photo: Library of Congress)

Duquesne still hated the English with a passion, and saw World War I as an opportunity to get back at them for all they've done to his country and family. He was recruited as a German agent in 1914, and he traveled to Brazil under the disguise of a scientist doing research on rubber plants. Using a variety of false names, he set about sabotaging British ships. He planted time bombs in crates ostensibly containing mineral samples, then sent them overseas on British vessels. The bombs would go off at sea, sinking a total of 22 ships. One of his accomplices was arrested by MI5, the United Kingdom's counterintelligence agency. His cover blown, Duquesne fled to Argentina and later placed a newspaper article about his own death in Bolivia at the hands of Amazonian natives in an attempt to throw off his pursuers.

Duquesne with a white rhino he shot in 1919 (Photo: Field and Stream)
Duquesne with a white rhino he shot in 1919 (Photo: Field and Stream)

He returned to New York in 1916, and was soon up to no good again, making insurance claims on the "mineral samples" he lost with the British ships – the ones that he had sunk. Later in life, Duquesne also made a claim of a different nature, one often challenged by modern biographers. According to him, he finally avenged his family by killing Lord Kitchener, the British general who was responsible for the scorched earth policy used against the Boers. What's known for a fact is that Lord Kitchener died on June 5, 1916, when the ship he was traveling on struck a sea mine laid by a German submarine. If Duquesne is to be believed, he was actually traveling with Kitchener under the identity of a Russian duke, and it was he who signaled the submarine to sink the cruiser, escaping on a life raft before the ship was struck and being picked up by the U-boat. German records that could corroborate Duquesne's claim are lost, probably destroyed in the war; we might never know the truth of the matter.

Lord Kitchener (on the boarding ramp) on the last day of his life, in what is probably the last photograph taken of him (Photo: Imperial War Museums)
Lord Kitchener (on the boarding ramp) on the last day of his life, in what is probably the last photograph taken of him (Photo: Imperial War Museums)

While most spies would try to avoid attention, Duquesne sought it with a passion. With the war raging, the hunting stories he wrote and lectured about no longer attracted crowds, so he invented a brand new personality for himself: Captain Claude Stoughton of the Western Australian Light Horse Regiment, a man who had been "bayoneted three times, gassed four times, and stuck once with a hook." As "Captain Stoughton", he held public lectures about his adventures and sold Liberty Bonds, even appearing on some of them.

Duquesne as "Captain Stoughton" (Photo:
Duquesne as "Captain Stoughton" (Photo:

Duquesne's actions seemed to catch up with him in late 1917, when he was arrested on insurance fraud charges related to the claims he made on his lost "mineral samples" on the bombed British ships. While awaiting extradition to Britain, Duquesne pretended to be paralyzed for two whole years, and was sent to the prison ward at Bellevue Hospital. A true escape expert by this point, he disguised himself as a woman and cut the bars of his cell, getting free just a few days before his extradition. He fled first to Mexico then to Europe, but once again returned to New York in 1926, working as a publicist in the film industry. He was arrested again over his World War I sabotage actions in 1932, but got away because Britain considered the statute of limitations to have expired and declined to pursue the matter.

Duquesne in a highly decorated German uniform, sporting an Iron Cross among many other decorations. He allegedly received the Iron Cross for the killing of Lord Kitchener (Photo: Wikipedia)
Duquesne in a highly decorated German uniform, sporting an Iron Cross among many other decorations. He allegedly received the Iron Cross for the killing of Lord Kitchener (Photo: Wikipedia)

Duquesne's contacts with the German intelligence community were still in place, and a new war was on the horizon. Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, head of the Abwehr, Germany's military intelligence, knew Duquesne from World War I. Acting under Canaris's orders, Colonel Nikolaus Ritter, the chief of German intelligence operations in the U.S. and a friend of Duquesne, recruited the adventurous Boer to German service once again in 1937. Duquesne became the head of a spy ring of over 30 members. Some worked in the automobile or aviation industry and had access to important schedules or blueprints. Others worked on ships and could act as couriers between America and Europe. One woman was an artist's model and socialite, and ran a honeypot scheme, sleeping with important men and blackmailing them for secrets. One man, a steward on a transatlantic flight, smuggled secret letters and platinum – he once boasted he hid the letters onboard so well that they could only be found by doing two to three weeks' repairs' worth of damage to the plane.

Colonel Nikolaus Ritter, the chief of Abwehr operations in the United States (Photo: German Army)
Colonel Nikolaus Ritter, the chief of Abwehr operations in the United States (Photo: German Army)

The greatest success of the spy ring, however, came courtesy of Herman W. Lang, one of the original Nazis who participated in Hitler's failed Munich Beer Hall Putsch in 1923. Land emigrated to the U.S. in 1927 and found employment by the Carl L. Norden Corp., manufacturers of the top secret Norden bombsight. The United States Army Air Forces considered the bombsight a critical instrument, and bombardiers had to take an oath to defend its secret with their own lives if needed. But despite the secrecy, Lang managed to get the device's blueprints to Germany even before World War II started, and Germany later introduced a similar device of their own.

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A Norden bombsight, one of the great success stories of the Duquesne Spy Ring (Photo:

Duquesne himself frequently acquired classified information on products and manufacturing conditions by pretending to be a student or a lecturer in a relevant field of engineering and simply asking for them – a trick that worked surprisingly often.
Interestingly, while Duquesne himself was not actually a German, the man who eventually brought him down was. That man was William G. Sebold (1899-1970), born in Germany as Gottlieb Adolf Wilhelm Sebold. He served in the German army engineering corps during World War I, but emigrated to America in 1922. He worked in industrial and aircraft plants, and became a citizen in 1936 – he was exactly the sort of person Ritter wanted to recruit for Duquesne's ring.

William Sebold (Photo: NY Daily News)
William Sebold (Photo: NY Daily News)

Sebold returned to Germany in early 1939 to visit his mother and to spend some time there. Ritter approached him with an offer he thought Sebold couldn't refuse. Sebold had spent some time in jail in Germany in the past, a detail he omitted from his U.S. citizenship application. Ritter threatened to reveal this to the American authorities unless Sebold agreed to spy for the Abwehr. He also made threats to Sebold's family and life to drive the message home. Backed into a corner, Sebold agreed to cooperate, and was sent on a seven-week espionage course before returning to the States.
Sebold, however, was made of tougher material than Ritter assumed. Before leaving Germany, he visited the U.S. Consulate in Cologne and told the consul that he had been blackmailed into spying on America. He asserted he was still a loyal American citizen and wanted to turn double agent.
The FBI seized the chance and offered Sebold, using the name "Harry Sawyer" in his espionage activities, all the help he needed. They've set him up with an office in Times Square, where he ran a fictitious company called Diesel Research Company. As far as Duquesne's spy ring was concerned, this was a safe place to discuss plans and to bring blueprints and other sensitive information that Sebold would then relay home to Germany. Naturally, the place was thoroughly bugged by the FBI and observed through two-way mirrors. Sebold's secret shortwave radio station was also operated by the FBI, and was used to send falsified or useless information to Germany while receiving real orders.

Sebold (left) with Duquesne in his office during a secretly recorded meeting (Photo: Federal Bureau of Investigation)
Sebold (left) with Duquesne in his office during a secretly recorded meeting (Photo: Federal Bureau of Investigation)

Sebold's refusal to bow down to Nazi threats allowed the FBI to entrap and capture Duquesne's entire spy ring as well as identify dozens of German spies elsewhere in the U.S., in Mexico and in South America. Duquesne himself, though initially wary of Sebold's office, later loosened up and started discussing how to slow down American war production by setting fires in factories – all on tape and camera. He also brought a trove of incriminating evidence into the office: blueprints, sketches and photos of the M1 Garand rifle (Read our earlier article – The M1 Garand rifle), a new light tank design, a patrol torpedo boat, a grenade launcher, a new type of bomb, reports on U.S. tank performance, and many other examples of sensitive technical material.
The FBI moved on Duquesne and 32 other men and women in late June 1941, after two years of investigation. On January 2, 1942, less than a month after Pearl Harbor, members of the spy ring were sentenced to a total of more than 300 years in prison. This was the largest espionage case in the United States to end with convictions.

Duquesne's mugshot taken after his arrest (Photo: Federal Bureau of Investigation)
Duquesne's mugshot taken after his arrest  (Photo: Federal Bureau of Investigation)

Duquesne was sentenced to 18 years in prison, but was let out after 14 years due to his failing health. His last known public lecture was titled "My Life – in and out of Prison", delivered at the Adventurers' Club of New York in 1954. He died two years later at the age of 78.
Sebold went into a witness protection program and moved to California under a new identity. He knew the Nazis wanted revenge on him, and he lived in constant fear. He failed to hold a steady job, and his health went into decline. He was committed to hospital with manic depression. He died of a heart attack in 1970.

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