William G. Sebold

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William G. Sebold
Sebold duquesne.jpg
William Sebold (left) talks with Duquesne, who was unaware that FBI agents were filming the whole episode behind a two-way mirror, 1940

Born 10 March 1899
Mülheim, Germany
Died 16 February 1970(1970-02-16) (aged 70)
Walnut Creek, California
Occupation spy

William G. Sebold (Wilhelm Georg Debrowski; 10 March 1899 in Mülheim, Germany – 16 February 1970 in Walnut Creek, California) was a United States citizen when he visited Germany and was coerced into becoming a spy. He informed the American Consul General in Cologne before leaving Germany and became a double agent for the FBI. With the assistance of another German agent, Fritz Duquesne, he recruited 32 agents that became known as the Duquesne Spy Ring. In June 1941, the Federal Bureau of Investigation arrested all of the agents, and the entire group was convicted and sentenced to a total of 300 years in prison.

Early life[edit]

Sebold served in the German army during World War I. After leaving Germany in 1921, he worked in industrial and aircraft plants throughout the United States and South America. On 10 February 1936, he became a naturalized citizen of the United States.

He returned to Germany in February 1939 to visit his mother in Mülheim. Upon his arrival in Hamburg, Germany, he was approached by a Gestapo agent who said that Sebold would be contacted in the near future. Sebold proceeded to Mülheim where he obtained employment.

Coerced into spying[edit]

Surveillance photographs of Sebold and Duquesne

In September 1939, a Dr. Gassner visited Sebold in Mülheim and interrogated him regarding military planes and equipment in the United States. He also asked Sebold to return to the United States as an espionage agent for Germany. Gassner and another man, a "Dr. Renken", told him that they would expose information that he had omitted from his U. S. citizenship application about serving time in a German jail unless he agreed to assist them. Sebold agreed to spy for Germany.[1] Reken was in fact Major Nickolaus Ritter of the Abwehr, who was in charge of espionage against the United States and Britain. Ritter gave Sebold final instructions before he left for the United States, including shortwave radio codes and the use of microphotographs. Sebold was given the alias "Harry Sawyer", the code name TRAMP, and Abwehr number A.3549.

Contacts U.S. embassy[edit]

Before leaving Germany, Sebold visited the U.S. Consulate in Cologne, Germany, and insisted on speaking with the Consul General. He told the Consul that he had been blackmailed into becoming a German spy but that he was a loyal American citizen and wanted to cooperate with the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) in the United States. The U.S. government agreed.

Sebold sailed from Genoa, Italy, and arrived in New York City on 8 February 1940. There, Sebold (with secret help from the FBI) set himself up as a consulting engineer, with an office on 42nd Street in Manhattan. The FBI, prepared for Sebold's arrival, created an office for Sebold that would allow them to record and film conversations via a one-way mirror.

Duquesne Spy Ring[edit]

Main article: Duquesne Spy Ring

Sebold was instructed by the Abwehr to contact Fritz Joubert Duquesne, code-named DUNN, a German spy in New York. Duquesne had been a spy for Germany since World War I; before that, he had been a Boer spy in the Second Boer War.

At their first meeting, Duquesne was extremely worried about the possibility of listening devices in Sebold's office. He gave Sebold a note suggesting that they should talk elsewhere. After relocating to an Automat, the two men exchanged information about members of the German espionage system with whom they had been in contact.

In May 1940, FBI agents on Long Island set up a shortwave radio station, and established contact with the Abwehr's radio station in Germany, posing as part of Sebold's spy ring. For 16 months this radio station was a main channel of communication between German spies in New York City and the Abwehr. During this time, the FBI's radio station transmitted over 300 messages containing falsified or useless information to Germany, and received 200 messages from Germany. Through Sebold, the U.S. identified dozens of German agents in the United States, Mexico and South America.

In June 1941, the FBI arrested 33 German agents that were part of Sebold's network. Nineteen of the agents arrested pleaded guilty. The remainder were tried in Federal District Court, Brooklyn, New York, beginning 3 September 1941. The jury found all 14 guilty on 13 December 1941. The 33 members of the Duquesne Spy Ring were sentenced to serve a total of over 300 years in prison. Duquesne was sentenced to 18 years in prison. The Duquesne Spy Ring remains the largest espionage case in U.S. history that ended in convictions.

Sebold's success as a counterespionage agent is demonstrated by the successful prosecution of the German agents. When the trial ended, Sebold disappeared. He is said to have entered a government witness protection program and assumed another identity.

One of the earliest books to detail Sebold's career as a double agent was the 1943 book Passport to Treason: The Inside Story of Spies in America written by Alan Hynd.


  1. ^ Kahn, David (1978). Hitler's Spies, Germany Military Intelligence in World War II. Da Capo Press. ISBN 0-306-80949-4. 

 This article incorporates public domain material from the United States Government document "http://foia.fbi.gov/foiaindex/duquesne_frederick_interesting.htm Federal Bureau of Investigation: Frederick Duquesne Interesting Case Write-up (publicly released on 12 March 1985 under the Freedom of Information Act)".