Devastation after the Black Tom fire and explosions, 1916.
Before the United States joined the Great War overtly, it was tacitly on the Allied side, supplying vast quantities of arms, ammunition, material, supplies, even horses to pull French and British artillery. All this was sold to British and French purchasing commissions, and loaded into ships of whatever nationality and delivered; under convoy, after the emergence of the U-Boat as a serious threat. The Germans were welcome to buy, if they could, but in the face of British naval superiority (and, perhaps, US cooperation with British intelligence), they couldn’t practically take delivery of materiel. (They did develop two cargo-carrying merchant submarines for this run, but that’s another story).
Merchant Sub Deutschland, one of two used as blockade runners in WWI (the other was called Bremen). These were not warships but unarmed merchant subs.
The US war production capability, then, functioned as an extension of France and Britain’s war industries, and that made it a fair target for the German Empire. The Wilhelmine General Staff was an astute bunch, and they would make no overt act to bring the US into the war. Instead, they resolved to use clandestine means, including a series of sabotage operations.
The most successful of these may have been the destruction of the ordnance loading piers and depot on Black Tom Island in July 1916.
All was dark and quiet on Black Tom Island in New York Harbor, not far from the Statue of Liberty, when small fires began to burn on the night of July 30, 1916. Some guards on the island sent for the Jersey City Fire Department, but others fled as quickly as they could, and for good reason: Black Tom was a major munitions depot, with several large “powder piers.” That night, Johnson Barge No. 17 was packed with 50 tons of TNT, and 69 railroad freight cars were storing more than a thousand tons of ammunition, all awaiting shipment to Britain and France. Despite America’s claim of neutrality in World War I, it was no secret that the United States was selling massive quantities of munitions to the British.
via Sabotage in New York Harbor | History | Smithsonian.
The actual cause of the Black Tom fires seems to have been incendiary devices initiated by a new invention — the “time pencil,” a chemical time fuse developed explicitly for incendiary sabotage. New York’s harbors were, at the time, alive with mischief: along with saboteurs organized and controlled by the chief Imperial Navy intelligence officer in the Americas, Franz D. J. von Rintelen, who was under what then passed for deep cover as a Swiss businessman and ran his networks with what a modern professional would take to be terrifying informality. Indeed, just when he was musing over the need for something like a time pencil, it walked in his door, as he’d later recount in his memoirs.
Kapitän zur See Franz von Rintelen
While I was still wondering how to get hold of the detonators, and in fact how to further my plans at all, I happened to find the right man. I had by now established contact with all sorts of “shady” characters, some of whom had secret schemes, and one day I was visited by the German chemist, Dr. Scheele. I received him in my newly furnished office, in the first room of which sat Max Weiser dictating to the stenographer the most fearsome business letters. He was inviting all the firms of New York to send us offers of wheat, peas, shoe-polish, glassware, rice, and similar goods. We posted piles of letters, so that our firm might present the appearance of a flourishing concern.
Through this room came Dr. Scheele. He began by presenting a strong letter of recommendation from our Military Attaché Captain Papen, and continued by saying that I was a man with varied interests, and that he was a chemist, with a new invention which he would like to offer me. I saw that he was rather hesitant, so I moved my chair nearer and told him that he had come to the right place and had only to reveal to me the purpose of his invention; if it were any good, he could be sure that I would acquire it; for the rest, I was the most discreet man in New York, and he could trust me. He plucked up courage, took a piece of lead out of his pocket, which was as big as a cigar, laid it on my desk and began to explain.
This piece of lead was hollow inside. Into the middle of the tube a circular disc of copper had been pressed and soldered, dividing it into two chambers. One of these chambers was filled with picric acid, the other with sulphuric acid or some other inflammable liquid. A strong plug made of wax with a simple lead cap made both ends airtight. The copper disc could be as thick or as thin as we pleased. If it were thick, the two acids on either side took a long time to eat their way through. If it were thin, the mingling of the two acids would occur within a few days. By regulating the thickness of the disc it was possible to determine the time when the acids should come together. This formed a safe and efficient time-fuse. When the two acids mingled at the appointed time, a silent but intense flame, from twenty to thirty centimetres long, shot out from both ends of the tube, and while it was still burning the lead casing melted away without a trace: spurlos!
I looked at Dr. Scheele. I had hit upon a plan in which this “cigar” should play the chief part, and I asked the chemist to demonstrate his invention by an experiment. We went out into a little wood near the town. He chose a very thin copper disc, put it in the tube and laid the apparatus on the ground. We stood near by. If the detonator worked, I could put my scheme into operation. I knew what use could be made of this “diabolical” invention; and all that was necessary was that it should function. Heaven knows it did! The stream of flame which suddenly shot out of the confounded “cigar” nearly blinded me, it was so strong; and the lead melted into an almost invisible fragment.
When I looked round I saw Dr. Scheele leaning against a tree. He was gazing with bemused eyes at the tiny piece of lead, all that was left of his fiery magic.
“That was pretty good, wasn’t it?”
“I’ll say it was!”
We soon came to terms. He was first given a round cheque in return for allowing me to use the “cigar” in any way I wished. I asked him to return on the following day, and in the meantime I secured a few assistants— captains of German ships with whom I had already become good friends, and Irishmen whose “approval” I had won. The Irishmen had no idea who I was, nor did they ask me. It was sufficient for them that I was not very friendly towards England. I collected these men together, and took them to my office. I was sure that I could trust them, and they did not disappoint me.
The “cigars,” as the German operatives called them, were compact enough that one kept an unactivated one in the toe of a boot in his closet, as a souvenir.
The Black Tom arson was only one of many mischiefs brought about by von Rintelen’s networks. He had a bomb production line set up on an interned German merchant ship; he suborned various Americans, but mostly used ethnic Germans and England-hostile Irishmen for the actual work.
His network of Germans, German-Americans and Irishmen struck so many ships that Lloyds of London underwriters raised insurance rates to record levels, as if U-Boats weren’t bad enough. In a few short months in 1915, the ships Rio Lagos, Rochambeau, Euterpe, andTyningham suffered serious fires at sea, Tyningham two of them, and the ship Ancona suffered an explosion. Further affected ships included the Craigside and Arabic, where the incendiaries were found in July, and Assuncion de Larrinaga, Rotterdam and Santa Anna, which were set afire, and Williston, which was bombed.
Grainy picture of Robert Fay’s bomb-making materials. From Tunney.
At this remove of time, it’s not possible to tell which bombs were the work of von Rintelen, which were the work of German Army officer Robert Fay in another network, and which might have been the work of third, undiscovered networks, or self-directed sympathizers. (Fay, for his part, said he got the idea for sabotaging when he was being shelled by Allied guns firing American shells in the front lines, but never got as far as planting a bomb. He was sentenced to six years imprisonment for insurance fraud — on the theory that he was conspiring to defraud the Lloyd’s underwriters by firing ships. That was the most serious charge which fit at the time). Fay’s own bombs were sophisticated; one was a very small device meant to be attached to a ship’s rudder post, and ruinous to her rudder and propeller; a variation seemed to amplify that with some 40 kg of explosive, meant to tear the stern wide open and send the vessel to the bottom.
Model or Mock-up of the small Fay bomb use in evidence at his trial. Left: overview. Right: close-up. Tunney.
More bombs were on the Inchmoor and the Bankdale, but the one on the Kirkoswald had too thick a copper disc at its center, and still hadn’t gone off when the ship was unloaded in France. (The discovered bomb and infiltration of the German network by German-speaking detectives posing as a pseudo group of other German saboteurs were key to the investigation that leaves us with a picture of these activities today). The ringleaders of the ship-arson ring claimed also to have placed multiple time pencils aboard the SS Lusitania, but they were robbed of that success by the action of a U-Boat. All in all, at least 22 merchant ships were bombed by the ring.
A side effect of his effective sabotage attacks was an increase in police activity, which had a profound psychological-operations-multiplier effect; all those anti-sabotage posters of World War II had a source in people’s living memory of von Rintelen’s attacks.
Along with von Rintelen, a key figure was Erich von Steinmetz, a career officer who used various covers including “Erich Steinburg” and who passed through wartime immigration, at a time when men from German-speaking nations were under heightened scrutiny, by crossdressing. Maybe his double life wasn’t just espionage? Today, that alone would make him a celebrity.
Other successful operations included planting false documents in the press (in one case, suggesting that the Lusitania had a cargo of arms) and sabotage of a Du Pont plant by German-American operatives.
Less success came to an attempt to buy the Army’s surplus Krag-Jorgensen rifles through a cover firm (although what Rintelen wanted them for is uncertain, perhaps to arm Irish rebels), and a half-baked plan to silence two anti-German newspapers, the New York World and the Providence (RI) Journal. The Journal in particular inflamed the German spies by having a good pipeline to various investigations and publishing documents that those investigations had obtained, undermining the German propaganda campaign. Least success of all came to a plan to infect the Europe-bound war horses with glanders; the agent assigned the task, after being captured, told police he threw the ampule of poison away rather than spreading the pathogen to every third horse awaiting transport, as he had been told to do.
On the United States declaration of war, the remaining German saboteurs conducted a rapid exfiltration by what seem to have been pre-arranged E&E corridors to Mexico and Cuba. Thereafter any sabotage would have been by self-starting lone wolves.
Long before that, exposed by infiltrating ethnic-German detectives, von Rintelen fled to England under cover, intending to trial thence to the Continent and Germany. He was intercepted by the British on Friday, 13 August 1915. His Swiss cover failed and he was interrogated, and interned as an enemy alien. On 13 July 1917 — also a Friday, clearly not his lucky day — he was extradited to stand trial and serve a short prison term in the USA. After the war he found himself in financial straits in Germany, and was invited to England by senior leaders of wartime British intelligence, who remembered him as an enemy, but a gentleman regardless. He lived out a quiet retirement in England — and volunteered his services to Britain in the Second World War. It would be interesting to explore the National Archives (UK) for his records.
Dr Scheele, the clever chemist of the bomb factory, likewise fled one step ahead of the police, first to Florida, then Cuba. He was extradited to New York, where was sentenced to a few months (!) in prison, and thereafter interned as an enemy alien. He was deported postwar. (“I am sorry that our laws were not at that time drastic enough to punish the men as they deserved,” an irritated Captain Thomas Tunney of the New York Bomb Squad would write).
After the outbreak of war, a saboteur was liable to be hanged after an abbreviated summary court martial.
Spy school 101: what you’re doing may be lauded by your country, but it’s going to break a lot of the laws of the country you’re in. The payoff is when, afterward, your country lauds you; but von Rintelen had the poor fortune to serve a country and a system, the German Empire, which was erased in defeat. He was honored, paradoxically, only by his enemies.
Some Notes on Sources:
We note in general that period books tend to be written better and more solid in their facts than present-day journalism, which relooks Black Tom and the du Pont sabotage every year or two. For example, James B. Kelley, writing in Knight, Peter (Ed.) Conspiracy Theories in American History: An Encyclopedia (pp. 281-282, visible at: https://books.google.com/books?id=qMIDrggs8TsC&pg=PA281&lpg=PA281) argues based on recent journalistic books that the whole thing is nothing but a conspiracy theory. If so, it is one the German principals confessed to and went to prison for, and the recent books that Kelley cites (unlike Landau, 1937) are almost as lightweight as his own “scholarship.”
An example of an entertainingly written book of suspect accuracy is introduced by NPR with an author interview and an excerpt is provided at the same site. It’s fun to read, but how does does Blum, a journalist, know long-dead participants’s thoughts and emotions? He doesn’t. He’s making it up. As journalists habitually do.
The Smithsonian and Studies in Intelligence pieces are solid, though.
Jones, John P., as told to Hollister, Paul M., The German Secret Service in America. Boston: Small, Maynard & Co., 1918. Retrieved from: https://archive.org/details/germansecretser00hollgoog This book is the one that approaches most nearly wartime propaganda.
Landau, Henry. The Enemy Within: The Inside Story of German Sabotage in America. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1937. Retrieved from: https://archive.org/details/enemywithininsid00landrich This book contains a particularly valuable timeline of events on pp. 305-310.
Tunney, Inspector Thomas J., as told to Hollister, Paul M., Throttled: The Detection of the German and Anarchist Bomb Plotters. Boston: Small, Maynard & Co., 1919. Retrieved from: https://archive.org/details/throttledthedete00tunnmiss This book includes earlier operations against Black Hand anarchists as well as interesting details of the police investigation and infiltration of the German sabotage networks.
Von Rintelen, Kapt. z.S. Franz. Dark Invader. Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England: Penguin Books, 1933. Retrieved from: http://gutenberg.net.au/ebooks08/0801121h.html The master sabotage ringleader in his own words.
Warner, Michael. The Kaiser Sows Destruction: Protecting the Homeland the First Time Around. Studies in Intelligence, Volume 46 No. 1. Langley, VA: Central Intelligence Agency, 2002. Retrieved from: https://www.cia.gov/library/center-for-the-study-of-intelligence/csi-publications/csi-studies/studies/vol46no1/article02.html
Uncredited. Former German Spy Reveals Myths of the Trade. The Guardian, Manchester, England, 14 January 1939 (republished 14 January 2013). Retrieved from: http://www.theguardian.com/theguardian/2013/jan/14/german-spy-america-first-world-war-1939-archive