Read The Codebreakers: The True Story of the Secret Intelligence Team That Changed the Course of the First World War Online

Authors: James Wyllie,Michael McKinley

Tags: #History, #Non-Fiction, #Espionage, #Codebreakers, #World War I

The Codebreakers: The True Story of the Secret Intelligence Team That Changed the Course of the First World War (10 page)

BOOK: The Codebreakers: The True Story of the Secret Intelligence Team That Changed the Course of the First World War
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The sender of the telegram was Arthur Zimmermann, then the Under Secretary of State in Germany’s Foreign Office, who would send a much more incendiary telegram to America two years later. For now, Berlin was worried that the Canadian Pacific Railway was going to transport Japanese troops across Canada and on to ships to deliver them to the Allied cause in Europe, which Japan had joined at the end of August.

Von Bernstorff passed the order on to von Papen, who went hunting for a suitable candidate to blow up the Canadian Pacific. He found him in Werner Horn, a former lieutenant in the German army, who had been the manager of a coffee plant in Guatemala when he heard the bugles call him back to war. Making his way north, Horn reached New York City and reported for duty.

The 37-year-old reservist was not by nature a saboteur, nor a coldblooded soldier, though he was extremely cold as he tramped toward his target through the frigid midnight air in the early hours of 2 February 1915. Horn had been paid $700 for his sabotage services by von Papen, and kitted out with dynamite, which he carried in suitcases. Von Papen had told him that by destroying the deserted McAdam-Vanceboro railway bridge linking Maine with New Brunswick in the middle of the night, he would prevent lethal munitions from killing his countrymen on the battlefield. And if he pinned the German colours to his coat, he would be treated as a soldier and not a spy if caught.

The guileless Horn wanted to serve the Fatherland, but he wasn’t keen on killing anyone, nor on damaging property in the United States. So with a harsh wind chill dropping the mercury to minus 30°F, he hauled his dynamite to the Canadian side of the bridge. He was nearly run over twice by passing trains despite the timetable von Papen had given him that said the bridge would be unused in the wee hours of the night. Given his desire to avoid death – including his own – he cut the 50-minute fuse to three minutes, reckoning that no train would pass by in the brief interval, and that the explosion would alert the townspeople to stop the next one. Then he lit the fuse with his cigar and, with frostbite attacking his hands, feet, nose and ears, hurried back to the hotel from which he’d recently checked out.

The explosion knocked out windows and sent the freezing Arctic air into the bedrooms of Vanceboro. But all it did to the bridge was twist the steel girders, which merely rendered it unusable for a few days. Horn was soon apprehended when the manager of the hotel reported that his ‘Danish’ guest had returned with frostbite. He was arrested and, ever the honourable soldier, admitted to everything except the identity of the man who had lied to him and sent him on the mission: Military Attaché Franz von Papen.

It had all happened with the blessing of von Bernstorff, who, despite denying any knowledge of the event until he read of it in the newspapers, sent an enciphered telegram to Zimmermann in Berlin:

Most Secret, 11 February 1915. The carrying out of your telegram No. 386 for military attaché was entrusted to a former officer, who has been arrested after [causing] an explosion on the Canadian Pacific Railway. Canada demands his extradition. I request authority to protect him; according to the laws of war, the decision ought presumably to be non-extradition, provided that an act of war is proved. I intend to argue that, although the German government has given no orders, the government regarded the causing of explosions on an enemy railway as being, since it furthered military interests, an act of war.

Zimmermann agreed, and Horn’s legal expenses were covered by the German war treasury. Horn was sentenced to 18 months in a federal penitentiary in Atlanta for transporting explosives, then extradited to Canada in 1919 and sentenced to another ten years. He was judged insane in 1921 and deported to Germany.

Berlin, however, was worried. Since the war began they didn’t have much to show for their North American front. They had failed to blow up the Welland Canal and the Vanceboro Bridge. They had engineered an incendiary fire on 1 January 1915 at the John A. Roebling Company plant at Trenton, New Jersey, which was famed for its wire cables for bridges such as the Brooklyn. Two days later, they created an explosion on a supply ship, the SS
, in the Erie Basin. But with the war now being fought on Western and Eastern fronts, with the Middle East soon to come, and the British naval blockade doing increasing damage domestically, it was time to up the ante.

All this nefarious activity had not gone unnoticed by Blinker Hall. The German diplomatic code books so fortuitously found in Persia had furnished Room 40 with the means to monitor the telegraphic chitchat between the German embassy in Washington and Berlin. Decoded messages gave Hall valuable insights into the German agents’ plots. Yet the use to which he could put this intelligence was limited: if he revealed the fruits of the codebreakers’ labours to the Americans, he’d also have to reveal the existence of Room 40 and their interception of US communications, something he was determined not to do not least of which because of the fearsome diplomatic conflict between the US and Britain that it would undoubtedly create. He needed boots on the ground. So, as he had in other neutral countries, Hall relied on his naval attaché to act as spymaster.

In the US, this role fell to Captain Guy Gaunt, an Australian by birth, who was rated a midshipman in the Royal Naval Reserve on 17 December 1886, when he was 17 years old. He joined active service in 1895, quickly rose through the ranks, and saw battle action in the Philippines and Samoa at the end of the twentieth century, before being promoted to captain in 1907 and becoming Britain’s naval attaché in the US in 1914.

Gaunt, like other foreign service officers, found the power of New York City compared to Washington DC too great to ignore, and did most of his business from the British consul’s office at 44 Whitehall Street in Lower Manhattan, just south-east of Karl Boy-Ed’s HQ. Here he could monitor the traffic coming and going with the war. He liaised directly with Hall and became responsible not just for counter-espionage, but for propaganda and public relations too.

Gaunt’s talents as a spy were sufficiently developed to realise that he needed help, and he found a ready supply in exiles from the Austro-Hungarian Empire, who harboured no love for the rulers of their homeland. Chief among them was Emanuel Viktor Voska, who had escaped from Prague as a 19-year-old revolutionary in 1904, one step ahead of the police. Voska, a sculptor, went into the marble business in the USA, fathered six children, and by the time war broke out was a prosperous businessman living the American dream.

War, however, brought him back to his revolutionary roots, for he saw in the destruction of the Habsburgs the chance to establish a sovereign Czechoslovakia. Running more than 80 agents in the USA, exiles all from across the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Voska’s team was able to infiltrate the German apparatus in New York, with seemingly safe clerical staff in German government offices being in the service of his network. Indeed, it was the mail clerk at the Austrian consulate who provided a list of German and Austrian military reservists who had bought fake passports to enable them to return home to join the fight.

Gaunt and Voska were not working entirely in a vacuum. They forged a strong connection with the NYPD and elements of America’s fledgling intelligence services, a relationship that would result in the first major breakthrough in their struggle to foil German plans. Even though America was not officially at war, there were those within its borders who knew they were under attack. And it was time to fight back.

Chapter 6

Between August 1914 and May 1915, the Germans sent 170 diplomatic cables to their embassy in America, discussing everything from the United States government’s negotiations with Germany to German sabotage in the USA. None of these messages was processed into actionable intelligence due to Room 40’s isolation from other branches of the military and the understandable caution about trespassing on America’s neutral status. Blinker Hall and his team would soon engage in diplomatic surveillance, but in the meantime the Germans would ramp up their war against the Allies through their agents in the USA. From their point of view, the USA was already at war with them.

The Americans were certainly materially and financially in the battle, as ships stocked with munitions and supplies destined for the Allies steamed out of New York’s ‘neutral’ harbour under virtual British escort – protecting them from the unrestricted submarine warfare that Germany had launched in February 1915 against Allied shipping. Franz von Papen, the German military attaché in New York, watched in impotent fury as war supplies flowed freely to the Allied cause. Ordered to report on the situation, he concluded his account to HQ in Berlin with an outraged plea: ‘Something must be done to stop it.’

The German command more than agreed, especially since von Papen and Karl Boy-Ed weren’t getting the job done. The man sent to intensify Germany’s war in America was Franz von Rintelen, a 36-year-old captain in German naval intelligence, who set sail for America in March 1915 with $500,000 in credit and a Swiss passport identifying him as Emile Gaché, a Swiss businessman from Bern, an identity borrowed from the husband of a fellow naval officer’s sister. Von Rintelen had a trunk full of his new family’s photographs – Gaché’s parents’ house and their alpine cottage – and the initials EVG had been sewn into his underwear, which had then been laundered to appear worn.

Franz von Rintelen arrived in New York City in fierce snow on 3 April 1915 aboard the SS
, which had sailed from Oslo (then called Kristiania) a few days earlier. He knew the city well, for he had worked in New York a decade earlier for the influential merchant bank Kuhn, Loebe & Co. With his impeccable English and his European élan, he came across as more Italian in presentation than Teutonic, despite his pedigree as the son of a prominent German banking family. His father had been Germany’s minister of finance, and managing director of the Discento Bank of Berlin, and the trim, blonde von Rintelen had been expected to have a career in politics. Indeed, a seat in Germany’s parliament was dangled in front of him just before he did his patriotic duty for the Fatherland and journeyed off to fight the war in America, leaving behind his political ambitions along with his wife and young daughter, whom he would not see again for six years.

Franz von Rintelen, Germany’s self-styled ‘Dark Invader’

New York had been good to von Rintelen during the two years he had spent in the city. The worldly and intelligent aristocrat was welcome in the highest strata of society, gracing Park Avenue dinner parties and the summer yachting season at Newport, Rhode Island; holding sway in the banking dens of Lower Manhattan and the exalted parlours of the New York Yacht Club, a Beaux-Arts bastion in midtown Manhattan where membership was by invitation only and whose German members numbered just three: Kaiser Wilhelm, his brother Prince Heinrich, and Franz von Rintelen.

But on this visit to America, as the title of his highly entertaining, self-congratulatory and selective memoir proclaims, he came forth as the ‘Dark Invader’, whose mission, as he stated with chilling clarity, to the delight of his masters in Berlin, was to ‘buy up what I can, and blow up what I can’t’. He would be terrifyingly true to his word.

On his arrival, the man who once could have lodged at any one of the city’s finest clubs now booked into the anonymity of the Great Northern Hotel on West 57th Street, an establishment on the same block as Carnegie Hall, which was also used to virtuoso performances. And von Rintelen had to begin his act at once. His first battle was to win over von Papen and Boy-Ed, who received his visit to their quarters at the German Club as if he were the plague. Von Rintelen suspected that their frosty reception was really due to hurt feelings at being helped out in their covert war by a freelance operative. He warmed things up ‘by informing the naval attaché [Boy-Ed] that I had been instructed to let him know that the Order of the House of Hohenzollern was waiting for him at home, and I rejoiced the heart of Captain Papen by telling him that he had been awarded the Iron Cross’.

Von Rintelen also brought a new ‘most secret’ German code, which he had concealed in two tiny capsules on his voyage across the Atlantic. He handed it over to von Papen and Boy-Ed, telling them that Berlin suspected – rightly – that the British, under Blinker Hall and his Room 40 codebreaking commandos, had broken the previous German code. This new code was designed to confound the sleuths of Room 40 and provide a safe means of communication between America and Berlin.

Von Rintelen next met up with Dr Carl Bünz, the managing director of the Hamburg America shipping line, who had been working with Boy-Ed to circumvent the British mastery of the Atlantic. Bünz had moved from falsifying ships’ manifests – creating fictitious cargo lists – to active sabotage, and when von Rintelen called upon him soon after his arrival in New York, the pair had an explosive conversation.

Bünz wanted detonators, and he had a plan. His men – German mercantile sailors marooned on the east coast of the US due to the British naval blockade – were running shipments of coal on chartered ships out to the open sea, to rendezvous with German cruisers for fuel transfer. They considered themselves on active duty, and partly out of patriotism, partly from boredom, wanted to do more. ‘When they are sailing about on the open sea, waiting for the cruisers in order to hand over their coal, they find that time hangs heavily on their hands, so they have thought out a neat plan,’ Bünz explained to von Rintelen. ‘If they have detonators and meet another tramp taking shells to Europe, they will hoist the war flag, send over an armed party, bring back the crew as prisoners, and blow up the ship with its cargo. So, my dear captain, please get me some detonators.’

BOOK: The Codebreakers: The True Story of the Secret Intelligence Team That Changed the Course of the First World War
5.36Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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