As soon as World War I started in August 1914, the Imperial German government dispatched a select group of agents to the United States. The group included Heinrich F. Albert, Dr. Bernhard Dernburg, and Dr. Hugo Schweitzer. Already in place in the United States were Franz von Papen, the German military attaché, and Karl Boy-Ed, his counterpart from the Imperial navy. These men had the task of conducting operations on U.S. soil against the Entente powers, England, France, and Russia.
One of Schweitzer’s principle clandestine assets was Dr. Walter Theodor Scheele, a pharmacologist and chemist, who, while working in the United States, also was on the payroll of the Imperial War Department since the 1890s. Scheele became the technical genius behind the German sabotage campaign in 1915 and 1916. His deadly inventions caused far more havoc among allied shipping and in American factories than previously thought. Discovered and indicted in absentia, Scheele fled from U.S. authorities to Cuba in 1916 but American law enforcement agents captured him in 1918. After intense debriefing the American government was able to turn the agent. He became instrumental for the American war effort in the end of the war and never served any time in prison. After the war, he never told his story; neither did any historians in the time since.
Born in Cologne, Germany, in March 1865, Scheele satisfied the mandatory military service duty in an artillery unit after graduating from high school. Discharged with the rank of first lieutenant of the reserves he studied chemistry at the universities of Bonn and Freiburg. As a member of a student fraternity he received the telltale “Schmiss” across the right cheek from fencing without protection. Around 1884, Scheele earned a doctorate in chemistry from the University of Freiburg. The young chemist remained active as a reserve officer and earned the rank of captain before he decided to come to the United States in 1890. The German army retained the scientist as an intelligence officer for $1,500 per year.
An American secret service agent described the chemist as “a quiet, reserved man, who is constantly in deep thought, and very preoccupied. He is an intensive smoker… The tone and demeanor of Mrs. Scheele is rather domineering, and it is apparent that she is ‘boss’ in their home.” Maybe this observation explained Scheele’s heavy drinking and smoking habits, even carrying a “pearl handle” side arm on his belt in public. Between 1912 and 1914 Scheele worked on projects for the Bayer Chemical Company with Dr. Hugo Schweitzer as chief executive. Bureau of Investigations agents who debriefed Scheele in 1918 alleged that between 1910 and 1914 he also worked on the creation of high power explosives for the German military.
The first major project designed to stop or hamper allied shipments from the United States started in the late fall of 1914. The British sea blockade posed a huge supply problem for Germany. Definitions of unconditional and conditional contraband not only included arms and ammunition, but also vital raw materials such as rubber, cotton, and oils. In his laboratory in Hoboken, New Jersey, Scheele had devised a process by which oils and lubricants could be solidified, packaged, and shipped falsely manifested as “artificial fertilizer.” The crafty doctor had also invented methods of producing artificial rubber and concealing it much the same way. “Ordinary Para rubber [is reduced] to a brown powder… The… rubber reduced to powder was exported as fertilizer… to continue with the reduction of rubber to powder, Dr. Scheele dissolves the rubber in benzene and then mixes [it] in a rotary drum with magnesium carbonate. To reconstitute the brown powder, the ‘fertilizer’ is treated with sulphuric [sic] acid, which forms magnesium sulphate [sic] ‘epsum salts’ [sic] and the rubber comes to the surface in a conglomerate mass… the process for reducing lubricating oil to a powder is similar…”
The Hoboken laboratory not only churned out blockade circumvention products. Scheele had also amassed an astonishing repertoire of formulating explosives, rapidly accelerating incendiary chemicals, and artillery missiles propelled by compressed air. Among other things he had experimented with rapid accelerants and timed incendiary devices that could be used on a tactical level. American investigators and later historians defined Dr. Scheele’s participation in the German sabotage campaign with the founding of a “fertilizer company,” the New Jersey Agricultural and Chemical Company of Bogota [New Jersey] in March 1915. As described earlier, the truth was that this eminent German chemist and spy devoted all his time and resources to the Fatherland as soon as the war began.
With a sabotage order from the German Admiralty dated January 6, 1915, Heinrich Albert and his colleagues proceeded in earnest to stop the production and shipment of war materials to the Entente powers. Von Papen, Albert, and Schweitzer decided to ask Scheele to propose ways to firebomb factories and sink allied ships. Sinking a ship with a bomb was a difficult undertaking. The explosives had to be close enough to the exterior hull and below the waterline to cause any significant damage. To create a leak large enough to sink a steamer the bomb had to be physically large, like the size of a suitcase or larger. An allied agent in New York described Scheele’s invention in his memoirs:
The device was so simple that one cannot even call it ingenious. The literature of the First World War has named these infernal machines indifferently ‘pencil bombs’ and ‘cigar bombs.’ They looked externally like a cross between the two. Inside a copper disk bisected the bomb vertically. A chemical which has a rapid corrosive effect on copper filled the upper compartment. When it had eaten through the disk it came into contact with the chemical in the lower compartment. The combination produced instantly a flame as hot as a tiny fragment of the sun. The acid did not begin to work on the copper until one broke off a little knob at the upper end. Then it became a time-bomb, the time – from two days to a week – being regulated by the thickness or thinness of the copper disk.
Scheele had solved the issue of size. He also changed the target from a hard-to-destroy steel hull to setting the cargo on fire and relegated the complicated timing and firing mechanisms to the heap of outdated bomb building technology. The little bombs burnt so hot that the lead chamber melted in its entirety. Lead screws in the assembly made sure that the bombs left virtually no trace. Workers could easily hide the three inch devices in their clothes and casually drop them within the cargo they were stacking. The fire bombs worked especially well with cargoes of sugar, which when ignited developed such intense heat that it became very difficult to extinguish the resulting fire.
If purchases of the tell-tale lead pipes are an indication, Scheele seemed to have started working on the development of the cigar bombs in the middle of January 1915. A firm order to go ahead with the production came from Franz von Papen within weeks of the sabotage order of January 8, 1916 against ships and factories in the U.S. Albert paid Scheele $10,000 ($210,000 in today’s value) to cloak his laboratory behind a “fertilizer” company. Other disbursals from Albert coded as “artificial fertilizer” appear the accounts of von Papen. They totaled $20,067.64. Historians have misinterpreted these funds to have been designated to buy oil and fertilizer. While this money came through Otto Lemke, who was one of Albert’s trading partners, it financed the bomb making project. The payments from von Papen and Boy-Ed are not listed in Scheele’s bank accounts. Lemke and Oelrichs handled the purchasing and shipping for the chemist.
On March 17, two weeks after Albert provided $10,000 in seed money, von Papen reported to his superiors in Germany in code, “Regrettably steamer [SS La] Touraine has arrived unharmed with ammunition and 335 machine guns.” Von Papen was being facetious. She had indeed sailed on February 27 from New York to Le Havre, France and caught on fire five hundred miles off the coast of Ireland on March 6. The New York Times reported the next day, “only the barest facts of the disaster on the Touraine are known, and there is no hint of the cause of the fire on board the vessel… A message from Queenstown said that the fire on the Touraine was ‘fierce.’” The fire had broken out in two separate cargo areas. French authorities at once suspected foul play. After a thorough investigation authorities identified a suspect who, as it turned out, had not caused the fire. Either way, von Papen’s superiors now had evidence that the sabotage campaign they had ordered was in full swing. The bomb maker had scored a first, documented success. All eighty-four passengers escaped unharmed. The cargo was ruined.
Captain Thomas J. Tunney, who recounted his experiences in the war as head of New York’s bomb squad, detailed several mysterious fires on ships in January and February 1915. Tunney recalled that three ships, the SS Orton, SS Hennington Court, and SS Carlton caught fire without an apparent reason in those first two months of the year. None of these three ships made it into the papers and as a result could not be verified as the beginning of the bomb plot. Other ship blazes did enter the news: On February 7, the British freighter SS Grindon Hall caught on fire in Norfolk harbor. On February 16, the Italian steamer Regina d’Italia loaded with oil, kerosene, and cotton burst into flames at Pier B in Jersey City, New Jersey. The steamer’s destination was Naples, Italy. The fire destroyed the entire cargo. No reason could be determined other than that the conflagration started among the cotton bales in the forward hold. On February 29, the English freighter SS Knutsford loaded sugar in New York harbor when dockworkers found a cigar bomb hidden in a bag. The fire on the SS La Touraine, which sailed on February 27 from New York, has already been mentioned. On March 16, the Italian steamer SS San Guglielmo sailed from Galveston, Texas, “by way of New York” with six thousand bales of cotton. The ship made it to Naples but mysteriously caught fire as it docked there on April 11. The entire cargo burned, causing $200,000 in damages ($4.2 Million in today’s value).
Not only ships caught on fire. On January 18, 1915, two weeks after the sabotage order and five days after Dr. Scheele received his lead pipe delivery, a large steel mill of the John A. Roebling’s Sons Company in Trenton, New Jersey caught on fire and burned to the ground. Scheele’s lab was located approximately sixty miles from the factory. Roebling specialized in steel wires and produced anti-submarine netting and artillery chains for the Entente. Insurance companies estimated the extensive damage (without any loss of life) to be a staggering $1,500,000 ($315 Million in today’s value). The owners denied that the plant stored combustibles.
Dismayed with the pace of sabotage operations, and doubting the capabilities of Franz von Papen, the German admiralty decided to dispatch another agent on March 20, 1915 who took over the project. Franz Rintelen, the son of a banker in Germany, who spoke good English and had been in the United States as an apprentice would be the “Dark Invader.” The production of the cigars moved to the workshop on the German ship Kaiser Friedrich der Grosse and proceeded in earnest on April 13, 1915.
If the chief engineer of the Kaiser Friedrich der Grosse can be believed, agents placed ten bombs on each ship selected for destruction. Investigators of the New York bomb squad could only identify thirty-five ships, one third of the actual targets. This is not all. Fifteen more ships reportedly caught on fire, allowing for the suspicion that another fifty contained bombs. Cigar bombs even set the Canadian parliament in Ottawa on fire in February 1916. Multiple factories exploded in May, June, and July 1916. In the end of July, the grand prize, the largest loading dock for Entente munitions on Black Tom Island in the New York harbor, exploded. German agents had used incendiary devices to start the conflagration.
Serious fires severely damaged the American warship USS Oklahoma in the Camden, New Jersey, shipyards. A few weeks later two more U.S. navy ships mysteriously caught on fire in the Philadelphia navy shipyard. The government, obviously embarrassed about this string of “accidents,” never admitted sabotage. Despite the public denials, the Philadelphia Evening Ledger quoted government insiders in Washington as saying, “the fire on the Oklahoma strengthened the suspicion that the United States is being subjected to the hostile activities of partisans of the war in Europe.” The Oklahoma entered service with a year delay in 1916. She succumbed to flames and capsized in the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, taking 429 members of her crew down with her.
In addition to the navy yard fires, seventeen major fires authorities suspected as the handiwork of German agents occurred in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Maryland in 1915. Most notable were the explosions in the facilities of major producers of war materials for the Allies, all to the south of New York. Several munitions plants of DuPont, the Aetna factory in Grove Run, New York, Bethlehem Steel in the like named Pennsylvania town, the Baldwin Locomotive Company in Eddystone, New Jersey, A. Roebling and Sons in Trenton for a second time all blew up or caught on fire that year. The two consecutive fires that destroyed large portions of Bethlehem Steel’s production facilities caused celebrations in German pubs with toasts to the destruction of this hated company. In June 1916, a fire that likely started as a result of firebombs in Baltimore harbor, incinerated two steamers and caught the grain elevators on fire. The fire department estimated the damage to be over $2,000,000. In the summer of 1916, the prized jackpot of all targets blew up. Investigations in the 1920s and 30s traced the explosion to several German agents including Paul Hilken and Friedrich Hinsch. The Lehigh Valley Railroad Company’s loading terminal on Black Tom Island in New Jersey had so many explosives stacked in its warehouses and dock sheds that their combustion caused an explosion so powerful that it created an earthquake registering 5.5 on the Richter scale. It could be felt as far south as Baltimore, where the conspirators toasted to the success of their mission.
Dr. Scheele’s group did not escape detection. With the help of a German consular officer in Florida he escaped to Havana, Cuba in the beginning of 1916. Just a few weeks later, a U.S. Secret Service trap snapped shut. While eight other conspirators received stiff sentences, the American authorities assumed for the longest time that the chemist had made it back to Germany. Finally, in 1918, after letters between Dr. Scheele and his wife surfaced, American agents found him living under a false name in Cuba. In March 1918, Cuba extradited the agent. Scheele, fearing that he would be sentenced to death in a court martial, offered to switch sides. When chemists of Thomas Edison’s laboratories debriefed the doctor, the deal was done. They could not believe their eyes when the German agent showed all he knew. Abandoned by his government and branded a traitor, the “brain of the [firebomb] conspiracies” became an American agent. Until the end of the war he worked on multiple bomb designs, air propelled artillery shells, and a host of other inventions he had in his repertoire. His firebomb inventions became patents assigned to the United States Navy. Without ever having to serve a single day in jail, the chemist retired in Hackensack, New Jersey after the war.
It will never be possible to positively name every ship that the German sabotage agents targeted in 1915 and 1916. The group of saboteurs around Dr. Scheele freely admitted their crimes and put numbers to their efforts. The thirty-five ships the group stood accused of having firebombed can be fully documented. An added group of thirty-nine ships that also suffered highly suspicious fires in the same period brings the number of targets to seventy-four. Obviously embarrassed U.S. authorities downplayed and tried to hide the fact that German sabotage agents had breached navy yards in New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. Five American warships suffered fire damages. The USS Oklahoma and USS New York, two new battleships in construction, were almost completely destroyed.
American, British, and French authorities found cigars on thirteen ships in the time between January 1915 and April 1916, most notably on the SS Kirk Oswald in Marseille on May 10, 1915. The Kirk Oswald was not the first ship where authorities discovered bombs. The SS Cressington Court, the SS Lord Erne, and the SS Lord Downshire all had bombs in their holds when they docked in Le Havre. The French government sent only the incendiary devices found in Marseilles to New York. Captain Tunney of the New York Bomb Squad used these bombs to uncover the entire plot.
Besides the reported incidents, a potentially much larger number of ship fires, in which the crews managed to extinguish the blaze, never made it into the news. There can be no doubt that the firebombing of ships and factories with Dr. Scheele’s cigars caused far more damage than previously thought. The man who could have shed light on the extent of his activities quietly lived in New Jersey until he took his secrets with him into the grave. He died on March 5, 1922 in his home in Hackensack, New Jersey, of pneumonia.