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Franz Rintelen


Robert Fay: A Terrorist Plot Foiled 100 Years Ago

The secret agent Lieutenant Robert Fay arrived in New York in April 1915 with a mission to sink freight ships on the East Coast of the U.S.  The twenty-four year-old infantry officer had caught the attention of his superiors in February 1915, while serving on the Western Front in France. Fay, who himself had suffered from the lethal rain of American-made artillery munitions, proposed a time bomb design that disabled rudders on munitions ships traveling from the United States to Europe. Fay showed his idea to the battalion commander. Impressed with the details, Fay’s superior alerted the army intelligence office in Berlin who invited and interviewed the young soldier. Not only did Fay have a design that seemed like a good idea, he had also worked at the Submarine Signal Company in Boston before the war and spoke English fluently. His brother-in-law, Walter E. Scholz, eight years older than Fay, still lived in New Jersey. The trained mechanic worked as a draftsman for railroad companies. Rudolf Nadolny of the Army Secret Service, Department IIIB, Political Section, gave Fay a fake Scottish passport under the name of H. A. Kearling and $4,000 ($84,000 in today’s value) for a sabotage mission in the U.S. He was to report directly to Military Attaché Franz von Papen in New York and proceed with his plans. 

Arrest Record of Robert Fay

Arrest Record of Robert Fay

Fay’s idea of a timed explosive sounded promising to von Papen, but it was a complicated design.

A brief description of the contrivance reveals the mechanical ingenuity and practical efficiency of Fay’s bomb A rod attached to the rudder at every swing the rudder gave turned up by one notch the first of the beveled wheels within the bomb After a certain number of revolutions of that wheel it in turn gave one revolution to the next and so on through the series The last wheel was connected with the threaded cap around the upper end of the square bolt and made this cap slowly unscrew until at length the bolt dropped clear of it and yielded to the waiting pressure of the strong steel spring above This pressure drove it downward and brought the sharp points at its lower end down on the caps of the two rifle cartridges fixed below it like the blow of a rifle’s hammer The detonation from the explosion of these cartridges would set off a small charge of impregnated chlorate of potash which in turn would fire the small charge of the more sluggish but stronger dynamite and that in turn would explode the still more sluggish but tremendously more powerful trinitrotoluol.

The resulting explosion, Fay argued, would be strong enough to blow the stern of a ship off and sink it. American investigators, who looked at Fay’s design after his arrest, agreed with the claim.

The German agent established his workshop in his brother-in-law’s garage in Weehawken, New Jersey. Initially, and with the help of Rintelen’s agent, Otto Wolpert, Fay bought one hundred pounds of potassium chlorate. However, he needed more. Through von Papen, Fay met the nephew of a wealthy financier by the name, Max Breitung. Fay asked Breitung for help. The young financier, anxious to prove his worth to the German government, had met the New York factory representative of a German cuckoo clock manufacturer on a transatlantic voyage. They had kept in contact through the German Club in New York. The acquaintance was Dr. Herbert O. Kienzle, a thirty year-old engineer from the town of Scheveningen in the Black Forest area of Germany. Kienzle had been a keen supporter of the Secret War Council’s propaganda efforts. He had written several articles on Dum Dum [hollow point] bullets for the German-owned paper, Fatherland, and New York’s German language daily, New Yorker Staats-Zeitung. His investigative journalism also appeared in large American dailies. The war had ground his clock business to a halt. He made several futile attempts to diversify the product line, getting into lamps, linens, and crafts, but the prospective American customers stayed away from his exclusive store on Park Place. Like Edward Rumely, the managing editor of the German-owned New York Evening Mail, and others that engaged with the Secret War Council’s projects, the engineering PhD had time on his hands and holes in his pocket.

Breitung and Kienzle secured 336 pounds of potassium chlorate for Fay, but it took until June to get it. The source, a German-American chemist, was compromised. The U.S. Secret Service had noticed the movement of these explosive chemicals and sent a mole to Breitung’s supplier. Through Breitung, Fay became acquainted with Kienzle and Daeche, who joined the team in the beginning of May 1915. The four, Fay, Scholz, Kienzle, and Daeche worked feverishly on the bomb design, all the while reporting back to Rintelen on the progress. Kienzle had a small motorboat, which he sold to Fay. Together, the saboteurs toured the New York harbor and checked out the large transatlantic steamers lined up to transport their deadly cargo to Europe. Security did not seem to be an issue, since guards were checking who was coming onto the ships, but not the little boats scurrying around in the harbor.

Back in the garage, the conspirators experimented with the two necessary explosives, potassium chlorate and TNT. Kienzle had a friend who worked in road construction. The clock maker’s friend worked on the grounds of a sanatorium in Butler, New Jersey, where Kienzle had spent some “quiet time” in the past. Builders in 1915 dynamited their way through the countryside in lieu of using heavy earth-moving equipment to prepare a roadbed. The contractor friend had lots of dynamite. When Fay went to Butler to “look that place over,” he met the contractor, a German-American named Englebert Bronckhurst, who supplied him with twenty sticks. Fay built a wooden replica of a ship’s rudder in the backyard of Scholz’ property. Fay and Scholz worked over the course of several weeks on the spring mechanism, the waterproof container for the explosives, the attachment to the rudder, and all other important details that would make the design viable. Kienzle likely did, but never admitted to having looked over the design from a technical standpoint. Since the winding spring mechanism came straight out of clock mechanics, it is hard to imagine that he did not have any input. Sometime in June, sabotage agent Franz Rintelen demanded to see a demonstration of the bomb. The team made four attempts, but the bomb did not work as designed. The container with the potassium chlorate kept getting wet, the firing mechanism still had quirks, and even the dynamite did not have the envisioned result. Rintelen left for Europe in August. The project came to a grinding halt. American investigators, meanwhile, had discovered German-made “cigar” bombs that had damaged dozens of freighters on the way to Europe, and were canvassing the waterfront for any hint as to who was behind it.

Fay’s next moves are not documented in detail. The four saboteurs kept working on the bombs. However, it seems that money was in short supply. According to Fay, von Papen sent him to Kentucky to bomb a manufacturing plant. Fay went to the Midwest in September 1915, and canvassed the factory in question. A female witness in Chicago reported to investigators that Fay “fleeced her out of eleven hundred and fifty dollars, representing himself to be employed by German Secret Service whose draft for salary and expenses had been delayed.” After Fay returned to New York, he asked Kienzle to get him one hundred pounds of TNT for the factory demolition. Kienzle went to his previous source in New York. However, the chemist was now under U.S. Secret Service surveillance and did not have access to TNT. The Secret Service shadow posed as a supplier in a classical sting operation, and offered to provide the dynamite. The agent found out about the other members of the German sabotage cell during the process, and after meeting Fay, had him, Paul Daeche, and Walter Scholz arrested. If you are interested in the entire story of the German sabotage campaign in 1915, check out The Secret War in the United States. Buy it right here or on Amazon, Barnes and Noble and many other fine booksellers.