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Franz von Papen

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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. 

 

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Dr. Hugo Schweitzer and the Great Phenol Plot

Dr. Hugo Schweitzer

Dr. Hugo Schweitzer

Dr. Hugo Schweitzer headed the U.S. subsidiary of Bayer Corporation. He had come to the United States in the 1890s as a chemist, climbed the corporate ladder and became one of the top CEOs in the American economy. He also remained on retainer by the German army. Schweitzer was an industrial spy - and a tremendous asset to the German Secret War Council in World War I. Schweitzer had impressed the head of the Secret War Council, Heinrich Albert, through his integrity, absolute loyalty to the German cause and intellectual capability. The German pharmaceutical executive theorized early in the war in an article titled, “Chemists’ War” that the chemical industry was the key to defeating Germany’s enemies. His ideas turned out to have prophetic value, considering the role of chemical and biological weapons used later in the war. After founding the German Publication Society, raising significant contributions from the German- American community, and working with Albert and Dernburg on propaganda projects, Schweitzer wanted to do more. He inundated  Albert’s office with a barrage of suggestions in the spring of 1915, as the German agents in New York embarked on finding strategic raw materials that could disrupt the American production of explosives, arms, and ammunition. The business executive and formidable chemist identified a chemical hardly known for its strategic value: phenol, also known as carbolic acid. This chemical compound, which is derived from crude oil, is used in many industrial products, mainly all kinds of polycarbonates and polymers, as well as detergents, and pharmaceuticals such as Aspirin. However, carbolic acid also was a key ingredient in the production of TNT. The price of carbolic acid increased as the American munitions industry boomed. Shortages of this crucial ingredient in Aspirin haunted Bayer’s Rensselaer, New York factory that produced this wonder drug.

Dr. Schweitzer immediately saw a tremendous opportunity to procure the necessary phenol for the Bayer Chemical Company while, at the same time, removing its availability for the explosives industry. He proposed to Albert and his team in April 1915 to build a factory that processed benzene into phenol and picric acid. This factory would have cost an estimated $100,000, and would have cornered the entire high explosives market. Not ready to invest in a second factory, the idea remained on the back burner while the team explored other options to limit the supply of strategic chemicals. After a barrage of suggestions and market data on the chemical industry, Schweitzer received orders to corner the high
explosives market through purchases of picric acid, a key ingredient of TNT, in June 1915.

Despite serious efforts using Stallforth and various straw men, and despite offering contracts above market price, Schweitzer could not get a contract with the American picric acid manufacturers. While his idea for a German-owned factory wound its way through the Secret War Council’s decision-making process, another formidable American inventor and entrepreneur chomped at the bit. Suffering from shortages of carbolic acid for his own ventures, Thomas Edison decided to build his own phenol refining plant in Silver Lake, New Jersey. Edison had no designs on participating in the booming war industry. Rather, the inventor of the phonograph urgently needed phenol for his booming vinyl record production company. Naturally, Edison’s plans quickly circulated in the chemical industry and reached the ears of Dr. Schweitzer. The Bayer executive immediately entered into  negotiations with Edison to secure excess production for his Aspirin production and prevent phenol from reaching explosives manufacturers. 

Albert agreed to finance the purchase of Edison’s entire annual excess output. Bayer Aspirin, a much-needed product in the domestic U.S. market, became the ideal cover for the project. After the Interior Department gave the green light for the investment, Schweitzer secured 1.2 million pounds of phenol at the end of June, virtually locking down the available U.S. capacities for the entire year. Without phenol, there would be no picric acid. Albert spent $1.3 million ($27.3 million in today’s value) on the contract. Schweitzer and Albert created a web of dummy companies to obscure the underlying mechanics of the operation. Edison’s phenol went to the Chemical Exchange Association, a post office box brokerage firm in New York. The actual deliveries went to the Heyden Chemical Works in Garfield, New Jersey, a subsidiary of the Chemische Fabrik von Heyden in Radebeul, Germany. As was the case with most German industrial producers, the Heyden concern in Germany had been requisitioned for the war and Albert Ballin. Phenol and derivative products went from Garfield directly to Bayer. Dr. Schweitzer sold off what Bayer did not need to other end-uses not considered detrimental to the German war effort. 

The action severely affected the U.S. markets. The price for toluene and picric acid, as well as for all related high explosives, skyrocketed as a result of the German actions. So successful and profitable was the project that Dr. Schweitzer “gave a lavish private dinner at New York’s swanky Hotel Astor in honor of Heinrich Albert. It was a happy evening because behind all the backslapping, champagne and cigars lay the knowledge that Schweitzer had pulled off a remarkable coup… Schweitzer now controlled one of the few available sources of phenol in America and was set to make a fortune.” 

The success of the German team in acting unrecognized behind the scenes of the American munitions industry was not long lived. It was Albert himself who accidentally broke the seal of silence in the end. He had his briefcase snatched on July 24, 1915. The phenol purchases suddenly graced the first pages of American dailies. Albert, teasingly called “minister without portfolio” in the press, offered to resign and return to Germany as a result, but was turned down flatly. Interestingly, nothing about the clandestine projects was illegal, which prompted the publication rather than legal action in the first place. Edison eventually cancelled the deliveries to Heyden and Bayer under pressure. While Albert used his lawyer, Norvin Lindheim, to enforce the signed and legal contracts, the war was rapidly entering a new, more violent stage on the American continent. Despite the setback, the Bridgeport project and the “Great Phenol Plot” remained the most successful German secret missions of the first war year. Heinrich Albert praised Dr. Schweitzer’s success in a letter later in the war:

The breadth of highmindedness [sic] with which you at that time immediately entered into the plan has borne fruit as follows: One and a half million pounds of carbolic acid have been kept from the Allies. Out of this one and a half million pounds of carbolic acid four and one-half [sic] million pounds of picric acid can be produced. This tremendous quantity of explosives stuffs has been withheld from the Allies by your contract. In order to give one an idea of this enormous quantity the following figures are of interest: Four million five hundred thousand pounds equals [sic] 2,250 tons of explosives. A railroad freight car is loaded with 20 tons of explosives. The 2,250 tons would therefore fill 112 railway cars. A freight train with explosives consist [sic] chiefly of 40 freight cars, so that the 4,500,000 pounds of explosives would fill three railroad trains with 40 cars each. Now one should picture to himself what a military coup would be accomplished by an army leader if he should succeed in destroying three railroad trains of 40 cars, containing four and a half
million pounds of explosives.

German Military Attache in the U.S., Franz Von Papen, proudly filed a report on May 18, 1915 to the Imperial War Ministry announcing, 

All reports received here – from the English press as well as from the negotiations of the Allies with munitions-makers [sic] here – show that there is a great shortage of ammunition in
Russia, and that the needs of the English with their apparently enormous expenditure of ammunition during the last weeks, are nowhere near being met.

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