Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Captain Franz von Rintelen, Ace German Spy

Captain Franz Dagobert Johannes von Rintelen (19 August 1878–30 May 1949) was a German naval intelligence officer in the United States during World War I. In April 1915, Captain von Rintelen arrived in New York carrying a Swiss passport and orders to run a sabotage campaign under illegal cover. Rintelen spoke fluent English and knew Manhattan's banking and social milieus. He was as unschooled in covert action as his embassy counterparts but was more innovative and seemingly inexhaustible. Within weeks of his arrival, he had enlisted sailors and officers from the 80-odd German ships languishing in New York harbor, turning a workshop on one of the ships into a bomb factory. He convinced a German-born chemist across the river in New Jersey to fill cigar-shaped firebombs and claims to have used Irish dockworkers to plant the devices on Allied ships in American ports. The shipping news soon noted a rash of mysterious accidents at sea—ships carrying munitions from America were damaged and their cargoes ruined by fires.

Captain Franz von Rintelen

In May 1915 a U-boat off the coast of Ireland sank the British liner Lusitania with appalling loss of life, including 128 Americans. The sinking turned public opinion against Germany and angered President Wilson, who ordered the Secret Service—previously confined to protecting presidents and hunting counterfeiters—to watch German diplomats. Although the Secret Service officers did not spot Rintelen, they filched the briefcase of the German commercial attaché on a New York streetcar in July 1915 and found in his papers several leads to the sabotage campaign. Officials in Washington began to see what was afoot.

Not long after the sinking of Lusitania, Captain Rintelen was ordered to Berlin for consultations and boarded a Dutch steamer for the long trip. He never made it. Tipped by a decoded German message, the British stopped his ship in the English Channel and detained him. His Swiss passport only delayed the inevitable, and soon Rintelen admitted to his captors that he was an enemy officer, and he was taken prisoner.

However, the network Rintelen had established remained highly active and successful in the efforts to sabotage American material support for the Allies.

The Results of the Black Tom Explosion

The conflagration at Black Tom pier was their most spectacular success, but there were others. In January 1917, a mysterious fire at a shell-packing plant in Kingsland, New Jersey, just across the river from Manhattan, rocked the city and sent thousands fleeing from un-fused shells flung high in the air by the blasts. Three months later, another unexplained fire destroyed the Hercules Powder Company plant in Eddystone, Pennsylvania, killing over a hundred workers, most of them women and children. A book published in 1937 estimated that, between early 1915 and spring 1917, 43 American factories suffered explosions or fires of mysterious origin, in addition to the bombs set on some four dozen ships carrying war supplies to the Allies.

After America entered the war, the British bundled Rintelen off to New York to stand trial. One of the charges that stuck was that of conspiracy to create an illegal restraint of trade by inducing dockworkers to strike against firms loading ships with munitions. He thus became surely the most important—and probably the only—spy to be jailed for violating the Sherman Antitrust Act. Released in 1920, Rintelen eventually moved to England, told his story in a lurid memoir titled The Dark Invader: Wartime Reminiscences of a German Naval Intelligence Officer (London: Lovat, Dickson, 1933), and died in London in 1949.

Sources: Website of the Central Intelligence Agency; Wikicommons


  1. Fascinating!
    I wonder what details emerged to expand the story since Rintelen's book appeared.

  2. So this German spy lived in London during the Second World War. Was he detained or watched in that period?

  3. Two US born, sons of Civil War Union Army hero, German born Hubert (Leatherbreeches)Dilger manufactured anthrax in an apartment in Silver Spring, Maryland(a DC suburb) to infect horses & cattle being shipped to Great Britain. This cell of German agents also caused a least one major explosion/fire at a grain elevator in Baltimore. They also helped coordinate the visit of the DEUTCHLAND to Baltimore.

  4. I am currently writing a monograph on Rintlen's life. He was not the 'hero' that he liked to think himself and is, unfortunately, always portrayed as having been. As far as I can determine, he was a narcissist, womanising braggart that was a lousy 'agent' and 'saboteur'. A banker by profession, he was NOT, repeat NOT, a naval officer. He merely held a commission in the Seewehr (naval coastal artillery). After his failures on the 'Washington Front' in 1915 and eventual gaoling, in 1917, as the common criminal that he was, he spent the rest of his life trying to justify himself. Due to causing all sorts of trouble in Germany post war, he was forced to live abroad, settling in the UK in the 1930s. Maintaining that he was anti-Nazi, he remained extremist and was interned in 1940. After release in 1945 he linked up with the British Union of Fascists until his death...