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

Tuesday, November 2, 2021

Burn, Bomb, Destroy: The German Sabotage Campaign in North America 1914-1917

By Michael Digby
Casemate, 2021
Courtland Jindra, Reviewer

Sabotage at the Canadian Car and Foundry Plant,
11 January 1917

Aficionados of the First World War are rather unusual in the United States. It is an era that is not at all understood by the average citizen, even history buffs are typically at a loss. As such, when people realize my interest, I often field questions in the vein of "Why did we even join the war?" There are of course several reasons, but the one I usually come back to is the one explored in this book—the German network of spies and saboteurs that wreaked havoc on U.S. shipping and manufacturing prior to our entry into the global struggle.

Michael Digby spent most of his 34-year career in the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department as a detective specializing in their Bomb Squad investigative team. To say studying bombings is a passion of his would be an understatement. As a bomb nut and a detective, (as well as a writer of two books about historical LA area bombings) he's kind of the perfect person to author this book. Obviously, this is not the first time someone has examined the subject: Howard Blum's excellent Dark Invasion from a few years ago extensively covered the Tom Tunney/New York City Bomb Squad thread, but Digby tries to see the big picture beyond the Big Apple. At least as much as he can condense easily! While he readily admits in the preface that he doesn't go into detail on every operation and doesn't cover every plot that was going on (or even try to figure out which random bombings may have been inspired by the German propaganda machine in the U.S., even if non-sponsored by them), he gives an excellent overview of the tangled web of German espionage in the US.

Key German Agent Franz von Papen

Burn, Bomb, Destroy begins with the German Secret service asking Ambassador Johann Heinrich von Bernstorff to create a secret army in the U.S. The ambassador would recruit Captain Franz von Papen, Naval attaché Karl Boy-Ed, and Paymaster Heinrich Albert as his first lieutenants. These early "War Room" figures had to figure out how to create, from scratch, a wide-ranging espionage campaign. They'd soon get plenty of help from Germany and from expats looking to make a difference. Despite making it up as they went along and recruiting some people not terribly well suited to these dark arts, the German Secret Service was fairly successful—not just with sabotage, but in riling up organized labor to strike, and fermenting issues down on the Mexican side of the border through weapons, promises, and propaganda.

The book goes along fairly chronologically, moving from one spy cell to another. Some are terrible at what they are doing and all but broadcast their intentions in shining lights allowing for easy apprehension. Others that are profiled were simply terrible bomb makers or chickened out or both. However, just because some people didn't have what it took didn't mean the Germans had numerous successes. Perhaps the smartest of the German agents was Franz von Rintelen, who was specially sent by Berlin to head sabotage efforts. He had a rather short reign and was disliked by von Papen, but he understood at a base level how to run this sort of war and was good at it. He's also the inspiration for the title as he told British agents after he was captured that his goal was to “burn, bomb, and destroy” in the United States.

German cigar bombs (and later pencil bombs) aboard shipping were incredibly destructive and their first big success. It was also a difficult mystery that took a while to be solved by law enforcement. Once that threat was eradicated, led by New York Agent Tunney's team, others would appear, finally culminating in numerous factories being blown up. The most famous of these were Black Tom Island and the destruction of the Canadian Car and Foundry Plant in Kingsland, NJ (both well covered in the text).

It's hard to accept that government officials did not want to believe Germany's culpability in many of these incidents, even when Heinrich Albert's briefcase detailing much of the spy network (at the time) was left on a New York train and taken by U.S. authorities in the summer of 1915. At that point one would imagine anything related to the German government would not be trusted, but it was over a year and a half later before diplomatic relations would be severed with the release of the Zimmermann Telegram. Though many suspected Germans for a lot of the bombings, it's kind of nuts how much was explained away and/or allowed to go on right under our noses. When some argue  that we were just looking for an excuse to enter the World War, I have to shake my head. We had excuses for well over two years.

The book does a fine job of painting all of this. Do I wish it had spent more time on a few things or covered some other bombings? Sure, it's a fairly short book and could have been easily lengthened. However, it's hard to find too much to trifle with as a non-expert. I knew some facts about the German espionage ring from books like Blum's or Barbara Tuchman's The Zimmermann Telegram, but they are relatively few and far between. This taught me a lot I didn't know and for that it is a great addition to my WWI library.

Full disclosure—Mike Digby and I actually met once through a mutual friend a few years back when he was beginning to really research this book. I gave him some general background on the war itself and recommended some documentaries to help him see the big picture in a few emails. I doubt it was much use to him, but he did thank me in the acknowledgment section of the book, so I figured I should admit to knowing the author in case it seemed as though I was hiding the fact! 

Courtland Jindra


  1. My grandmother's aunt, who was living in Chicago during the war years, became engaged to a German-American in 1916. Late in 1917 he just all of a sudden went 'missing'. It was rumored that he was a German spy. At some point during the '20s the family found out that this was more than likely true.

  2. Then as now we always seem to have ours and ears closed. Great article!

  3. Quite an insight into events forgotten or unknown. Very nicely summarized, Courtland--thank you!

  4. Excellent review. I'm glad to see a raft of books about this subject showing up of late. There are so many levels of the conflict to explore especially under the title of terrorism. Cheers

  5. Fritz Duquesne was a German agent in N.Y. who has written a confession of his murderous Great War complicity in secreting disguised explosive devices (in apperance simply lumps of common coal) within ordinary fuel
    coal delivered aboard Allied merchant ships. He compounded his cold blooded evil by arranging to highly insure and ship on the doomed vessels small near worthless parcels with himself as payee in case of loss.
    His pre-war U.S. based experience included a plan with Teddy Roosevelt's involvement,to import hooved African veldt wildlife to replace the vanished American bison.
    He hated England with great fervor claiming his Boer mother was raped and impregnated by syphillictic Brit troopers and ultimtely died during childbirth whie in a So. African concentration camp
    as a horribly brutalized victim of the Brits in the So.African conflict.
    Duquesne served he claimed,as a Boer spy under cover as a commisioned British cavalry officer.
    Wikipedia wll have more I'd think on Duquesne.

  6. Bombings no doubt contributed to US entry WWI. Real decision was made at highest level of American and English societies.

    1. The bombings, the Zimmermann Telegram, and submarine warfare were the biggest factors.