Touraine - from then until now!

This blog is an attempt to show some of the vast history of Man's prescence in the Southern Touraine.... from first footfall to the present....
especially in and around le Grand Pressigny area.... with special emphasis on life at and around le Moulin de la Forge.
There will also be occasional entries about time before man was here and when the area was at the bottom of a warm, shallow sea...

Monday 3 April 2017

The circle of fire - part 4: proof of concept

La Touraine, by Ernest Louis Lessieux - own postcard, postmark illegible

The forensic scientists, as they would now be called, investigating the fire aboard La Touraine, were looking for the point of ignition of the fire and the remains of a bomb. By 2nd April, they had ruled out the possibility that someone aboard had set the presumed bomb during the voyage. Their latest findings were described in Le Petit Parisien on 3 April 1915, as follows:

Le Petit Parisien, 3rd April 1915

At Le Havre, the examining magistrate continues the enquiry

Le Havre, 2 April
While examining, in the warehouses of the Compagnie Générale Transatlantique, the crates from la Touraine which had been damaged by the fire, M. Barnaud, examining magistrate in Le Havre, has just made a discovery of the greatest importance. He has, in fact, found a plank - the only one left - of the packing case which was at the seat of the fire that was set aboard the liner.

It seems now to have been established, given the impossibility of the arsonist to have got into, during the voyage, the place where this case was, that a criminal hand had placed inside the crate, before the ship set off, a combustible material whose ignition only took place several days later.

If this packing case, instead of being placed in the second upper storage, had been at the bottom of the hold, la Touraine would certainly have been totally and rapidly destroyed, because of the extreme flammability of the major part of her cargo.

The third scenario

Admiral Charlier's premise was that any bomb had to be in a passenger's baggage, or smuggled into the hold during the voyage. But there is a third scenario, which Charlier failed to take into account. The passengers' goods were carried on board by dockside workers - porters - and one of them could easily have tucked a small explosive device among the stacks of packing cases and barrels in no. 2 hold.

There were people with a motive.

They had the means.

They had the opportunity.

Those three elements define the crime.

The motive

Millions of dollars worth of American goods were streaming across the Atlantic in support of the Entente's war effort, while the British blockade effectively cut off any similar stream to Germany. The Entente was employing all possible propaganda to draw the USA into the war on their side. The USA had millions of citizens and residents of German origin, some of whom looked to the land of their ancestry before the country that was their home.

Other nationalities were sympathetic towards the German side, along the line of reasoning that "my enemy's enemy is my friend": Jews who had fled pogroms in Russia and Poland, Irish nationalists, Indian nationalists. While the German ambassador had to maintain an appearance of diplomatic rectitude, his attachés had no such restrictions. They masterminded a series of conspiracies aimed at strangling US trade with the Entente of Europe, and delaying the US's entry into the war, by any available means.

Agatha Christie or Dorothy L.Sayers, great mystery writers both, never introduced a new character as the murderer in the last chapter. However for me this has been a genuine mystery, the solution to which has been proposed since 1918. I am pleased to be able to unfold a couple of wrinkles.

My main sources for this post were:

Dramatis Personae

  • Rudolf Nadolny: Chief Political Officer, German General Staff, Section 3B. Gave the general orders
  • Count Johann Heinrich  Bernstorff: German Ambassador to the USA. Lawyer and diplomat, thrower of lavish parties and "the acceptable face" of Germany in America during WW1
  • Heinrich Friedrich Albert: German Commercial agent in New York. The money man, aristocrat who outranked all of the others. Left his brief case on a tram, where the Secret Service agent who was tailing him picked it up and legged it
  • Franz von Papen, German military attaché in New York. Horseman, planner and fixer, future chancellor of Germany
  • Karl Boy-Ed: German naval attaché in New York. Planner and fixer, from the mercantile classes and therefore subordinate to Papen, which he didn't like.
  • Dr. Walter Theodor Scheele: masqueraded as a New Jersey pharmacist, but in fact a highly qualified and inventive chemist.
  • Sir Roger Casement: Irish republican, sought to trade support for sabotage in the USA in return for German arms and funding for an Irish uprising and recognition of an Irish free state; ultimately executed by the British for treason.
  • Jeremiah O'Leary: Irish republican activist, based in New York, recommended by Casement to Nadolny and thence to Papen.
Franz von Papen: from Wikipedia
A circular dated November 18th 1914, issued by German Naval Headquarters to all their naval agents throughout the world, ordered the mobilisation of all "agents who are overseas and all destroying agents in ports where vessels carrying war material are loaded in England, France, Canada, the United States and Russia."

"It is indispensable by the intermediary of the third person having no relation with the official representatives of Germany to recruit progressively agents to organise explosions on ships sailing to enemy countries in order to cause delays and confusion in the loading, the departure and the unloading of these ships. With this end in view we particularly recommend to your attention the deckhands, among whom are to be found a great many anarchists and escaped criminals. The necessary sums for buying and hiring persons charged with executing the projects will be put at your disposal on your demand.
" (The German Services in America 1914 - 1918)

On 6th January 1915, Rudolf Nadolny issued a secret directive on behalf of the German High command to the German embassy in Washington. Marked "for the military attaché", Franz Von Papen, it reached him on 24th January. This order authorised sabotage of the means of production of war materials and transport of such essentials from the United States and Canada to the nations of the Entente. The order went on to list three Irish-Americans, nominated by Roger Casement, who could be relied upon to assist the saboteurs.

The means

The Secret War Council consisted mainly of German nationals and German-Americans. They controlled cells of saboteurs, union activists, nationalists and spies. Papen and Boy-Ed recruited the key individuals, including Scheele, in a plot to attack ships at sea. To fund the cells, Papen received large sums of money, millions of dollars in today's values, from the German government via a roundabout route in an attempt to conceal it from British and US intelligence.

Scheele's ingenuity in the service of the Fatherland in the USA included converting rubber and petroleum into a granular substance for export to Germany as an innocuous fertiliser, and devising a new invisible ink. He invented a time bomb capable of setting a ship's cargo ablaze in seconds.

Sketch of a "cigar" bomb by Frederick L. Hermann

The bomb, known as a "cigar" bomb or "pencil" and codenamed "pill" by the saboteurs, was a section of lead piping only six to ten inches long, divided into two compartments separated by a barrier of wax or metal. The lower compartment contained an accelerant, the upper a corrosive agent that would eat through the barrier at a predictable rate. The bomb was armed by breaking off a lug on the top of the upper compartment. The thickness and material of the barrier could be varied to determine the delay - between three days and a week - before the chemicals mixed and the bomb exploded. The resulting explosion and fire was so violent that no sign of the bomb itself remained.

Papen contacted Scheele on 10th February 1915, and his collaborators found the chemist everything he needed: men to build a sample set of four bombs, lead piping to make them and a suitable location where they could build the bombs without being observed. The location was a German liner interned at the New York dockside, the Kaiser Friedrich der Grosse, and the bomb-makers were her idle hands. On 19th February Papen wrote to thank Scheele for the four boxes of "samples". Meanwhile agents had been recruited among the dock workers in New York who could hide one or two of the cigars in a pocket, arm them and slip them into a suitable cranny among flammable items of cargo - cotton goods, perhaps, or sugar, or flour.

The opportunity

 La Touraine was sailing on 27 February, and a German agent in the Customs house was recording the cargo manifests. Here was a splendidly fat target - and carrying absolute contraband too. Was Von Papen capable of resisting a trial run? A proof of concept?

 It would appear not. On 17th March, Papen sent a coded message to Nadolny in Germany. "Regrettably steamer Touraine has arrived unharmed with ammunition and 335 machine guns". Heribert von Feilitzsch considers that Papen was being facetious, but as we have seen, only the fore hold and the passenger baggage hold above it were affected by the fire and the greater part of La Touraine's cargo was indeed unharmed.

What saved La Touraine?

    La Touraine survived for two reasons:
    1. The saboteurs only had a week to place their bombs. By the time they were ready, the main hold containing the munitions was fully loaded and no longer accessible. The last to be loaded was the passenger baggage over no. 2 hold. A porter had only to wheel a trunk on board and into the passenger baggage bay, and slide an armed cigar bomb into a gap between two packing cases. It exploded on time a week later. Proof of concept was obtained, even if only a partial triumph.
    2. Commander Caussin knew first hand all there was to know about fire at sea. He will have insured that the firefighting equipment was first class, and drilled his crew thoroughly. He did all the right things when the alarm was raised. No panic, take control, call for help in good time, flood the hold with cold sea water and make sure the fire is out before opening the hatches, keep the passengers out of the way.

    What became of the saboteurs?

    The cigar bombs went into full production in April 1915. Although the timing was erratic and some bombs failed to explode at all, the saboteurs scored numerous successes both at sea and on land. For a full description of these events, please refer to The Secret War, and a rattling good yarn it is too.  One of the biggest, and certainly the loudest, was the destruction of the munitions depot on Black Tom Island in New Jersey on 30th July 1916.

    Scheele and his workers were tried for sabotage in 1916, although Scheele himself escaped and fled to Cuba (later he changed sides). On the charge sheet, we find:
    "George D. Barnitz, being duly sworn, deposes and says ... on information and belief that on the first day of January, 1915, and on every day thereafter down to and including the 13th day of April, 1916, the defendants Walter T. Scheele, Charles von Kleist, Otto Wolpert, Ernst Becker, (Charles) Karbade, the first name Charles being fictitious, the true first name of defendant being unknown, (Frederick) Praedel . . . (Wilhelm) Paradis . . . Eno Bode and Carl Schmidt . . . did unlawfully, feloniously and corruptly conspire ... to manufacture bombs filled with chemicals and explosives and to place said bombs . . . upon vessels belonging to others and laden with moneys, goods and merchandise. . . ." (The German Secret Service in America 1914 - 1918)
    [Becker, Paradis, Praedel, Karbode and Schmidt, crewmen aboard the Kaiser Friedrich der Grosse, made the bomb cases, Scheele, who had designed the bombs, loaded them with chemicals, Wolpert and Bode were pier superintendents in the Hoboken docks recruited by Von Kleist.]


    So there we have it. The fire aboard La Touraine was indeed caused by a bomb.

    But what of Raymond Swoboda? He wasn't an arsonist, he would not have set foot on the ship had he known there was a bomb on board. Suicide bombing was not a tactic employed in WW1.

    But was he a spy?


    An American spy, of course... but that's another story ...

    La Touraine postcard, hand-tinted photograph, author's own copy

    1 comment:

    Susan said...

    Golly! Fascinating stuff. Good work Pauline!