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Countless Russians slaughtered by one spy

Posted in Espionage, Historical articles, History, War, World War 1 on Tuesday, 31 May 2011

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This edited article about espionage originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 953 published on 26 April 1980.

Nicholas II, picture, image, illustration

Tsar Nicholas II who ruled Russia during World War One until the Russian Revolution of 1917

Most secret agents are very small cogs in a very large machine, forwarding tiny pieces of information to their superiors in the knowledge that a number of seemingly trivial facts may well build up into a very important whole. Only very rarely does an agent have a single, clearly defined task to carry out, and more rarely still does he have a completely free hand in how he sets about doing it.

At the beginning of World War One, a German agent named Franz von Rintelen had such a task, with permission to tackle it in any way he liked. It was an assignment that he carried through with such cold-blooded efficiency, that it has been estimated that he was responsible for more deaths than any other man during the whole of that grim and terrible war.

Before the outbreak of hostilities in August, 1914, the countries of Europe had been going through a period of intense political turmoil, as each manoeuvred for power by means of alliances. Russia was something of an unknown quantity, even to her own leaders. She had an army of five million, and a reserve of manpower that would easily enable her to put more than twice that number into the field. Certainly, she could find more soldiers than Germany ever could. On the other hand, the Russian armies were desperately short of ammunition, arms and almost every kind of modern technical equipment.

The Czar’s ministers made enquiries and decided that these shortages could be made up by making enormous purchases in the United States, a country that seemed unlikely to be drawn into the fight on either side. And so, satisfied that it had guaranteed supplies and the support of such strong allies as Britain and France, Russia went to war.

At first there were no difficulties. The Austrians, allies of Germany, were supposed to block a thrust into Poland, but at the battle of Galicia they were overrun by the Russians, who were making use of the best-equipped troops they had. Other Austrian invasions were beaten off, although with heavy casualties, and in the late summer of 1914 two German armies were simply swamped in East Prussia by the large forces of Russians. Superior arms and training were bound to tell in the end, and at the battle of Tannenberg the Russians suffered terrible losses when they faced massed gunfire against which they had not the means to reply.

In Moscow, it was realised that it was no use relying on the traditional fortitude of the Russian soldier, if he had no boots on his feet and no ammunition in his rifle. Everything depended on getting supplies from the United States as quickly as possible. But this was something that was equally clear to the Germans, and they contacted von Rintelen, who was already working for them in America under a Swiss passport.

Von Rintelen’s instructions were brief and to the point. He was to use any means in his power to hold up supplies of war equipment intended for Russia. Every week’s delay would result in thousands more Russian casualties. Von Rintelen’s quick mind went straight to the heart of the problem. The Russian orders had been placed with dozens of different firms, and there seemed no way in which he could stop the factories fulfilling their contracts. On the other hand, the vast consignments of arms, ammunition and clothing all ended up on the dockside at New York, where they awaited shipment.

At this point they were vulnerable, and von Rintelen was clever enough to make the most of the fact. He made contact with another German national named Scheele, who had a sound knowledge of chemistry. Could Scheele make a device that was small, easily manufactured and guaranteed to start a fire? Scheele could. He made it out of a length of metal tubing, about the size of a cigar, with a copper plate in the middle. On one side of the plate he poured picric acid, on the other, sulphuric. The acids slowly corroded the copper and when they eventually met they produced an intense blue flame.

Von Rintelen needed men to plant these incendiary devices, and he knew that he had no need to look further than New York’s immigrant dock workers, traditionally hostile to Britain. Soon he had willing helpers, who planted the fire bombs in the cargoes of munitions before they were hoisted aboard British ships bound for Russia.

Von Rintelen also tried to encourage strikes on the dockside, but in this he had little success. It did not matter, because Scheele’s tiny fire bombs wrought havoc. It was a long crossing from New York to the Russian port of Archangel, and one ship after another caught fire and blew up in mid-ocean. Thousands of tons of vital supplies ended up on the sea bed and, hardly surprisingly, seamen became reluctant to set sail aboard ships that were likely never to be seen again.

On the battlefronts, Russian soldiers began to die in their thousands for lack of the long-awaited ammunition. And, in America, von Rintelen realised that it was possible to stop supplies before they reached the docks. Together with a fellow German, Max Weiser, he formed a company and began to bid for the Russian arms contracts. Von Rintelen proved himself to be no mean businessman, for soon he had secured many millions of dollars worth of contracts to supply food, winter clothing, boots, field kitchens, horses, mules and ammunition.

According to the contracts, delivery of the much needed goods was to begin in 45 days, but the Russians were prepared to pay a bonus for early delivery. Von Rintelen took the bonus and banked that too. At the end of the 45 days the Russian trade officials began to ask where the goods were. Their enquiries got them nowhere, for von Rintelen had never had any intention of delivering anything. All he had wanted to do was to waste time, well aware that every day’s delay in delivery meant that a hard-pressed Russian fighting unit would have to spend another day without supplies.

In far-away Poland, the German General von Mackensen launched a strong attack on the Russians, backed by one of the biggest concentrations of artillery ever seen in the field. Handicapped by lack of ammunition, the Russians drew back, leaving their empty field guns behind them. When they were fighting on their own soil, the Russians hurled in such a mass of men that, for a time, they actually pushed back the superbly equipped Germans through sheer weight of numbers. But it was impossible to keep up the pressure, and even the Germans were shocked at the losses they inflicted on their poorly-armed enemy.

A large proportion of these must be attributed to von Rintelen, one of the most effective secret agents of all time. However, his activities as a spy came to an end in August, 1915, when he received a message recalling him to Germany. The message was a false one – planted by the British – and von Rintelen was arrested by British intelligence officers on a Dutch ship in British waters.

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