The infamous Zimmerman telegram proposed a military alliance between Germany and Mexico if the USA entered the Great War. The secret diplomatic communication sent by the German Foreign Office was intercepted, deciphered, and revealed to the American public by British intelligence and caused a furor in 1917. What was not then publicly known was how extensive German clandestine operations were in Mexico. These included training an embryonic German-Mexican invasion force, dispatching saboteurs to the U.S., planning submarine bases on the western coast of Mexico, and an idea to launch sea raiders from the port of Mazatlán to attack merchant shipping in the Pacific.
Author Mills weaves a lively story of German Consul Fritz Unger, head of the powerful trading house Melchers Sucesores, and his efforts in Mexico that were thwarted by a top American spy who was a trusted member of the German secret service there. A cast of colorful characters provide drama and intrigue that reads more like a novel but is true history.
The Sunken Gold is the story of how 43 tons of England’s gold was sunk off the coast of Ireland en route to the United States and later was mostly recovered by the British. The salvage, which took a number of years, was conducted by a small group of divers working in harsh conditions without benefit of modern technology such as sonar or underwater diving tanks.
On 25 January 1917 the HMS Laurentic was sailing to New York when it struck two mines during a storm and sank off the coast of Ireland. The Admiralty kept the lost cargo secret and immediately started looking for ways to salvage the vessel. The recovery of the gold was assigned to England’s nascent salvage group. Britain had one of the innovative divers of the time, naval officer Guybon Damant, and he was assigned the job.
It was 1919 before the divers could concentrate on the wreck since during the war the diving group was busy looking for intelligence on sunken U-boats to help break the German communication codes to counter U-boat attacks.
Over a seven-year span after the war, the divers brought up 3,186 of the 3,211 gold bars, worth almost $22 million in 1924 (worth more than $300 million in 2018). At that point the British government stopped funding, leaving commercial salvagers an opportunity to find some but not all of the rest of the bars.
Each chapter focuses on either the treasure or Damant, and this repeated shifting back and forth makes it a chore to concentrate on the main story—the treasure. There are two interesting stories here, but the author’s choice of alternating chapters makes the reader work to stay until the end.
The book’s focus on U-Boat Deutschland makes it easy to understand the experimental vessel and keep track of the groups connected with it. Deutschland was one of two subs designed as underwater freighters to avoid the British blockade. The other, the Bremen, was lost at sea on its initial voyage.
Support of the U-Boat was only one of the activities of the Baltimore sabotage group; it also attempted to spread diseases to horses being sent to the Allies.
Deutschland made only two successful trips before it was re-commissioned as a standard submarine after America entered the war.
The Germans and Americans in the U.S. who acquired the trade goods for shipment to Germany were in peril once the U.S. entered the war; most escaped. While some people, civilian and military, toured and inspected the Deutschland while docked in Baltimore, it was not until after the war that interviews with the cell’s surviving participants revealed how extensive and successful the Baltimore group had been.
A well written and unexpectedly interesting case study of an unusual aspect of the war.
A New York Times review provided an irresistible description of this book’s topic: “The Redl Affair had everything: sex, espionage, betrayal, a fall from greatness and a sensational climax in which Redl went to his death like a figure of high tragedy.”
Alfred Redl was an Austro-Hungarian army officer and former head of the Empire’s counterintelligence. In 1913, he was discovered selling military secrets to the Russians and perhaps others. After being confronted, he was allowed to commit suicide and shot himself. Notably, Redl had passed to the Russians the Empire’s mobilization plans, eventually raising the important question of whether his betrayal had been a cause of Austria-Hungary’s poor performance once the war started in 1914.
In the preface, the authors argue convincingly that this is the first “factual” biography of Alfred Redl in English and state clearly that there is much about his case that will never be known for certain. Sadler and Fisch do an excellent job of describing Redl’s life and his situation as a perpetual outsider—a non-aristocrat homosexual of modest means, modest family background, and high intelligence. Combined with the stultifying culture of the twilight years of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and its army, they make a convincing case for their explanation of Redl’s motivations for betrayal.
Sadler and Fisch could have done a better job in guiding readers through the difficult thicket of disinformation, cover-ups, yellow journalism, and politically motivated allegations that followed in the wake of the Redl affair. Despite this confusion, the book is a valuable addition to the histories of the Empire, of WW1, and of espionage itself.
Reviewed by Steve Suddaby, past president of the World War One Historical Association and a retired CIA analyst
The author and her family were overrun in Belgium at the outbreak of the war. Instead of completing her medical studies to become a physician, Marthe became a nurse in a hospital run by the Germans. She also fed information to the British who had set up an underground network as they retreated. Marthe proved to be intelligent, fast thinking, reliable and cautious.
An excellent nurse, she was honored with others for their efforts by the King of Württemberg. As the war continued the Germans were able to staff and monitor the occupied areas with troops whose job was to suppress resistance and locate spies. When she was finally captured for her participation in sabotage the Germans wanted to shoot her. However, her former supervisors at the hospital vouched for her work and reminded the review board that it would look awfully bad to be killing heroines with German medals. She escaped the firing squad, spending the remainder of the war in prison.
Well-written, the reader comes to appreciate the stress that accumulates back when communications were much slower than today.
Ambassador Shurtleff, a retired American Foreign Service officer who served as President of The World War One Historical Association and as a past President of The Western Front Association – U S Branch, passed away on January 22, 2014. The searchable version of Len’s Bookshelf was created and will be maintained in his honor.