The Dark Invader

Title:                  The Dark Invader

Author:                 Captain Franz von Rintelen

Rintelen, Captain Franz von (1933).The Dark Invader: Wartime Reminiscences of a German Naval Intelligence Officer. London: L. Dickson

LCCN:    33010711

D639.S8 R6


Date Posted:      January 31, 2013

In 1915, Captain Franz von Rintelen had arrived in New York on a Swiss passport. He was fluent in English and easily moved undiscovered in New York. He contacted German sailors and officers who had been stranded in New York with their ships and he got a group of them to use a workshop aboard one ship as a miniature bomb factory. The factory soon turned out a series of pipe bombs, smuggled into coal bunkers of ships bound for Britain. Rintelen later claimed that he enlisted Irish longshoremen to help in planting the bombs.

The fires in the coal supplies damaged the ships and when the holds were flooded to douse the flames, the munitions cargoes were ruined. Rintelen was captured when the British stopped a Dutch ship, tipped to his presence by a decoded message. He was arrested and later sent to the United States for Trial. Oddly, he could only be tried for inciting dockworks to strike. Rintelen later published his memoirs in Britain as The Dark Invader: Wartime Reminiscences of a German Naval Intelligence Officer.

This is a first-hand report by a top German intelligence agent sent to the still-neutral United States in World War I. Official German records, captured by British and American forces at the end of World War II show the memoirs of the German naval officer to be accurate. However, keep in mind that he was a spy and while he does much to reveal the inadequacies of the German military machine and extol that of the British, he was a man used to lying and deceiving. His view of ‘truth’ might just differ from yours and his whole account is best viewed skeptically. There is a lot that does not ring true, for example, the coincidence of him being invited to the very party where the very man assigned to hunt for him is present. It makes good, exciting reading. Is it true? How could a man who was German pass himself off to establishment Englishmen as their fellow countryman and it not be noticed? His accent and use of English must have been exceptionally good. Americans could be fooled but the English? While there is truth in the book, he has, for artistic reasons, done substantial embellishing.

Reviewed by George C. Constantinides[1]

Admiral William James in The Eyes of the Navy[2] wrote that one cannot separate fact from fiction in Rintelen’s book because he embroidered his story with statements that were untrue. James provided two examples: mention of Rintelen’s supposed meeting with the British naval attaché in the United States which never transpired, and the remark that an article appeared in the British press on the Zimmermann Telegram, again incorrect. With time, however, scholars have been able to separate much of the fiction from fact in Rintelen’s account of his four-month sabotage mission to the United States in 1915 and contacts with General Victoriano Huerta of Mexico. We know from works such as Tuchman’s The Zimmermann Telegram[3] that his account of his dealings with Huerta is both incomplete and slanted, just as we know from Voska and Irwin’s Spy and Counter-Spy[4] of the counterintelligence work against him. Tuchman says that Rintelen’s account of his meeting with Huerta makes him appear” a replica of Baron Munchausen.” The outlines of his sabotage effort are known as well as his tradecraft, which he unwittingly pictures as amateurish at times. So too is the bad blood between him and Von Papen that colors his views of the latter. James says that it was from The Dark Invader that the public learned for the first time “a lot about Hall’s activities.” Revelations include an early and inexact account of the transmission, interception, and breaking of the Zimmermann Telegram. James also reminds us that Rintelen disclosed that the Germans were deciphering U.S. diplomatic traffic to Berlin while the two countries were at peace.

[1] Constantinides, George C. (1983). Intelligence and Espionage: An Analytical Bibliography. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, pp. 389-340

[2] James, William M. (1955). The Eyes of The Navy: A Biographical Study of Admiral Sir Reginald Hall, K.C.M.G., C.B., LL.D., D.C.L. London: Methuen

[3] Tuchman, Barbara W. (1966). The Zimmermann Telegram. New York, Macmillan

[4] Voska, Emmanuel Victor (1940) and William Henry Irwin. Spy And Counter-Spy. New York: Doubleday, Doran. [London: Harrap, 1941].


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