8 Attempts of Sabotage that Tried to Change the World As We Know It

8 Attempts of Sabotage that Tried to Change the World As We Know It

Larry Holzwarth - November 20, 2017

The word sabotage has been apocryphally linked to the act of throwing wooden shoes – known as sabots – into machinery in order to stop its proper operation. In fact sabotage is a French word which refers to the act of treading heavily, making noise as one walks. While this would imply that sabotage is an act which generates attention such an inference is only partially true. An act of sabotage properly executed is difficult and sometimes impossible to detect, leaving behind evidence which points to accident or neglect as the likely culprit leading to the destruction of a target.

Sabotage as a weapon of war is an act which can and often does lead to the execution of its perpetrators as spies. This fact has not deterred acts of sabotage as often resorted to methods of attacking an enemy. It can be as simple as omitting certain steps in the manufacture of war materials (often resorted to by slave labor working for German arms manufacturers during the Second World War, an improperly loaded shell fired by Bismarck failed to explode, likely preventing the sinking of HMS Prince of Wales at the Battle of the Denmark Straits) or an overt, dramatic operation which leads to the open destruction of assets deemed of strategic value. Sabotage has been used outside of war operations, sometimes applied in labor or political disputes. Today, sabotage can be a product of cyberattacks, damaging infrastructure or financial operations as a means of harming ones enemy.

8 Attempts of Sabotage that Tried to Change the World As We Know It
Although officially labeled an accident many believe that the burning of the Normandie was an act of sabotage perpetrated by Lucky Luciano. Dictionary of Naval Fighting Ships

Here are eight known examples of the use or suspected use of sabotage as a means of striking a blow against the enemy.

8 Attempts of Sabotage that Tried to Change the World As We Know It
Shattered warehouses and piers attest to the violence of the Black Tom Explosion near Jersey City. US Army Signal Corps

Black Tom. 1916

Black Tom was a man-made island in New York Harbor adjacent to Liberty Island, a little over 25 acres in area, maintained and governed by Jersey City, New Jersey in 1915. The island was connected to the mainland by a railroad over a causeway, upon which arms manufacturers shipped their wares to the island for sale and lading aboard merchant vessels. Until 1915 it was possible for merchants from any nation to purchase weapons and munitions openly; a change in war conditions which led to the British Naval Blockade of Germany limited the sale of such war materials to ships of the Allied Powers that year.

It also led to Germany retaliating against the United States for providing support to England and the other nations allied against the Kaiser. Not yet ready to declare open warfare against the United States nor unlimited submarine warfare against shipping, the Germans dispatched undercover agents to the Americas with the expressed intent of performing acts of espionage and sabotage to disrupt the flow of war materials to Europe.

Among the agents working for Germany was a Slovakian US Army veteran named Michael Kristoff. Kristoff recruited security guards at the Black Tom site to assist him, all of the conspirators working under the direction of the German Ambassador to the United States, Graf Johann von Bernstorff. Using a type of bomb developed by German intelligence operators known as a pencil bomb (or cigar bomb when disguised as such) German operatives penetrated the Black Tom site and placed their explosives in a huge shipment of small arms ammunition and artillery shells waiting to be loaded onto vessels which would carry it to Imperial Russia, then still fighting Germany.

The Germans set a series of small and relatively harmless fires on nearby piers on the night of July 30, 1916, probably as a diversion which allowed their agents to install the bombs where they would inflict the most harm. The explosion which occurred around 2.00 AM was violent enough to be heard and felt in Maryland, where initially earthquakes were reported.

The Statue of Liberty was damaged sufficiently to cause the torch to be closed to the public, not to be reopened until 1986. At least four people were killed in the explosion, which was soon linked by the press to saboteurs from Germany, the Irish Republican Army, and other groups. Today Black Tom is an island no more, linked by landfill to Jersey City as part of the Liberty Park complex. Germany, although not admitting guilt, finally paid reparations for the damages to the United States in 1979.

8 Attempts of Sabotage that Tried to Change the World As We Know It
The complete nature of the destruction of the Kingsland facility is evident. International Film Service

Kingsland Explosion. 1917

In January 1917 the United States remained officially neutral as World War I dragged on in Europe. Manufacturers in the United States and Canada were allowed to continue to sell war materials to the nations allied against Germany and the Central Powers, an activity which both exasperated the Germans and inspired them to action against the North American nations. German agents worked within the borders of the United States, and many fires, train derailings, shipboard accidents, and other catastrophes occurred which popular sentiment believed were the result of nefarious activities by German saboteurs. Often official investigations revealed no plausible link to the activity of German – or any other agents – and left the cause of the event unexplained. One such case was the Kingsland Explosion which occurred on January 11, 1917.

The Montreal based Canadian Car and Foundry Company was contracted with Czarist Russia to provide badly needed ammunition, and to expedite shipment built a large manufacturing facility in the New Jersey wetlands known as The Meadowlands. On the night of January 11 a fire started on or near a workbench which was the normal work station for an employee named Theodore Wozniak.

The fire began in an area where 3 inch explosive shells were cleaned using gasoline as the cleaning agent. In less than four hours the entire plant was destroyed by the fire. Over a half million shells which had been intended for use by the Russians were detonated. Investigators in the aftermath of the fire were quick to learn of its point of origin and let Wozniak’s supervisors know that the worker – and former Austrian army member – would be needed for questioning. Wozniak by then had disappeared.

The German government officially claimed to have no knowledge of the causes of the fire, nor of Mr. Wozniak, and an official investigation which was completed in 1931 found no concrete evidence linking the government of the Kaiser, by then long deposed, with an act of sabotage against a supposedly neutral nation. It was generally accepted that Wozniak set the fire deliberately, but no evidence linked him to known German sabotage and espionage activities.

Legal actions against Germany which began in 1934 and lasted well into the 1950s disagreed, establishing legal culpability by the Germans and demanding they pay reparations. In return for not admitting guilt, West Germany agreed to pay $50 million in reparations.

8 Attempts of Sabotage that Tried to Change the World As We Know It
Part of the surviving Eddystone Complex was absorbed by Remington Arms following the explosion. Wikimedia

Eddystone Powder Plant Explosion, 1917

In 1916 the Eddystone Ammunition Company built a manufacturing plant near Chester Pennsylvania for the purpose of making artillery shells for the Russian government. In April 1917, less than a week following the entry of the United States into World War I, one of the plant’s buildings was leveled by a massive explosion which killed more than 130 workers at the facility, nearly all of them women and girls.

The facility had contained nearly twenty tons of black powder used to make fuses for artillery shells. The series of explosions were felt over a radius of ten miles, and bodies of some victims were found floating in the Delaware River, several miles from the site of the factory.

Two sources of potential sabotage were immediately identified, and the company combed its records of recently hired employees to look for suspects. German agents were suspected due to relatively recent industrial “accidents” at other companies but a new possible culprit – Russian Bolsheviks – were also considered to be plausible. Russia had but recently fallen into near anarchy as the result of its revolution and the fact that the plant was assembling shells which would fall into the hands of troops fighting to quell the revolutionary forces against the Czar was considered to be a suitable motive for sabotage.

With the United States now at war the plant was quickly rebuilt to supply artillery shells to the rapidly expanding US Army and its allies in Europe. When the facility reopened it was with a newly enacted rule against hiring workers of German descent, somewhat problematic in the region of Pennsylvania where German immigrants had long made their homes.

Numerous arrests were made in the aftermath of the explosion, mostly of German immigrants or sailors, but nobody was ever convicted of causing the explosion, and decades later Russian anarchists were considered by investigators to be the most likely culprits. The nation was soon distracted by news from the Western Front and the cause of the Eddystone Explosion was never officially determined.

8 Attempts of Sabotage that Tried to Change the World As We Know It
Hopewell Virginia was devastated by suspected – but never proven – sabotage in 1915. The Progress

Hopewell, Virginia 1915

In 1912 the E.I DuPont de Nemours Company purchased land near City Point, Virginia for the purpose of building a factory to make dynamite, later expanding their holdings to manufacture guncotton. Guncotton is highly explosive and dangerous to store, but is a far more efficient means than black powder for propelling shells from large guns. The nearby town of Hopewell Virginia became a boom town as the result of the DuPont facilities.

By 1915 the town was peopled by more than 25,000 and the guncotton plant was the largest such facility in the world. That same year a sudden, massive fire destroyed the town, consuming more than 300 homes and other buildings. The DuPont facilities emerged unscathed from the catastrophe, but recurrent explosions and other accidents at DuPont factories around the nation created the suspicion that the company was the target of a sabotage campaign.

In December 1915 authorities in New Jersey arrested Jacob Swoboda, a former employee of the DuPont Company who told investigators that he was a French citizen. The same investigators later unearthed evidence that he was in fact German. Swoboda had left the DuPont Company in the wake of increased security precautions being put in place, rendering him of interest due to his possessing an extensive record of arrests and imprisonment.

Searches of his apartment uncovered a large stash of guncotton, dynamite, black powder, and nitroglycerin. An extensive correspondence in both French and German was also discovered and although investigators believed the papers to contain coded messages they were unable to decipher the code.

Swoboda claimed that he was in possession of the explosive materials as part of his personal investigation into unsafe working conditions within DuPont’s plants, and the authorities were unable to uncover any evidence to refute his assertions. Another man suspected of being a German spy and known to be an acquaintance of Swoboda’s was arrested in the aftermath of the Hopwell fire, but beyond their knowing each other investigators were unable to establish a connection between the two.

Swoboda was released when it was learned that he had served with US Volunteers during the Spanish-American War, probably under the alias Louis Hartman, and vanished from history. The cause and extent of the Hopewell fire was never fully explained.

8 Attempts of Sabotage that Tried to Change the World As We Know It
Found guilty of espionage and sabotage during the Battle of the Bulge, three German soldiers face execution in late 1944. Wikipedia

Operation Greif 1944

Operation Greif was conducted by units of the German Army to disrupt American command, control, and communication during the winter offensive which came to be known as the Battle of the Bulge. Eventually nearly 2,500 German troops were outfitted with American or British military equipment and uniforms, tasked with infiltrating American lines and operating behind them, conducting both overt and covert operations against the Americans.

It was hoped that their operations would both disrupt American military activities and severely damage morale. In the event, 44 German soldiers were sent behind American lines, conducting sabotage, espionage, and covert attacks on American communications as the German attack began.

Commanded by Otto Skorzeny, the Germans were highly successful in creating confusion, and in some cases outright panic, behind the Allied lines. Even after being captured by GIs, some of the Germans were successful in creating rumors which grew to attain such credence that they disrupted the personal plans of senior American officers. Dwight Eisenhower was forced into secure seclusion for Christmas of 1944 by rumors created by the Germans that a plan was underfoot to kidnap the allied commander.

This plan was given additional support due to the belief that it was headed by Skorzeny, who had previously successfully rescued Mussolini in a daring and well known raid. British Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery was temporarily held by US soldiers after he failed to properly identity himself, an act which enraged the haughty Montgomery and reportedly vastly amused Eisenhower.

German troops who destroyed communication facilities, bridges, and ammunition dumps performed these acts while wearing American uniforms, a violation of the rules of warfare, and when caught were tried as spies and saboteurs by military tribunals. Sixteen were shot as spies. The actual field commander for Operation Greif, Gunther Schulz, was executed by firing squad in June 1945 and Skorzeny was tried as a war criminal at Dachau for the crime of ordering his troops to fight while wearing American uniforms, as well as other crimes. He was acquitted. Operation Greif was only successful in the early phases of the Battle of the Bulge, the Americans were quickly aware of saboteurs and spies in their midst and once onto them, efficiently managed to root them out.

8 Attempts of Sabotage that Tried to Change the World As We Know It
Motorized Vessel Krait, seized by the British and disguised as a Japanese fishing boat, near Darwin, Australia. Australian War Memorial

Operation Jaywick. 1943

Operation Jaywick was primarily developed by the British Special Operations Executive, using among the personnel responsible for its success British officers who had escaped from the Japanese when the latter occupied Singapore in 1942. Since that time Japanese shipping operated in and out of Singapore harbor with relative impunity. Jaywick was planned as an attack on the ships in the harbor, rather than on the port facilities themselves, as a means of maximizing shock to the Japanese.

The plan was conceived by British Captain Ivan Lyon, who envisioned using a captured Japanese fishing vessel to penetrate the harbor, after which small canoes would branch out to attack the ships in port with limpet mines. Limpet mines were small explosives which attached to the hull of vessels, detonated by a timer.

The raid was launched from Australia’s Exmouth Gulf in September 1943, with the British and Australian saboteurs disguising themselves as Japanese fishermen by staining their skin with dyes. To ensure that their presence wasn’t betrayed by the appearance of western products appearing as refuse in the water, they consumed only foods usual to the Japanese. By late September the raiders were in place in Singapore Harbor and on the night of the 26, after establishing a hiding place ashore they attached limpet mines to seven vessels, following which they returned to their lair. The mines sank or severely damaged the ships to which they had been attached and the attackers escaped in the confusion following the explosions, of which the Japanese were unable to determine the source. All 14 of the raiders returned safely to Australia.

The Japanese refused to accept the fact that a raiding party could approach the bastion of Singapore undetected by their fleet or air force. They concluded that the raid must have been the result of local Malay saboteurs allied with Chinese guerrillas and responded with an immediate purge. Numerous arrests were made and suspects were tortured and executed and when the Japanese reprisals failed to yield results, POWs were added to the list of suspects.

The British and Australian governments elected not to announce the resounding success of the raid in the hopes of conducting similar operations in the future, adding to the Japanese determination that the raid was of a local nature. In the end, 39,000 tons of shipping was destroyed by Operation Jaywick, and although none of the raiders were captured, uncounted Malay, Chinese, and other innocent suspects were killed by the enraged Japanese.

8 Attempts of Sabotage that Tried to Change the World As We Know It
The US Military Tribunal weighs the fate of eight Nazi would-be saboteurs in the summer of 1942. US Army Signal Corps

Operation Pastorius, 1942

Operation Pastorius was conceived by the German High Command and Abwehr as a means of conducting coordinated sabotage operations against targets in the United States after American entry into World War II. Eight Germans were recruited for the operation, all of whom had lived in the United States or had traveled extensively there, and two of whom were United States citizens.

The Germans created deep and detailed backgrounds for each, trained them in the use of the tools of sabotage, and selected targets for them to destroy. All eight were subjected to the practice of immersion, in which they conversed only in English, read only English literature and periodicals, listened to English radio, and studied American mannerisms. Among the targets selected were railroad yards and critical sections of track which would be difficult to repair, locks crucial to navigation on the Ohio River, and several aluminum manufacturing plants.

The Germans were landed in the United States by U-boat in two groups, one on Long Island and the other in Florida. The two teams were scheduled to meet, after roundabout travel to dispel any possible trail, in Cincinnati Ohio on July 4. The plan was to coordinate the sabotage attacks at multiple points for greater effect.

When the Long Island team was detected shortly after landing by the US Coast Guard, one of the team members, George Dasch, convinced another member, Ernst Burger, to report the entire operation to the FBI. Initially the FBI was skeptical of the entire story, only the revelation of a large sum of US dollars in cash – provided by the Abwehr to fund the operations – were they convinced of the validity of the story. The remaining saboteurs were quickly rounded up.

By early August all eight of the German would be saboteurs were tried by a military tribunal – after President Roosevelt decided that a civilian court may not assign deep enough gravity to their potential crimes, none of which had been committed yet – and found guilty. All were sentenced to death as spies and six were executed by electrocution in the District of Columbia jail on August 8. FDR commuted the sentences of Dasch and Burger for revealing the plot, and President Truman released both in 1948 and deported them to Germany, where they were regarded as traitors.

8 Attempts of Sabotage that Tried to Change the World As We Know It
The terrain surrounding the Vemork Chemical Plant made bombing it from the air difficult. Wikipedia

Operation Grouse. 1942

In the early days of World War II, German scientists and engineers cast covetous eyes on Norwegian stocks of heavy water, produced by Norwegian industry and crucial to the development of both nuclear power and nuclear weapons. German seizure of Norway in 1940 gave the Germans access to this critical material and the British were aware of the need to disrupt the supply to the German atomic weapons research, helped by prodding from the Americans.

Most Norwegian heavy water was produced near the town of Rjukan by the Vemork Chemical Plant. Heavy bombers were ineffective in striking the plant due to prevailing weather conditions and the defenses of the German Luftwaffe. The only feasible means of crippling the Norwegian heavy water production was through sabotage of the plant.

Special Operations Executive (SOE) began training a team for insertion into Norway for the purpose of destroying the plant in 1942. The Norwegian team would land in Norway and prepare a landing strip for a glider delivering special equipment and British Commandos, who would then strike at the plant. Both the terrain and the toughness of the German mountain troops in place to defend the plant made the likelihood of success slim. A first strike by British commandos was defeated by bad luck, bad weather, and the Waffen SS, in November 1942. A second group, which was planned to coordinate with the first failed mission, was even less fortunate. Seven commandos were killed when their glider crash landed, the rest were captured by the Germans.

All of the captured commandos were tortured and eventually shot by either Gestapo or SS agents, but not until maps and other papers were obtained by the Germans, which revealed the identities of several Norwegian resistance fighters and others working with the British.

As an act of sabotage Operation Grouse was an abysmal failure, as an act of espionage it was a catastrophe. Still, the initial team of Norwegians the British had trained to pave the way for the commandos survived and in 1943 they contributed to the successful bombing by sabotage of the Vemork plant, which led to later targeted bombings by British fliers, and severely limited the company’s ability to provide heavy water to the German research program.