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Jamie Bisher is a graduate of the U.S. Air Force Academy with a Master’s Degree from the University of Maryland. He is currently a Senior Engineering Writer for Northrup Grumman. He has published a number of articles in various magazines, including THE SUBMARINE REVIEW in October of 1997.

Secret Affairs between Predator and Prey

Like the crocodile bird (Pluvianus aegyptius) who earns immunity from its namesake’s jaws by performing a valuable service, at least one neutral passenger ship seems to have bought its own safety by serving as a courier for German naval intelligence during the First World War. It was no benign tradeoff, however, because the peddled information helped German U-boats target other merchant ships for destruction. This strange relation-ship between hunter and prey fostered a bizarre event, no less startling than that of a bird alighting in a crocodile’s mouth.

By spring 1918, the German strategy of unrestricted submarine warfare had been in play for a full year, and not until June 1918 would the hemorrhage of Allied shipping losses be checked when American shipyards could churn out enough new vessels to match the tonnage sunk by the U-boats. In the meantime, German naval intelligence worked feverishly to harvest information about shipping schedules, routes and cargoes, then feed it to operations planners for targeting. A network of intelligence officers, agents, couriers and a nefarious supporting cast of shadowy mercenaries and sympathizers spanned the globe, commanded by major maritime intelligence-gathering centers in New York, Barcelona and Buenos Aires. Their harvests of operationally lucrative tidbits were bountiful, but the short shelf-life of the information meant that it had to be moved to the German Fleet quickly to be useful. Diplomatic pouches and coded telegrams of sympathetic neutral embassies handled much of this information, but a variety of other channels were cultivated to penetrate the Allied blockade.

Two Spanish ships dominated the transatlantic travel of Ger-many’s couriers in South America: S.S. RECNA VICTORIA EUGENIA and S.S. INFANT A ISABEL DE BORBON. American surveillance observed a typical courier transaction on the Buenos Aires waterfront in mid-1918: 110n the arrival of the Spanish S.S. RECNA VICTORIA EUGENIA, a Spaniard employed by the Banco Aleman or some other German bank went on board and received from the Steward a bundle of letters and books.” U.S. intelligence suspected that every white-collared crew member from the captain to the stewards was on the German payroll. As the hunting season on Allied shipping extended into spring 1918, U-boats were said to be rendezvousing with their neutral courier ships at sea, performing a nautical rendition of land-based espionage’s brush pass.

INF ANT A ISABEL was no tramp steamer and was an unlikely candidate to be meeting on the high seas with combatants. She was a new passenger liner of 10,300 gross tons and six decks filled with 250 crewmen and up to 2,000 travelers on each transatlantic leg between Barcelona and Buenos Aires once a month. Like RECNA VICTORIA EUGENIA, she sailed under the flags of neutral Spain and Barcelona’s Compaiiia Trasatlantica Espanola, which allegedly enjoyed a special, secret relationship with the German Admiralty.

This venerable firm had been operating transatlantic service for nearly half a century, and any unholy association with the Kaiser’s navy probably resulted from the strong presence (if not prevalence) of respected German expatriates in the ocean-going commerce industry in Argentina. They were found in every niche-as shipping agents, mariners, merchants, chandlers, bankers and other key positions in management, operations, finance and logistics. The company ran a lucrative passenger trade between Europe and New York, yet it was a thoroughly Spanish institution, and an anti-American grudge may have persisted among some old timers who remembered the Spanish-American War.

Counterintelligence operations of the U.S. War Department’s Military Intelligence Division (M.l.D.) discovered that photographs of”all Allied vessels which arrive at Buenos Aires” were “forwarded by means of Spanish vessels … , especially the INF ANT A ISABEL. This steamer is reported to be stopped regularly by German submarines.” As if this treachery was not horrendous enough, M.l.D. reported, “Spanish vessels are also suspected of sending wireless information to the Germans concerning shipping.”

The Boarding of INF ANT A ISABEL

The INFANTA ISABEL DE BORBON steamed out of Las Pal mas in the Canary Islands about noon on 17 March 1918 and bore northeast toward Spain on her last leg of this transatlantic crossing. About 9 a.m. the next morning, an artillery shell screeched through the air and blasted a plume of water near the liner when she was about 360 miles out from Cadiz. The ship came to a stop, yet the phantom sniper did not come into view for another 45 minutes. Finally a large German submarine-213 feet {65 meters) long-approached, and the captain of FANTA A ISABEL sent over a small boat with his first officer, purser and six sailors as hostages. The purser soon returned with a German boarding party of three officers and twelve men.

The boarding party rendered the liner’s wireless radio inoperative and placed the comms shack under guard. “The Germans examined all the first and second class passengers,” reported the captain after the cruise, checking passports and interviewing travelers with possible ties to the Allied war effort. Passenger George Robertson was brought before two officers for a brief interview. “One was about 50 [years of age], rather stout, height about 5 feet 8 inches with [a] dark beard. The other was about 30, dark, short thin face.” They both spoke “perfect English” and “stated that they were really out for propaganda and to show the Spaniards that they could do what they like with them.”

“On board the INFANT A ISABEL the Germans made themselves quite at home and some of them ordered baths to be prepared for them,” reported witnesses. “They were quite leisurely in their work and when the lunch hour arrived they partook of this meal.” Presumably a German agent (or agents) among the passengers unobtrusively contacted the boarding party during their eight-hour sojourn.

Death Threats, Champagne and the Uruguayan Military Commission

Amongst the passengers the boarding party discovered five officers of the Uruguayan Military Commission to the Allies, Jed by one General Doufrechou. They were taken aboard U-157 where the commander, “a man of about 37 [he was, in fact, 35), tall and fair,” according to Doufrechou, informed the Uruguayans that “he considered that a state of war existed between Uruguay and Ger-many.”

General Doufrechou denied that a state of war existed, although Uruguayan President Feliciano Viera had revoked his country’s neutrality soon after the U.S. declaration of war in the name of inter-American solidarity, then formally severed diplomatic relations with Germany on 7 October 1917, and seized eight German merchant ships in Montevideo harbor. Uruguay feared German mischief on her soil intended to distract the United States from the European conflagration. On 15 February, President Viera had publicly expressed concern that German colonists in southern Brazil were preparing to invade, a possibility genuine enough that Argentina’s stubbornly neutral president, Hipolito Yrigoyen, offered his support.

The submarine commander presented General Doufrechou with “a German Admiralty list showing Peru, Bolivia, Columbia and Uruguay as enemies.” He then gave the Uruguayan officers a choice: to be shot there aboard U-157, or to sign a guarantee that they would remain in Spain and “not go to any Allied country.” They chose the latter, and when they returned to INF ANT A ISABEL struck a “discordant note” with fellow passengers by chivalrously sending over a case of champagne to U-157.

In contrast, the six hostages from the INF ANTA ISABEL received a relatively warm welcome, and U-l 57’s crew even proudly showed them the ultra-modem features of their submarine. “The [INFANTA ISABEL’s] first officer had dinner on board the submarine, champagne and Rhine wines flowing freely,” noted the Spanish captain with a touch of envy. The submarine’s captain showed the first officer “his numerous medals gained for his submarine exploits,” and claimed to have sunk more than 300,000 tons of shipping. A relaxed atmosphere prevailed aboard U-157, which circled shark-like round and round the ship, “coming at times as close as 12 meters.”

Max Valentiner

The tall commander who presented himself to U-157’s reluctant visitors was none other than Kapitanleutnant (Lieutenant Com-mander) Max Ahlmann Valentiner, an illustrious U-boat ace to the Gennan public, a notorious war criminal to the British, Americans and Italians. He was born in the Danish town of Tondem, North Schleswig, then under Prussian occupation, and grew up within earshot of the ocean’s roar after his father, a German, moved the family to the Island of Als in 1890. He had taken the helm of U-38 on 5 December 1914 and was soon preying successfully upon small colliers and Liverpool merchantmen off the Welsh coast. It was a brutal business, shelling unarmed freighters while they futilely raced for their lives until the bloodshed and devastating blasts left them dead in the water, then leaving the frightened survivors to their fate in lifeboats riddled with shrapnel or hanging onto wreckage, if not mercilessly liquidating them to label the kill spurlos versenkt-“sunk without a trace.”

In early November 191 S, Valentiner was ordered to a new patrol area in the Adriatic to begin operations out ofCattaro (present-day Kotor, Montenegro) under the Austro-Hungarian flag. While making its way through the Mediterranean, U-38 encountered the Italian passenger ship ANCONA off Cape Carbonara, Sardinia, and torpedoed and shelled the New York-bound passenger liner, even though Germany was not yet at war with Italy. Some three hundred lives were lost, mostly immigrant women and children bound to join their menfolk in America. Valentiner’s cruelty dominated front pages of the New York Times for a few days, and stirred outrage in the United States, but Austria-Hungary took the blame. Soon after, Valentiner was reviled in the world press for torpedoing the British P & 0 passenger ship S.S. PERSIA on 30 December near Crete, killing 334 passengers, among them “four English nuns bound for Karachi” and Eleanour V. Thornton, “a paragon of beauty on whom was modeled the mascot of the Rolls Royce car radiator.” Off Malta on New Year’s Day 19 I 6 , he destroyed the pride of the Glen Line Fleet, killing I 0 of GLENGYLE’s crew in the process, three days later blasted the freighter COQUET, killing 17 seaman, and so forth.

Through 1916 and 1917, U-38 faced the growing threat of Q-ships, British submarine hunters disguised as the kind of creaking freighters that the Germans usually found to be easy targets. On 11 March 1917, the British S.S. SPRINGWELL was saved from U-38 by Q-ship WONGANELLA. However, Valentiner proved that he was as capable in combat as he was in piracy by sinking Q-ship REMEMBRANCE in the Aegean on 14 August, then armed steamer ZAIDA in the Gulf of Alexandretta three days later. In mid-September 1917, U-38 returned to service under the German flag just before Valentiner turned over his command to Wilhelm Canaris. Valentiner then took the helm of one of the German war machine’s most advanced weapons, unterseekreuzer U-157.

Rare Glimose of an Unterseekreuzer

As soon as the INF ANT A ISABEL DE BORBON pulled into Cadiz, word of her stopping spread through the port to the ears of James Sanderson, the U.S. Consular Agent. American maritime and intelligence professionals were as thrilled as they were shocked by the stopping of INF ANT A ISABEL. The incident provided a rare glimpse of Germany’s new class of ocean-going predator, the unterseekreuzer-undersea cruiser. These boats had evolved from the unarmed submarine freighter DEUTSCHLAND-now the well-armed U-151-which had called in Baltimore and New London amid much fanfare during summer 1916. Early in the afternoon of 20 March, Sanderson promptly telephoned Seville to advise American consul Wilbur Gracey. Sanderson hustled to assemble a summary of the incident and even rounded up a photograph of the submarine, which he forwarded in a report to Gracey later the same day.

Just as quickly, naval intelligence Agent S. 7 interviewed a variety of crew members and passengers to put together a report for the American naval attache in Madrid. The captain of the INF ANT A ISABEL seemed reluctant to give Agent S. 7 any information, but did relate that Valentiner claimed to have been at sea in U-157 for seven months, and numerous other tidbits. One Uruguayan officer told the American agent that he had counted six to eight torpedoes and had seen two inoperable quick-firers [naval guns] in the interior of the submarine, but General Doufrechou provided the richest description:

Painted white, but worn and patches of rust show-ing … Guns, two fifteen-centimeter Krupps, 1917 model…Large telescope mounted on a raised plat-form near the conning tower. Wireless gear from conning tower to stem … The crew consisted of eight officers, including the first engineer and a doctor and 72 men … The second officer wore short s ide whiskers and spoke English fluently. A first lieu-tenant had two wound scars … They were very leisurely in everything they did in the submarine, and seemed to keep nothing secret.

The INFANTA ISABEL’s first officer was even allowed to peer through “a new telescopic apparatus … which is of immense power,” and was amazed at the magnification, which allowed the viewer to distinguish the flag of a ship on the horizon. “Further, that they had a new apparatus for sighting the guns which was most precise, and … an arrangement of Frahm tanks [an advanced mechanism for reducing roll motion] which gave a very steady gun platform.” Even U-157’s sleeping arrangements caused comment: “Everything on board is worked electrically, even the beds, which, on pressing a button, disappear into the wall.”

Via the Marconi Inspector at Cadiz, Agent S. 7 learned from the INF ANT A ISABEL’S talkative wireless operator of U-l 57’s impressive modem communications station. “The submarine worked on 2-kilowatt power, and they said that they were able by air pressure, to raise their wireless masts to a height of 3 5 meters and had direct communication with Nauen [the German Fleet communications center].”

Soon after INFANTA ISABEL left U-157, the ship’s radio room picked up a message from the wireless station on the Canary Islands warning that another Spanish ship had been torpedoed nearby. Indeed, Valentiner told the hostages that “there were 8 submarines operating in the vicinity.” The flotilla included U-152, U-153 and U-154, among others.

James Sanderson and Agent S. 7 were busy again on 21 March when the Spanish S.S. MONTEVIDEO unexpectedly returned to Cadiz after having left for New York three days prior. The MONTEVIDEO had been stopped by U-157 soon after Valentiner released the INFANTA ISABEL. “After examining the MONTEVIDEO’s manifest, [Valentiner] declared that more than 1 ,200 tons of the cargo on board, or say about 80 percent, was contraband of war, and that the vessel should by rights be sunk,” noted Sanderson’s report of the incident. Valentiner then proposed putting a 15-man prize crew on board and sending her to Germany, but was allegedly talked out of it by MONTEVIDEO’s captain. “As justification of the Captain’s action in coming back to port, the submarine commander wrote out and gave to the Captain… a document setting forth the circumstances .. .,” Sanderson continued. Valentiner’s permission slip for MONTEVIDEO was strange behavior indeed for a pirate with such a ruthless reputation.


A few weeks after Valentiner’s rendezvous with INFANTA ISABEL, U-151 left Kiel on 14 April 1918, for a return voyage to America under the command of Heinrich von Nostitz und Jiinckendorff. He terrorized the East Coast of the United States for several weeks, laying mines off Baltimore harbor and across Delaware Bay in late May, seizing schooners by night for extra provisions, cutting overseas telegraph lines on the sea bottom, and sank 23 ships (61,000 tons) in total. U-151 was replaced by U-156 in July, then U-140, U-117 and U-155 took turns stalking the western Atlantic into October, destroying scores of unwary American ships.

Valentiner had made a prophetic statement to an officer of the INF ANT A ISABEL back in March: “The Commander of the submarine manifested to the Spanish officer left on board as hostage that before the end of the year, peace would be signed with France.” Unfortunately for Valentiner and company, his prophecy turned out to be true. He had turned over command of U-157 four months before the Armistice occurred on 11 November. U-157 was interned at Trondheim, Norway, until its formal surrender to the French on 8 February 1919. She was broken up at Brest in July 1921.

Ironically, INF ANT A ISABEL DE BORBON was renamed URUGUAY in 1931, despite her treachery to that country’s military mission during the Great War. Likewise, her sister ship, the REINA VICTORlA, was renamed ARGENTINA in 1931. Both were bombed and sunk during the Spanish Civil War, refloated in 1939, and scrapped in 1940 and 1945, respectively.

Max Valentiner returned to his family home in S0nderborg after World War II, died of heart disease in the local hospital on 19 June 1949, and was buried’ in the cemetery of St. Marie Church there.


CAPT Tracy Monroe Kosoff, USN(Ret.)
CAPT Stephen Logue, USN(Ret.)
CAPT Bruce L. Bullough, USN(Ret.)
RAOM Thomas M. Hopkins, USN(Ret.)
CAPT William F. Ramsey, USN(Ret.)
CAPT Jack Sabol, USN(Ret.)
CAPT Clarence “C.C.” Brock, Jr., USN(Ret.)
CAPT Gary Bethke, USNR(Ret.)

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