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Baltimore, Maryland played an important role in German war strategy before the United States plunged into WWI in April 1917.Dwight Messimer’s fascinating book, The Baltimore Sabotage Cell—German Agents, American Traitors and the U-Boat Deutschland during World War I, illuminates how disparate German war objectives found an unlikely common node in Baltimore. The core stories are familiar to WWI historians:Baltimore saboteurs, anthrax smugglers, spies and the commercial submarine U-Deutschland. But Messimer reveals some amazing new details that will rekindle fascination in these old familiar cases, dispels a few mysteries along the way, and, most of all, shares his unique expertise and analysis of Germany’s commercial submarine program.

In spring 1915, Germany launched two innovative projects in Baltimore.One project aimed to disrupt the Allies’ transatlantic supply lines, the other aimed to evade the tight Allied blockade.Interestingly, one native-born Baltimorean, Paul Hilken, was given responsibility for both projects by separate intelligence organizations in Berlin.Hilken, a graduate of Lehigh University and MIT, was the operations director of North German Lloydshipping lines (known by its German acronym NDL), a prominent position in the bustling port until the British blockade brought his operations to an abrupt halt in autumn 1914.Despite his US citizenship, Hilken was probably already involved with the German Navy’s secret logistics and intelligence network, the Etappendienst, at the time of the Sarajevo assassination.Within a year, he was the go-to man in the mid-Atlantic states for at least two overseas German intelligence organizations, responsible for multiple projects while maintaining his image as a upstanding, middle class businessman.

On behalf of the Secret Service of the Army General Staff, Hilken became overseer and paymaster of one of the most dangerous sabotage networks in the Americas.Its tentacles spread through the Midwest and helped spread mayhem and intrigue as far away as Buenos Aires and Tokyo. Messimer relates fascinating and coherent narratives that weave in new details about meetings in Berlin, destructive road-trips through the Midwest, and many other episodes.He describes the people, places and targets that were critical to the network’s success in sabotage, and does not ignore their talents in fomenting strikes, setting up phony unions, transferring cash and anthrax to other cities,and other nefarious activities.

However, this book’s richest contribution to WWI and submarine history is about the commercial submarine program—Germany’s long-shot hope to evade the British blockade.Messimer lays out the program from conception to termination in exquisite detail:financing, construction, manning, and the silent industry partnership with the German Admiralty that makes it clear that commercial was a misnomer that applied only to most of the submarine’s cargo.Paul Hilken spearheaded United States operations for the project with the zeal and determination expected of an experienced NDL director, Etappendienst operative and German patriot.Messimer dissects Hilken’s extensive preparations and aggressive operations security in both Baltimore and New London, Connecticut, as well as Hilken’s many public relations failures.He also spotlights Captain Paul Koenig and fleshes out every officer of the U-Deutschl and crew and other principal figures.

Messimer’s descriptions of the submarine’s features and many foibles—including a number of dangerous design flaws—show how successful German disinformation was in shaping US intelligence perceptions. If only US analysts had known of the utter misery and perils that the commercial submarine crews faced on their voyages to become feted celebrities in Baltimore and Kiel in 1916…The US public and some intelligence officials fell for the Germans’ tales of nonchalantly cruising in comfort under the sea, champagne glass in hand.

The Baltimore Sabotage Cell is an easy read that explains complex technical issues in terms that liberal arts majors should find enlightening.It is chronological—18 chapters, 2 appendices and extensive notes and bibliography, and 35 rare photos.The epilogue looks at the lives of the vessels and people involved in the commercial submarine and US sabotage episodes, and adds a fascinating chapter about post-war U-Deutschland souvenirs, artifacts, relics and counterfeits.

Dwight S. Messimer is an engaging storyteller and gifted engineering analyst who brings the story alive whether it is transpiring onboard a submarine, at the docks in Baltimore or Kiel, or in the shadows where conspirators and saboteurs whispered.Ironically Messimer is an Army veteran who lives on the West Coast.But he is also the author of at least ten other books on military and naval history, several about the WWI era and submarines, including Find and Destroy:Antisubmarine Warfare in World War I,and Verschollen:World War I U-Boat Losses. Messimer also had a hand in writing The U.S. Navy in World War I:Combat at Sea and in the Air.The Baltimore Sabotage Cell expands upon Messimer’s 1988 book The Merchant U-Boat:Adventures of the Deutschland, 1916-1918.

Messimer’s passion for the subject, impressive knowledge of WWI submarine engineering, operations and warfare, and talent for crafting nitty-gritty descriptions mixed with insightful analysis and expert technical breakdowns make The Baltimore Sabotage Cell a rich resource brimming with new details and insight about subjects long considered settled.

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