From Publishers Weekly: "Devotees of cloak-and-dagger intrigue will revel in this thrilling and complex account."
On January 30, 1918, Lothar Witzke, the most dangerous German agent in the western hemisphere had reached his destination. His mission: to destroy American defense plants, organize strikes in critical industries, and at a time of intense racial unrest, to incite an insurrection among the southern black citizenry. He was to begin the campaign of terror by murdering a U.S. intelligence officer in cold blood.
On January 16th Witzke and several confederates departed Mexico City for the U.S. border. After crossing 1500 miles of rugged territory, encountering bandits and other hazards along the way, Witzke reached Nogales. But unknown to the saboteur-assassin, the German espionage network in Mexico had been penetrated by Allied intelligence and one of his companions was a double agent. Captured by U.S. Army intelligence and tried before a military court-martial, Lothar Witzke became the only enemy agent sentenced to death in the United States during World War 1.
The Witzke mission was the intelligence game played at its highest level - a plan for destruction on a massive scale, violent insurrection, and assassination, complete with master spies and double agents, diabolical sabotage devices, secret codes, and invisible ink. Meticulously researched and written in the style of an adventure novel, Agent of the Iron Cross is the first detailed account of this legendary espionage operation.
Author/historian Bill Mills writes about twentieth-century clandestine operations and espionage history. He is the author of The League: The True Story of Average Americans on the Hunt for World War I Spies, Treacherous Passage: Germany’s Secret Plot Against the United States in Mexico during World War I, and The Estrada Plot: How the FBI Captured a Secret Army and Stopped the Invasion of Mexico. He lives in Concord, MA.
1 Escape from Valparaiso
2 The Most Deadly Sabotage Team in History
3 “You Will Have to Kill Him First. He’s in Our Way.”
4 “I Am Mr. Butcher’s Man!”
5 “Get Down and Hang On!”
6 Placed Together, the Two Scraps of Paper Read: “novia”
7 Crossing the Line
8 Breaking the Code
9 The Court-Martial of Lothar Witzke
10 The Jailbreak of Lothar Witzke
11 “Every Activity Is to Be Suspended . . .”
Historian Mills tracks Imperial Germany’s clandestine operations across the U.S. during WWI in this gripping saga. When war broke out in Europe, the Germans deployed spies to sabotage U.S. cargo ships carrying armaments and supplies to Allied nations. Two such agents were ex-U.S. marine Kurt Jahnke and former German sea cadet Lothar Witzke, who led “the most deadly sabotage team in history,” according to Mills. In 1914, the saboteurs nearly sank the world’s largest cargo ship, the SS Minnesota, by tampering with the boilers. The two plotters also carried out the 1916 nighttime explosion of the munitions depot on Black Tom Island in New York harbor (shrapnel from which pummeled the Statue of Liberty). Once the U.S. joined the war, Jahnke took charge of all German espionage operations on the American continent, which included assassination plots and a planned insurrection. Jahnke remained free at war’s end; Witzke had been caught and remained jailed until 1923 when he was released as “the last prisoner of war” being held by the Americans. Both were active German intelligence agents during WWII. Drawing from a painstakingly gathered collection of government records (including Witzke’s court-martial trial transcript, discovered by chance at a used bookshop), Mills documents these events with extensive detail. Devotees of cloak-and-dagger intrigue will revel in this thrilling and complex account.
This story could not be made up. That is how bizarre it is, and the reader will not be able to put this book down. Most impressive is the author’s easy-to-understand description of the highly complicated deciphering process of Witzke’s code, not a small feat. Agent of the Iron Cross is a masterpiece of a historical tale. It reads like a novel, while uncovering hitherto unknown history, and satisfying highest scholarly standards.
This is the brilliantly told, fast-paced story of “the most deadly sabotage team in history” as they carried out a campaign of terror on America and the exploits of the men brave enough to stop them. It’s a story as compelling and relevant today as it was then.
The most resourceful, inventive, and outright dashing covert operator of World War I, Lothar Witzke continually evaded capture and ultimately cheated death. What Manfred von Richthofen was among German combat aviators during the Great War, Witzke was among German spies and saboteurs. He demands and deserves to be better known—and so do those who made it their mission to run him to ground once and for all. William B. Mills has cast a fascinating light on a most obscure corner of a cataclysmic war that, having largely receded from the popular memory, is for ample reason coming to seem increasingly relevant to our experience today.
Bill Mills is on the trail, tracking spies across three continents to craft a remarkable story of espionage, disinformation, and terror. Based on years of research and written with a novelist’s skill, Agent of the Iron Cross offers forgotten heroes, unforgettable villains, and a fresh new take on the First World War.