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For immediate use Jan. 21, 1999 – No. 48


UNC-CH historian, dean discovers German spy sank U.S.S. San Diego

UNC-CH News Services

CHAPEL HILL – On July 19, 1918, following an explosion, water poured through a hole in the U.S.S. San Diego’s hull and in just 15 minutes sank the 503-foot battle cruiser 11 miles off Long Island as it steamed toward Europe. Six of the 1,114 sailors aboard died.

Eighty years later, a University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill historian poured through a stack of formerly classified Russian papers and in a few hours solved the lingering mystery of what happened to the ship. German agent Kurt Jahnke planted a bomb in U.S.S. San Diego’s boiler room that ripped open her steel plates and sent the 13,680-ton vessel 115 feet to the sea floor.

"Until now, the U.S. Navy wasn’t certain whether a boiler exploded and sank the ship by accident, whether it hit a mine or whether a bomb was aboard," said Dr. Russell Van Wyk, lecturer in history and assistant arts and sciences dean. "Now we believe we know what really happened."

Advancing Russian troops captured Jahnke and his wife Johanne-Dorothe at their home in Germany in 1945. Agents of the Russian counterespionage organization Smersh, which means "Death to Spies," tortured, interrogated and later apparently executed the couple.

Before his death, Jahnke gave the Russians much information about his activities in the United States, Germany and Russia. Working through the Moscow State Institute of International Relations, former KGB Vice General Sergei Kondrashev helped Van Wyk gain access to records detailing Jahnke’s activities in the United States and Western Europe, but not against the Soviet Union. The scholar was allowed information denied to others partly because he helped arrange faculty and student exchanges between Russia and this country and became friends with Kondrashev.

A report on Van Wyk’s discovery will appear in the winter issue of Endeavors, UNC-CH’s research magazine. He also will write an article about it for a history journal.

"Approximately during 1917, I with the help of my agents managed to organize diversionary acts on 14 American steamers," Jahnke told his interrogators. "As a result of these diversions, all the steamers were sunk."

The spy also helped provoke a dock strike in San Francisco that eventually spread to other western U.S. ports, said Van Wyk, who could not discover the names of other U.S. vessels sunk. After World War I, the agent worked as a military political adviser, spied against England and the United States, and sabotaged French occupation activities in Germany’s industrial Rhur region.

Jahnke continued his espionage into the '20s and '30s, according to Van Wyk. After Germany declared war on Poland, the spy was drafted and appointed by chief of German intelligence Admiral Canaris to head intelligence for the Brandenburg special designation regiment’s 800th battalion.

The Russians learned that Jahnke directed penetration of the enemy’s front lines by small groups dressed in Russian uniforms to sabotage communications and otherwise disrupt the enemy. He was dismissed in 1940, he said, possibly because of his "negative attitude" toward Hitler’s foreign policy and Gestapo efforts to control intelligence operations.

"I began this work under UNC European history expert Gerhard Weinberg and continued to pursue it after receiving my doctorate because I thought it was an intriguing puzzle," Van Wyk said. "Jahnke was the central figure, the operational mastermind, of German efforts to sabotage the United States’ effort during World War I."

Besides planting explosives aboard ships, Jahnke and his agents infected horses and mules with anthrax before the animals were shipped to Europe to help move supplies.

German and Russian records are often more useful to historians than U.S. records because less information is obscured by censors, Van Wyk said. Having friendly contacts with Russian officials is particularly useful because they can cut red tape and make files available that are not given to just anyone.

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Note: Van Wyk can be reached at (919) 962-3972 or 962-9274 (w) or 388-7950 (h).

Contact: David Williamson, 962-8596.