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