A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

Did loose lips actually sink any ships?

October 8, 2010

Dear Cecil:

I ran across the phrase "loose lips sink ships" on the sports page the other day (in some article about Twittering athletes harming their teams). I know this was part of a WWII propaganda campaign to keep civilians from talking about troop movements and shipping schedules. But did loose lips actually sink any ships? That is to say, did the loss of an Allied vessel ever directly result from inadvertent civilian disclosure of military secrets? A difficult question, but that's why there's a Cecil.

Cecil replies:

Huh. And all this time everybody's been blaming my mom and dad.

Concern about maritime blabbermouths arose in Britain during World War I when enemy U-boats started going after merchant ships. And with good reason — Britain was awash in German spies, or at any rate suspected spies. By the end of the war British counterintelligence was reading the mail and cables of more than 13,500 individuals. While this undoubtedly reflected wartime paranoia to an extent, authorities turned up enough evidence to try 31 alleged spies between 1914 and 1917 and deport 1,700 suspicious characters.

A primary goal of German espionage early in the war was finding out about ship movements, and eavesdropping on dockside scuttlebutt was the best way to do that, given the primitive technology of the day. Some notable cases:

  • Dutch national Haicke Janssen posed as a traveling cigar salesman, hanging out around the docks in Southampton to spy on ship movements and sending the information to German intelligence encoded in the form of sizable cigar orders destined for naval ports — this despite the fact that naval ports weren't known as hotbeds of cigar consumption. Another Dutch "cigar salesman," Willem Roos, sent similar orders from Edinburgh. Neither Janssen nor Roos had any inside information or access to military documents; they relied entirely on what they could see and hear. The two men were executed as spies in 1915. (For Janssen it was a short visit; he'd been in the country only two and a half months.)
  • Ernst Waldemar Melin, a Swede, was recruited by the Germans to, as he later put it, "go to the ports round England and Scotland and try to find out what I can." Provided with a code book and trained in naval identification, he sent letters to his superiors containing secret messages written in lemon juice, an espionage technique so sophisticated it’s been used by schoolchildren for generations. He was caught and executed in 1916.
  • Peruvian Ludovico Hurwitz-y-Zender was also recruited by the Germans to report on ship movements. Posing as a merchant and sending messages coded as commercial orders, he was found out when he started ordering large quantities of sardines, which were out of season at the time. He too was executed in 1916.

You see our problem here. Lots of Allied ships were sunk, and numerous spies were listening for loose lips. However, most of those captured were bumblers who got caught before they could do much damage — successful agents kept a lower profile. I came across only one instance of a spy who (a) collected info on ship movements and (b) claimed responsibility for sinking a ship. However, (a) didn't lead to (b). It's an interesting story just the same.

Swashbuckling adventurer Fritz Joubert Duquesne, a native of South Africa, lost much of his family during the brutal Second Boer War of 1899-1902 and developed a lifelong hatred of the British. Among other escapades, he claimed to have disguised himself as a Russian duke in 1916 and boarded HMS Hampshire in Scotland along with Field Marshal Lord Kitchener, who had commanded British forces during the Boer War. Duquesne said he alerted a German U-boat to the Hampshire's approach, then escaped on a life raft. True or not, the ship was sunk, killing Kitchener and many others.

During World War II Duquesne organized 32 German agents in the U.S. into what became known as the Duquesne spy ring, which sent reports on ship movements and other sensitive matters to the Germans. The ring was broken up by the FBI in 1941, and its leader was sentenced to a long prison term. Admittedly Duquesne helped sink the Hampshire in one war and spied on ship movements in a different one, the loose lips that sent the vessel to the bottom were his own, and he may have invented his role in the ship’s demise altogether. So really this isn't the greatest example. However, I'm doing the best I can.

Although the "loose lips" slogan was introduced in 1942, there's no evidence of shipping losses due to talkative civilians during World War II. The Nazi code-breaking agency known as the B-Dienst learned most of what it needed to know about ship convoys by decoding intercepted Allied radio messages. Why the slogan then? No doubt it partly reflected the military’s habit of fighting the previous war, but it may also have been an attempt to get civilians to keep quiet about the devastation wrought by German subs.

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References

Andrew, Christopher Defend the Realm: The Authorized History of MI5 New York: Random House, 2009.

Dempsey, Janet "The battle that frightened Churchill: the war in the Atlantic" National Archives, United Kingdom, Podcast Transcript. 10 September, 2009.

Felstead, Sidney Theodore. German Spies at Bay New York: Bretano's, 1920.

Gannon, Michael. Operation Drumbeat: The Dramatic True Story of Germany's First U-boat Attacks Along the American Coast in World War II New York: Harper Collins, 1991.

Gleichauf, Justin F. Unsung Sailors: The Naval Armed Guard in World War II Annapolis, Maryland: United States Naval Institute, 1990.

Hiley, Nicholas “Counter-Espionage and Security in Great Britain during the First World War” The English Historical Review 101.400 (1986): 635-670.

Sellers, Leonard Shot in the Tower: The Story of Spies Executed in the Tower of London During the First World War Great Britain: Pen & Sword Books Ltd., 1997.

US Department of Justice: Federal Bureau of Investigation. Subject: Frederick Duquesne Interesting Case Write-up March 12, 1985.

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