By Jamie Bisher
[email protected]

About this Article and Research

In 1986 or 1987, I found documents describing Baron von Rosen’s amazing anthrax mission in the old military intelligence files at the US National Archives. The detailed report and photographs were concealed behind an innocuous transmittal letter for some captured enemy equipment that was being consigned to a US war museum. I was fascinated, and contacted the Norwegian military history center, who graciously forwarded me excerpts from the memoirs of Johannes Sohr, the chief Norwegian investigator in 1917. Thanks to the kindness of the Norwegian Air Attache in Washington, Colonel Olsen, I translated Sohr’s description of events and wrote this piece.

Publishing was much more difficult—no one was interested whatsoever in anthrax or biological warfare in the late 1980s. I sent my manuscript to scores of newspapers and magazines, to no avail. Finally, in 1988, Military History magazine accepted the piece. And there it sat on the editor’s desk for 15 years! In the late 1990s Science magazine ran an article mentioning the Finnish mission when some captured anthrax material was found in a warehouse. I begged the Military History editor to publish my article. No luck… Each time anthrax made headlines in subsequent years, I implored the editor to publish my article and sent copies of this manuscript by email and post to scores of other editors. Military History finally published an abbreviated version of my manuscript in 2003. The story has been twisted and distorted by inaccurate repetition in various media ever since. Here are the facts as known to the Norwegian secret police and the US Military Intelligence Division.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

Anthrax--bacillus anthracis--is not a new item in the warfighter’s arsenal. The rotting lesions it causes inspire no less fear in modern man than in medieval folk. Such biological weapons are frightening because they are cheap to produce and easy to deliver. But modern tacticians pondering the offensive use of anthrax soon realize the drawbacks of biological weapons. They are hard to aim, and even harder to control. These unstable characteristics discourage all but nihilists, lunatics, idiots, or specialists with isolated targets in mind. The latter have already employed anthrax on the modern battlefield—in the unlikely setting of Finland.

Anthrax's debut as a modern weapon occurred more than eight decades ago. The warriors—-terrorists to their enemies, wielded anthrax in a bitter fight for national liberation, and acquired their toxins from a major power that was in desperate straits. This scenario sounds familiar eight decades later.

Finnish Nationalism Explodes

The first modern biowarriors were Scandinavians fighting for Finland’s liberation from the Russian Empire in 1916. Four centuries of animosity, including two Russian occupations in the first half of the eighteenth century, preceded Russia’s conclusive invasion and defeat of a Swedish-Finnish army in 1809. Finland fell under Russian rule as an autonomous Grand Duchy that was allowed to keep its own constitution and Lutheran religious identity. Ironically, in the absence of Swedish influence, Finnish identity flourished during the nineteenth century. In an effort to rein in Finnish nationalism, Tsarist authorities implemented a Russification program in 1899, shutting down local newspapers, restricting use of the Finnish language, and drafting Finns into the Russian Army. Five years later, Russia’s oppressive governor-general, Nikolai Ivanovich Bobrikov, was gunned down on the main staircase of Helsinki’s Senate House by a young nationalist, who promptly shot himself in the heart. Russia allowed parliamentary elections and stopped conscripting Finns for the time being, but continued other iron-fisted measures.

The ringleader of the anthrax scheme in Finland was Baron Otto Carl Robert von Rosen, a native of Solna, Sweden, and a former lieutenant in the Swedish Army. Baron von Rosen had lived and worked in Finland since 1912. He looked the part of a stereotypical secret agent and saboteur of his era. His icy blue eyes cast the glimmer of a freedom fighter’s idealism. High cheekbones, a square jaw, and sharply chiseled nose complemented his aristocratic bearing. Attired for a photograph in a high white collar, dark tunic and black leather overcoat, Von Rosen evokes a sinister priest. His thirtieth birthday occurred during the opening year of the First World War, yet his receding hairline added years to his age.

When the World War erupted, Tsar Nicholas II considered drafting Finns into the Russian army again, thereby arousing Finnish nationalists to action. Von Rosen joined the Finnish underground, and helped plan bombings and other violent resistance. Meanwhile, nationalist groups asked the German War Ministry to train a vanguard of young Finns to foment a rebellion against their mutual enemy, the Russians. The Germans gladly obliged. Approximately 1,500 Finns eventually enlisted in the Ausbildungstruppe Lockstedt, a battalion-sized training unit.

Baron von Rosen recruited three agents to establish secret supply routes to rebels inside Finland and Russia. Raoul Graaf and Gustav Halfdan Stärky were experienced Swedish trappers and woodsmen. Emil Jokela, a Finn, was a product of Ausbildungstruppe Lockstedt. Initially, the trio's mission was to transport supplies, usually explosives, only as far as the Finnish border where they would rendezvous with rebel units. Rebels carried the precious cargo deeper into Finland. To cloak his covert activities, von Rosen established a trading company that required frequent trips between Stockholm, Kristiania (now Oslo), Copenhagen, and Berlin.

A Nefarious Mission

The Opdagelsespolitiet, Norway's counterintelligence police, took an interest in Baron von Rosen in 1916. Although Norway remained staunchly neutral while the Great War engulfed continental Europe, nearly a dozen German spies were expelled for inappropriate activities between 1914 and 1917. Von Rosen's mediocre trading firm never fared well, despite his frenetic travel. It seemed that the firm’s main agenda was not commerce. Norwegian agents picked up clues that the Baron was preparing "some sort of secret expedition with a strange purpose." Intercepted correspondence termed this expedition "most dangerous" and mentioned "risky transport" of unnamed material from Denmark to Sweden. Johannes Søhr, chief of the Opdagelsespolitiet, discovered that the expedition involved an accomplice in Norway and a Swedish logistics base, yet the nature of von Rosen's mission remained a mystery.

By this time, von Rosen had broadened his range of activities to include biological and guerrilla warfare. His modus operandi was to attack and sabotage remote Russian garrisons with a small guerrilla squad to loosen the Tsar's control over the Finnish countryside. When the squad infiltrated a garrison, it deposited sugar cubes containing tiny vials of anthrax bacilli in feed troughs in the Russians’ stables. Presumably the horses would ingest the sugar cubes, fall ill, then the soldiers would inevitably come into contact with anthrax spores, and the garrison would be crippled.

The Finnish freedom fighters’ anthrax was provided by the German General Staff. Germany, the rogue government of the era, employed biological weapons throughout the later years of the First World War: anthrax and glanders virus in France and Romania, cholera in Italy, typhus in Finland, plague in Russia, and various veterinary diseases in the United States. , It was an imaginative, if not altogether successful, campaign of terror. For example, in September, 1917, rumors circulated in Buenos Aires that agents of the German Naval Attache had infected Argentina's wheat crops with fungus. Germany’s agents, proxies, and mercenaries were spreading biological agents on at least three continents in a concerted effort—with the limited technology and strangled communications available to a strictly sanctioned and naval-blockaded nation.

September, 1916, found von Rosen back in Stockholm after a trip to Berlin. He busily procured supplies for his mysterious mission while Stärky and Graaf relayed them from Stockholm more than five hundred miles north to Gallivare, Sweden. Powerful thermite explosive was packaged in two-kilo and four-kilo corned beef tins, then packed in cases marked "Svea Kjott"--"Swedish Meat." Into the stockpile at Gallivare also went a quantity of magnesium to ignite the thermite and--a schoolboy's dream--an ingenious incendiary device disguised as a pencil.

Von Rosen and his agents moved their arsenal from Gallivare to Vitangi, nearer the Finnish border. Soon thereafter, the Russians reinforced their guards on the Finnish-Swedish border and the foursome moved their deadly wares north to Soppero, Sweden. Despite their claims that they were prospectors, the local sheriff at Soppero insisted on searching their baggage. Von Rosen and his men "confided" that they were smuggling medicines to the Finnish rebels. The skeptical sheriff opened a can of "Swedish Meat," but the suspects managed to convince him that the peculiar substance within was actually beef extract. When the lawman started to cook it though, the conspirators confessed that it was really an explosive. The sheriff took them into custody. Out of curiosity, he casually tested a modest sample of thermite. The resulting explosion rattled every house for miles around. One-half ton of the stuff had already been delivered to the Finnish guerrillas. Not knowing this, the sheriff released von Rosen and his men after confiscating their entire stock of the volatile "Swedish meat."

When the Baron, Jokela, Stärky and Graaf departed Soppero, they still carried a load of asparagus cans full of incendiary pencils that escaped the sheriff’s detection. A number of fuses, some powdered magnesium explosive and von Rosen's biological weaponry had also gone undetected.

Von Rosen's resolute expedition pushed on to Karesuando, Sweden's northernmost town. They were determined to contact the rebel organization even as the arctic winter's chilling shadow crept across Lappland. On December 6, 1916, after several unsuccessful trips into Russian Finland from Karesuando, the agents relocated their base to Kautokeino, Norway. Graaf stayed behind in Sweden.

From Kautokeino and a small mountain shelter nearby, they probed behind Russian lines on skis or mounted atop reindeer, hoping to rendezvous with Finnish guerrillas. Even for these experienced outdoorsmen, daily marches through the arctic wasteland in wintertime were grueling torment. Stärky fell ill.

Christmas 1916, was spent in a village called Sitsajavre. From there, a Lapp guide showed them a way over the mountains to Annarjokka. It was the darkest time of year, when the sun never rose above the horizon. Temperatures dropped to -40 Centigrade and von Rosen and his men suffered unimaginable hardship, but finally they met up with the Finnish rebels. They used reindeer, not only to haul their deadly cargo, but also, according to von Rosen's diary, to carry out mounted raids on Russian outposts. With horsedrawn carriages they transported food and other supplies to the rebels. Entries in the Baron's diary testified to spreading not only anthrax, but typhus as well, throughout northern Finland.

Von Rosen's Capture, Release, and Amazing Baggage

On January 14, 1917, Baron von Rosen and Emil Jokela emerged from the winter darkness into a Norwegian bordertown called Karasjokk. Both were frostbitten and von Rosen had a painful wound on one foot. Nevertheless, the Baron telegraphed a report to Finnish rebel leaders in Stockholm, and pressed on.

Soon thereafter, Johannes Søhr received a telegram from an outpost of the Norwegian 6th Army Division in Kautokeino, a remote village 170 miles north of the Arctic Circle, reporting the presence of three suspicious foreigners. On Chief Søhr's orders, the local sheriff arrested von Rosen and two compatriots at Karasjokk on February 1, 1917, impounding a large quantity of supplies, too. Søhr wanted them charged with illegal stockpiling of explosives. The three men were not cooperative prisoners. Stärky gave his name as Anders Pettersen. Emil Jokela carried a forged U.S. passport in the name of Charles Baker. Apparently, Graaf was still safely over the border in Karesuando, Sweden. The Baron was silent. Stärky, Jokela and the expedition's supplies were moved to nearby Vadso for trial. Baron von Rosen was transported to Kristiania.

An inventory of the captured explosives included a can of magnesium powder, ten incendiary pencils, three rolls of fuses and three boxes of ignition caps. Otherwise, at first glance the expedition's equipage seemed rather modest, if a bit peculiar: a camera, a pistol, a rifle, several maps of Russia and Finland, von Rosen's diary, a bottle of mouthwash, a small flask, two boxes of sugar lumps and currency from Russia, Finland, and Sweden.

Eventually, Jokela confessed that he had been recruited by the Germans "to agitate" against the Russians in Finland. Stärky declared that their mission was to contact and smuggle money to German prisoners of war in Russia (excerpts in von Rosen's diary confirmed this objective). Von Rosen would only say that the expedition aimed to support Finnish independence. No one mentioned anthrax. All of their informal testimony agreed upon at least one thing: their assignment was not against Norway.

Regardless of Norway's neutrality, public opinion leaned strongly in favor of the Finnish rebels, so Norwegian politicians pushed to settle this sensitive case as quickly as possible. Twenty-one days after his arrest, von Rosen was deported to Sweden. Charges against Stärky and Jokela were dropped and the material evidence--which was still being held in Vadso--was forwarded to Søhr's counterintelligence office in Kristiania.

Days later, thorough inspection and chemical analysis of the captured equipment revealed the sinister nature of von Rosen's mission. Søhr's investigators were shocked to discover a relatively sophisticated arsenal of biological weapons. A tin can labelled "table salt" really contained a powerful explosive mixture of potassium chlorate "and some organic matter.” One lump of sugar was missing from each of the two boxes of sugar lumps. Every one of the remaining nineteen lumps in each box concealed a tiny glass ampule with anthrax in a few drops of some liquid medium. In addition, the captured bottle of mouthwash contained a yellow liquid rich in "toxic bacteria bullion," which Søhr's experts imagined was meant to be sprinkled over cattle fodder.

Although the Opdagelsespolitiet and Allied officials surmised that von Rosen's operation was managed and supplied separately from other German intelligence networks in Scandinavia, the shock of encountering biological agents on its own territory encouraged Norway to take dramatic action. Four months after von Rosen's arrest, Norwegian police broke the diplomatic seals on the baggage of a courier for the German Foreign Ministry, Baron Walter von Rautenfels. Von Rautenfels' baggage contained "...a large supply of bombs, percussion heads, poisoned sugar [containing vials of anthrax] and apparatus for destroying machinery." For three years, Baron von Rautenfels had supplied a sizeable network of Scandinavian saboteurs and spies with explosives and biological agents brought in by diplomatic pouch. The network’s missions included planting bombs on American ships leaving Norwegian ports and smuggling munitions to Finnish rebels.

Baron von Rosen was last heard of in Berlin a few months after he was expelled to Sweden on February 21, 1917. Stärky and Jokela were not prosecuted and presumably returned to trapping. Johannes Søhr was decorated with the Order of St. Olaf and knighted by the King of Norway. The sugar lumps and their deadly vials of anthrax ended up in a Smithsonian Institution warehouse near Washington, DC. They were destroyed by U.S. Army specialists in March 1965.

The results of Baron von Rosen’s campaign are unknown. Anthrax’s modern debut as a terrorist weapon was soon overshadowed by anarchy in Russia. Within a year of von Rosen’s arrest, Finland declared her independence, and the Russian garrisons trudged home. Both countries plunged into brutal civil wars between Reds and Whites. Conceivably, the anthrax spores von Rosen distributed could survive in soil for years. Alas, anthrax spores do not discriminate between independent or occupied soil, and are oblivious to political developments.


Hosted by