German Sabotage and Espionage in the United States During WWII
German Sabotage and Espionage in the United States During WWII

German Sabotage and Espionage in the United States During WWII

Larry Holzwarth - December 14, 2019

Eight saboteurs, dressed in German uniforms landed in two teams of four on the east coast of the United States. They came in the dead of night, in rubber rafts dispatched from U-boats. They carried with them nearly $180,000 in American money, enough explosives to mount a campaign of destruction of infrastructure for two years, maps, charts, and personal knowledge of the United States. They had lived in America before the war, possessed knowledge of American customs, and were supplied with all the necessary documents indicating their presence in the United States was legal. Their plan was endorsed and shaped by the Abwehr, the German military intelligence service.

German Sabotage and Espionage in the United States During WWII
Warnings about enemy agents began early in the war. National Archives

One group landed in Florida, the other on Long Island, in June 1942. They planned to disrupt American manufacturing, transportation, and electrical distribution systems. Dams on the Ohio and Mississippi, crucial to the defense industry, were to be targeted. So were aluminum manufacturing plants, vital to the aviation industry. Railroad bridges on transportation arteries were targeted, as were hydroelectric plants. Their goal was to strike over and over sequentially, crippling the economy and instilling terror on the home front. Their plan failed, but not because of the diligence of America’s intelligence services and the FBI. Here is the story of Operation Pastorius.

German Sabotage and Espionage in the United States During WWII
Wilhelm Canaris gained espionage experience in the First World War. Wikimedia

1. The plan was authorized by Adolf Hitler, and was the brainchild of Wilhelm Canaris

Wilhelm Canaris was the head of the Abwehr in 1942, a position to which he brought considerable experience in espionage. During the First World War, he was aboard SMS Dresden, a light cruiser, when its crew scuttled the ship in Cumberland Bay, Chile, unable to evade a powerful British squadron. The crew was interned. Canaris, unwilling to sit out the war, obtained a false passport, made his way over the Andes to Argentina, and embarked on a ship for Rotterdam. The ship stopped in Plymouth, England on its voyage, and Canaris, who spoke six languages including English, went ashore in the hostile country. He then made his way to Berlin, where his Navy seniors decided he was a good fit for Naval Intelligence.

Canaris then spent the remainder of the war conducting intelligence operations in Spain, Morocco, and the United States. Once America entered the war he returned to sea duty, commanding a U-Boat in the latter stages of the war. He returned to intelligence operations in post-war Germany. In 1941, when Germany declared war on the United States he approached Hitler with the idea of major sabotage operations in America, using agents trained by the Abwehr. He based the plan on similar operations in which he had taken part in the First World War, and Hitler approved. The first step for Admiral Canaris was to find suitable operators.

German Sabotage and Espionage in the United States During WWII
FBI mugshot of George John Dasch. FBI

2. Canaris wanted agents who had lived in the United States

Twelve men were recruited to form the saboteur teams. Four quickly dropped out. The remaining eight had lived in the United States before the war. Among them were two who were American citizens, Herbert Haupt and Ernst Burger. The others were George Dasch, Richard Quirin, Hermann Neubauer, Heinrich Heinck, Werner Thiel, and Edward Kerling. The men had diverse backgrounds. For example, Burger had lived many years in the United States and was a veteran of the National Guard, before returning to Germany during the Depression. There he worked for Ernst Roehm. Quirin had lived in the United States for 12 years, was a member of the German American Bund, and returned to Germany in 1939. He was the first man recruited for Pastorius.

George Dasch, a veteran of the German Army in World War 1, served in the US Army twice, in 1927 for one year with the Army Air Forces, and in 1936-38 with the 1st Infantry division. He married an American citizen and had a son by the marriage, both of whom he abandoned in 1938 when he returned to Germany. It was his second marriage. He had ignored the inconvenience of obtaining a divorce from his first wife, and aware that he was committing bigamy, he married his second using an alias, George Aldasch. The eight men recruited for Pastorius were all espionage novices, and intensive training was necessary.

German Sabotage and Espionage in the United States During WWII
Training was conducted under the auspices of the Abwehr. Bundesarchiv

3. Training the agents took less than a month

The agents were trained by Abwehr operatives on a private estate at Lake Quentz, about 45 miles west of Berlin, in April 1942. The three-week training course was on the use of the weapons to be used to destroy their targets in America. Since all of the men had lived in the United States there was no need to familiarize them with American culture, money, or aspects of its infrastructure. The men received instructions from demolition and sabotage experts, including some who had gained experience working with the Irish Republican Army. They were trained in the manufacture and dispersal of various bombs and detonators, their proper placement, and the use of timers.

As the men were trained in the use of bombs, and received some physical fitness training, Abwehr agents worked on creating complete false backgrounds for each of them. They created letters from non-existent friends and relatives, identification documents, and personal histories. The use of German was forbidden, the men were trained in English, read documents in English, and were ordered to converse among themselves in English. American newspapers and magazines were provided for them to read. Other Abwehr agents prepared the list of targets they were to attack in the United States, and assembled the American money which would be necessary to sustain them.

German Sabotage and Espionage in the United States During WWII
The vital Hell Gate Bridge was a target selected by the Abwehr. National Archives

4. The agents were given specific targets and trained in selecting targets of opportunity

The Germans knew that America’s ability to manufacture airplanes for their own use, as well as that of the Russians and British, was critical. Airplanes required aluminum, and the manufacturing plants of the Aluminum Company of America (ALCOA) were high on the list of targets. Transportation of coal and steel was done chiefly by rail and river, and the locks critical to navigation on the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers were other primary targets. So was New York’s famed Hell Gate Bridge, and the extensive railroad complex at Altoona, Pennsylvania. The northeast’s electrical grid was targeted at Niagara Falls.

Besides the primary targets, the agents were trained in the selection of targets of opportunity on their own, with the goal of creating fear within the American population. Random targets were to be selected so as to make it appear that they could strike anywhere, at any time, creating the illusion of a much larger operation (in fact, additional teams were to be recruited to supplement the first eight, operating independently). Bombs were to be placed in elevators, subway stations, smaller bridges, piers and docks, warehouses, railway stations, marshaling yards, and wherever else the agents considered suitable for destruction.

German Sabotage and Espionage in the United States During WWII
German U-Boats penetrated American waters to land the saboteurs in 1942. Wikimedia

5. The agents were sent to France following their training

The idea of sending the agents via ships from neutral Sweden was considered and discarded as too risky. Admiral Canaris, a former U-Boat skipper, decided the agents would be delivered to American shores in U-Boats, which at the time were prowling along the American coastline. The agents were split into two teams and sent to France, with time off to rest before leaving for the United States. While traveling to France by train, Dasch lost several documents which could have revealed the secret plan, though nothing became of it. Another agent, attempting to impress female companionship in Paris, drunkenly revealed he was a secret agent bound for the United States.

The teams boarded U-Boats on the French coast, having decided among themselves that landing in the United States presented their greatest risk of exposure. It was agreed that the teams would go ashore wearing German uniforms, since if they were captured they would be considered prisoners of war, protected by the Geneva Convention. In civilian clothes, they were liable to being shot as spies. In late May, U-202, under command of Kapitan-Leutnant Hans-Heinz Linder embarked Dasch, Burger, Quirin, and Heinck and departed for American waters, planning to put the agents ashore somewhere on Long Island.

German Sabotage and Espionage in the United States During WWII
US Coast Guard Station at Amagansett, Long Island. americasroof via Wikimedia

6. U-202 went aground on the night of June 12-13 off Long Island

Captain Linder was able to dispatch his passengers to shore on the night of June 12, and then turned his U-Boat back towards the open sea. The waters in which he was operating that night are among the trickiest in the world, with cross currents and a shifting sea bed making operations near the shore particularly hazardous. To cover the landing, the Germans had selected a dark night. Linder was heading east when he felt the deck trembling beneath his feet as the submarine ran itself aground. He attempted to reverse his engines and back the submarine off of the mud, but it held the vessel in its grip.

Linder was aground on an enemy shoreline with the first lightening of the sky the morning of June 13, having just deposited four saboteurs on the same shore. The village of Amagansett was in view, and cars traveling along the shore road could be seen from his bridge. In another hour or so the long black shape of the submarine would be visible from the village. He was less than 250 yards from the shore. Fortunately for the Germans, the tide began to rise, and Linder backed his engines full, finally breaking free from the muck, and raced for the open sea. As far as he could tell, Linder had avoided detection. Unbeknownst to him, the party he had put ashore had not.

German Sabotage and Espionage in the United States During WWII
Coast Guardsmen John Cullen encountered the Germans on Long Island. US Coast Guard

7. The northern team was detected upon landing on Long Island

The journey from U-202 to the beach was a wet one. Dasch later claimed they were nearly drowned. They went ashore, cursing in English and German, dragging their gear from the raft. They quickly shed their sodden uniforms, and Dasch was standing on one of the dunes when he noticed someone, not of the party watching him closely. Dasch grabbed the man by the collar, demanded that he remember his face in a threatening manner, forced $260 dollars on him and told him to forget what he saw.

The man was a Coast Guard sentry, John Cullen. Cullen returned to his station, reported the four men he had seen on the beach and what had transpired. His superiors waited until daylight before returning to the site. There they found evidence of digging in the wet sand, and upon investigation, they turned up crates of explosives and German uniforms. The FBI in Washington was notified of the discovery and that a party of four men had been seen. There was no sign of the whereabouts of the four men, and Cullen was the only one capable of recognizing any of them. By then the men were a hundred miles from Amagansett.

German Sabotage and Espionage in the United States During WWII
New York’s Governor Clinton Hotel was a stop for two saboteurs. Pinterest

8. Dasch and his team went to New York City

The four Germans left the beach after the encounter with Cullen, intending to return for their supplies later. From the Amagansett station, they took the Long Island Railroad train to New York. Once in the city, the team split into pairs, in separate hotels. Dasch and Burger checked into the Governor Clinton Hotel near Penn Station. It was the responsibility of the team in New York to sabotage the Hells Gate Bridge, and they also intended to strike the rail of the hydroelectric plant at Niagara and if possible, disrupt the water supply for the city of New York. The wave of bombings was to begin once travel was arranged.

On June 18, under cover of darkness, U-584 surfaced off Ponte Vedra beach near Jacksonville, Florida. The southern landing was accomplished with none of the dramatics of the Long Island affair. Being Florida in June, the group wore bathing suits to go ashore, though to protect themselves from accusations of being spies they wore uniform caps. They too buried the munitions they brought with them. They then went by bus and then train, in two groups, one to New York through Cincinnati, Ohio and the other to Chicago, to begin their mission. They were to arrange for logistics to attack their primary targets, and all eight conspirators were scheduled to meet on July 4 in Cincinnati, to ensure their terror campaign was fully coordinated.

German Sabotage and Espionage in the United States During WWII
FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover circa 1940. Wikimedia

9. Dasch betrayed the mission with a call to the FBI

On June 14, Dasch informed Burger that he had no intention of carrying out the mission, and threatened to throw Burger out of their upper-story hotel room window if he did not cooperate. “Only one of us will walk out the door,” he said, “the other will fly out this window”. Burger informed his colleague that he too was against carrying out the mission. The following day Dasch called the FBI in Washington from a payphone and asked the agent who answered the phone to inform J. Edgar Hoover of the plot. The agent didn’t believe the story, but the call was logged. Then Dasch’s story was compared to the call from the Amagansett Coast Guard office.

On June 19, Dasch left Burger in New York and took the train to Washington. From his room at the Mayflower Hotel, he called the FBI again, demanding an appointment with Hoover. Frustrated, he walked to FBI headquarters, carrying a satchel which contained nearly all of the cash which his team had brought to America. When he finally met with assistant director D. Milton Ladd he dumped the cash on the latter’s desk, convincing the FBI of his veracity. He was taken into custody for questioning. Though Burger knew of Dasch’s activities, none of the other six saboteurs were aware they had been compromised.

German Sabotage and Espionage in the United States During WWII
Dasch registered at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington. Pinterest

10. The FBI allowed Dasch to return to his Mayflower Hotel room following hours of questioning.

Ladd and agent Duane Taylor interrogated Dasch for hours. One of the first pieces of information Dasch provided was where Burger was staying in New York. Before Dasch’s initial interview was over FBI agents in New York were following Burger. Burger left the hotel to meet with Heinck and Quirin in a clothing store, and the FBI took the opportunity to arrest all three. With Dasch in Washington, the other three members of the northern team were in custody. The explosives which they had brought ashore had been found by the Coast Guard, and turned over to the FBI. They had been in the United States less than one week.

In a June 22 memo to the President, J. Edgar Hoover announced the arrests of the four Germans, the exposure of the plot, and the role of the FBI in protecting the United States from immeasurable harm. He omitted to mention that the plot had been related to the FBI through an unsolicited confession by one of its members. In the memo, the FBI received all credit for uncovering the plot through their own investigative means. Hoover mentioned that there were others connected to the sabotage scheme yet to be taken into custody, and asked for continued secrecy. The problem was that the FBI had no idea where the other saboteurs were, and neither did any of the men they had in custody.

German Sabotage and Espionage in the United States During WWII
The FBI crime lab quickly solved the invisible ink problem. FBI

11. The handkerchief and the invisible ink

Each of the team leaders – Dasch and Kerling – were supplied with a list of contacts, German agents in the United States who could be turned to for help. The lists were written in an innocent-looking handkerchief in invisible ink. Both leaders were taught how to reveal the lists during training, but Dasch had been an indifferent trainee, and he could not recall how to expose the lists of contacts. The FBI sent the handkerchief to its crime lab for analysis. It did not take long for the technicians to discover that exposure to ammonia unveiled the writing, and the FBI soon had all of the contacts under 24-hour surveillance.

Kerling and Thiel had been in Cincinnati, where they made contact with German agents, before traveling on to New York. Kerling and Thiel went on to New York by train, where Kerling contacted a friend named Helmut Leiner, who was on the list provided by Dasch’s handkerchief and consequently under FBI surveillance. Kerling wanted to borrow one of Leiner’s mistresses during his stay in America. The FBI spotted Leiner and Kerling, and followed the latter to a bar where he met with Thiel. Both were immediately arrested. Six of the conspirators were then in custody. The only remaining saboteurs were in Chicago, though the FBI did not know that as yet.

German Sabotage and Espionage in the United States During WWII
Herbert Haupt sits on the left in this photo, taken during his trial. US Army

12. Herbert Haupt was wanted by the FBI for draft evasion

Herbert Haupt was the youngest of the German agents, just 22 years of age at the time of Operation Pastorius. He had moved to the United States with his parents when he was five, and was raised in the Chicago area, working as an optician’s apprentice. Haupt traveled to Mexico at the outset of World War II, obtained a German passport at the German Embassy there, and used it to return to Germany. He had failed to register for the draft, as his age required, and he left behind a girlfriend of long standing, who had become pregnant. Her pregnancy may have been the reason for his flight to Mexico, though she later miscarried.

Haupt arrived in Chicago, reunited with his parents, and told them the whole story of why he was back in the United States, in possession of a large sum of cash (all of the saboteurs carried $4,000 in a money belt, and another $450 for immediate expenses. The leaders carried the rest of the money). Haupt used part of the money to buy a new car, and proposed to his girlfriend. He then went to the FBI office in Chicago. Haupt told them that he had been away at the time he was required to register and would contact his draft board. The FBI already had his name as one of the remaining German agents at large, but they accepted his explanation and let him go. When he left the office, he too was under surveillance.

German Sabotage and Espionage in the United States During WWII
Chicago’s Sheridan Plaza was a luxury hotel in the 1940s. Pinterest

13. Haupt had abandoned the plot by then as well

The FBI agents followed Herbert Haupt about Chicago for the next three days in the hope that he would lead them to the sole remaining conspirator, Hermann Neubauer. Neubauer was staying at the Sheridan Plaza in Uptown Chicago, going to movies to pass the time. On Saturday, June 27, the FBI was tired of following Haupt and arrested him. Haupt quickly told them where Neubauer was staying and the FBI staked out the hotel. Neubauer was returning from a film that night when the FBI took him into custody. Once the Chicago office notified Ladd in Washington that the last suspect was accounted for, the FBI arrested Dasch, who up to then believed he was a cooperating witness and would be immune from prosecution.

Dasch’s most immediate concern was that his colleagues would learn that it had been he who revealed the plot to the FBI. He asked to be held with them to alleviate their concerns, though there is evidence Burger had already shared the story with his fellows. Nonetheless, Hoover agreed with the request for his own personal reasons. Hoover wanted the Germans to be impressed with the efficiency of his bureau, in the hope it would dissuade the Abwehr from further such operations (which at the time were in the works). He also wanted President Roosevelt and the general public reassured that the FBI was diligently protecting the American people from Nazi infiltration.

German Sabotage and Espionage in the United States During WWII
Hoover claimed the FBI uncovered the plot through solid police work. FBI

14. Hoover chose to break the news to the press in early July

On Saturday, July 4, 1942, the United States launched its bombing campaign in Europe. The same day the New York Times and other newspapers announced the eight German saboteurs, captured by the FBI as part of an operation to protect American shores from German operations. The details of the captures gave all credit to the vigilance of the FBI, with scant mention of the Coast Guard and none of the details provided by George Dasch. Dasch had notified the bureau of the existence of the plot, the targets involved, the names of the conspirators, and where most of them could be found. The contacts from the secret writing on the handkerchief he had given and explained to the FBI gave them the rest.

The only references to Dasch described him as being cooperative during questioning. Following the news stories, repeated in newspapers across the country, President Roosevelt sent Hoover a message of congratulations. There were calls for Hoover to be awarded the Medal of Honor. Roosevelt announced that the eight Germans would be tried by a Military Tribunal, the first in the United States to try civilians since the trial of the eight conspirators in the Lincoln assassination in 1865. In Germany, Hitler was furious at the embarrassing failure of the Abwehr’s plan, and forbade Canaris from conducting similar operations for the rest of the war.

German Sabotage and Espionage in the United States During WWII
Francis Biddle served as lead prosecutor at the Military Tribunal. Wikimedia

15. The trial was held in strict secrecy, at the Justice Department

Roosevelt ordered the trial kept secret, persuaded by Hoover in part that it would protect the methods used by the FBI to contravene German infiltration. The Attorney General of the United States was selected to prosecute, Francis Biddle. The Germans were provided with lawyers for their defense. All of the defendants entered pleas of not guilty, claiming they had used the Abwehr mission only to return to the United States, and they had no intention of carrying out the plan. The prosecution asked for the death penalty on all eight defendants during the trial, since all of the defendants were enemy agents in civilian clothes at the time of their arrest.

The trial was over by July 27, and the findings of guilt for all eight, the recommendation of the death penalty, and the transcripts of the proceedings were sent to the President. It was accompanied by recommendations of clemency for Dasch and Burger. Roosevelt’s review of the transcripts revealed to him the role Dasch had played in unveiling the plot, as well as Hoover’s role in covering it up in the press. FDR, as the convening authority of the tribunal, which consisted of seven Army generals, commuted Dasch’s sentence to 30 years. Burger was given life in prison. The other six were sentenced to death.

German Sabotage and Espionage in the United States During WWII
Dasch gave the FBI information which went far beyond Operation Pastorius. Wikimedia

16. Dasch had given more than just Operation Pastorius to the FBI

During his extensive interrogations, Dasch provided the FBI with more information than just the workings of Operation Pastorius. The bureau collected useful information regarding the Abwehr, its contacts in America, German operatives and sympathizers, the training of agents destined for the United States, and more. Walter Kappe, who recruited the eight and ran the training program under Canaris, was described as intending to go to the United States following the success of Pastorius. Kappe intended to run subsequent operations from an American base.

Dasch had provided descriptions of many of the trainers and operatives of the Abwehr at the training camp west of Berlin. The information was confirmed and elaborated on by his colleagues, as each attempted to ingratiate himself with his captors. The FBI used the lists of contacts secreted on Dasch’s and Kerlings’ handkerchiefs to infiltrate groups of Nazi sympathizers. One of the more sobering aspects disclosed by Dasch, and confirmed by Kerling, was the requirement of the saboteurs to target Jewish owned department stores and businesses across the United States with bombs, making the public afraid to patronize them.

German Sabotage and Espionage in the United States During WWII
FDR ordered the death sentence be carried out for six of the saboteurs. Wikimedia

17. The sentences were carried out in August, 1942 in Washington

The tribunal officially ended when Roosevelt responded to the findings and recommendations of the tribunal on August 7. Roosevelt did not publicly issue a statement for clemency for Dasch and Burger, and they were identified as merely having been cooperative witnesses. In fact, all of the Germans had sung like the proverbial canary. On August 8, 1942, less than two months after landing on American shores, the six men sentenced to death were electrocuted in the District of Columbia Jail in Washington DC. They were marched to the electric chair one by one, with each execution taking about fifteen minutes.

Dasch continued to claim that Hoover had guaranteed him immunity in exchange for his voluntarily revealing the entire plot, which Hoover continued to deny. In 1948 President Truman commuted the sentences of Dasch and Burger, with the proviso that they be deported to occupied Germany, in the American zone. Neither man wanted to return to Germany, and the Germans did not welcome them. Dasch changed identities and relocated several times. Both men were denounced as traitors. Dasch petitioned to be allowed to return to the United States several times, always blocked by Hoover.

German Sabotage and Espionage in the United States During WWII
Disrupting the production of aluminum was a primary goal of Operation Pastorius. Wikimedia

18. Operation Pastorius could have crippled the US aircraft Industry

Among the targets assigned to the teams of Operation Pastorius were the Alcoa aluminum plants, critical to the aviation industry, and another target necessary for the manufacturing of aluminum. A cryolite plant near Philadelphia was targeted by the sabotage planners in the Abwehr. Cryolite was a necessary component in smelting aluminum. Nearly all cryolite available to the United States at the time was found in Greenland, brought by ship to Canadian and American ports. The Philadelphia cryolite plant was thus itself critical for the continued manufacturing of aluminum in the United States.

The railroad bridge at Hell Gate in New York was a vital link in the connections between the Canadian port of Halifax and the east coast rail marshaling yards. The Altoona railyards and repair shops were as well. Operation Pastorius was designed to cripple them all, interrupting the flow of raw materials to manufacture aluminum in the United States. Hitler and the German war planners knew of FDR’s announced intention of manufacturing 50,000 airplanes a year (which was ridiculed in Congress before the war) and were determined to disrupt his plans. The United States exceeded Roosevelt’s call in 1943, and in 1944 manufactured over 96,000 aircraft.

German Sabotage and Espionage in the United States During WWII
The World War II film Saboteur was not inspired by Operation Pastorius. National Archives

19. Operation Pastorius inspired one motion picture filmed during the war

It is sometimes erroneously reported that Operation Pastorius was the inspiration for the wartime film Saboteur, starring Robert Cummings and directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Saboteur was filmed beginning in November 1941 and wrapped in February 1942, months before the German agents of Pastorius began training. It premiered in April 1942, again before training was underway in Germany. The German operation did not inspire the film, but it may have had an impact on Hoover’s depiction of the FBI as being the sole reason Pastorius was discovered. In the film, federal agents are depicted as inept and bumbling.

Operation Pastorius did inspire a film the following year, They Came to Blow Up America, starring George Sanders and directed by Edward Ludwig. It is a highly fictionalized account, loosely based on the German sabotage operation. In the film, the school created in Germany to train saboteurs is infiltrated by an FBI agent. He returns as one of the saboteurs and disrupts the entire plot. Hoover likely enjoyed that one. The New York Times thoroughly panned the film in its review, though it can still be seen on DVD and other media.

German Sabotage and Espionage in the United States During WWII
The Duquesne Spy Ring preceded Operation Pastorius. Library of Congress.

20. Could Operation Pastorius have worked if Dasch hadn’t approached the FBI?

When Dasch decided to approach the FBI with the story of Operation Pastorius he had already been compromised. He was the only one of the eight saboteurs to have been seen clearly enough to later be identified. The Coast Guard notified the FBI of the discovered explosives and the German uniforms, buried in the sand. Through the use of a double agent, the FBI had successfully unraveled the Duquesne network of German espionage agents the year before, obtaining a total of 33 convictions. Its powers were formidable. Whether they could have discovered the extent of Pastorius in time to stop any bombings is speculative. But the German plans for a lengthy bombing campaign would likely have failed.

The apparent focus on the aluminum industry would have revealed itself, and security at all facilities involved would have been stepped up. Suspicion of German saboteurs would have brought all German-Americans under increased scrutiny. One of the reasons the FBI initially disbelieved Dasch was the bureau was already deluged with calls and letters denouncing German-Americans (and Italian and Japanese), and they created an office to sort through which were believable and which were not. Pastorius may have been able to create some damage and public shock at the beginning, but likely not in the grandiose manner desired by the Germans.

German Sabotage and Espionage in the United States During WWII
William Colepaugh in custody. Wikimedia

21. In 1944 German agents again came ashore on the US mainland

Operation Elster was a German espionage operation which was designed to gather intelligence on American technological and military facilities in late 1944. The agents dispatched to the United States arrived in Maine, delivered by U-Boat, on November 29. One of the agents was William Colepaugh, an American who had defected to Germany. The other was German intelligence agent Erich Gimpel. As in Pastorius, the agents were spotted, though not confronted, shortly after landing. As in Pastorius they eluded initial pursuit and traveled by train to New York. And as in Pastorius they quickly lost interest in their mission, or at any rate Colepaugh did.

The clubs, bars, steakhouses, and entertainments of New York, as well as the plethora of unattached female company, distracted Colepaugh and within days he abandoned any idea of espionage. Gimpel tried to remain focused on his mission, though he found the bright lights engaging too. During Christmas week Colepaugh abandoned his colleague, taking their operating capital with him. Shortly after that, he reported himself to the FBI. Gimpel was collected by the bureau, and the two were tried by another military tribunal. They too were sentenced to death, though Truman commuted the sentences to life imprisonment. Gimpel was released in 1955; Colepaugh in 1960.

German Sabotage and Espionage in the United States During WWII
American OSS and British SIS members in training in England. Wikimedia

22. The Germans conducted espionage activities in South America

Nazi espionage activities in Latin America found greater levels of success than their North American counterparts, operating for most of the war. German agents in Brazil, Chile, Paraguay, Argentina, Uruguay, and elsewhere connected with each other through mail drops and embassies, and with agents in the United States, obtaining information of value to the German Secret Service and the Abwehr in Berlin. Frequently the clandestine German services were spying on each other in South America. Hidden radio receivers and transmitters littered the landscape. Information, particularly regarding American industry and shipping, was collected by agents and sent to Berlin.

The German activity in Latin America was called Operation Bolivar, and it included extensive operations in Mexico and Cuba. In 1942 J. Edgar Hoover and Fulgencio Batista announced the arrest of a “master spy” in Cuba named Heinz Luning. They claimed Luning had been coordinating U-Boat activities on the American east coast, contributing to their success in attacking American shipping. In truth, little evidence linking Luning to spying for the Germans or providing shipping information to the U-Boats has ever been found, but he was executed in Cuba as a spy in 1942. Changes in American tactics in 1943 curtailed the number of sinkings by German submarines, but Hoover attributed much of the change to FBI suppression of espionage.

German Sabotage and Espionage in the United States During WWII
William J. Donovan was appointed head of the OSS by Roosevelt. Wikimedia

23. The Office of Strategic Services was created in 1942

On June 13, 1942, as the first team of agents for Operation Pastorius arrived in New York, Franklin Roosevelt created the Office of Strategic Services (OSS). The OSS was tasked with coordinating the intelligence activities of all other American agencies, those of the Army, Navy, and State departments, and with performing special activities not assigned to other agencies. J. Edgar Hoover resented the new organization from the outset. He lobbied hard, long, and successfully to keep counter-espionage and intelligence-gathering activities in the hands of the FBI. Officially the bureau retained the responsibility in North and South America.

Hoover resented the OSS because he felt the organization intruded on his turf, and OSS operatives in the United States and South America were watched closely by the FBI. OSS activities in South America were limited by FBI monitoring. When Roosevelt created the OSS it was assigned a military status, reporting to the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Hoover could not eliminate it entirely in neutral or Allied countries, where it worked out of US Embassies. Hoover’s efforts in South America against Operation Bolivar were hampered by his insistence that his agents monitor the OSS activities as well, tying up valuable assets in turf wars.

German Sabotage and Espionage in the United States During WWII
Admiral Canaris established connections with British Intelligence for the rest of the war. bundesarchiv

24. Wilhelm Canaris began working against the Hitler regime following Pastorius

From the beginning of World War II, when Canaris learned of the Nazi Einsatzgruppen executing Polish Jews, he vocally opposed the Nazi policies. Before the Germans invaded the Soviet Union, Canaris had established contacts with the British government via MI6, through neutral Spain, Sweden, and possibly the Vatican. Following the failure of Operation Pastorius Hitler lost confidence in the Abwehr, but the General Staff retained Canaris in his post for reasons of their own. Throughout the remainder of his life, Canaris was under ever-increasing scrutiny by the SS and Gestapo, instigated by Himmler, who thoroughly detested the admiral.

In February, 1944, the Abwehr was abolished and its activities were taken over by the Reich Main Security Office. The Gestapo assumed many of the duties previously those of Canaris, and the Abwehr records were thoroughly scrutinized. Canaris was placed under house arrest, released in June, and arrested in July following the bomb plot against Hitler of that month. Canaris was hanged on April 9, 1945, at Flossenbuurg Concentration Camp. The architect of the sabotage plot known as Operation Pastorius died less than one month before the surrender of the Germans on the Western Front.

German Sabotage and Espionage in the United States During WWII
A V-1 over London in 1944. Wikimedia

25. Hitler continued to dream of bombing America up to the end of the war

Hitler forbade further sabotage operations in the United States following the failure of Operation Pastorius. German espionage however continued throughout the war, as did counterespionage by the Allies. But Hitler never surrendered his dream of directly striking the United States. Willy Messerschmidt capitalized on that dream by showing Hitler a mockup of an airplane capable of bombing the United States, calling it the Amerika Bomber. It won the aircraft manufacturer a contract, though the aircraft couldn’t fly, and in the end it never did. Europe’s manufacturing capacity was crippled by Allied bombing, underground activity, and Hitler’s own policies.

Plans were discussed for launching V-1 and V-2 “wonder weapons” from ships and U-Boats, or from specially designed submersible barges towed by U-Boats, but they never got past the discussion stage. Hitler never forgot his desire to strike at America, especially New York, which he hated as a haven for American Jews, and Washington, where Roosevelt, his greatest tormentor next to Churchill, resided. In the end, Operation Pastorius was his only real chance, and it was thwarted by the people who were trained to participate in it.


Where do we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“Hitler’s Unfulfilled Dream of a New York in Flames”. Elke Frenzel, Der Spiegel. September 16, 2010. Online

“The Inside Story of How a Nazi Plot to Sabotage the US War Effort Was Foiled”. David A. Taylor, June 28, 2016

“World War II: German Saboteurs Invade America in 1942”. Harvey Ardman, World War II Magazine. February, 1997

“Shadow Enemies: Hitler’s Secret Terrorist Plot Against the United States”. Alex Abella, Scott Gordon. 2003

“Saboteurs: The Nazi Raid on America”. Michael Dobbs. 2004

“A Look Back: Nazi agents picked Ponte Vedra as landing point in 1942”. Jessie Lynne Kerr, Florida Times-Union. July 12, 2010

“Nazi Saboteurs and George Dasch”. FBI History. Online

“George John Dasch”. Counterintelligence in World War II. National Counterintelligence Center. Online

“Eight Spies Against America”. George John Dasch. 1959

“German U-Boats on American Shores: Operation Pastorius and Beyond”. David Alan Johnson, Warfare History. Online

“William Colepaugh, The Connecticut Spy Who Went Out In The Maine Cold”. Article, New England Historical Society. Online

“German Clandestine Activities in South American in World War II”. David P. Mowry, Office of Archives and History, National Security Agency. Online