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

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 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 intendng 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 handkerchief 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 marshalling 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 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 depicting 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 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 einzatzgruppen 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