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
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