Operation Pastorius: Hitler's Unfulfilled Dream of a New York in Flames

By Eike Frenzel

Even before World War II, Nazi strategists came up with a number of plans to strike New York City -- whether with super missiles, kamikaze pilots, long-range bombers or secret agents. Some were ambitious and some were foolish, but all of them failed.

Photo Gallery: Hitler's Plan to Attack New York Photos
AP

Captain Hans-Heinz Lindner was gradually losing his nerve. As dawn broke on June 13, 1942, the first cars were already driving along the waterfront in the village of Amagansett, Long Island. But the U-202 was stuck. The gray steel colossus lay perched on a sand bank in shallow water less than 200 meters (656 feet) from the shore, as helpless as a beached whale. In just a few hours, anyone who walked by would be able to see the German U-boat sticking up out of the Atlantic.

Lindner, though, managed to break free. Running the engines at full power, he was able to maneuver the submarine in a rising tide back out into the open sea. The U-202 slipped beneath the waves before anyone saw it. Below deck, the sailors celebrated their last-minute rescue.

That near-loss of one of the German submarines operating off America's East Coast was the prelude to one of Germany's most bizarre World War II military operations: the infiltration of a group of saboteurs onto American soil. The Third Reich aimed to hit America on the home front and Nazi strategists came up with a number of plans for costly attacks designed to rattle the bustling metropolis of New York to its core -- whether with super missiles, kamikaze pilots, long-range bombers or secret agents.

But the German spies brought to the enemy coast by the U-202 in the daring "Operation Pastorius" made little headway on their ambitious mission. Despite the German military's best efforts to select and train eight members of the terrorist team, the Nazi infiltration proved to be a spectacular failure.

Although all of the men had spent time in the United States prior to the operation, none had had any experience working for an intelligence service. In April 1942, they were sent to Gut Quenzsee, a town 75 kilometers (47 miles) due west of Berlin, for a crash course in sabotage. For 18 days, military experts drummed into them how to use explosives, timed detonators, guns and hand grenades. To stay fit, they practiced Jiu-Jitsu. Then, in June, two groups of four freshly minted secret agents each were dropped off on the coasts of Florida and Long Island, one by the U-584, the other by the U-202.

A Colossal Failure

The teams had been sent to America to blow up railroad bridges, power plants and tunnels, to paralyze industrial facilities vital to the American war effort and to demoralize the American civilian population. One historian has dubbed it "the most daring sabotage plans in history." But it turned out to be a major headache for their German superiors. The German agents blew their cover after a mere two days in the field, and prompted the FBI to launch its largest manhunt to date.

Primary responsibility for the espionage disaster lay with Georg John Dasch, the 39-year-old leader of the Long Island group. After having almost drowned during the effort to get on land with an inflatable raft, he was soon discovered among the dunes by the flashlight-wielding, 21-year-old Coast Guardsman named John Cullen. When Cullen first came upon the sopping wet Dasch, the latter pretended to be a fisherman. Then, Dasch grabbed Cullen by the collar, threatened him and eventually jammed $260 of would-be hush money into his hand. In return, Cullen was supposed to immediately forget about the four men he'd seen on the beach.

Of course, the suspicious Coast Guardsman did nothing of the sort. He immediately informed his comrades, who would eventually dig up four crates of explosives and some German uniforms that had been hastily buried in the wet sand. The FBI was also alerted, and a feverish search for the four strangers began.

The four took a train to New York City, where they checked into a hotel. Soon afterwards, Dasch traveled to Washington, D.C. where he turned himself in on June 19. To prove he was a spy, Dasch showed FBI agents tissues on which he had written down his targets in invisible ink. Later described by the interrogating police officer as "neurotic," Dasch divulged every last detail of "Operation Pastorius" to the Americans. Using the information, FBI agents rounded up the three spies in the New York hotel as well as the four German saboteurs who had landed in Florida.

On August 8, 1942, the short careers of six German spies came to an end in the electric chair of the District of Columbia jail. The sentences of the other two, Dasch and Ernst Peter Burger, were commuted by President Franklin D. Roosevelt to 30 years and life in a US prison, respectively.

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