Operation Pastorius

This was a German operation to infiltrate a core group of intelligence operatives into the USA (May/June 1942).

When Germany declared war on the USA in December 1941, Adolf Hitler ordered that German saboteurs should be landed with the task of wreaking havoc on the country’s industrial capabilities, but in more realistic terms the plan was created to send three U-boats to deliver intelligence operatives on the east coast of the USA. These agents would then establish secret radio communication with Germany as the first step in developing an organisation to supply Germany with general intelligence, undertake sabotage, and establish links with pro-German factions in the USA.

The operation was a disaster: after all the agents delivered by the first two boats had been captured, Admiral Erich Dönitz, commanding the U-boat arm, managed to prevent the departure of the third boat.

In May 1942 the proposed agents had been recruited and divided into three teams, of which two were delivered in the first pair of Atlantic crossings: the first was led by John Dasch and included as its other members Ernest Burger, Heinrich Heinck and Richard Quirin, while the second was led by Edward Kerling and included as its other members Hermann Neubauer, Werner Thiel and Herbert Hapt.

On 12 June 1942 U-202 offloaded Dasch’s team with explosives and plans at East Hampton on Long island near New York. Their mission was to destroy power plants at Niagara Falls and three Aluminium Company factories in Illinois, Tennessee and New York. A US Coast Guardsman spotted the landing, however, and reported the men, who were seized. Kerling’s team was landed from U-584 at Ponte Verda Beach, some 25 miles (40 km) to the south-east of Jacksonville in Florida on 17 June 1942. The tasks of this party’s agents were to mine the Pennsylvania Railroad in Newark, New Jersey, the canal sluices at St Louis and Cincinnati, and New York City’s water supply pipes. The men made their way to Cincinnati, Ohio, and split up, two going to Chicago, Illinois, and the other two to New York. However, the Dasch confession led to the arrest of all of the men by 10 July. All eight were rapidly tried, convicted and condemned, and six of them were electrocuted on 8 August. The other two, Dasch and Burger, had confessed and were each sentenced to 30 years in prison, but were released in 1948 and deported to Germany.

It is worth noting that in 1944 there was an attempt by two Kriegsmarine and Abwehr agents, Erich Gimpel and a German-American defector named William Colepaugh (or Kolepaugh), to locate and destroy the laboratories where the atomic bomb was being developed. The pair departed Kiel in U-1230 and landed at Frenchman’s Bay at Cape Cod, Massachusetts, on 29 October 1944. Colepaugh was captured on 26 December and confessed the whole plan to the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Gimpel was arrested four days later in New York. Both men were sentenced to death, but then had their death sentences commuted to lengthy prison sentences, and were released and returned to Germany during the 1950s.

At about the same time as the Dasch operation, on 25 April 1942 a single Abwehr agent, Marius A. Langbein, was landed by U-boat (possibly U-217) near St Martin, New Brunswick, Canada. His mission was to observe and report shipping movements at Halifax, Nova Scotia, which was a busy departure port for North Atlantic convoys. Langbein changed his mind, however, and moved to Ottawa where he lived off his Abwehr funds, before surrendering to the Canadian authorities in December 1944.

Accurate weather reporting was important to the sea war and on 18 September 1943, U-537 sailed from Kiel in Germany via Bergen in Norway to deliver a meteorological team, under Professor Kurt Sommermeyer, to Martin Bay in northern Labrador on 22 October 1943. Here the party successfully set up an automatic weather station, despite the constant risk of Allied air patrols. This worked for only a short time, however, and at the beginning of July 1944, U-867 departed Bergen to replace the failed equipment but was sunk en route.